The untimely arrival of my period came on a Sunday morning in the middle of a church service. A boy sitting behind me kindly told me there was, “Something on my pants. In case I wanted to know.” I was humiliated and called my mom, sobbing. I spent years in shame, using any terminology to avoid the p-word. “Aunt Flow” or “time of the month” became a code word amongst me and other embarrassed classmates who mastered the art of passing pads and tampons between each other in the middle of math class, a slight-of-hand trick that became the staple of a club we joined upon the arrival of that fateful day.
This hush-hush attitude towards menstruation is as old as time. We see evidence of ancient cultural shame in the Bible, Quran, and even the 73 AD Latin Encyclopedia. Quran 2:222 says, “go apart from women during the month course, do not approach them until they are clean.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke share the story of Jesus healing a woman who bled for 12 years, “And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse,” Mark 5:25-26. The Latin Encyclopedia says, “Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren … the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air.” This negative attitude has carried into the modern day.
The Public Health Advocate journal at Berkeley writes, “Because of the taboos surrounding menstruation in many parts of the world, there is a significant lack of health education resources available to people about the menstrual cycle. It is this lack of knowledge that fuels myths which ostracize and humiliate women during their monthly cycles.” These myths and assumptions perpetuate a cycle of shame surrounding menstruation.
The stigmatization of periods around the world has deeper affects than solely the shame of getting your period. A recent documentary, “Period,” highlights the extreme effects of stigmatization and lack of education surrounding menstruation. Women are unable to attend school — either because their families pull them out, or because menstruation makes it unmanageable. In many parts of Ghana, women cannot enter a house with a man if they are menstruating. In some parts of Venezuela, women must sleep in an entirely separate place while on their period. The pain of periods digs so much deeper than just the physical effects, and so much of that is rooted in the deep stigma.
Because these stigmas are so harmful, we as a society, must work to destigmatize menstruation. We all play a role in reducing the shame surrounding a normal and natural part of a woman’s life. Women already spend so much time dealing with the numerous struggles that come with our period: bloating, acne, mood swings, depression, cramps, migraines, heavy flow, and adjusting our plans to accommodate. It should not be an issue to say the words ‘period,’ ‘tampon,’ and ‘pad.’ Periods allow women to create life. Why must women be ashamed for carrying out a life-giving function? By opening up the conversation, so much of the pain of periods can be relieved. It is not shameful to menstruate, so it should not be shameful to talk about it.