Scotland recently announced that it would tackle “period poverty” by providing free menstrual products to anyone who needs them, making it the first country to do so. Menstruation and the social issues around it are clearly having a moment.
But menstrual products alone won’t fix the challenges menstruating people experience. Many of these challenges have to do with how we perceive and consequently treat people who menstruate. Stigma permeates every aspect of menstruation – even uttering the word itself. We are often told, or we feel, that we shouldn’t do certain thing – such as swimming – when we’re menstruating. More broadly, experiments show that we consider someone less competent and less likeable once we know they’re menstruating. Endometriosis, a condition in which uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus and which often leads to excruciating pain, affects an estimated 11 per cent of women in the United States between 15 and 44. Yet it does not get the attention it requires. The diagnostic delay for endometriosis is about 7.5 years and that hasn’t changed in a decade.
We all perpetuate menstrual stigma. On the flipside, this means that all of us can change the social norms around menstruation. So, what can we each do to turn the current menstrual moment into a movement to foment this overdue change?
- If you menstruate: Stop referring to “Aunt Flo” or “this time of the month.” Speak about your menstrual experience. Don’t panic at signs of blood on your towel or sheets. Resist the urge to wrap used menstrual products into layers over layers of toilet paper. Have sex during menstruation if you feel like it.
- If you don’t menstruate: Listen to and follow the cues from people in your life. Educate yourself. Acknowledge that people have very different experiences with menstruation and menopause. Avoid stereotypes of menstruating individuals as “emotional” or “hysterical.”
- Parents and guardians: Let menstruation out of the (water) closet. Normalize. Familiarize. Children are taking their cues from you and they do so early on. You don’t need to have “the” talk about menstruation; instead, make menstruation part of everyday life and conversation, whether your child will menstruate or not.
- Educators: Address menstrual health, the social norms around it and its politics. Make them part of your curricula. Teach body literacy. This can be part of sex ed, but it doesn’t have to be. New York has a new bill on menstrual health education. Personally, one of the most interesting (and fun) courses I’ve taught is Menstruation, Gender and Rights.
- Employers: Create a workplace environment where employees are comfortable addressing cramps and period pain. Lead by example. Put flexible workplace arrangements in place that accommodate the needs of people who menstruate. Everyone else will benefit, too.
- Health workers: Pay attention to the menstrual cycle as a vital sign, just like body temperature and blood pressure. Take pain seriously. Don’t dismiss your patients’ symptoms. Instead, take time to listen and work with them to find solutions to menstrual health conditions. Advocate for health conditions linked to menstruation to get the same level of attention, research, funding, diagnostic standards, care and treatment as other health conditions.
- Activists: Make the menstrual connection: How is fighting menstrual stigma related to the social change you’re advocating for? Build a broad movement that makes space for people from different backgrounds along the lines of race, ethnicity, disability and gender identity. If you’re a white, able-bodied, cisgender woman like me, use your privilege to do your best to amplify the voices of people who face marginalization.
Let’s work together toward a world where it is unthinkable that someone is fired because their heavy bleeding “soiled” the carpet, as happened to a call center operator in Georgia. Where prison guards don’t withhold menstrual products to humiliate and degrade incarcerated women. Where persons with disabilities aren’t sterilized because it makes it easier to “manage” menstruation. Where the sound of a tampon or pad wrapper in a public bathroom doesn’t cause anxiety for a trans or genderqueer person. Where no one’s ideas are dismissed because they’re “PMS’ing.” Where children and adolescents have a solid understanding of the physical, mental and social changes they experience – before they reach menarche. Where we have lifted menstrual stigma and can decide for ourselves whether we want to curl up on the couch or take on the world.