Periods are a lot of things: They are sometimes messy and painful, and they are at times inconvenient and annoying. One thing they are not is shameful. And yet, many women learn from a young age that their periods — normal biological functions that happen every single month — are wrong somehow, that menstruation is embarrassing, that we should try to keep it hidden, that we shouldn’t talk about it, and that “She must be on her period” really means “She’s crazy.”
Period shaming is widespread and insidious. It happens when a U.S. presidential hopeful blames a female debate moderator’s questions on “blood coming out of her… wherever”; it happens when a marathon runner’s decision to free bleed becomes a major topic for debate; it happens when an artist’s photographs are censored from Instagram for featuring period blood; and it happens when an ad company produces a commercial in which a menstruating woman is portrayed as an irrational, literally-insane period monster. In whatever form it takes, it’s not harmless and it’s not OK. Period shaming creates a climate in which menstruation must be hidden, and discussion of it kept of out the public sphere. The fact that we live in an embarrassed silence about a major aspect of women’s reproductive health (not to mention their everyday lives) is, frankly, ridiculous, as well as damaging for women in the U.S. and all over the world.
I’m not suggesting that we all need to love our periods, or that we should all take up free bleeding and move to a commune so that we can sync our cycles and worship the moon while dancing naked around a fire or… whatever. (Although now that I’m thinking about it, that sounds like a pretty awesome party.) Periods may make some women feel like powerful goddesses, but they make other women feel like crap, and a recent article in The Atlantic even suggested that stopping periods altogether may be a good option for some people. But there’s a difference between seeing menstruation as an irritating aspect of one’s life, and seeing it as shameful or inherently embarrassing.
These are only a few of the reasons that you shouldn’t feel ashamed of your period — and why you should never let someone else make you feel that way:
1. Because periods are not an exception, and you are not weird for having one.
Period shaming perpetuates the idea that periods are strange or abnormal, which is ridiculous when we consider that approximately half of the world’s seven billion people have experienced or will experience menstruation at some point in their lives. Shaming a woman for having a period is like shaming a man for growing a 5 o’clock shadow every day. It’s not a perfect analogy (obviously we ladies don’t have vaginas on our faces), but, like facial hair for men, periods are part of a completely normal biological process (a process that is, by the way, essential to the perpetuation of the human race, but NBD). To act like it’s somehow wrong or gross or weird is just silly.
2. Because too many people don’t know how their own bodies work.
A surprising number of women don’t fully understand how their own reproductive systems work; one Australian study, for example, found that only 13 percent of the women they surveyed knew when during their menstrual cycles they were fertile. Considering that many girls learn early on that periods are gross and should be hidden away as much as possible, it’s no wonder that so many women are in the dark about what’s actually going on in their bodies. A more open and accepting attitude toward menstruation might create an environment in which more women felt empowered to be the experts on their own reproductive health.
3. Because dudes should know about periods, too.
A lot of men are completely in the dark when it comes to periods, as a number of recent viral videos have shown. Although it’s ridiculous that the men’s responses to menstruation in such videos generally boils down to “Huh?” and “Eww!”, I don’t think we can blame this lack of knowledge solely on some kind of broad male rejection of the period. After all, if the women around them try to act like their periods don’t exist — if they try to avoid talking about them so as to avoid freaking out the men in their lives — then it’s no wonder that a lot of guys don’t know a thing about menstruation. There’s a self-perpetuating cycle in play, in which women learn early on that their periods are disgusting or shameful, and so they act like their periods are disgusting and shameful, and so boys grow up learning from all sides that periods are disgusting and shameful, and so they never learn anything about them (and their attitudes then affect how women see themselves, and the cycle goes on and on). And that ignorance is not good, for women or men.
Menstruation and other aspects of women’s health shouldn’t be a grand mystery to men. After all, reproduction affects them, too, right? I’m not suggesting that the guys around you need to know every detail of your personal menstrual cycle, but developing a more open, public dialogue about periods in general could go a long way in improving overall awareness of reproductive health.
4. Because your period can be an indicator of your health.
Your periods can be affected by a variety of factors, including stress, diet, and exercise, as well as bigger health problems like diabetes and hypo- and hyperthyroidism. Of course, plenty of people have irregular periods and are very healthy. But if your cycle suddenly changes and there’s no clear reason (like starting hormonal birth control, for example), it could be a sign that something’s up, and you should consult your doctor.
5. Because getting your period is like getting a big ol’ “CONGRATS! YOU’RE NOT PREGNANT!” card in the mail every month.
If you are sexually active and you do not currently want to become pregnant, then your period can be an extremely welcome sign that your life’s not about to completely change. (Not that not being pregnant comes as that much of a surprise, since you are using reliable forms of birth control, right? Right?)
(I get that if you are trying to become pregnant, getting your period can be really discouraging. But if there is a silver lining here, it’s that having a regular period can be an indicator that you are ovulating. As 30 to 40 percent of infertility is due to irregular ovulation, your period might be a good sign.)
6. Because your period shouldn’t invalidate you.
When women are emotional, or tough, or simply not behaving the way someone else wants them to behave, it’s really common to hear the cliché “It must be her time of the month! HAR HAR HAR.” Blaming women’s behavior on menstruation is a classic — and still disturbingly popular — way of undermining them. Regardless of whether a woman is menstruating or not, blaming her behavior on her period is a way of declaring that her feelings and statements are inherently irrational and meaningless, and it implies that her femaleness makes her automatically lesser. When we let period shaming happen, we are only reinforcing that way of thinking.
7. Because there is nothing shameful about your body.
Negative attitudes toward menstruation range in severity — some people regard periods as yucky, but relatively minor, incidents that should simply be ignored as much as possible, while others (as Rachel Khona suggests is the case in some parts of India) view menstruating women as impure or dirty, and thus unfit for certain activities and environments. But these attitudes aren’t really only about periods: they are reflective of attitudes towards women’s bodies more broadly. When someone describes menstruation as “disgusting” or “unclean,” he or she is suggesting that there is something innately wrong with being female.
8. Because too many women lack access to sanitary menstrual supplies.
Period shaming creates a culture in which periods are seen as unmentionable and marginal, and, therefore, as separate from “legitimate” health concerns. According to Plan, a UK organization dedicated to promoting children’s rights, “Only 12 percent of girls and women have access to sanitary products around the world.” Many women are forced to use dirty rags and other unsanitary materials when menstruating, which can cause frequent infections. A lack of reliable access to menstrual supplies is also a major obstacle for women trying to go to school or work; according to UNICEF, for example, ten percent of African girls don’t go to school while menstruating, and in Bangladesh, 73 percent of female factory workers have to take almost a week off of work (without pay) every month due to their periods. In the United States, tampons and pads aren’t covered by food stamps, and women in prison often lack adequate menstrual supplies. In the U.K. and Australia, tampons and sanitary pads are subject to taxes as luxury items, despite the fact that many other health-related products are not. (I know that every time I open a tampon, my first thought is “What enviable luxury! It’s like diamonds for one’s vagina, darlings!”).
Period shaming allows these problems to escape notice and to continue. If we want to make menstrual supplies more affordable and accessible for all women, we need to encourage open, accepting conversation about menstruation, that acknowledges periods as what they are — completely normal, necessary aspects of women’s health.