Aunt Flow. Time of the month. On the rag. The ways period stigma presents itself starts with how we talk about menstruation and who we talk about it to — which is why it's so essential that we teach kids about periods. What's more, we need to teach it to kids of all genders, and we need to do it from an early age.
In a recent survey of two (conducted today, by me, with myself and my boyfriend), the age we first learn about periods often differs between conventional gender binaries. I, a cis woman, remember learning what a period was around the same time I got mine for the first time, which was sixth grade. My boyfriend, a cis man, thinks he first learned about periods in high school health class. That three year gap is significant when it comes to establishing healthy perceptions on periods early on.
I remember dealing with my period in school like it was a covert operation. In addition to the code names like the ones listed above, I treated menses like a military-grade secret. Sliding tampons up my sleeve. Trying to sneak a pad from my backpack to my pocket without the person a locker over noticing. And god forbid I run out of anything and have to ask someone if they have “a... um.. uh... lady product.” The feeling that I have to conceal when I’m on my period still presents itself today when I try to subtly take my purse to the bathroom or wonder if TSA can see the arsenal of Super Plus in the front pouch of my carryon. Ask anyone who has a period and they will likely tell you their preferred method of executing Operation: Change My Tampon in Public.
People on their period are often made to feel like they need to hide, both literally and figuratively (that is, in the way we talk about menstruation). This is proven true when we openly and overtly talk about periods, and it makes headlines. Cameron Esposito’s ultimate period joke has over half a million views on YouTube. You likely heard about the tampon commercial that actually showed blood, because that is seemingly controversial in a product created solely to absorb blood.
The mentality on menstruation affects us beyond getting a little bashful when we need to buy pads. It impacts everything from the way periods are legislated to the way the President talks about blood affecting a woman’s ability to do her job. Last summer, in an interview with YouTuber Ingrid Nilsen, former President Obama talked about the tampon tax and why menstrual products would be taxed as luxury goods.
If we want to start seeing healthy societal mindsets when it comes to menstruation, we need to start by establishing why it’s important to properly educate all kids early on about periods.
It lets everyone know that periods are normal and nothing to be ashamed about.
There are still adult men who are grossed out by tampons and the idea of talking about periods. Some of them arguably run our government. In order to combat period stigma already present among children, UNICEF Indonesia created the above video and a comic on menstruation aimed at both boys and girls. Regardless whether or not you speak Indonesian, the lesson in the teaching materials is clear: Everyone should know periods that are normal.
As reported by NPR, leaking during menstruation is a greater problem in Indonesia because there are not enough toilets in schools. A survey by UNICEF found that one in six girls skipped school while on their period both due to lack of toilets and to avoid embarrassment by peers.
However, the comic is showing promising results in students’ mindsets on periods. Initial studies show the comic is helping educate boys and girls on menstruation as well as establishing that having a period is normal. After reading the comic, the percentage of boys who agreed that it’s wrong to bully someone on their period increased from 61 to 95 percent.
One of the final frames in the above video loosely translates to “Want to be cool? Respect your friends!” The message is a simple, easy start to eliminating period stigma.
It includes transgender and nonbinary people in the conversation early on.
Like the above ad from THINX establishes, being a women does not equate to having a period. What's more, not being a woman doesn't equate to not having a period. Transgender men and non-binary people can also have periods, and a transgender women is a woman even if she does not experience menstruation.
Last year, the Twitter thread #IfMenHadPeriods opened a necessary discussion about transgender people and periods. The initial thread, started by a gynecologist, was intended to shed light on the double standards society uses to treat men and women. It evolved into how we need to make sure we're including trans and non-binary people in any conversation about gender.
Educating kids of all genders about periods is essential, whether they will eventually have them or not. It helps establish that periods are not "just a girl problem"; it ensures that all kids are included in the conversation, no matter how they identify; and it makes the bigger point of how important it is to include people of all genders in these kinds of conversations at the same time. Basically, everybody wins.
It emphasizes the importance of reproductive health to all genders.
Menstrual and reproductive health are not just a women's problem, as much as the GOP would seemingly like to wish them so. Recently, a Republican lawmaker questioned why men should pay for prenatal care. Not only does that mentality ignore the existence of transgender and non-binary people (hey, guess what? Cis women aren't the only people who can become pregnant!), it insinuates that men don't play a role in reproduction. It also overlooks the fact the same law also has women pay for health services benefiting men, like prostate cancer tests.
Shifts in societal mindsets take time, but they do happen. Eliminating period stigma as a whole starts with properly educating everyone. Like the video from UNICEF Indonesia says, if we want to be a society that's cool with periods, we need to start with respect.