My mother calls it Little Red Riding Hood. Others call it the visitor, albeit one that has a habit of showing up unannounced. Every euphemism for menstruation is an attempt to erase it — from our minds, our media and our social consciousness. Words like ‘whisper’, ‘secret’ and ‘discreet’ appear like conspicuous stains on adverts and packaging for tampons and pads. It seems that the language of periods perpetuates a culture of secrecy and concealment. Every mention of periods becomes a way to avoid their existence.
Instead of being recognized as something as mundane and natural as eating or breathing, periods are seen as an embarrassing, dirty secret. Pads are stashed away in pretty floral boxes, out of sight inside one’s purse. Visiting the bathroom during class in order to change a pad or tampon requires awkwardly lugging your bag along simply because it’s the discreet thing to do. Everything about menstruation is difficult, from stomach cramps to mood swings to unfair social stigma.
Growing up, I could never go to pray at the temple if I was on my period. Neither could I touch the holy books or idols during the morning prayers in our home. In the more rural areas of India, menstruating females are not allowed to enter the kitchen, in case the food gets contaminated. In the Republic of Suriname, menstrual blood is believed to be dangerous and makes the woman more vulnerable to the effects of black magic. These persistent taboos surrounding menstruation all have similar connotations: periods are a mark of shame and impurity, almost akin to a curse.
Because periods are so inextricably linked to the process of becoming a woman, young girls begin to associate their maturing bodies with impurity and misfortune. This almost attacks the very idea of femininity, as if menstruation is the soiled baggage, the dirty taint, that comes with being a woman. It’s an incredibly self-destructive way of thinking.
In the feminist novel How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran writes that periods are considered repulsive simply because they belong to women: “[We live] in a culture where nearly everything female is still seen as squeam-inducing, and/or weak.”
In truth, having regular periods is a sign of strength and good health — not only do they indicate a female’s ability to reproduce and create life, but also act as a vital sign, suggesting that the body is functioning well.
Aside from presenting a physical, emotional and socio-cultural burden to women, periods are also economically disadvantageous. In many places, sanitary hygiene products are heavily taxed or overpriced. This begs the question: why are condoms often distributed for free while women are always charged for pads and tampons, particularly on educational campuses? Considering that sexual intercourse is a choice while menstruating is not, this makes no sense whatsoever; it reflects the harmful sexist attitude that society holds toward periods.
On a more positive note, NYU New York recently announced that it would begin providing free menstrual products throughout its campus by the end of February. This is a positive first step toward invoking a more normalized discourse on periods, not only at NYU but also at college campuses worldwide.
The fight to transform the language of periods to one that is free of shame and secrecy, and depicts positivity and acceptance, is currently being spearheaded by menstrual education researcher Chella Quint. She runs a magazine titled Adventures in Menstruating that aims to fight the negative stereotypes and connotations that periods evoke, as part of a larger destigmatization campaign called the #periodpositive project.
“Yeah, periods can be a pain in the uterus, but sometimes it’s nice, and sometimes it’s simply no big deal,” Quint said.
In other words, sometimes women bleed and that’s okay — it’s time the world got over it.
Image by Shenuka Corea, The Gazelle