Between cramps, time-of-the-month tenderness (read: mood swings, irritability, fatigue, breast pain) and all the other annoying things you have to deal with when you have your period, it just doesn’t seem fair that in 2018, we still have to contend with period shame.
The shame we have felt since we got our first periods, shame from the inherent lies we’ve been told and we tell ourselves, and the shame we feel from others. Oh, and let’s not forget the shame society places on us.
The awkwardness, embarrassment, mystery, misunderstanding, feelings of low self-esteem, the shush, shush, shushing and the top secret-ness of it all are the drivers of this never-ending shame spiral.
Periods around the world
There are many cultures who view menarche (the first period) as an initiation into womanhood, where a girl gets to be honored by a coming-of-age ceremony or ritual. In some of these cultures, large celebrations are held with huge feasts. Girls get lots of special treatment – massages, new outfits, special hairstyles, and time with all the women in their family.
In America—land of the free, home of the brave—we are mostly mortified by our first periods. We’re embarrassed to buy pads and tampons at the drugstore (oh gawwwdd, the burning shame). We hide them in our sleeves on the way to the bathroom at work (raise your hand if you’re guilty of it! LOL). We constantly worry about leaking through our clothes and staining the bed sheets, or far worse, someone’s couch. We cancel plans, and make excuses like “I’ve got the worst headache” or “My guy is sick and I have to take care of him” instead of just saying we’ve got our periods.
Yup, our culture couldn’t be anymore different to the societies where first periods are celebrated and ritualized! In fact, most women I encounter don’t view their periods for what they actually are: the most natural, normal process that our bodies are capable of. Periods are as benign as blinking, yet they continue to fall into the “unmentionables” category (along with religion, abortion, and mental illness to name a few).
How cool would it be to celebrate the beginning of something so normal, instead of feeling like we have to hide it or be embarrassed by it! I’m sure no one is making fun of the girls who live in societies where a first period is considered an honor.
So where does all this period shame come from? And how can we put an end to it? Read on, sista!
Period Shame: A Big Problem
A few years ago, I was talking to one of my friends who had recently taken a trip to Mexico. She was in a cab, chatting up the driver when he got a call. After he hung up, he excitedly tells my friend, “That was my wife. She called to tell me our oldest daughter just got her first period, and we’re going to have a big celebration for her later!”
I bet when you got your first period, no one was excited like this man was. Chances are, you got the message—directly or not—that your period was something to be hidden and not something you spoke about, most especially not with your dad (oh the horror)! And to this day, I’m sure it’s not something you talk about openly or celebrate with anyone.
It turns out, this burning period shame is a big problem for most women.
In fact, a recent survey by Flexx, a company that makes disposable tampon replacement discs, found that 73 percent of women across the world hide their periods from others, and 68 percent are afraid to talk about their periods with men.
Another survey published by period panty maker THINX found 58 percent of women felt embarrassed simply because they had their periods, and 42 percent experienced period shame.
The same survey found when it came to men’s role in period shame, 44 percent admitted making a comment or a joke about their partner’s period.
While they were at work, 51 percent said it was inappropriate for women to speak openly about their periods.
(Yup, I’m just gonna leave that right here). Over half of men think it’s inappropriate for women to talk about their period at work, yet we are literally in the midst of a workplace sexual harassment and assault epidemic!!!) Alrighty then.
Take Georgia resident Alisha Coleman.
Last September she filed a lawsuit against her employer after she was allegedly fired for leaking menstrual blood on her chair at work. The first time it happened, her manager and human resources director told her she’d be fired if it ever happened again. So when it did—this time on the rug—she cleaned it up but was fired a few days later.
Let’s not forget that it’s not only men who shame women for their periods, but women themselves. If you’ve ever brought up your period to another woman only to be shut down with, “that’s too gross to talk about!” or “thanks for the TMI!,” that’s a form of period shame too.
Even I have close female family members who are so grossed out when I talk about periods or other totally normal bodily functions (hello cervical fluid), that they change the topic immediately.
So, why do women have period shame
As Dr. Christiane Northrup says in her book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom “Nothing in our society – with the exception of violence and fear – has been more effective in keeping women “in their place”, than the degradation of the menstrual cycle.”
The period shame struggle is real, and unfortunately it has gone on for centuries. Just ask your grandmother or your mom who might not have dared to speak about their periods with anyone, probably not even with their own friends, and much less their mothers. Periods have never been something to celebrate, rather something we cover up.
You probably know this already, but do you know that your very first period experience can determine your perspective on your future periods?
Yup, part of the work I do with women is to ask them about their “period story” – what they were told before they got their periods, what they were told or not told when they got their periods, and their parents’ reaction to their period. As well as, what negative symptoms they experienced, and continue to experience today. This is important stuff to think about, because there is a lot of deep emotional turmoil associated with our periods, and we simply cannot ignore menstrual health problems that may arise because of these subconscious thoughts.
