Period Politics

Women should not have to choose between putting food on the table and managing their period.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Shame is a powerful, destructive emotion, and so much shame is associated with menstruation. Shame fuels the instinct to bury that box of tampons at the bottom of the shopping cart, to furtively dart into bathrooms, to speak in hushed voices. The extent to which period shaming affects women and girls varies from culture to culture, but it exists in all of them.

A study commissioned by THINX, a company that strives to empower menstruating women and shed light on the effect that the period shaming culture in America has on women. A 58 percent majority of the women surveyed had felt embarrassed just from being on their period. A whopping 73 percent admitted to having concealed a pad or tampon when going to the bathroom. An episode of the podcast “Ladies, We Need to Talk” brought up the fact that when girls in grade school were asked about what they thought could improve their period experience, the overwhelming majority replied that they wanted “menstrual products where the wrappers don’t make any sound.”

A large part of the issue surrounding menstruation is that it is kept hidden from the public. When photographer Rupi Kaur posted a photo of a woman boasting a large red stain on her pants on Instagram, the popular social media app had it deleted. Twice. The rationale behind removing the photo was that it had breached Instagram’s community guidelines, which prohibit “sexual content.”

Ironically, it was this censorship that exposed the twisted ideals that are being upheld by the media. Kaur argued that periods were not listed under sexual content in the guidelines. She then proceeded to call out Instagram’s lax enforcement of their community guidelines in the cases of the plenitude of borderline pornographic posts on the social media site, while they had deleted her photo of nothing more graphic than a period stain. She addressed the inconsistencies in the standards that our misogynistic society places on women’s bodies, where people are more comfortable seeing a woman and her body sexualized and dehumanized than they are witnessing a natural function of that same body.

In addition, many workplaces disfavor and disregard the needs of menstruating women. Recently, U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney had his office purchase tampons for the use of employees and visitors and was reprimanded by the Committee on House Administration for using their funds to do so. In his Twitter statement addressing this situation, he expressed his disbelief by saying that “members [of the House of Representatives] spend their office budgets on all kinds of crazy things...but the one thing [they] cannot do, apparently...is treat women with the same respect and dignity.”

The stigma surrounding periods that promotes discrimination against women occurs to an even more severe degree in developing countries. In India, menstruating women are prohibited from entering temples and offering prayers. They are also forbidden from preparing food or even entering the kitchen for fear that they will contaminate it.

In Nepal, many Hindu followers practice chhaupadi, the tradition of exiling women from their homes during their period. They are forced to dwell outside in small huts in solitude for the entire length of their periods. Unfortunately, the dangers of this practice are plenty, and many women are attacked by wild animals, raped, or killed during their exile.

Lack of proper reproductive education is also a factor in periods being so heavily stigmatized in Nepal and other developing countries. Of the population of women in these countries, very few have knowledge of menstruation or menstrual hygiene prior to getting their first period. The shame that menstruating women are told to feel breeds a culture of silence that perpetuates the lack of awareness surrounding periods and is meant to oppress them. Equipping women with knowledge of why they menstruate and how they can manage their periods will help them break through the taboos that limit and degrade them.

Modern methods of managing menstruation have made it possible for women to navigate their lives without their periods being a hindrance. It is commonly said that American women experience the “modern period,” which was defined by Lara Freidenfelds, the woman who coined the term as “the idea that your body does not undermine your ability to be productive at school or at work.” But not all women have equal access to these means.

Pads and tampons are often inaccessible to women in poverty. Homeless women living on the streets must resort to fashioning pads and tampons out of toilet paper they find in public bathrooms, their socks, or scraps of newspaper. These methods of managing their periods are unsanitary and dangerous, as they will often lead to reproductive tract infections. Homeless women in shelters don’t have much more access to menstrual hygiene products since most people don’t think to donate them. In many cases, if these women find themselves out of luck, they resort to stealing these products.

According to an Always survey, one out of every five American girls have had to miss school or leave early from school because they did not have access to feminine hygiene products. These girls must miss out on experiences that are critical for their development as students and thus are at a disadvantage in school and for the rest of their lives. Menstrual products being inaccessible for so many girls perpetuates the cycle of poverty and inequality that traps impoverished women.

The price of tampons and pads is steepened by the sales tax that 36 states in the U.S. levy on all feminine hygiene products. In every state, there is also a list of items that qualify as necessities and is exempt from this sales tax. This list includes Fruit Roll-Ups, while products that are necessary for women to manage their periods hygienically are deemed not essential enough for tax exemption. Pads and tampons should be considered medical necessities because of the crucial need for them in managing menstruation and the hindrance that menstruation becomes for girls and women who don’t have access to these products. Women should not have to choose between putting food on the table and managing their periods.

Also, these products are called “sanitary products” because they are, in fact, a huge help in minimizing the harm of free-flowing blood. Bloodborne pathogens are dangerous for everyone, not just women. When women can’t access feminine hygiene products and must stain themselves, not only is their own health at risk, but also the health of everyone around them.

A movement against the “tampon tax” has gained support over the past few years, led by many of the recently elected female legislators. California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia has been pushing a bill for replacing the tax on menstrual hygiene products with a higher tax on liquor. Grace Meng, U.S. Congresswoman representing New York areas and a Stuyvesant alumna, has introduced multiple bills aimed at breaking barriers that prevent impoverished women from succeeding and furthering women's health. The Menstrual Equity for All Act that she introduced called for tax reimbursements for feminine hygiene products for women in poverty and granted funds given to homeless shelters to be used to purchase those products, among other demands. She also recently introduced the Menstrual Products Right to Know Act for the requirement of ingredient labels on feminine hygiene products so that these ingredients are studied more closely to inform women of what exactly they are putting in their bodies. As the number of women in our legislature increases, so does the action taken to resolve issues in menstrual equity. In the largely male dominated legislative body, issues in women’s health and rights will only be addressed if women are represented in legislature.

Periods may never be a completely comfortable topic of discussion, but it is important that they are discussed. Avoiding this conversation is an injustice to all the girls and women who, due to their inability to afford these products, must surrender their right to a steady education, endanger their health, and, on top of it all, feel that they can’t voice their experiences. In creating discussion about these injustices, more people are made aware of the issue of menstrual inequity, and more efforts will be made to remedy it. Normalizing periods so that women no longer have to be ashamed of their body and its functions, perhaps through acknowledging menstruation on social media, will aid in making advancements in menstrual health. Periods aren’t just an issue for women, but they are an issue in our politics.