Menstruation: Reducing the Stigma
Originally Published: September 10, 2019
Revised: January 10, 2020
We were midway through water polo practice, coming off of a grueling swim set and transitioning to ball work. The coach signaled us over and began explaining our next drill. I pushed myself out of the pool. Standing among my co-ed teammates, I noticed a trickle of watered-down red liquid accumulate in a small puddle by my feet. My face turned bright red and I crossed my legs in shame. Did anyone notice? I started to panic; I was humiliated and didn’t know what to do.
Stigma around menstruation strongly influences those of us who get our period. However, if we can educate kids early on about puberty and encourage open conversations around physical and sexual health, we can normalize menstruation and create an environment in which menstruating individuals can feel less shame and freely participate in all aspects of life.
Education for all students about the biology of menstruation can reduce stigma and help normalize it.
Shame and Stigma
“When I first got my period, I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want people to know,” says Anne, 16, of Asheville, NC. “The reason for that was because of the stigma.” Anne’s experience is a relatable one. The association of menstruation as “dirty” or “gross” has caused girls, women and anyone who menstruates to be ashamed of their bodies and encouraged them to manage their periods—a natural bodily function—discreetly. Anne says, “Even before I got my period, I was ashamed.” This is a reflection of mainstream American culture’s relationship with menstruation. When people think about their periods, most of the time, “they don’t think about ovulation or the fact that they’re losing the lining of their uterus each month, they think about the shame, looking for the best ways to conceal their periods,” says Meridian, 15, of Houston. Sadly, the stigma surrounding menstruation has transformed an amazing biological process that allows for reproduction into a source of embarrassment for many people.
Why Can’t We Talk About It?
I attend a co-ed, conservative K-12 school. Last year, two female students started a service project that collected period products for a local women’s shelter. When they attempted to publicize it by taping posters with the words “tampon,” “pad” and “period” around school, administrators took the posters down. They told the students to change the wording to “women’s products,” which administrators said would minimize the risk of awkward questions posed to teachers and responses that might “embarrass” the children. But discouraging conversations about periods only increases stigma. Plus, making a subject that kids and teens have questions about more hush-hush can diminish self-esteem, undermine confidence and even discourage participation in activities.
Meridian offers a classic example of how this stigma keeps people from engaging in activities: “When I was in sixth grade, I was so scared of bleeding through my tampon that I didn’t go to a pool party.” Though the odds of that happening were low, the thought of bleeding through her tampon was so terrifying that she decided against going to the party altogether.
Maya, 17 of Belmont, MA, highlights another potential reason for menstrual stigma: “unrelatability.” She says that her embarrassment increases around those who don’t menstruate. “Although I feel like it shouldn’t,” says Maya. “Possibly it’s because I know they can’t relate to having the same experience.” When we can’t experience something, it makes it harder to sympathize with someone who does. This leads to this question: why shouldn’t everyone be taught about menstruation? A lack of understanding about periods can feed ignorance.
Getting your period is normal. Education for all students about the biology of menstruation can reduce stigma and help normalize it. Conversations at a young age about puberty and sexual health are extremely important. If we can make kids more comfortable speaking about their physical and sexual health, we can foster a culture in which we can speak more freely about menstruation. By teaching, practicing and surrounding ourselves with body positivity, we can learn to be comfortable with ourselves, helping us to accept and celebrate our bodies and overcome stigma.
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