Gender bias in medicine & sex education (or lack thereof)
Gender bias in medicine is another reason period shaming is a very real problem in the U.S. How many times have you gone to the doctor and felt like your health concerns weren’t taken seriously, even if your doctor was a woman?
For women who have pain or ambiguous symptoms like fatigue, their doctors may run tests or prescribe drugs but they often won’t take the time to discover why they have those symptoms in the first place. And more often than not, they’ll just prescribe medication and send women on their way.
Of course, the lack of body literacy and sexual/period education we get as young women only perpetuates period shame. Basically 100% of women who I speak to have said some variation of the words “I am xx years old! Why didn’t I learn any of this at any point in my life?!?!”
I often reference the Netherlands, where they begin sexual education in kindergarten. It’s appropriate sexual education for four year olds people! In fact, it is the law in that country, which I think is really damn cool.
As a result, 90% of Dutch adolescents use contraceptives during their first sexual encounter, most of them wanted their first sexual experience (whereas 66% of Americans say they wished they had waited longer), they have one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world (five times lower than the US).
Okay great, but how do I deal with this shame and embarrassment if I don’t live in the Netherlands??
Although the larger, inherent issues won’t change overnight, there is a lot we can do individually to put an end to all this period stigma (at least in our own lives). I believe it is our sacred duty to begin replacing the harmful inherited beliefs about our menstrual cycles with accurate information. Here’s how…
#1 Get in the know!
When you shine light on something that is considered taboo, it no longer feels scary or shameful, so take the time to educate yourself about your body, your hormones, your period and your sexual health. I have a TON of information on my site about all of these topics. It’s 2018, so we have zero excuses to not be in the know about how our periods work.
Or perhaps you’re ready to say YES to taking your health into their own hands, YES to reconnecting to your body in a new way, and YES to feeling more empowered around your period and hormones?
If that’s the case, you should be in my Fix Your Period Program. It isn’t just about that one week of the month all women dread. It is about changing the relationship to your body and your period once and for all.
Remember, knowledge makes you into a powerful superwoman who no one will want to mess with. When “that time of the month” isn’t a source of shame anymore, you will no longer suffer in silence.
#2 Share your period story
According to Brené Brown, renowned researcher and author (and general badass shame-buster), secrecy, silence and judgment feed shame, and the way to stop the cycle is to speak it out loud. She says “shame needs secrecy, silence and judgement to grow, but shame cannot survive being spoken.”
Think of one person in your life who you trust and can talk to about all of this stuff. Is there someone? A close friend, your sister, your mom, an aunt, a healthcare practitioner, a coach? If not, join the shame conversation in my Know Your Flow Facebook group.
One way to find an outlet for your story is to find a moon circle. Moon circles, which are really trendy, allow women to share their stories, set intentions, use affirmations and meditate together. Our culture isn’t exactly brimming with opportunities for women to connect on such an intimate level, so I suggest creating your own women’s circle event if you can’t find one.
Of course, social media can be very powerful too. Women are sharing photos of themselves bleeding, like Kiran Gandhi, the woman who ran the London marathon on her period without protection, or Rupi Kaur whose photos on Instagram have caused a quite a stir.
You totally don’t need to share a pic of yourself knitting with menstrual blood-soaked wool, or give yourself a menstruation facial (yes, I couldn’t make this stuff up), but you can start the convo by following me and some of the period positive pioneers that I follow on Instagram…. @4womenovarywhere, @ourbrilliantbodies, @period_positive, @wearehappyperiod, and @jenniferweisswolf.
#3 Talk, talk, and keep talking
Breaking down gender bias starts at home when kids are young. If you have daughters or neices, educate them about their bodies starting at an early age using the correct terms for anatomy, and have age appropriate, ongoing conversations with them about their periods. If you have sons or nephews, it is critical that you educate them about periods and sexuality, and encourage respect for girls.
And of course as boys and girls get older, discussions on intimacy, safety and trust should also be happening. I truly believe that kids have the right to open and trustworthy information on this topic, and they will benefit greatly.
How cool would it be to live in a world where half of men don’t think it’s inappropriate to talk about periods in the workplace??
The reason almost all men don’t want to hear about periods is because they were never educated in the first place! They are even more clueless than we are about how our bodies work, and that cluelessness freaks them out. I’ve literally been at a dinner table where the men have gotten up and left because of a conversation about periods. Haden, my “period guy” (LOL) is the only dude who ever sticks around for these chats.
But the more we talk about it with our boyfriends, husbands and partners, the more normal it will become.
Reclaiming the sacredness of the menstrual cycle
We need to improve this sad state of affairs by working together to release our culture’s shameful taboo around our cycles, so that every person who menstruates feels safe and worry-free.
I fully embrace working towards a cultural shift of having future generations of menstruating women celebrated for their periods, and not shamed. I waited way too long to resolve my own adolescent feelings about my period, and I know many others who have too. I’m now period-obsessed!! If I can help girls and women acknowledge any pain around their periods, so they can begin to see them in a more positive light, then I’m moving in the right direction!