I saw a meme that made me question femininity within society, and the role of periods and menstruation. The meme said something along the lines of ‘2020s the year that women carry their tampons out in the open.’ For some reason, this seemingly simple line struck a nerve.
Over the years, society has built up this pressure and stigma around periods, especially in university settings. I feel so uncomfortable publicly carrying my tampon to the bathroom or purchasing tampons. Whether this is just me or not, there is a stigma because let’s face it: we don’t talk about periods. At its core, periods are only a biological component of the female anatomy. To me, having my period is like digestion. So why don’t we talk about their importance for reproductive purposes? I remember getting my period for the first time at age 13 and feeling nothing but sheer embarrassment. I didn’t want to tell my mom, and in public spaces, I tried to pretend that it just didn’t exist or wasn’t happening. Why did I feel so embarrassed? Periods and the process of menstruation, are quite a vital aspect of our bodies and are what allow us a society to reproduce. Those who do not have their period never learn to understand or normalize them. But let’s be honest: ignorant men are not the reason for the stigma surrounding periods, and if I’m frank, I cannot determine what that is.
There is a massive difference in people discussing periods if they experience them, versus someone who doesn’t. With my housemates, we talk about our periods casually, but when someone who has never had or never will have a period enters the conversation, the vibe shifts. There is tension, and a sense of awkwardness on everyone’s part. No one is to blame for this; it is just a result of the misrepresentation of periods in the media, and the bad rep they receive.
Media outlets, movies, and television inaccurately represent periods and menstruation in a comedic or demeaning manner. Using ‘PMS,’ which stands for the premenstrual syndrome, as an excuse for changes of behaviour, perpetuates a comedic mindset towards periods, which in turn normalizes an inaccurate societal understanding of periods. PMS affects people in vastly different ways, many of which are painful and make life very difficult for a while every month. I’m not saying that it is terrible to joke about periods – believe me, I’ve made my fair share of period jokes. However, it also needs to be recognized that frequently, TV and movies won’t show you the whole story or experience of periods. I do love when periods get exposure, such as that. However, I find it difficult to see something glamorized, which is a trigger or a legitimate health problem for someone. The pressure placed on young women and girls surrounding getting their period in mass media makes the culture of periods hostile and a challenging environment for girls to grow up in.
To put it bluntly, we don’t make a big deal about men growing facial hair – when these are one in the same thing since they mark a step of puberty. However, society sees facial hair as a sign of strength and masculinity, which contrasts the mindset of women’s periods being shameful and uncleanly. I recognize that not all women can get their periods – it is just not possible for trans women, and many health conditions do not allow some women to menstruate. I want to emphasize that this is not a universal experience that having a period equates to womanhood. However, it is one of a thousand factors that dictate gender. This all ties back to gender inequality, which is a structural issue embedded into cultural, political and economic practices globally.
Further, cis women aren’t the only people that can have a period. The concept of gender has evolved drastically over the years, as people begin to recognize that the concept of gender is fluid. You don’t need to be a cis woman to menstruate, get pregnant, need an abortion or need access to birth control. In fact, some trans men and non-binary people are capable of menstruating. The previous constraints of gender no longer exist. With this in mind, I want to clarify that period culture needs to be normalized but also adjusted to reflect society and the people who experience periods.
As a Canadian woman, I am so grateful for the rights and liberties afforded to me, particularly as a woman. In particular, Canada is a country that is actively working to provide equal rights to anyone, no matter their gender, race, religion, ethnicity and class. Our nation is imperfect, and we still have a long way to go. Yet, normalizing the multiplicity of people that menstruate will helpfully continue to allow our society or grow and learn.
I am thankful to those who came before me and fought for equality. These privileges enable me to see myself as a holistic person who lives a full life and has the added ability to bear children – rather than merely a vessel to carry children. It’s crucial to understand different cultural perspectives on periods and what they often symbolize in a young girl’s life. I think it’s important to realize that periods have different representations globally.
There is a stark contrast between western societies’ view of periods as unclean and something to be hidden compared to that of regions such as Africa and the Middle East where menstruation is generally viewed more positively, as it signifies that start of a girl becoming a woman. Ironically, in areas where birth control and abortion are not as normalized as a Western society, they are generally much more open about periods. Religion and cultural norms in various regions around the world often account for the stigma around periods. Still, they are not the only factors to consider. Government and social culture play considerable roles in dictating the stigma surrounding menstruation.
Each of these factors – the media, religion, government and cultural norms – contribute to the stigma surrounding periods. In the early twentieth century, periods used to be a time of modesty and privacy for women and leading up to the feminist revolution, this was the case – unfortunately, sometimes still is the case. But I don’t want that.
I want to be able to say that I’m having cramps without someone looking at me like I’m crazy.
I want to carry a tampon to the bathroom without people staring at me.
I want to normalize period culture.
Let me be clear: it is time to change.
Breaking down barriers and sparking conversations around menstruation starts with debunking some typical period misconceptions and discussing how young people can be educated to normalize menstruation. ‘Periods are dirty and gross,’ is a classic line from someone who doesn’t understand periods – I find TV shows to be especially wrong with this false claim. FYI: when women are on their period, blood isn’t just flowing out of them. As long as women are using sanitary products (pads, tampons or diva cups), they are usually sanitary. For me, my period is never fun to deal with or experience. But I wouldn’t deem the experience gross. I find my period to be super manageable. I would not consider myself any more or less clean, whether I am on my period or not.
I don’t want to feel ashamed or embarrassed about my period. I usually feel awkward because I feel like other people are ashamed of me for having my period. But to be perfectly honest, I’m not embarrassed at all! I’m so proud to be a woman and have my period because it’s healthy. I only feel shameful because society tells me that I should be.
To all the readers who feel disgusted when a woman brings up her period: it’s time to stop. Don’t laugh or get uncomfortable and awkward. Instead, I challenge you to support that person silently by validating their feelings and alleviating them of the embarrassment. I struggled to write this article because I know that I can’t speak on behalf of all women – I can only speak to my personal experience. Ultimately, I just want periods to be normalized. I’m not the only person who gets them, and it’s a part of my everyday life. Periods don’t need to have a stigma surrounding them because, honestly, it’s not me who feels uncomfortable; instead, it’s the people who are uneducated or don’t understand menstruation. No matter if you have your period or not, it is vital to educate yourself and understand periods. Like many social other issues, it is increasingly important to educate yourself and be an ally. Let’s educate ourselves, understand menstruation, and let’s normalize periods.
FEATURE PHOTO BY: Nicolette Shwarzman