What's the state of menstruation education in U.S. schools? 'Significantly lacking,' say experts

“And here is a disembodied uterus.” What are our kids being taught at school about menstruation? (Photo: Quinn Lemmers/Getty Images)
“And here is a disembodied uterus.” What are our kids being taught at school about menstruation? (Photo: Quinn Lemmers/Getty Images)

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.

Here’s how the lesson on menstruation went down when I was a 10-year-old fourth-grader in 1980s New Jersey: The boys in class were rounded up and taken to a “special gym class” and we girls were shown a film that was equal parts terrifying (don’t swim while you have your period!) and hilariously outdated (keep yourself pretty!). Then we got colorful flowered booklets with a vaguely threatening title — “Growing Up and Liking It” — that had upbeat notes between three fictional girls about cramps and tampons, and, naturally, included order forms for “starter kits” from Personal Care Products, the corporation behind the curriculum. We hid the pamphlets in our desks just before the sweaty boys returned.

And here’s how the lesson on menstruation went down for my fourth-grade daughter in New York in 2017: There was none.

There’s none on the horizon for fifth grade, either, as New York State, shockingly, does not require public schools to teach sexual health education until sixth grade — years after many girls have already gotten their first period.

So that made me wonder: If it was this bad in New York City in 2018, what the heck is the state of menstruation education across the nation?

“I think it’s been an oversight for a long time in the education of our kids,” Margaret Stubbs, a Chatham University psychology professor and longtime member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, a 41-year-old research nonprofit, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We’ve skirted the issue because we’re uncomfortable with the topic. We need a developmental approach and, frankly, I don’t think we have it yet. And that’s appalling.”

“What a lot of schools seem to end up doing is focusing primarily on pregnancy and HIV prevention, which is good, but the piece that gets lost is puberty and, more globally, an understanding of your body, especially at younger ages as children are going through puberty,” notes Ann Herbert, a doctoral student with the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her research, with Marni Sommer of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, found teen girls (at least in Baltimore) to have had a “lack of preparation for puberty, including getting information on basic topics such as menstruation.”

Researchers have only a piecemeal picture of what kids are being taught about periods, as there’s been no funding to launch a more in-depth national analysis, says Evelina Weidman Sterling, a public health consultant and president elect of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. Still, Sterling says, anecdotal evidence abounds with how such lessons are “significantly lacking.”

And then there are the results of a 2014 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found that just under half of middle schools and 66 percent of high schools teach lessons about human development (including puberty) in a required class. For elementary schools, that dropped to 21 percent — suggesting that too many kids in the U.S. learn nothing about puberty at school until they are going through it. (Children, particularly girls, are heading into puberty earlier than ever, with some now getting their periods as young as 8 or 9.)

“We do not have any type of evidence-based menstrual curriculum in the U.S.,” Sterling says, explaining that what girls and boys are taught about periods is “very localized,” and varies further by district and even by school. In fact, she adds, “Most of it is coming from the product companies, especially P&G [makers of Tampax tampons and Always pads] … And I wouldn’t call it a ‘curriculum.’ It’s more marketing to get brand loyalty early on.”

So the most consistent lessons about menstruation are coming not from health educators, but from corporations (with input from educators) who are trying to sell tampons and pads to our adolescents, hopefully from now until menopause.

According to a P&G spokesperson, its puberty school materials — including the Always Changing and Growing Up program (for fifth and sixth grades) and Growing #LikeAGirl Health and Wellness Program (for seventh grade and up) — are being used in more than 20,000 schools, reaching more than 2 million girls across fifth and seventh grades, and nearly a million boys in fifth grade. (You can browse through a historic collection of these booklets online at the wonderful Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.)

That means nearly a quarter of all public elementary schools in the country — just like mine, in the 1980s — are relying on sanitary product sellers to teach our kids the basics about their bodies at puberty. “The companies,” Sterling says, “have seized the opportunity.”

They did so starting way back in the 1930s and 1940s by filling a void in the education system, according to a 1993 study from the University of Texas Press, “Something Happens to Girls: Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative,” by Joan Jacobs Brumberg.

“Newly established educational divisions within the sanitary products industry began to supply mothers, teachers, parent-teacher associations, and the Girl Scouts with free, ready-made programs of instruction on ‘menstrual health,’” she writes. In the 1940s, she adds, “the industry developed, in conjunction with Walt Disney, the first corporate-sponsored educational film on the subject, The Story of Menstruation (1946), an animated cartoon that has been seen by approximately 93 million American women.”

Brumberg analyzes how the industry’s “aggressive education (cum marketing) programs” initiated a deliberate campaign: “to further develop the youthful adolescent market, a strategy that successfully played on adolescent awkwardness and the embarrassing specter of stained clothes. The identification of this niche market was a brilliant strategy because it capitalized on a continuous and increasingly affluent group of consumers: the expansive baby-boom generation.”

This trend of corporations in charge of menstruation education “may not be so benign,” Brumberg says, concluding that “surrendering menarche to Walt Disney probably contributed in some measure to the difficulties we face today in the realm of female adolescent sexuality,” including the idea of shame around a period and that it is something to hide.

Other researchers have looked at the influence of industry pamphlets, including Dacia Charlesworth of Butler University, who concluded that the messaging stressed “the need for young women to conceal their role as a menstruator” and taught “that women’s bodies are innately inferior to men’s bodies,” thereby encouraging stigma.

P&G has worked with members of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, says Stubbs, and “they’ve been responsive; it’s much better now than it was.” (The importance of a period remaining secret, though, is a stubborn message; in one of the Always educational films, for example, a main question posed by a girl is, “So, can people tell when I’m on my period?” The answer: “N-O. And that’s important because NO ONE will be able to tell if you’re on your period unless you tell them. So, here’s a hint: Don’t tell them, and they won’t know.”)

For Stubbs, the awkwardness around puberty education comes down to this: “We’re just really squeamish about our kids becoming sexual beings.”

As for menstruation, Stubbs adds, “In spite of the ‘#MeToo movement’ and in spite of a lot of activism, we’re still kind of stuck on keeping it a big secret in this country.”

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