Despite massive advances in women’s rights and media inclusivity in recent years, period stigma is still alive and well in most of the world. In many developing countries, adolescents don’t even know what periods are until they first begin menstruating. The result is often shock, shame, and fear of telling family members or others what’s happening to their bodies.
Some of these menstruators wind up being ostracized, isolated, or kept from work or school during their periods. Misconceptions about menstrual hygiene may mean others see them as unclean or worry they’ll spread disease. Some unfortunately do develop infections due to lack of access to menstrual products, clean water, education, or appropriate medical care.
In the U.S. and other Westernized countries, menstrual stigma, though still problematic, is a little less intense. But menstrual stigma has disproportionate negative impacts on populations like BIPOC, trans folks, and people living in poverty. Because of this stigma, these individuals may have a harder time getting diagnosed if they have period-related illness. They may also lack access to products or facilities necessary to ensure proper menstrual hygiene.
More awareness, accessibility, and education about menstruation can reduce the cloud of shame around it. The more we reduce the stigma, the easier it will be for people to have healthier, safer, more dignified periods. Here are some ways menstruators and allies can work together to reduce the stigma around menstruation.
Table of Contents
1. Advocate for Education
Understanding periods and menstrual hygiene can break down taboos worldwide, and lead to more acceptance and awareness of the realities of menstruation. Education about menstruation can reduce the risk of infections, social ostracization, and missed work or school. It can also lead to other positive developments like enhanced availability of facilities and menstrual products (see below for more on this).
But more advocacy is needed to make comprehensive sexual health education widely available in all countries, including in the U.S. Menstruators should know from a young age how periods work, what causes them, and their relationship to pregnancy. They should be able to spot when something is wrong so they can get help from a healthcare provider. They should know all of their options for period products, like menstrual cups and more. And they should know their options for using birth control like Sprintec to have lighter and more regular periods.
2. Get Men Involved
Comprehensive period education shouldn’t just be for women and people assigned female at birth. It should also be made standard for men and other folks whose bodies weren’t made to menstruate. Awareness benefits everyone, by making conditions more sanitary and keeping menstruators in the classroom and workplaces. On the flipside, if only half the population is educated, it will take much longer to see change.
Men and boys should be taught from an early age to feel comfortable around tampons and menstruation. They should be taught to talk about periods and feel comfortable buying or carrying menstrual products in public. Men and other non-menstruators should be taught to consider the needs of menstruators when having guests over or planning activities. This includes making sure adequate restroom facilities are available for menstruators, with menstrual products, trash cans, and clean running water.
3. Talk Openly About Periods
Whispering, using euphemisms, or otherwise refusing to talk openly about periods reinforces the idea that they’re something to be ashamed of. Don’t be afraid to speak publicly, at school, or at work, or with your kids about menstruation. Use accurate, specific language like “I’m menstruating” or “I got my period” instead of “that time of the month” or “Aunt Flo’s in town.” Always use inclusive, gender-affirming language like “menstruators,” not “women” when talking about periods.
Carry your menstrual products to the restroom in full view, instead of hiding them in a sleeve, pocket, or purse. Encourage people around you to do the same, so folks become accustomed to the day-to-day reality of menstruation and menstrual products. If you make ads or visual materials about periods, use realistic “blood” instead of the silly blue liquid often seen in commercials.
4. Make Menstrual Products More Accessible
Many people in the U.S. and throughout the world live in what’s known as “period poverty.” This means they lack access to the period products, education, facilities, and waste management necessary for proper menstruation hygiene. The result is often social or literal isolation during menstruation, like skipping school or work or being excluded from gatherings.
In wealthy, Westernized countries like the U.S., more public restrooms and readily available free or affordable menstrual products can help. Advocacy efforts can also focus on donating menstrual products to homeless and domestic violence shelters and fighting the ongoing taxation of menstrual products. At home and other countries, period charities often need donations of products like sanitary napkins. It’s also worth investing in nonprofits and startups developing reusable menstrual products like menstrual cloths and cups.
5. Make Period-Friendly Workplace and School Policies
Period stigma has often resulted in penalization of workers and students dealing with menstrual products, cramps, or period symptoms. Menstruating people should never be punished for needing longer restroom breaks, more comfortable seating, more missed work days, or other accommodations. Workplace and school restrooms need to be plentiful and conveniently located so menstruators don’t spend valuable time getting to restrooms or waiting in line. “Mens” restrooms should have menstrual products and stalls for trans and nonbinary menstruators.
Menstruation stigma is also perpetuated by sexist and toxic workplace cultures. Interrupt or, where necessary, report men if you catch them making insensitive jokes about periods and PMS. If you have influence over workplace policies, make sure menstrual discrimination isn’t tolerated. When planning work events, make sure they have bathrooms, running water, in-restroom trash cans, and other things menstruators rely on to change period products.
Advocate for Education About Menstruation
A healthier, safer, shame-free world for menstruating people starts with better education, awareness, and advocacy. The more people understand about periods, the easier it will be to make menstruation less of a burden and a barrier to access. You can make a difference by donating, volunteering, or advocating for better workplace, government, and school policies. Making consistent changes in how you and your loved ones talk about periods also goes a long way toward reducing stigma.
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