Of the approximately 3.5 billion women in the world, about 334 million of us are menstruating right now. But how many of us are actually talking about it? Sure, we confide in our closest friends about cramping and a sudden spike in chocolate cravings, but that’s often the extent of most people’s period talk. In recent months, however, the tone — and the breadth — of the discussion have changed.
In June, The Atlantic published a story on the history of the tampon, which, it noted, “was still taboo enough to be the central prop in one of the only Fifty Shades of Grey sex scenes deemed too risqué for the movie adaptation.” In August, the Daily Mail published photos of Kiran Gandhi on its women’s issues channel, Femail. It was an attempt to celebrate her decision to end “period shaming” by running the London Marathon without a tampon. Unfortunately, the site decided to pixelate the part of the image that showed her period stains. (Eventually the photos were unpixelated.) And, of course, there is the #LiveTweetYourPeriod phenomenon launched last year by BuzzFeed writer Tracy LaFway Clayton to normalize women’s bodies. Highlights include: “It just started. THREE DAYS EARLY. WHAT TYPE OF DARK MAGIC IS THIS?!” and “When your digestive system goes to hell because its bitch-ass uterine neighbor is throwing a tantrum. UGH.”
But these flare-ups of controversy and shared commiseration are the notable exceptions in a long history of not publicly talking about menstruation, and our collective silence enforces the cultural attitude that periods are a shameful, secret aspect of women’s lives. “I think we have a long way to go before menstruation comes out of the closet, so to speak,” says Breanne Fahs, associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University. As a result of that silence, there has been little research and innovation devoted to products (tweaking the colours on a box of tampons doesn’t count), and there remains an unmet need among women in low-income families for whom even tax-free tampons are an unaffordable luxury.
“There is still a lot of taboo and a great deal of shame associated with menstruation,” says Nidhi Bansal, senior gender equality advisor for Plan Canada. Her work has taken her to areas in Africa where girls stop going to school because they don’t have access to menstrual products, as well as to parts of India and Nepal where menstruating women are isolated in individual rooms and aren’t allowed to walk in their fields for fear the crops will die. But the issue is not confined to developing countries. “This is happening worldwide,” Bansal says. “It might manifest itself differently in different cultures, but it all stems from the fact that we don’t talk about menstruation in a factual, normal fashion. There’s always something else associated with it, whether it’s a message of being impure or physically weak, or of how a woman behaves when she has her period.”
You don’t have to look far to find examples of these messages. In August, U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump suggested that Fox News pundit Megyn Kelly had been especially hard on him during a Republican debate because she had “blood coming out of her . . . whatever.” Last May, a study out of the University of Western Sydney in Australia, published by the journal Women’s Reproductive Health, analyzed comments posted on pmsbuddy.com, an online forum (now defunct) that was launched in 2008 to help men track when their partners will be “entering the premenstrual phase.” Although the attitudes revealed in the study may not reflect society as a whole (chat boards tend to attract like-minded people), they were a stark reminder of the long-standing cultural tendency to pathologize PMS. Fifteen percent of the men saw PMS as an excuse women use for bad behaviour, 16 percent dismissed its legitimacy altogether, and 31 percent described premenstrual women as “crazy,” “nuts,” “irrational,” “a demon” and “a bitch.” Only 8 percent expressed support for their partners.
Lainey Lui, outspoken blogger and co-host of CTV’s The Social, is trying to spark more real talk about menstruation, bringing it up regularly on national television. “In the last two years, I’ve just started not giving a shit,” Lui says. When she’s at the office, she’ll hold her tampon in her hand on the way to the loo — in plain sight. “I’m not waving it around, but it’s not hidden away in a pocket,” she says. “And if I’m in rehearsal and my floor director, who’s a man, says, ‘I need you for two more minutes,’ I’ll tell him, ‘I have to change my tampon now or this wardrobe isn’t going to make it.’” Lui says that most men don’t seem to mind her forthrightness, but she’s been surprised by how often women blanch. “Women are the ones who will say, ‘That’s unladylike, that’s gross. It’s a private matter.’ But I don’t see it as a private matter. I see it as the same as blowing your nose. I hope that my openness about it will start to relieve other people’s discomfort.”
Lui won’t, however, use her period as an excuse for the way she acts — or feels — at work. “We’re never going to be CEOs if we keep saying that for five days of every month we’re going to be emotional and extra-sensitive,” she insists. But the idea that women’s periods affect their job performance is already pervasive. In 2013, a Russian lawmaker contemplated offering women paid menstrual leave, and he wasn’t the first to do so; in the same year, Taiwan gave female workers three menstrual days a year, and it’s standard practice in Japan, Indonesia and South Korea. Debate has swirled online over whether paid menstrual leave is progressive or sexist; acknowledging that menstruation exists is a step forward, but there’s the implication that women have two settings — capable and menstrual — and every few weeks someone flips the switch.
It’s true that for 10 percent of women, periods are debilitating, a medical condition called dysmenorrhea. And according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 85 percent of women experience at least one symptom of PMS every month. In January, British tennis player Heather Watson attributed her defeat in the first round of the Australian Open to “girl things.” It was an unprecedented admission, and the internet imploded. There is very little research — and most of it conflicting — on just how much menstruation may affect physical performance. Some studies suggest variations in hormone levels can change how the body regulates temperature or may have some effect on soft tissue, such as ligaments and tendons. Either way, many athletes suppress their periods by taking the birth control pill consecutively.
