Proud2Bme | Challenging the Taboo of Menstruation

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Challenging the Taboo of Menstruation

By Ariel Beccia--One of my first introductions into feminism was Gloria Steinem’s wonderful little essay, “If Men Could Menstruate.” The satire describes an alternate universe in which men, not women, get periods and the effects that this has on society. She writes:

What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? The answer is clear—menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much. Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties. Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts.

How out of the norm does it sound to talk about periods as if they were cool? But that’s the power of Steinem’s essay. We perceive this menstruating-men world as bizarre because in reality, periods are super taboo. The closest we as a society get to the topic are the commercials for “feminine hygiene products,” which, for some reason, mostly involve women dancing in white pants. No bathrooms, no cramps, no blood.

Beyond these sterilized advertisements, the taboo runs deeper. Girls hide tampons up their sleeves when they go to the bathroom. We have 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation, because letting someone know you are on your period is a no-no. In school, pads and tampons are usually only found where you go when you’re sick: the nurse’s office. And depending on what state you live in, they are a taxable item, unlike tax-free Viagra and Rogaine. All of this creates a culture of shame surrounding menstruation, teaching girls to feel embarrassed by a natural part of their biology. When we censor how we talk about a woman’s body, we’re saying the experience of a woman’s body should be censored, too, which can easily translate into poor self-esteem and poor body image.

This is why a recent vote by the New York City Council is groundbreaking: on June 23rd, the council voted to approve a measure providing women in public schools, prisons and homeless shelters with free pads and tampons. The proposed measure will make pads and tampons freely available to 300,000 girls in New York City schools and 23,000 women in public homeless shelters. This is huge. As council member and menstruation activist Julissa Ferreras-Copeland explains:

Feminine hygiene products are not a luxury for women, but rather an essential part of women’s health. Whether it’s in public schools, shelters, or even our city jails, giving women access to these products is a no-brainer, and long overdue.

The council’s vote marks a big step towards menstrual equality. Most importantly, the vote is part of a larger cultural shift in reducing the taboo surrounding menstruation. How awesome is that women’s periods were the topic of a lawmakers’ meeting? The past year has seen a dramatic increase in menstrual activism, from a trending hashtag (#PeriodsAreNotAnInsult) to a commercial actually showing (gasp!) blood. Breaking down these barriers lets girls know that their bodies, even the “messy” parts, are normal. The stigma of menstruation is slowly being chipped away, but a piece of legislation puts a big chink in the armor.

Why is changing public policy so important? It changes the conversation for everyone. Having access to free tampons normalizes menstruation and can even be a source of empowerment: no more “shameful” walks to the nurse, no more hiding things up our sleeves. Having a period is a natural part of being a woman, and erasing the taboo gives power to this. Other cities, other states, take notes. New York City’s decision is not just about free access to tampons. It’s about letting girls know that it’s OK to be on your period, that there is nothing shameful about your body, and, perhaps most importantly, that women can speak up about their bodies and have a real impact. 

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