I have spent that last four years researching, studying and writing papers about women’s health: disparities, practices, influences and stereotypes. I am one who likes to seek out the root of the problem and what I came to find through my studies is that we cannot move forward in solving women’s health issues by making the field more holistic, inclusive and effective if we still cannot discuss periods.
Menstruation is the most basic of bodily functions for over half the world’s population. Learning how to “read” it (i.e. irregularities, consistency, associated pain, etc.) can give us a window into the health of women. Yet, in the 21st century menstrual stigma is still alive and well.
Young girls are taught their monthly cycles are a “curse” and a source of embarrassment for them. They are also taught to conceal their menstruation at all costs; menstruation is associated with a certain “ick” factor which makes it easy, if not desirable to sweep it under the rug. I believe social and cultural stigma play a part in influencing ones perception of their body and therefore in turn affect how girls and women choose to care for themselves.
For example, cycle irregularities (which are often a sign of underlying health conditions) are masked with hormonal birth control. And many women who choose to spend a significant portion of their fertile years on hormonal birth control are more susceptible to experiencing long-term health issues like fertility problems, hormonal imbalances, blood clots, stroke and even cancer.
Another example of how menstrual stigma affects women’s health is how we teach girls their blood is “gross.” This creates a mindset of wanting to avoid coming into contact with one’s own blood, so many young girls and women choose to use chemically laden products that cause irritation, infection or even death instead of natural reusable products (like sponges, cups and cloth pads). Being aware of and addressing the influence of cultural stigma and stereotypes and their impact on menstruating females are the first steps to empowering women and girls.
Remember, whether you are a mother, an older sister, an aunty or a loving adult in the life of a child, they watch you, mimic you and take into consideration your opinions when forming their own. If we constantly speak negatively about our periods, perpetuate stigma or contribute to stereotyping, we are teaching that behavior to those who look up to us.
Other reasons menstrual stigma/stereotypes matter:
- Women are marginalized, trivialized or written-off because of their “hormones.”
- Women are often viewed as “irrational” and “emotional” because of their monthly cycles.
- Having to conceal menstruation is a threat to basic human dignity.
- It is a form or oppressive misogyny.
- Stigma surrounding menstruation keeps girls from becoming educated on how their bodies work
- Many girls in developing countries view menstruation as a disease.
- In developing countries menstrual stigma causes girls to miss so many days of school they often drop out because they have fallen too far behind.
- Convinces women menstruation is “gross”, “dirty”, “unclean” or “un-natural.”
- Influences women to control or suppress their cycles with synthetic hormones.
- US menstrual stigma affects women around the world, particularly those in developing countries and subsequently lends support to oppressive patriarchal discrimination.
- Menstrual health is not a common objective in donor strategies, national government policies or advocacy agendas.
- It’s a women’s rights and equality issue.
If we could change the way we see, talk about and educate on menstruation can we improve health outcomes for women and girls? I think so. So let’s all work together to change the rhetoric commonly used to discuss menstruation and paint it in a positive light.