Author: Holly C. Campbell
You’ve likely experienced somebody’s overt disgust at the sight of menstrual blood or had your views devalued with the phrase “She’s on her period” – an insult used to disregard a person of any gender as irrational. This is a culture of sexism used to instil shame and maintain the subordination of women. As a form of activism, we need to talk openly about menstrual cycles to empower women, support positive experiences for trans-men and encourage safe and environmentally sustainable sanitary products.
The social anxiety around women’s menstrual cycles is exhaustingly intrusive. Period shaming silences women and limits our experience of the world. Whilst enduring physical symptoms of pain, cramps and headaches and the economic injustice of expensive sanitary products, we’re also subjected to social shaming leading us to internalise ideas that our bodies and biology is wrong.
This consensus of shame leads to embarrassment for many and means that much-needed public conversations around menstruation are avoided. It also means that challenging concepts and promoting inclusion of trans-men are nowhere near considered.
The menstrual cycle is an inherently natural and biological function, yet we live in a culture that associates periods with weakness and irrationality – traits historically associated with women for the convenience of patriarchy. This oppression devalues women and marginalises trans-men.
Period shaming limits open conversations around menstruation and the potential for positive action to combat related social, health and environmental impacts. Period, vagina and tampon are not shameful, dirty words. However society has created a culture that squirms at the sound of them.
We need to challenge this for honest discussions around the environmental and health impacts of sanitary products. We use on average 11,000 tampons in our lifetime, all dumped in landfill and taking centuries to degrade. Shockingly, manufacturers are not legally obliged to disclose the ingredients of these products, meaning many consumers are unaware that their sanitary products contain harmful toxins. In many developing countries, conversations on periods are off limits meaning women resort to using unhygienic rags. Homeless women are crippling in period pain on freezing cold streets and cannot afford the luxury of sanitary towels – despite the British government providing free condoms to all citizens. This cultural ignorance also operates to further marginalise trans-men.
We can take action to unload this stigma by talking openly with our peers about our experiences – asking a friend for a tampon should be as easy as asking for a tissue! We should not have to bear the burden of cramps, expensive sanitary products and cultural shame in addition to confronting those who perpetuate it.
However, in the name of unloading the stigma we can enact defiance. Rupi Kaur has used art to challenge conceptions, the free bleed movement has used protest for awareness raising and recently, Madison Beer used her celebrity platform to normalise period (below).
When we talk openly and confidently about our menstrual cycles, we reclaim power and ownership of our bodies. We own vaginas, use tampons and we have periods. Calling it what it is a necessary leap for normalising and accepting women’s bodies.