“I know a lot of girls who control it,” says Erin Mielzynski, a Canadian World Cup–winning alpine ski racer. At one point, her coaches attempted to monitor the team’s cycles: Every morning, they had to chart whether they felt irritable or fatigued. The experiment was short-lived. “There are times when you get cramps, and it’s hard because you want to be 100 percent,” Mielzynski says. “But at some point, you know you’re going to have to deal with it. You just have to push through.”
Questions of performance aside, the physical reality of menstruation can make things harder for women in certain areas of the workforce. “Menstruating while you’re on a construction job site is particularly challenging,” Tammy Evans, the president of the Canadian Association of Women in Construction, told me. “For one thing, there is usually no separate porta-potty and nowhere to dispose of used menstrual products.” For women in low-income families, or those trying to find work and get out of the shelter system, menstruation is one more challenge. Teresa Seel, who heads up a family-outreach program in Regina, worked in a women’s shelter where there were never enough supplies. People donate diapers, but they don’t think to donate menstrual products. “Food is always going to be the first priority, and often there isn’t enough money left over for pads,” Seel says. “Some women use toilet paper, paper towel or rags.”
Meanwhile, just like female athletes, women in the military make a habit of shutting their periods down completely. Nadia Shields signed up when she was 18 and is now a naval officer for the Department of National Defence. It was her early training days in the field that first prompted Shields to take the pill nonstop. “We were on a training exercise in the middle of nowhere and one girl got her period unexpectedly. She had to ask the warrant officer, who was an older man, to take her to the nearest town to buy tampons. After that, we all went on the birth control pill.”
This raises questions about the practice of period skipping. Some doctors say it hasn’t been studied enough; others say it isn’t an issue. “There is no concern with taking the birth control pill continuously, and there is no limit as to how long you can do this for,” says Dr. Erika Feuerstein, past medical director of the Bay Centre for Birth Control in Toronto. But Dr. Jerilynn Prior, professor of endocrinology at the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research at the University of British Columbia, isn’t a fan of the practice. “If taking combined hormonal contraceptives for 21 of 28 days is likely to suppress ovulation and upset fundamental reproductive physiology, taking it continuously is that much more disruptive.” Prior adds that there have been few extensive scientific studies to show that suppressing menstruation is safe, and part of that is because periods aren’t the sexiest area of study.
“There is a tendency to ignore menstrual cycles in research,” Prior says, adding we should be paying more attention to cycles and ovulation in premenopausal women. “After all, we menstruate for 35 to 45 years of our lives.”
Encouraging open discussion about menstruation needs to start early, and currently there are few positive, much less factual, messages about menstruation available to girls. It is covered cursorily in most provinces in grades 4 or 5 but not in Quebec, which has no sex-ed program. Roadblocks can also pop up in places like the library: In June, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a paper exploring the ongoing censorship of adolescent literature that mentions menstruation. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is still censored, not for its descriptions of the Holocaust but because of the author’s discussion of menstruation.
“The way girls learn about menstruation is strictly in a physical sense and not as a meaning-making experience,” Fahs says. “We need to teach them to value their cycles as intuitive and necessary, rather than denying them.” One way to change attitudes is to change the negative associations around menstruation, especially when it comes to its product requirements, she says. She’d like to replace the term “feminine hygiene” with “menstrual products” and see stores stop stocking them next to diapers. “It should be less about management, hygiene or cleanup — and they should be in the sexual health section, or near other kinds of beauty products, like shampoo and deodorant.” Fahs is also a proponent of reusable menstrual cups, like the Canadian-made DivaCup, an eco-friendly alternative to the 300 pounds of pads and tampons the average woman will throw away in her lifetime.
Last year, Paula Kragten, a Dutch journalist, launched an online magazine called Period! in order to get people talking about menstruation. The site was so popular, she launched an English version in July. “My interest in the topic started when I was young because of the confusing mixed messages I was getting: ‘You are a woman now, you can have babies!’ at the same time as ‘Try to hide that you’re menstruating. It’s filthy, you should be ashamed.’ Twenty-five years later, it hit me that girls still feel ashamed.”
Since Kragten launched Period!, the biggest shock to her has been the lack of knowledge girls — and women — have about menstruation. She has fielded questions ranging from whether it’s safe to swim in the ocean on your period (yes, sharks can also smell sweat and urine, so they’ll be on to you anyway) and whether a tampon can get lost inside your body (no, women’s bodies are not the Bermuda Triangle) to whether it’s okay to have sex while menstruating (yes, an orgasm might even relieve cramps). “I thought education wouldn’t be necessary anymore,” Kragten says. “But questions from our readers show that girls are lacking basic anatomical knowledge — some really believe that they pee and menstruate through the same opening.”
Kragten says we need to teach girls a lot more a lot sooner and, considering that most girls get their first glimpse of menstruation through advertising, that we should challenge marketers to rethink their approach. “In most menstrual ads, the message to women is that unpleasant odours and leakage stains are the worst things that can happen to you,” she says. “We give our daughters the wrong message. Women should know by now that they do humanity a favour by menstruating. Without menstruation, no babies, no future.”