Toronto Star

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.”

 ?? JESSE WINTER STAR METRO FILE PHOTO ?? A 2021 study found those who experience­d “period poverty” were more likely to report moderate to severe depression than those who had access to menstrual products.
JESSE WINTER STAR METRO FILE PHOTO A 2021 study found those who experience­d “period poverty” were more likely to report moderate to severe depression than those who had access to menstrual products.

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