Nearly every single woman — almost half of the world’s population — gets her period, and yet, it’s still not a subject that most are comfortable discussing openly. With Period Week, Yahoo Lifestyle takes a look at why there’s still a sense of shame and embarrassment hovering over the topic, how some dads struggle to have these conversations with their daughters, how menstruation-related health issues can affect your life, and what schools are teaching kids about menstruation today.
Maybe you carefully clutch a tampon in your fist or try to discreetly hide one up your sleeve as you make your way to a public bathroom. Many women can relate, because period shame — a sense of embarrassment about your menstrual cycle — is pervasive.
Nearly 60 percent of women have felt embarrassed about being on their period, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll for Thinx, the makers of period-proof underwear. More than 40 percent of women have experience period shaming, with 1 in 5 feeling shame because of comments made by a male friend. And almost 50 percent of girls have missed an entire day of school because of their period, with nearly 60 percent of those girls making up an excuse rather than revealing the truth, according to a 2017 Plan International UK survey.
Menstruation stigma is an even bigger problem globally, with many girls missing school when they’re on their periods, and research showing a link between menstruation and women losing wages. While the taboo of periods isn’t as severe in the U.S., many women go out of their way to hide the fact that they’re menstruating and suffer from painful cramps in silence at work and school because they’re too embarrassed to say anything.
According to an article in the journal The Lancet: “Women are expected to function as usual, with minimal attention paid to managing the physical and mental pain and discomfort. This is surely an anomaly in modern medicine. There can be no other disease or condition that affects so many people on such a regular basis with consequences at both the individual and societal level, which is not prioritized in some way by health professionals or policy makers.”
One of the reasons periods are often seen as a taboo topic is because “in the U.S., we’re based on puritanical ideals — even though we’ve evolved in so many ways,” Leah Millheiser, MD, director of the female sexual medicine program at Stanford University Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But one way we haven’t really evolved is this embarrassment [about] menstrual health and sexual health. It’s historical, and I think it’s based on the culture. It wasn’t deemed appropriate.”
She adds: “For many of our mothers and grandmothers, these things weren’t appropriate. And when you don’t talk about things — if something is hush-hush and not talked about — there is an air of shame. And embarrassment goes along with that.”
Lauren Brim, PhD, a human sexuality expert and author of The New Rules of Sex, says that even introducing products that helped women during their periods, such as pads, had a rocky start. “When they finally introduced a product, women were too embarrassed to buy it,” Brim tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They put it in a tin box and women could sneakily put a nickel in and take out a sanitary pad.”
The word “period” wasn’t even uttered on television until 1985, in a Tampax commercial starring Courteney Cox. “It’s so deeply embedded in our subconscious that it is something to be ashamed about and that it’s dirty and gross,” says Brim. “I think as women, we’re already trained that you have to be beautiful and perfect to get love, and you can’t be messy. And you have to keep it a secret that you bleed.”
But Millheiser says that the climate in the United States is changing, and she attributes the shift to the millennial generation, who are questioning the status quo. “What an incredibly empowered group of women when it comes to their sexual health,” she says. “My generation went from no questions — ‘Here, you, have a tampon and pad.’ But we never asked questions like, ‘What’s that tampon made of?’”
Social media is also playing a role, notes Millheiser: “It absolutely created a platform to speak openly and reduce the shame.”
So it’s no surprise that there are not only more menstrual-related products than ever before — from period-proof underwear by Thinx to eco-friendly menstrual cups, like the DivaCup, to organic tampons like Lola and Cora — but that they’re also more visible.
Both Millheiser and Brim say we can continue to combat this shame starting with our own daughters (and sons). “It really starts with the mothers or the caretakers of the young girls,” says Millheiser. “To be very comfortable themselves having the conversation about your menstrual health and your options — that will then trickle down to that young girl, where she’ll say it’s not so weird and it’s not so embarrassing.”
Millheiser says it’s all about normalizing the fact that this is a natural process for your body — not something you have to hide. “This is a normal part of your health, and you should not be embarrassed by it,” she says. “We should all be brandishing our tampons freely.”
Rather than a slightly awkward one-time talk, this needs to be a continuous conversation parents have with their kids to create “a new narrative” for the next generation. As Brim puts it: “Shame disappears when you shine light on it.”
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:
- This state has banned women from wearing tampons or menstrual cups during prison visits
- ‘The pain was so bad, I went to the ER a few times’: How birth control can work beyond pregnancy prevention
- Girls reportedly bleeding through pants due to charter school bathroom policy