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Period Stigma and the Unacknowledged System of Oppression

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Joely E. Henry, a first-year student at Wesleyan University, graduated in June 2022 from All City Leadership Academy in Brooklyn, New York, where she wrote this paper for the Stanford Digital Education writing course Raise Your Voice.

Joely E. Henry

 

By Joely E. Henry, May 27, 2022

In my four years of high school, this year marks the first time my school has provided sanitary pads and tampons to students. This year, administration has added small plastic boxes full of menstrual necessities in the girls’ bathroom, as well as small tin boxes in each stall to discard used items. Naturally, the change sparked conversation amongst students and families. Most were happy pads and tampons were being placed in the bathrooms, since it removes the embarrassment that comes from having to ask your friend or a staff member for them. The sense of relief we experienced prompted me to question why periods are discussed with such shame and ridicule. Upon asking my peers, I heard most underscore that they, too, are unsure when and why they were taught menstruation was a “private experience,” but they have abided by such beliefs regardless. After all, talking about periods seemed to “gross other people out.” The cultural silence surrounding periods has created a society where people who menstruate must face another system of oppression because of how their body works. Dismissive legislation and gender stereotyping continue the cycle of weaponizing this normal process to prevent certain groups from advancing in society.

Period stigma, roughly defined as “the discrimination faced by people who menstruate,” has gained more attention recently (Resnick para. 1). As more people recognize institutional structures that have been created with the intention of hurting specific demographic groups, socialization surrounding menstruation has become a topic of interest. In her article, “What is Period Stigma?” Ariane Resnick defines the issue that has plagued people who menstruate for centuries, often without their realization. She highlights that although menstruation is a normal biological process, the stigma surrounding it makes people believe otherwise (Resnick para. 2). By pointing out the subtle ways we avoid the topic of menstruation through usage of code words and secrecy around usage of pads/tampons, Resnick calls attention to the process by which society has conditioned people who menstruate to think of it as an embarrassing experience.

Alma Gottlieb, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, takes this claim one step further by exploring the potential origins of period stigma. She contends that menstruation’s negative connotation in Western media appears to derive from beliefs that span several religious groups including Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Gottlieb para. 12). Furthermore, she investigates the argument that such beliefs arise from biological facts about menstruation and its relationship to blood (Gottlieb para. 11). While the true origin of period stigma is unclear, both writers assert that how people are taught to interpret menstruation has a profound impact on how women are perceived within that society.

Several sources illustrate how period stigma hinders the day-to-day lives of people who menstruate. The documentary film “The Bloody Truth About Getting Your Period in America” collects anecdotes from women in multiple professions about their experiences with period stigma and their opinions regarding how young children are taught about this bodily function.

They go on to discuss how taboos surrounding periods have manifested in political policies that have had detrimental impacts. Valerie Seibert’s article “Nearly Half of Women Have Experienced ‘Period Shaming’” takes a numerical approach, mentioning that “58 percent of women have felt a sense of embarrassment simply because they were on their period.” Using data and infographics, Seibert underscores the frequent comments women receive regarding menstruation, and similar experiences of shaming among various groups of people. Sarah E. Frank, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shares the goal of bringing attention to period stigma. However, her focus is documenting the experiences of transgender and nonbinary individuals. One of her more recent studies, “Queering Menstruation: Trans and Non-Binary Identity and Body Politics,” contextualizes what it is like for trans and nonbinary individuals to navigate the impacts of period stigma in a gender binary society, while maintaining their identities. The financial expenses of menstruation are noted by Chloe Williams, who is a member of the National Organization for Women. In her piece, “Female Homelessness and Period Poverty” she notes how period stigma adds another burden for people who menstruate and are struggling with poverty. Each source affirms that it should be up to the individual to decide whether they want to address their own experience with menstruation as private. They should not be forced into silence because of the societal expectation to avoid talking with others about menstruation.

Stigma surrounding menstruation fosters an environment where people who menstruate are singled out because of their bodies and face shame for their normal biological processes. They are commonly ostracized both inside and outside of spaces where they normally feel safe, including in the presence of trusted family members (Seibert para. 1). THINX, a retailer of menstrual products that advocates for ending period stigma, conducted a study that found that “Forty-two percent of women have experienced period-shaming, with one in five being made to have these feelings because of comments made by a male friend” (Seibert para. 3). Given that society has deemed it acceptable for jokes to be made about menstruation, women have been socialized to be embarrassed by it. Instead of being empowered to talk about their bodies openly, women are taught that if their bodies are not “clean and tidy” they should refrain from discussing anything about them (Seibert para. 11). This is just another way that society has tried to keep women from feeling confident in themselves. Because of social messages that menstruation is “dirty” and that it is not a topic that should be openly discussed, the voices of those who menstruate are dismissed. In pointing out the differences between sexes, and using the experience of one to demean others, society teaches people who menstruate that they are inferior. It also teaches everyone that the entire process of menstruating is disgusting something to be looked down upon because of its supposed impurity.

Menstruation then becomes a closed-off topic, which makes discussing its medical aspects more difficult. In the Siebert study previously mentioned, 62 percent of respondents claimed that “they have experienced others failing to take their period pain seriously” (Seibert para.12). Respondents’ statements about their pain are often brushed aside (Seibert para. 12). The Netflix docuseries “Principles of Pleasure” notes how marginalized groups are left out of conversations on sexuality, pleasure, and the anatomy of bodies. In one segment, a woman recalls an experience where she set up an emergency medical appointment because of her declining mental and physical health (Desai 31:00-31:32). When she told her doctor she thought it was possibly connected to her period, his response was “a pretty girl like you is too smart to take medicine” (Desai 31:00-31:32). To dismantle period stigma would be to give people who menstruate the opportunity to speak up about what goes on in their bodies without the fear of being ridiculed, picked on, or dismissed. It would include normalizing conversation surrounding menstruation, leaving room for them to be unabashedly themselves without having to think about how biological processes in their bodies make others uncomfortable.

