If We Want To Erase The Stigma Of Menstruation, We Need Men To Be Period Allies
I've always had trouble understanding what the big deal is about periods — basically half of Earth's population experiences menstruation, and yet no one talks about it. As a young girl, I remember being told to keep "my time of the month" on the down-low, because apparently the mere thought of my uterus bleeding might gross out those around me. If you ask me, the stigma surrounding menstruation is utterly ridiculous, but unfortunately, the rest of society isn't necessarily ready to hop on board the Periods-Are-No-Big-Deal Express with me.
But now, The Flex Company — a feminine care company that invented FLEX, a tampon alternative that offers 12-hour protection and mess-free period sex — is working to change that by sparking conversation about menstruation, with the ultimate goal of erasing the unnecessary and harmful stigma surrounding periods.
"Our mission at The Flex Company is to create life changing, body positive experiences through the products we make and the conversations we spark," Lauren Schulte, CEO of The Flex Company, tells Bustle. "Revolutionizing period products is only half of our mission. The other half is focused on engaging people of all genders in dialogue about women's health."
In order to give menstruation some much-needed visibility, The Flex Company has opened a temporary pop-up store in SoHo, Manhattan, where people (not just women) can learn more about FLEX as well as the long history of period products. The pop-up, located at 138 Wooster Street, is open to the public until June 30.
"Our SoHo pop-up was created to demonstrate that periods are an essential part of our lives — a part that no longer needs to be relegated to the shadowy back aisles of the drug store," Schulte says. "We designed the experience in a way that people of all genders feel comfortable talking about periods and the history of period products."
Where Does The Period Stigma Come From?
In an ideal world, everyone would be both familiar with how women's bodies work as well as comfortable discussing women's health issues. But unfortunately, the stigma of periods goes way back: historically, periods have been viewed as "unclean" and "shameful" instead of, you know, a natural thing that happens for most women. And it's not just the long-standing stereotypes about periods working against us: even now, modern sex ed in America does little to normalize menstruation.
"The first moment we become 'a woman' we're taught to hide this very big part of ourselves."
"Most Americans learn about periods in school, if we're lucky enough to have sex ed, which many states don't," Schulte says. "Boys and girls are separated, and boys don't learn much about periods. Girls are told to keep their period private and to hide their tampons. This dynamic immediately makes the topic taboo. As adults, we're still told to hide our tampons. In fact, a lot of the 'innovation' we've seen with period products has been in packaging — repackaging the same products to make them more 'discreet.' So the first moment we become 'a woman' we're taught to hide this very big part of ourselves."
Why The Period Stigma Is Harmful
Being discouraged from talking about our periods has serious consequences — not only does it unnecessarily shame women for something that's totally natural, but it also can negatively impact our health, too. Open discussion is necessary to foster understanding, so if we don't feel comfortable talking about menstruation — something that comprises a quarter of our lives — how can we truly come to understand, respect, and care for our bodies?
"[The period stigma] leads to a myriad of problems," Schulte says. "We cannot name or identify our own body parts. We don't know how to prevent unwanted pregnancy. We are unable to identify a reproductive health issue. If we feel embarrassed or ashamed of our own bodies during our period, that emotion takes a major psychological toll. If we refocused our negative, body-shaming energy toward things that fulfill us, the world would be a much better place."
Another negative side effect of not discussing menstruation openly? It inhibits our ability, as a society, to invent new products that could vastly improve women's health.
"Another harmful consequence is that we're still using products that are giving us TSS and infections," Schulte says. "We've gone almost 80 years without any true product innovations. Yet I can't think of a product as ubiquitous and as hated as the tampon. Most men don't believe me when I tell them that tampons have a terrible user experience. But if we'd been talking about these issues openly over the past 80 years, I believe we'd have better options."
Why Men Need To Be Period Allies
Although this is first and foremost a women's health issue, it's not just women who need to be in on the conversation. The only way to normalize menstruation is to make sure everyone, including (and perhaps especially) men, understand how periods work, and feel no shame or embarrassment when discussing menstruation.
"If we genuinely want to see menstruation become less taboo, it will be critical to have men as our allies."
"Our society must be willing to discuss menstruation with boys and men," Schulte says. "We've got to normalize periods as early on as possible. Until menstruating humans are prepared to fully engage men in a dialogue, we will remain in an echo chamber. If we genuinely want to see menstruation become less taboo, it will be critical to have men as our allies. We must come at the issue with compassion and empathy. Rather than chastising men for their lack of knowledge (or assuming they have no knowledge), we can begin by asking men questions to see where they are at with their own understanding... and take the conversation from there."
Re-framing How We View Periods Is The Way Forward
As women, we've been taught to be ashamed of our periods and to keep that part of our womanhood a dirty little secret. Erasing the stigma of periods isn't something that can happen overnight, but the first step is, on an individual level, re-framing how we view our bodies and our periods.
"For people who menstruate, how do we take back 25 percent of our lives?" Schulte asks. "Why should we dread one week out of every month? How do we instead learn to embrace every part of ourselves, including our menstruation? That is a tough nut to crack, but we fundamentally believe that by creating better options of period products... periods can become a part of ourselves that we celebrate rather than fear, shame, dread or hide."
So next time you're walking to the bathroom, don't feel the need to hide your tampon (or FLEX) in your bra. Don't be too embarrassed to casually mention your period in conversation, even when men are around. Call out those who make periods out to be gross or dirty (or who perpetuate the "crazy menstruating woman" trope).
The only way to make a serious change in society is to get comfortable discussing things that are considered taboo. Ultimately, menstruation is a reminder of women's incredible ability to literally bring life into the world — even though it's a little bloody, there's nothing gross about that.