Taboo Means Menstruation

The stigma around menstruation is feeding a cycle of silent oppression.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Emily Tan

Menstruation is the ultimate taboo. Quite literally. The word taboo traces back to the Polynesian word “tapua,” meaning menstrual blood. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the link between menstruation and ovulation was understood. Before there was a conclusive scientific understanding, people associated periods with the supernatural. Theories about the abilities of menstruating women ranged from bending swords and dimming mirrors with mere glances to killing crops with their touch. Though theories alluding to witchcraft are no longer abundant, the taboo of menstruation persists today as misinformation continues to circulate.

If anything, menstruation is a testament to a woman’s strength, in that she can continue with her daily life in a state of constant bleeding and pain. However, the stigmatization of periods internalizes shame for this process. This shame is exemplified every time a girl walks down a hallway attempting to conceal a pad in the waistband of her black leggings or whispers to a friend about needing to go tend to her “monthly visitor.” In Ghana, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, 20 percent of girls miss school because they lack period products or are afraid of someone finding out they are on their periods.

A great deal of this insecurity is invoked by the media. Multiple mainstream news channels refused to air an ad made by Thinx (a period-proof underwear company) that featured blood-stained sheets and a tampon string hanging out from the side of underwear in 2019. The concept of menstrual health being photographed and discussed so openly is considered radical, revolting, and graphic. Advertisements that are allowed to air use blue dishwasher soap solutions to show absorbancy rather than red solutions that resemble blood. Often, they feature women frolicking through fields of flowers as though cramps are just a walk in the park. Concealment of accurate menstrual information in the media shields overall understanding of the complex female reproductive system.

For example, when Hillary Clinton ran for president, some men considered her biology as grounds for political incapability. They joked, “They call us sexist just because we are critical of Hillary Clinton and her health. What if that time of month comes, and she is sick at the same time?” This concern was senseless for many reasons. Not only does menstruation have no effect on logical reasoning, but Hillary Clinton was 68 years old when she ran in 2016 and had almost certainly hit menopause by then. An incomplete understanding of female biology caused by the stigma surrounding women’s health paves a path for misogyny and downplays the capabilities of women to basic hormonal tendencies. “It must be that time of the month” is a phrase commonly used to devalue women’s emotions and suggest that men are more rational.

Since open discussion around menstrual health is such a taboo and often considered radical and shameful, issues like the unaffordability of hygiene products frequently go unaddressed. Thirty U.S. states still have the tampon tax, a tax on menstrual hygiene products as luxury items. While soap, deodorant, toilet paper, and diapers are all taxed at the general merchandise rate under the “necessary” category, tampons and pads are grouped with “luxury” goods like jewelry and perfume. This categorization insinuates that overcoming the discomfort and messiness of menstruation is not a hygienic priority.

Even without the tampon tax, menstrual hygiene products cost an average of $7 a box. Due to the high prices, one in four women struggles to pay for pads or tampons at least once in her lifetime. The issue is most severe for homeless women, who do not have the financial capability to pay for menstrual hygiene products. Oftentimes, women must resort to layering toilet paper that is not nearly absorbent enough or cutting out cardboard and rags, which is unsanitary and extremely uncomfortable. Without proper menstrual hygiene, the risks of toxic shock syndrome and infections are high.

The shame surrounding menstruation restrains women psychologically. Ignorance around the subject has impacts ranging from misogynistic politics to the reduced availability and affordability of essential hygiene products. Caring for one’s body should not be priced like a luxury, and a phenomenon that half the population undergoes monthly should not be a taboo topic. To start chipping away at the taboo, we have to circulate education regarding both the biology of menstruation and the social impacts of menstrual oppression through schools and among family and friends. Periods are already painful; no one should have to bleed in silence and shame.