The impacts of period stigma are not solely social, as financial inequalities also stem from it. In the United States, each state has the power to determine which products it deems necessities and therefore exempts from taxation (Capatides 1). The problem is that while some states have claimed items such as cowboy boots or potato chips as necessities, all have refused to extend this designation, and thus the tax exemption, to actual hygienic needs like sanitary pads and tampons (Capatides 1). Thus, state governments represent menstruation as the burden of those who experience it, despite its being both regularly occurring and beyond anyone’s ability to willingly control. At first glance, this may not seem like a failure of any significance. Pads and tampons may not seem to be much of an expense, so what difference would a tax break make?

But for the growing number of Americans living in poverty, that tax policy dictates for some the need to choose between bleeding through their clothes and eating dinner. Assistance programs and medical insurances also fail to view tampons/pads as a necessity, rendering these necessary items a luxury for those who can afford them (Capitades 1). It's estimated that the average woman spends approximately $18,000 on feminine hygiene products in her lifetime (Williams para. 2). Further, people who cannot afford proper feminine hygiene products often result in using rolled up pieces of toilet paper, “exposing them to bacteria that can lead to yeast and urinary tract infections” (Williams para. 2). Period stigma works to silence the voices of people who menstruate, all the while closing off the conversation around issues surrounding menstrual equity. By creating an environment where people feel ashamed to mention they are menstruating, we continue to tolerate policies like the effective US Period Tax. As stated by Jennifer Weiss Wolf, a writer and advocate for women’s rights, “the systems are working exactly as they were intended to do which was to keep women out of power, and to keep the power structures from working for us, and ignoring menstruation is just as much of a part of that” (Capitades 1). The government cannot give women equal opportunities so long as they continue to use menstruation to place them in situations where they have to make choices between maintaining their health and saving money.

Beliefs that stem from period stigma feed into further stereotypes that are weaponized to keep women from achieving upward social mobility. The most common stereotype associated with period stigma is that women are irrational, overly emotional beings. Period stigma can come in the form of jokes, or accusations that “a person is PMS-ing or menstruating if they are perceived as behaving in a sensitive, sharp, or aggressive manner” (Resnick para. 9). Stereotypes like these establish the idea that women should not be taken seriously, especially when feeling negative emotions, all because it is “that time of the month.” Such stereotyping erases the root of the problem, ignoring whatever situation warranted that reaction, and ridding the stereotyper from any blame for provoking negative emotions. These stereotypes maintain the illusion that people who have periods do not belong in authoritative positions because of their emotional nature. Even politicians have stated that menstruating people are unproductive at work, despite this claim having no logical basis (Resnick para. 10).

Period stigma also upholds the notion that women are the only group of people who menstruate. By gendering menstruation, society leaves some members of the LGBTQ+ community out of the conversation. Addressing menstruation solely as a female experience creates in- and out-groups: female-identifying women experiencing period stigma can find solidarity amongst each other, but people who are not female-identifying are left without a community to turn to (Frank para. 36). Trans and nonbinary individuals who menstruate face stigma from their peers and when they are excluded from the conversation, the cycle continues. Those who associate menstruation exclusively with those who identify as female is also a source of gender dysphoria for trans and nonbinary people (Frank para. 46). Because people have been socialized to perceive menstruation as a female process, periods have become a reminder to trans and nonbinary people of their bodies’ “female” functions (Frank para. 46). In reality, however, the mental health impacts of period stigma are not limited to one group and instead impact everyone who menstruates.Thus, dismantling period stigma would not only disassociate this bodily function with shame amongst women, it would also bring society closer to viewing menstruation as an experience across all genders.

In its entirety, period stigma solely works to rob marginalized groups of power and confidence. Maintaining received ideas about what it means to menstruate limits conversations so that we as a society are unable critically to analyze the effects of period stigma on others. Without being able to analyze those effects in-depth, we cannot fix the institutions that work against marginalized communities. The change that is indeed beginning to happen is only because the topic of period stigma is beginning to gain traction: more people are creating safe spaces where people who menstruate can share their thoughts free from judgment. With that in mind, the only way to push the current conversation further is by making it so that there is no need to create safe spaces to talk about menstruation. People must be free to talk about menstruation in the same way they can casually mention that their nose is bleeding, or that they have a headache. It is only when we are able to have productive conversations about menstruation that it will become significantly easier to openly discuss how it impacts others’ lives — including the inequalities others face because of it. Only such open acknowledgment will dismantle institutions of oppression that influence our lives on an even larger scale.

Bibliography

Capatides, Christina. “The Bloody Truth about Getting Your Period in America.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 7 June 2019.

Desai, Niharika, director. Principles of Pleasure, Netflix, 22 Mar. 2022, www.netflix.com. Accessed 18 May 2022.

Frank, Sarah E. “Queering Menstruation: Trans and Non-Binary Identity and Body Politics.” Queering Menstruation: Trans and Non-Binary Identity and Body Politics - Wiley Online Library, 5 Feb. 2020.

Gottlieb, Alma. “Menstrual Taboos: Moving beyond the Curse.” The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 25 July 2020.

Resnick, Ariane. “What Is Period Stigma?” Verywell Mind, 1 July 2021.

Siebert, Valerie. “Nearly Half of Women Have Experienced 'Period Shaming'.” New York Post, New York Post, 11 Jan. 2018.

Williams, Chloe. “Female Homelessness and Period Poverty.” National Organization for Women, 22 Jan 2021.