Many of us were raised to remain mum about our menstruating bodies. It was only appropriate to discuss it with your doctor, mother, and occasionally, a close friend. For others, it was completely inappropriate to discuss it at all, with anyone. The silence surrounding menstruation is one of the most significant and dangerous cultural “habits” that needs to be broken if we ever want to undo the taboo.
Silence only allows menstrual lies, myths, stereotypes and stigma to flourish.
This is problematic.
In fact, the silence surrounding menstruation is so problematic that one of the themes for Menstrual Hygiene Day 2016 was to address the taboo of talking about periods with boys and men — Cycledork contributor Brigid Taylor wrote a thought-provoking piece on why she will teach her son about menstruation. Menstruation is often a topic we don’t think about in relevance to the heterosexual male experience, but it is time we fix that.
Not talking about menstruation can literally change the course of a person’s life. Take, for example, the unsettling truth that in some countries, young girls are missing school during their periods because they do not have access to menstrual care products. Pair that with not having access to clean or private facilities and the possibility that they are not allowed in public while they are menstruating and it’s a recipe for disaster.
Sadly, after missing up to seven days of school each month, these girls fall further and further behind their male classmates. In places like India, for example, 20% of menstruating girls drop out of school because they have no way to manage their periods. This makes them more likely to remain in poverty or to be married off as a child-bride because their families can no longer afford to support them. All because of menstrual taboo.
Lack of understanding about menstruation affects more than just one’s education, it can have huge repercussions on overall health. When you live in a culture where discussing menstruation is taboo, there is no one to educate you about the changes you are experiencing. In countries like Tanzania, many have little to no understanding of periods and are often frightened the first time they bleed. According to a young Tanzanian woman, via The Guardian:
“I didn’t know what was happening or what to do to manage menstruation. I used cotton wool, pages from an exercise book, leaves from trees. I suffered much embarrassment at school because I leaked and stained my uniform.”
If you can’t talk about periods, how can you ever fight for change? Or acquire clean facilities? Or have guaranteed access to safe menstrual products? In an article published by Menstrual Hygiene Matters, 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. In India, it is not uncommon to use cloth rags to catch menstrual flow, yet there is often a lack of facilities to clean and sanitize them before reuse.
Taboo also creates social isolation as menstruation is thought to be “unclean,” “dirty,” and even “dangerous.” In some countries, a menstruating person is not allowed to enter a temple, handle food, or even stay in their homes. In Nepal, it was not uncommon to be banished to a hut or shed during menstruation. Fortunately, this practice is now illegal because it can, unfortunately, be deadly.
Lest we forget, menstrual taboo can affect people right here in the United States. Access to menstrual products can be challenging if you are homeless or in prison. The lack of menstrual products available to inmates got so bad in a jail in Muskegon County, Michigan, the ACLU got involved. And not to mention the fact that we still look at menstrual products as “luxury” items. Fortunately, cities like Chicago and states like New York are beginning to address the ridiculousness of the “Tampon Tax” by ending it. There are even growing movements across the country to make menstrual products free in schools. A movement for #periodequity is advocating for nationwide policy change.
How can we, as individuals, help break the silence?
The truth of the matter is, it is up to us to speak up about menstrual taboo if we ever want to change things, no matter how awkward* that conversation may be. Our voice, our passion, and our relentless desire to make this world a safer, more inclusive space for any and all who menstruate is the most important thing we can do for each other here, and all around the world.
Upward and onward.
*I presented my master’s thesis on menstrual stereotypes and stigma to a room filled with men, if I can do it, you can do it.
[original image via The Daily Dot, edited by Cycledork]
Amy Sutherland is a period-positive advocate, educator and writer. She prefers tackling topics like reproductive health, fertility, sexuality, feminism, social justice issues and all those tricky subjects you avoid talking about at family gatherings. Amy holds a Master’s Degree in Women’s Health as well as a Graduate Certificate in Holistic Health Studies. Read her full bio here.