In 5th grade, I remember being split up into two separate rooms, one for girls and one for boys. The girls all sat in my elementary school’s all-purpose room and watched as the school nurse wheeled in a TV. We were told that our bodies were changing and that we would slowly start to get our periods — a term for which the number of euphemisms was endless. We were taught about pads and tampons and were given large paper bags to conceal them. But one of the most important things they emphasized was not to tell the boys what we had talked about.
All through my middle school years, periods were a taboo topic. If you needed to take menstrual supplies into the bathroom with you, you’d have to take it in a purse because it was too embarrassing not to. The time someone dropped a pad on the hallway floor, people walked around it as if it was a disease they would catch if they got too close. This continued into high school, where if we needed menstrual supplies, we’d ask one another in hushed voices. The dispensers in the bathrooms just took your money, without providing actual menstrual supplies. So, if our friends didn’t have any, we’d have to ask to go to the nurse’s office because it was a “girl thing.”
Menstruation in the U.S. — and worldwide, for that matter — is unnecessarily stigmatized. My experiences in elementary, middle and high school outline quite a few problems: the emphasis of the gender binary in menstruation, the idea that menstruation is something that men should not hear about, the idea that menstruation is something to be ashamed of and hidden, the way people act like menstruating is a disease rather than a biological process and the fact that many schools do not provide menstrual supplies to students which impairs education and adds to period inequity in our society.
The overarching attitude regarding menstruation should not be this way — everyone should learn about menstruation in order to deconstruct the stigma surrounding it. Much of this change in attitude would come from more comprehensive education in schools about menstruation along with better sex and reproductive health education.
According to Planned Parenthood’s recent poll regarding sex education, 93% of parents support having sex education taught in middle schools and 96% of parents support having sex education taught in high schools. This clearly shows that most parents do support sex education in schools. However, although it is widely supported, it is not a requirement that sex education is taught across the country, and specifics regarding the topics covered vary depending on the school district. Often, menstrual health is not a subject taught in health and sex education classes.
Rather than teaching menstrual health, many schools are relying on campaigns by companies that manufacture menstrual products such as Always to educate children instead. This is not a new idea either. In the 1940s, the company Kotex collaborated with Walt Disney to create a film called “The Story of Menstruation.” Although it was helpful in debunking certain myths regarding menstruation and teaching those who menstruate about their reproductive system, it also very likely contributed to ideas regarding menstrual shame and stigma that are still prevalent today. Leaving menstruation education to companies that sell menstrual supplies is not the best choice.
Menstruation is a natural, biological process and people who menstruate should not have to speak about it in whispers and feel ashamed about it. When those who do not menstruate are left out of the conversation, more myths regarding menstruation spread. This creates a detrimental cycle with dire consequences of body image issues for those who menstruate as well as how others treat them.
Creating a more comprehensive reproductive health curriculum country-wide would greatly benefit everyone. In addition to this, however, menstrual inequity in the U.S. must be addressed as well, especially in schools.
Currently, only five states require schools to provide menstrual products for students. California was the most recent state to pass such legislation in October. The legislation applies to both public schools and certain colleges. This is a great step forward, however this must be a widespread effort, not one concentrated in only five states.
A recent study found that almost a quarter of students in the U.S. struggle to access menstrual products, and COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem. This problem, commonly known as period poverty, affects those who menstruate significantly. Some are forced to miss school or work because they do not have adequate access to supplies, and some must choose between buying menstrual products and other essentials, such as groceries, food and clothes.
The way menstruation is viewed and the complete lack of support many students receive is something that must change. Schools — and other facilities, for that matter — must provide free, accessible menstrual products for all people who menstruate, and these products must be in all bathrooms to dismantle the gender binary many enforce when talking about periods. Period poverty is a significant, yet clearly overlooked, problem.
For necessary changes to occur, they must first be recognized and talked about. In the case of menstruation, this is not currently occurring because many are still under the impression that it is a taboo topic. People must realize menstruation is a natural, biological process that cannot continue to be ignored. Nationwide, the conversation surrounding menstruation is in dire need of change. Once this shifts, it is important for legislators to mandate better reproductive health education and require access to menstrual supplies in schools and other facilities country-wide. Menstrual health care cannot continue to be overlooked.