When I first got my period, I was in the bathroom of a supermarket. An awkward 12-year-old, I looked down at my underwear and was horrified and confused. Though I knew that I was menstruating, I didn’t know why or how. I just knew that it was considered disgusting, felt I had done something terribly wrong and kept it a secret until I was forced, out of necessity, to confide in my mother. Looking back, I realize how awful it was to be so embarrassed about a natural process. Menarche shouldn’t have to be a traumatic or shameful event.
But it’s what society, through negative messages about women’s cycles and grossed-out responses to any mention of menses, tells us to feel. Instagram recently censored artist Rupi Kaur for posting a picture of herself in bed with a period stain. According to Kaur, the photo-sharing company deleted the photo — twice — because it didn’t follow the site’s community standards. Ironically, the photo was part of an art project challenging the social stigma around periods.
Instagram’s regressive stance is just the most recent example of how our cultural gatekeepers frown on any evidence of menstruation. A photo series of menstrual blood published this month at Cosmopolitan.com was labeled “not suitable for work,” even though none of the images were graphic. In an op-ed published in The Guardian earlier this year, writer Rose George pointed out the absurdity of criticizing female athletes for mentioning their periods, even if they cause pain and discomfort that negatively affect their performance.
Kaur and her supporters pointed out that Instagram allows women to share highly sexual pictures. The company’s decision to censor an image of period blood sent the message that women’s bodies are acceptable — if they’re sexually desirable. That hypocrisy is reflected in the many men I’ve known who will gladly watch violent movies or play homicidal video games yet are disgusted by the idea of menstruation. In this way, the menstruation taboo, like body shaming, is a deeply ingrained form of misogyny. We won’t eliminate hateful behavior toward women until we reject the notion that this biological form of bleeding is shameful.
It’s because of such stigma that young women — including my younger self — are conditioned to believe that getting a period stain in public is one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to them. (The “humiliating” period storiesfrequently published in teen and women’s magazines are practically a genre in itself.) It’s also why we have so many euphemisms and unflattering terms for menstruation: Aunt Flow, riding the crimson wave, the rag, the curse, on the blob, etc.
But nearly every woman I know has had a menstrual mishap, an accident at school or at work. Most of us have been stranded in public with no tampons or sanitary napkins. Some of us have even had the unfortunate experience of dropping our brimming Diva Cups, reusable silicone products used to collect menstrual blood. These accidents are unpleasant and inconvenient, but why can’t we simply accept them as we would, say, spilling coffee on our pants?
Luckily, we’re seeing a lot of pushback — some of it in the public spotlight. On May 6, Larry Wilmore of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show” hosted a panel in which he and his guests discussed menstruation in response to a Time op-ed that argued that Hillary Clinton is fit for the presidency because she’s postmenopausal and therefore stronger and more energetic. Wilmore rightfully mocked this notion of a woman’s menstrual cycle as a debilitating handicap. As one of the panel members, Nicole Wallace — a former communications director for George W. Bush — succinctly put it, “Yes, I worked in the White House. And yes, every 28 days I bled, but the country went on.”
To fully respect women, we must stop perceiving menstruation as repulsive and embrace it as a natural process. A teenage boy, Jose Garcia, is doing just that: He has become popular on Instagram after posting a picture of himself holding menstruation pads and encouraging other boys to support girls and women by carrying them too. “My inspiration didn’t come from one source only but just from day-to-day things that have happened around me, like a friend staining her pants or feeling uncomfortable to ask for a sweater to tie around their waist because their pants are stained,” Garcia said in an interview with The Daily Dot. A self-identified feminist, he believes that encouraging boys and men to carry feminine products can help end menstruation stigma.
So will awareness and education efforts such as today’s Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated by organizations around the world to break the silence around women’s hygiene needs. Menstrual hygiene advocacy is critical not only because women in the U.S. and abroad are shamed for having their periods but also because many lack access to the necessary products to manage them. A petition started earlier this month by Australian university student Subeta Vimalarajah to end the government’s tax on pads and tampons similarly draws attention to the systemic dismissal of such products as less necessary than sunscreen or nicotine patches, which are considered important health goods and are thus tax-free.
As for me, it wasn’t until I took a course on reproductive health at a local women’s clinic in college that I fully understood what went on each month in my uterus. I was no longer ashamed or embarrassed. I felt incredibly lucky to learn the amazing things my body was doing every month. It’s time for others — women and men alike — to embrace them as well.