Let’s Talk About Periods | Vol. 3 / No. 18.5

Why does this weird you out? | Photo: Scott Forster, CC BY 2.0
Why does this weird you out? | Photo: Scott Forster, CC BY 2.0

In Today’s #FeministFriday post, Elle talks about the push to recognize, as a society, that women menstruate, and that it is a normal thing that normally happens so oh my god why are you making that face stop it now.

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I almost wrote about a lot of things this week, each more infuriating than the last. The Oklahoma lawmakers who refuse to pass mandatory sex education but will pass legislation funding anti-abortion propaganda.  A talk show host who wonders aloud (and on national television) why Kesha didn’t bother trying to film her sexual assault. Paternalistic lawyers trying to hypocritically claim that abortion restrictions are for women’s health. But in the end, all of those things made me too mad. So I took the appearance of two articles on a similar topic as a sign, and decided to talk about something (somewhat) positive: periods. (Bear with me here.)

A few months ago, I wrote about how the discourse around menstruation needs to improve so that menstruation is at least seen as normal in public discourse. And there are some signs that this normalization is taking place. A couple weeks ago Olivia Goldhill wrote about the problems with the way dysmenorrhea (aka period pain) is treated by physicians. Though at least one in five women suffer from dysmenorrhea, it has received little attention in medical studies, and physicians often tell women to do the equivalent of “walk it off,” treating the pain with a basic painkiller.  (Also, the spellcheck on this blog doesn’t think that dysmenorrhea is a thing.) This dismissive treatment is a problem because hey, guess what, period pain can be ‘“almost as bad as a heart attack,”’ according to Professor John Guillebaud. Gillebaud is a professor of reproductive health at University College London, so maybe he would know, yeah? Goldhill and her sources point out that part of the problem is the “culture of silence” that surrounds periods, and thus, the lack of research into periods, as doctors and researchers don’t consider them a big deal.

There are signs that this culture of silence is slowly being broken. Carolyn Cox discusses the company Coexist, which has become the “first-ever UK business to provide paid time off for employees on their periods.” Coexist is not the first company to come up with this idea—Cox points out that similar policies have existed in Japan since 1947, and that China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and South Korea also have paid days off for periods. However, these policies are not always easy to use—in Indonesia a woman taking time off for periods has to undergo a physical examination, and potential female employees in China’s province of Anhui worry that they will not get jobs because their employers would have to give them extra time off. Women may also feel pressure to “power through” the pain and not take days off, especially if they are in a male-dominated workspace. Just like men are asked to “power through” heart attacks and other issues for the good of the company.

In other “this is a normal part of life and women should not be penalized for it” news, “New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal introduced a bill to end the state’s sales tax on tampons and other menstruation products.” Currently only 10 states do not tax menstrual products.  On top of this proposed legislation, others are suggesting that sanitary products should actually be free—or at least freely provided in public spaces such as schools and parks. Doing so would be a boon, especially to women and girls in low-income families; Stassa Edwards reports that providing free tampons in schools would cost $4.67 per girl per year, while buying a pack of tampons can cost a girl $7-10 per month.  And again, making these products readily available would go a long way towards reducing the stigma about them. Just think—we could have a sitcom where there isn’t a “funny” scene about a guy having to buy tampons for his girlfriend and getting all embarrassed, because they’re tampons, ew. She could just grab a tampon while she’s on her way to class.

To give you a sense of the depth of the stigma against menstruation, I had to have a discussion with myself (and then had to phone a friend) to decide whether I would write the following sentence: I’m writing this while on my period. Menstruation is a normal bodily function, one that is shared by roughly 3.5 billion people, and I had to have a talk about whether I should write about it in a blog post in which I was writing about how we should normalize and talk about menstruation. Yay, cultural norms.

So here’s to trying to live in a brave new world, where it isn’t considered taboo to mention that your uterus feels like it’s being stabbed with a spork. Welcome to the new normal.

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Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to practice the openness she preaches, she studies gender in popular culture.

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