By Amanda Peterson
“Why are you acting so crazy? Is it that time of the month?”
So much stigma surrounds menstruation. Periods are seen as gross and dirty, and people on their periods are considered overly emotional or irrational. These conceptions certainly make periods a sentence stopper.
When we think of period shaming, we think of antiquated, now rare practices of forcing those menstruating to sleep in separate beds or even in menstrual huts. However, period shaming exists in various informal practices that we participate in today.
Many little things accumulate to strongly stigmatize menstruation. These include more noticeable things like discrediting women based on their hormones, but seemingly harmless euphemisms and the hiding of periods also cause feelings of insecurity and stress for menstruating people.
We frequently hear the (inaccurate) claim that women cannot hold positions of authority because they would start their periods and make rash decisions. During the 2016 presidential debates, for instance, a fairly common argument against former Secretary Clinton was that her hormones would cause her to act irrationally. Specifically, Clinton would start wars at the onset of “hormone flares” (kind of ironic when you consider who started all of our previous wars, but I digress).
Some said this argument was invalid, not because menstruation doesn’t make people irrational, but because Clinton had matured past the “years of reckless emotion.” An article in Time magazine suggested that Clinton, of postmenopausal age, was an ideal candidate because she had reached a “hormonal ebbing that creates a moment of great possibility.” This implies that menstruation, and those experiencing it, therefore, are immature.
The extent of embarrassment and shaming goes far beyond positions of power and presidential elections, impacting students on college campuses and children who are just learning what is “appropriate” in society. We continue to make periods something to be ashamed of, refusing to fully acknowledge them and hiding their existence.
The use of euphemisms, such as “shark week” and “that time of the month,” creates the perception that periods are somehow inappropriate subject matter. Similarly, period product commercials that use blue liquid to represent period blood tell viewers that periods are gross and shouldn’t be seen on television. Then, we further perpetuate the feelings of embarrassment by slipping sanitary products into our sleeves or waistbands and whispering to the person next to us to ask if they have a tampon.
We are taught from the beginning of menstruation, sometimes earlier, to be discrete and to keep period-talk to a minimum, especially around boys. I distinctly remember going to the nurse for a pad in the 5th grade and being absolutely mortified when I saw a boy from my class. Much to my appreciation, the nurse said, “Oh, you need a bag?” and handed me a cleverly disguised pad wrapped in a Walmart sack. While I appreciated this move at the time, I can’t help but look back and wonder how many times the adults around me reinforced the idea that periods were something to be ashamed of.
I certainly experienced this enough times that by middle school the most embarrassing thought was that the outline of my pad might show or that my tampon would leak. These were constant concerns when I was younger and caused so much additional stress, and if I’m being honest, these worries still consume a lot of my energy despite my current positive understanding of menstruation.
So what would happen if we stopped treating our periods as something undignified? How would we and the young people who follow our example be changed?
Menstruation is a natural and beautiful thing. For those who want to carry children, it means the ability to create new life; for others, it indicates a healthy and properly functioning body. So why do we feel shamed into hiding our periods when doing so only causes additional stress and self-esteem issues?
No longer should we whisper under our breath “Bloody Mary just came to visit; do you have a tampon?” We shouldn’t hear people say “Oh, she’s just emotional because she’s on her period.”
From now on, I challenge you (and myself) to ask aloud if you need a tampon or pad, combat those discrediting statements, and speak openly when you feel compelled to talk about the subject. And if you want to take your advocacy a step further, visit period.org to read about the non-profit PERIOD, and see how you can get involved in the mission to end period stigma and period poverty. You’ll also find materials and resources with an intersectional approach to these issues.
If we do these things now, we can rid ourselves of the shame and embarrassment we have been carrying around for years and revisit every month. We can open up the conversation to talk about what regular periods look like and help those who struggle with excessive pain or other potential problems. Younger generations that look to us may experience higher self-esteem and see more opportunities open up as we fight myths about menstruation and hormones.
We can end the stigma if we start the sentence.