By Mary Olson

Mary Olson is a rising senior at Columbia University, pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Economics and Human Rights. In addition to researching menstruation, Mary enjoys studying economic development, following drama at the Federal Reserve, and reminding her peers that her home state of Minnesota is not “flyover country.” 

Despite today’s economic turbulence, there is one industry that may not be feeling the coming recession—the toilet paper business. As soon as news of stay-at-home orders hit Americans’ radio and TV sets, this seemingly run-of-the-mill item began flying off the shelves, prompting further apocalyptic stock-piling and eventual shortages. For most Americans, the idea of going without toilet paper is stomach-churning. Yet, for people who menstruate, not having toilet paper evokes the additional fear of not being able to hide our periods.

In a time before stay-at-home orders, most people with periods experienced the clandestine mission of replacing a pad or tampon in public. The dance begins long before we get to the bathroom—we slide the tampon or pad elegantly up our sleeve, or, if in a pinch, discreetly grab our bag and quickly dash to the bathroom. Having arrived, we quietly, delicately open the packaging. When the deed is done, we wrap the evidence in 40 layers of toilet paper (no more, no less), and then discard its mummified remains into the metal box or bin. We take solace in the fact that we have successfully completed our mission—no other person knows we’re on our period.

Yet, as millions of workers and students have shifted to remote work or have lost their jobs and are forced to stay home, most of us no longer have the luxury of keeping our periods private. Without public restrooms or privacy at home, others inevitably will know we are menstruating. But anxiety about revealing our menstrual status begs the question—why in the world do we care?

Menstruation is a routine biological process, experienced by approximately half the population at some point in their life. We should be as comfortable buying tampons as we are buying toilet paper. However, social attitudes toward menstruation, reflected in marketing campaigns and daily life, still suggest periods are supposed to be kept quiet.

In the 1950s, Johnson & Johnson’s MODESS menstrual products boasted neutral brown packaging—so inconspicuous, it could “keep your secret so nicely.”The theme of discretion continued on, as Playtex flaunted its newest, most “discreet” design yet in the 1980s. Even today, Tampax advertises that their “quietest tampon wrappers are fierce.” These advertisements all play into the menstrual concealment imperative, a term used to describe why people with periods are so afraid of other people knowing they’re menstruating.

Fear of a revealed period, according to Lara Freidenfelds, is especially typical of American menstruators. Leaks or odor could signal that you’ve failed to “properly take care of yourself.” Especially for women, who acutely feel the pressure to appear beautifully feminine and put-together, the possibility of visually revealing menstruation could assault an important social image.

Past visual displays, talking about your period remains taboo, too. Researchers have found that 7 out of 10 menstruating women in the UK do not feel comfortable discussing menstruation, especially around non-menstruators. Even within the home, where we are now confined, adults and adolescents have reported feeling uncomfortable discussing periods with their families, especially their fathers and brothers.

Today’s pandemic affects different communities differently. Homeless and low-income menstruators face further challenges to accessing affordable menstrual products, among many other difficulties. People quarantining with partners are facing increased rates of domestic violence, and single people may experience complete privacy coupled with crippling solitude. COVID-19 has heightened countless pressing problems and concerns. Hiding your period should not one of them.

It’s silly that we jump through so many hoops to hide our period—we shouldn’t have to. Periods do not need to be private, and they should never be shameful. As we deal with the countless effects of COVID-19, we shouldn’t let an irrational fear add to our stress. So, the next time you go to wrap up your used tampon or pad, go light on the toilet paper. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

In Spring 2020, Columbia students and faculty had the opportunity–for the first time ever–to spend a full semester exploring menstruation through many different angles in the course “Menstruation, Gender, and Rights: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” Students engaged in writing OpEd style short pieces that draw attention to various facets of menstruation neglected in the mainstream discourse. Leading up to the worldwide day celebrating menstruation, we have the honor to present a selection of emerging menstrual voices. If you’re interested in joining, please stay tuned–we plan to offer the course again in Spring 2021. — Professor Inga Winkler