What Is Period Stigma?

sanitary pads and tampons.

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What Is Period Stigma?

Also known as menstruation stigma, period stigma is a broad term for the discrimination faced by people who menstruate.

From physical problems like a potential lack of access to sanitation supplies, to the verbal shaming of menstruating people as "dirty" or "unclean," period stigma results in a lower quality of life for those who are faced with it. In developing nations, this can be even more harmful.

Menstruation is normal and natural, occurring monthly for about forty years, for those who have wombs, and the stigma around it serves no useful purpose.

We'll review everything you need to know about this topic, including how period stigma manifests in everyday life, how it originated, and how we can better society by normalizing menstruation.

Origins of Period Stigma

The traditional Jewish term niddah, a term from the Old Testament that means "one who is excluded" or "expelled," is used to describe women who are menstruating. In some Jewish religions, men are forbidden to have sexual relations with their wife during their menses, or until the wife immerses herself in the water of mikveh for purification.

Other religions have historically had rules discriminating against menstruating people too, with the Quran stating that menstruation is "harm" and should be kept away from.

One term used, "on the rag," came about in the 1800s. It referred to the cloths, or other absorbent fabric, pinned to underwear to capture menstrual blood.

That phrase is just one example of the cultural taboo against talking frankly about menstruation in modern times; the tradition is clearly longstanding.

How Period Stigma Manifests

There are numerous ways that period stigma appears in society. Below are some examples.

Discrimination

The discrimination faced by someone menstruating may be small or large, but it is harmful regardless of whether it's a lighthearted joke or the perpetuation of a serious myth.

As a joke, period stigma manifests with accusations that a person is PMSing or menstruating if they are perceived as behaving in a sensitive, sharp, or aggressive manner.

Politicians have claimed that menstruating people don't function as well at work—an idea that has no basis in reality.

In a more serious and life altering way, in traditional Jewish culture, when someone is on their period (niddah), they must sleep separately from husbands due to being "impure" for the duration of menstruation, until bathing afterward in a specific pool known as a mikveh.

There is even stigma and misinformation around sanitation supplies themselves, such as in the notion that using a tampon will "take" someone's virginity.

Discussions About Periods Are Taboo

Rarely referred to simply as menstruation, we use code words for periods like "Aunt Flo," "The Curse," "That Time of the Month (or its acronym TTOTM)," or "Code Red."

By refusing to speak about menstruation in a straightforward way, we perpetuate the idea that it isn't acceptable to discuss plainly, without veiled terminology.

When someone needs a supply such as a tampon, they generally ask a friend or colleague in a hushed tone so that others don't hear.

And there is scarcely a more common "embarrassing moment" subject than when a person gets their period unknowingly and bleeds through their pants in a public setting.

Lack of Access to Supplies

While this problem is most notable and damaging in developing nations, it exists prominently in America as well.

For example, many college students struggle with a lack of access to menstrual products. Until recently, many states had a "tampon tax" or "period tax," which placed additional costs on menstruation supplies despite them being basic needs that are otherwise exempt from sales tax.

Globally, impoverished people often cannot afford sanitation supplies, taxed or not, and may be forced to lose economic opportunities such as work by not being able to safely leave their homes while menstruating.

Resorting to everyday materials such as newspapers or socks can lead to infection, as well. And while menstruation huts have been outlawed in many countries after causing death to their temporary residents, separation of menstruating people continues due to a belief that they are "impure."

People being temporarily separated while bleeding may lack access to everything from sanitation supplies to food and water.

How to Normalize Menstruation

In recent years, our culture has seen a rise in menstrual activism that aims to put period stigma in the past. Also called menstrual anarchy or menarchy, those who take part in this activism may write books or articles on the subject, use performance art as a medium, or speak publicly about the need for safe access to menstrual supplies.

For people looking to create change that isn't through a public platform, here are some ways everyone else can help end period stigma.

Discuss Periods Openly, Without Shame

The simplest action a person can take to end period stigma is to not take part in discussing it vaguely. By speaking about any topic openly, we help to remove the societal rule against discussing it.

This can be done with friends and family, work colleagues, or acquaintances, or on a broader scale.

If you don't use code words or hushed tones, those around you will grow used to hearing about menstruation as the normal and natural biological function that it is.

Workplace and School Policy

People who create policy in education establishments and workplaces can help end period stigma by ensuring that anyone menstruating has access to needed supplies.

They can also use straightforward language when referencing their policies and supplies, to further remove the discussion taboo.

Most importantly, people who menstruate should not be separated or punished for doing so, and policies in a school or workplace stating that clearly will make for less stigma.

Affordable Sanitary Products

Handling menstruation in a safe manner should not be a luxury for only those who can afford it. We don't question that everyone deserves access to clean drinking water, yet many people don't necessarily think of period supplies as a similar right.

By giving menstruating people access to basic sanitation products, we would be creating a healthier society.

Mental Health Benefits of Period Normalization

With the above actions, period stigma can be significantly reduced, if not eliminated completely. Beyond the tangible benefits such as less missed work, removing period stigma would have a positive emotional impact on everyone who menstruates.

People would be less stressed about the subject, feel less worried when they needed to discuss it, and stop feeling shame.

Because shaming lowers self esteem, that element alone would lead to a happier, healthier population. Everyone stands to benefit from normalizing menstruation, whether it is one of their biological functions or not.

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