PERIOD is hosting a Period Week: a week to celebrate and openly discuss menstruation. This series will feature 5 articles all relating to different aspects of periods. This article dissects the cultural taboo of menstruation.
by Marjorie Sheiman
Aunt Flo. Crimson Tide. On The Rag. Ride the Cotton Pony. Shark Week. Women’s Trouble. We would rather come up with hundreds of slang terms than say one little word: menstruation. Why is it more embarrassing to say you’re on your period than “the red tide is in”? The answer lies from years of a harmful menstrual taboo.
Let’s just set the record straight- more than half the world’s population menstruates and it’s OKAY! In fact, it’s great; it’s a sign that a person’s uterus and ovaries are working healthily and it’s a necessary part of life (literally - without periods, humans wouldn’t be born). But yet we as a society have decided that this natural part of our existence is disgusting and should be shameful.
When I was a freshman in high school somebody had dropped an unopened tampon in the middle of the hall. There was a traffic jam as people made a 3 foot bubble around the clean hygiene product. Eventually, an upperclassmen girl picked it up, threw it in the trash, and yelled at all of us that we “were a bunch of babies!” The hall quickly filled up as the threat had been eliminated and we could make it to class safely without the fear of being assaulted by the unused tampon. Although I tell this story as a funny anecdote now, let’s dissect what really went wrong here.
I would just like to remind you all that this was not a used tampon- it was unopened and clean and could’ve still been used. So why did we all treat it like it was a terrible monster who could consume our souls? Welcome to the menstrual taboo: where even people who use tampons are afraid of them. A little bit about my experience before I delve any further; I grew up in upper middle-class neighborhoods and went to public schools in New Jersey (K-3) and Oregon (3-12) all my life. I had a mother who would’ve talked to me about anything if I had asked, including periods. But periods are “embarrassing” and let’s be real, no one wants to talk about it when you’re younger, let alone with your parents. So my only access to menstrual education was in 5th grade when boys and girls were put in separate rooms for about an hour and the girls were forced to watch a video about getting your period and what to do. At the end we were handed a pad and a towelette and sent back to class and proceeded as if nothing had happened. Honestly, I didn’t fully understand what was happening and it didn’t process in my brain that that would happen to me one day. And the boys didn’t even know what it was; they were never taught that simple human health lesson. So all of us were truly in the dark. That was the only time we talked about menstruation in school.
So with that background, unfortunately, wouldn’t it make sense that in a public school system that never truly taught us menstruation in an open and positive environment, that we would be terrified of the unknown tampon monster sitting in the middle of the hallway? Thank goodness that girl came along or we might’ve been backed up for hours. I used to ask myself when I was older why I didn’t just pick it up and I thought it was because I would be made fun of. I didn’t want to be labeled weird for touching a *gasp* tampon even though 30% of the school probably used them on a regular monthly basis. If I’m being truly honest, it wasn’t until about 3-4 months after working for Period. that I actually became comfortable talking about menstruation out loud. But for the kids who didn’t have Period. or family or friends to tell the it was okay to menstruate or talk about menstruation, they continued to live in fear of the tampon (and probably the pad or menstrual cup too).
But as uncomfortable as my experience with periods are, it doesn’t compare to how other people had to grow up with their periods. In some villages in Western Nepal, “women who are menstruating sleep in a small hut or shed out of a fear they will contaminate the home or anger the Hindu gods if they remain indoors. Many people in this part of the country believe family members or livestock will get sick, or even die, if a menstruating woman doesn't stick to the rules” (Preiss). These women in some Nepali villages are shunned from their lives because of something they can’t control. They are banished for the duration of their period because of superstition and a menstrual taboo. Many religions don’t allow people to enter temples, shrines, etc if they’re menstruating and they can’t participate in tasks such as cooking or praying for fear of contamination. Menstrual hygiene products in the US, Australia, Slovakia, and many other countries are taxed heavily and/or fall under the “luxury” tax as if menstruation and therefore relating hygiene was an option. In Bolivia, girls carry used menstrual pads around in their backpacks because menstrual blood is so dangerous it can cause diseases like cancer if mixed with normal trash. The list of cultural taboos goes on and on. So while the taboo affects the lack of discussion around menstruation, it also gives a voice to ignorant and harmful opinions that menstruators are forced to live and deal with.
People around the world are told that having a period is something to be ashamed of. And when culture after culture and generations after generations are told that we shouldn’t talk about it and that those who menstruate are strange or “impure,” how can we expect anyone to fight against what has always happened? But it’s up to us, as members of society, to change how our society views menstruation. Instead of casting it aside, we should be celebrating a natural part of life and the life cycle! It’s not going to happen overnight, but collectively we can work to shape what we think of periods.
So what can you do to help? You can share articles about menstruation on social media, support organizations such as Period. who fight against the menstrual taboo, foster open discussions about periods in both personal and academic settings, and shut down sexist, anti-menstruation jokes or speech. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable talking about periods at first- we’ve been conditioned to be scared and ashamed of them- but we need to collectively work past our discomfort in order for anything to change. Join the menstrual movement and help change the world for the better.