By Ilana Hamer
Ilana Hamer is a rising junior in the Joint Program with Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, studying Human Rights, Sociology, and Jewish Ethics. Outside of school, Ilana enjoys debating meaningful issues with her friends, teaching students at a synagogue in New York, and volunteering with Camp Kesem, a camp for children who have been affected by a parent’s cancer.
With the month of May dedicated to the worldwide celebration of menstruation, it is more important than ever to discuss menstrual education: the topic that schools have utterly failed to adequately address.
Most young menstruators have at least one memory connected to menstruation in school, usually typified by feelings of embarrassment or shame. I certainly remember flinging a book out of my backpack a little too excitedly, prompting a pad to fly across the room. Years later, I still remember feeling humiliated. And yet, I’m a proud woman, unashamed and profoundly thankful for my access to menstrual products, a privilege many menstruators globally don’t have. So why, when a pad falls out of my purse, do I find myself moving more quickly than I thought humanly possible to pick it up before anyone notices? How do I reconcile this dichotomy? My usual “empowered identity” seems to be put on hold the moment I acknowledge that I do, in fact, bleed every month.
The pieces fall together when I reflect on the lack of proper education my classmates and I received about menstruation. In “Equity, Period,” Coshandra Dillard writes that conversations about menstruation rarely occur in schools, and when they do “instructional time is limited, and it’s common to separate classes by binary gender. And even then, it’s unlikely that these conversations will provide students the information they need.” For example, Gabrielle Rocha Rios writes in “The Importance of Menstrual Health Education” that even when girls did report learning about periods in school, their lessons focused entirely on menstrual cycle biology, and neglected crucial information about their bodies’ anatomy and sanitary products.
Certainly inadequate education isn’t the only factor contributing to the stigma about menstruation. The media portrays women as moody and angry, and the way we communicate about menstruation suggests secrecy. Countless code words for periods exist, such as “my time of the month” or “my monthly visitor.” Discretion is encouraged not only in public spaces – menstrual product manufacturers promise “a whisper-quiet” pad to conceal your period in bathrooms, reinforcing the message to menstruators that a period should be hidden from all.
So while media, advertisements, menstrual product companies, and society at large undoubtedly reinforce menstrual stigma, to address it effectively we must look at the place where menstrual stigma is first learned. Primary and secondary schools have the opportunity and responsibility to educate students about menstruation. Holistic, frequent, and inclusive menstrual education will prepare students for menstrual experiences and contribute to its normalization.
To achieve that, menstrual education must go beyond “how do I clean up the mess?” Students should be taught about menstrual biology, the financial costs associated with menstrual management, the cultural significance of menstrual practices around the world, menstrual disorders, and pain management- just to name a few critical topics. These conversations will address menstrual stigma and taboo when a safe environment is created that enables students to freely ask questions. Further, complete integration in the annual school curriculum will mark menstrual education as an integral part of students’ learning and growth. Continuous education from primary school until high school graduation will avoid token programs that are often mishandled, and unappreciated by students and teachers. Finally, separating boys and girls sends the message that periods are irrelevant to boys and that girls should hide their periods from them. Perhaps if boys received thorough menstrual education with female peers, men today would not be leaving conversations, classrooms, and congressional debates when the topic of menstruation arises. This separation also enforces a gender-binary that compromises non-binary students.
This holistic, frequent, and inclusive menstrual education framework would work toward dismantling the menstrual stigma born out of students’ lack of exposure to accurate information and meaningful conversations about menstruation. A great step in the right direction is a bipartisan New York bill signed into law last November, which aims to provide young women and girls the resources to advocate for their menstrual health. Focusing on the importance of early endometriosis diagnosis, a disorder which affects 7 million women nationwide but often remains undetected due to a lack of awareness and information, the bill requires the Commissioners of Health and Education to develop educational materials for schools and health care practitioners.
Such educational resources can be the turning point for early intervention for menstrual disorders, as well as critical resources for combating menstrual stigma in schools. I recently completed a semester-long course at Columbia University titled “Menstruation, Gender, and Rights.” When I first enrolled in the course, it felt exciting, controversial, and intriguing to explore the topic. But as the semester unfolded and we learned about the medical research gap for women’s disorders, questioned menstrual terminology, discussed the economic impact on menstruators, and so much more, these discussions lost their air of novelty. The idea that I could discuss menstruation openly was no longer unique. The course was exciting because menstruation started to become normal.
I’m not saying that I’m ready to shout across the room at my friend to ask for a tampon, but this course inspired me to discuss menstruation more openly with friends and family. Imagine if age-appropriate courses such as the one I took were offered throughout a student’s educational experience, starting significantly before the age of menarche. An effective curriculum for menstrual education will work toward empowering young menstruators and combating menstrual stigma that has deeply problematic consequences for women, menstruators, and society as a whole. It would be a step toward building a world in which individuals don’t have to reconcile their identity as both empowered, and as menstruators.
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