By Sonya Yoonah Kim 

Photo Credit: Pinterest Korea

Sonya Yoonah Kim is a rising senior at Barnard College, Columbia University studying Human Rights, Sociology, and Psychology. As a survivor of sexual violence, she has worked with South Korea’s Sunflower Centers and has urged for enhanced consciousness of Korea’s #WithYou movement. Her passion for gender and youth justice has driven her research on the #BabaeAko movement in the Philippines and on immigrant youth in the Hautes-Alpes. In the fall of 2020, Sonya will continue her studies at SIPA as she lobbies for women and children’s rights and engages in choral singing, fashion, and pole dance. You can find Sonya on Instagram: @yoonvh.

One of my first memories upon my arrival in Seoul, South Korea involves a long-awaited family dinner. Having left the country as a one-year-old, I felt a deep yearning to discover a sense of Korean personhood. I knew that I could rely on my relatives for exposure to Korean culture, hence the grand dinner with around 45 family members at my eldest cousin’s home. 

Similar to stereotypical Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) dinners where children run up and about, adults pass around dishes and drinks, and laughter and chatter echo in the dining hall, my family dinner was fabulous.—That is, until I started to bleed. 

I immediately arose, but it was too late. My cousin’s teal-colored, silk cushion was tainted with a deep red stain. My first thought was, “Thank goodness I’m with family.” Yet, when I looked up from the cushion to my relatives, I was met with disgusted eyes.

As I swiftly retreated towards the bathroom, every step equated to a second of shame. From a family so heavily invested in table manners, I was surprised to hear: “Did she have to have her period now?” From another person, “That’s gross!” And from my very own cousin, “My new teal, silk cushion is brown now! Why do girls have to bleed and ruin things?” 

Now, I wish to stop here and ask you, the reader, if you were picturing my cousin to be a man. If you were, then you are unfortunately incorrect. My cousin is a woman, along with the other two harsh commenters. While we often discuss menstrual stigma in terms of the ‘stigmatizers’ versus ‘the stigmatized,’ stigmas are complex and can turn members of the same stigmatized group against one another. Menstrual stigma traps all menstruators in a vicious cycle of oppression, discrimination, and inequality. However, less is said about within-group stigmatization, specifically menstrual stigmatization that occurs between menstruators within the private sphere. While we often associate the home with comfort and safety, the pressure to conceal is deeply engrained and internalized.

After the evening of the embarrassing family dinner and for the rest of my high-school years in Seoul, I continued to hear phrases such as, “Hide it” or “Don’t talk about it,” from women in my life. It did not matter whether I was in the middle of a public place or my own secluded space. I simply was to keep my bloody mouth shut. As the years went on, I realized that such within-group stigmatization was a result of female self-stigmatization and the production of false consciousness. 

In Korea, 미친년 (michin nyeon) is a derogatory term used to identify someone as a “crazy woman.” Echoed in the lyrics of a song titled “내가 미친 년이야 (I’m a Crazy Woman)” by Kim Bo Hyung, the term is often used as a self-stigmatizing reference. My aunt recently narrated an argument with my uncle:

“I told your uncle that I didn’t feel like going out for lunch because of my [period] cramps. His only answer was that I was being far too sensitive. Am I a crazy woman for wanting to stay at home? I get the feeling that I am.” 

It is disheartening to witness how often my aunt concludes that she is at fault without ever questioning my uncle’s assertion of dominance and aversion to listening. The legitimization of my uncle’s silencing words is evident in my aunt’s questioning of herself . She has internalized the stigma.

Returning to my eldest cousin’s question of “Why do girls have to bleed and ruin things?”, internalized stigmatization goes beyond the self—it extends to other like-minded, like-menstruating group members. The language of the “powerful” (in this case, non-menstruating men) is used, perpetuating patriarchal beliefs and leading menstruators to question themselves and others who are in the same position.

Today, my cousin’s teal cushions (one being brown of course) have been replaced, courtesy of me—a proud menstruating woman. For me, the cushions represent culture, and the substitution of such cushions represents changing cultural norms. I should never have taken the blame nor felt any shame—in reality, those cushions were meant to be changed. Thus, instead of replacing just one soiled cushion, I suggested, “I think what you need is a daily reminder of our menstruating bodies. Might I suggest some red-colored cushions?” 

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