Combating centuries of menstrual stigma
Framing periods as a problem demands a solution, experts say
Most women spend their whole lives pretending they don’t have a period.
Girls are taught the art of concealment early: how to avoid leaks, how to sneak a tampon into their pocket on the way to the bathroom, the utility of a strategically wrapped sweatshirt to avoid post-seep humiliation.
For centuries, periods have remained stubbornly taboo. Half the world’s population menstruates and yet no one really wants to talk about it. When they do, it’s often quietly or through euphemism. Generations of women have been conditioned to believe their periods are disgusting or shameful, which has consequences for women’s bodies, health-care decisions, sex lives and overall well-being.
“Even those of us who have access to materials, even those of us who identify as feminists, even those of us who can talk period-positive, we are still soaked in shame,” said Christina Bobel, a gender professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and an expert in critical menstruation studies. “That’s the genius of menstrual stigma. It’s under our skin. It really doesn’t leave. No one is immune.”
In America and elsewhere around the globe, menstruation is conceptualized as a problem rather than as a healthy bodily process. Framing menstruation as a problem, experts say, demands a solution and the solution people have been offered is better access to feminine products. But some experts argue this doesn’t address the underlying causes of menstrual stigma, which have roots in misogyny and have been exploited by corporations.
“I’m cranky about these pads and other product-focused menstrual campaigns because I don’t think they fundamentally challenge menstrual stigma,” Bobel said. “Menstrual stigma is what sets in motion this necessity of menstrual concealment.”
‘I want to build a world in which a leak is not social suicide’
There is an absolute necessity for every person who menstruates to have access to menstrual care.
Many can’t afford or lack access to menstrual products, and this can impact their health and mental well-being. A 2021 study found those who experienced “period poverty” were more likely to report moderate to severe depression than those who had access to materials.
But the way people talk about menstrual care, experts say, is often framed by stigma.
“I’m not saying that people don’t have a right to experience their periods without leaking. However, I want to build a world in which a leak is not social suicide,” Bobel said. “So I leaked through my tampon? That’s uncomfortable, but I’m not going to be horrified. I’m not going to be humiliated. People aren’t going to point at me. People aren’t going to presume I’m a dirty girl and that I’m not respectable.”
Trans and gender-nonconforming people who menstruate face additional stigma. Many find themselves othered everywhere from doctors’ offices to public restrooms. Research on menstruation and stigma focuses almost exclusively on cisgender women.
Elissa Stein, co-author of “Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation,” said menstruation was always treated as something taboo, especially before it was fully understood.
“There are all these stories about menstruation that were negative because people were afraid of something that was unknown and unexplainable. The ancient world thought that women who were menstruating could destroy crops, could bring storms at sea. Could break mirrors. There was always this negative connotation, and shame and fear.”
Stein said the feminine hygiene industry exploits centuries-old cultural attitudes about women’s periods in order to sell products.
“Their approach is, ‘We’ll help you keep your secret. We know how embarrassing it is. We know how shameful it is. We know how uncomfortable it is. And you don’t want anybody to know. You come with us and we’ll make sure that people don’t find out,’ ” she said.
Separating material needs from social pressures
Bobel said it’s important to separate the reality of what people need to manage their periods from social forces that fuel shame and secrecy.
Misogyny, she said, devalues the female body and seeks to control it. Racism demands a higher standard of respectability for Black women, which exacts a higher social cost from them when they don’t conceal their periods. Capitalism markets feminine products in ways that suggest menstruation be entirely inconspicuous. Neocolonialism exports this western “solution” to girls all around the world, Bobel argues.
But experts say there are many ways to manage a period that don’t include single-use products.
“There’s sort of this presumption that everybody wants hyper concealment and everybody wants something they can throw away, and everybody wants to be quiet about their periods. And everybody wants to be more like American teenagers,” Bobel said. “I wanted to at least hit pause and question that, and just not roll forward with this assumption that that’s the ideal.”
Experts call for more ‘menstrual literacy’
Combating period stigma is an enormous project.
“It’s like this giant wall has been erected and it’s taking down one brick at a time,” Stein said. “It’s your own awareness when you’re uncomfortable. It’s having conversations with others and raising kids who feel more comfortable about their bodies.”
Bobel said there needs to be innovation around much more than access to products. She calls for more “menstrual literacy,” so people can learn how their bodies work and make informed decisions about how to care for them free of shame.
“From the trivial to the serious, it really sets in motion a different kind of relationship to the body. Because right now, particularly for women and girls, we see our bodies as problems to be solved. But the body is a sight of pleasure, of power, of potential. Menstrual stigma suppresses curiosity and it keeps us locked in our own sort of private misery. Menstrual literacy sets in motion an entirely different engagement with the body.”