Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review
What? I Don’t Menstruate
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
By Alice Zou, Bayview Secondary School, Ontario, Richmond Hill, Canada
From a young age, girls learn to hide menstrual products from prying eyes. They learn tricks to hide pads and tampons in their sleeves when going to the washroom. They use euphemisms to refer to any menstrual-related topics; pads are called “napkins”, and periods are called the “time of the month”. Consequently, menstruators quickly internalize the stigma surrounding menstruation and stay silent about their symptoms and problems. The inability to move forward from this mindset prevents menstruators from having an equal opportunity to prosper academically and socially compared to their non-menstruating counterparts.
Without a change in attitude towards menstruation, society will only continue to perpetuate this stigma. Without open dialogue, misinformation can quickly spread or communication can shut down entirely (Krusz et al, 2019). It makes one’s first period a scary and confusing experience. Young menstruators can become embarrassed by their bodies, especially if they have their first period at a young age (9-10 years), making them feel alienated by their peers. This harmful mindset has negatively affected girls’ self-esteem, sexual and reproductive health, and school attendance (Geertz et al, 2016). They are too ashamed to speak up about their experiences and too uninformed to understand if their period is abnormal (Sommer, 2015), especially if they are experiencing a menstrual disorder such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which is a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (“Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)”, n.d.). In many cultures, the responsibility falls on the menstruators to silently figure it out for themselves without sanitary products (Sommer, 2015). In Nepal, many menstruators are banished into unhygienic huts to deal with their period privately, and those who refused are discriminated against and abused. One study states that the lack of education on this topic limited the community’s ability to accept new menstrual practices (Thapa, 2021). The inability to acknowledge menstrual health harms menstruators’ health and their ability to thrive in society.
Moreover, the stigma towards periods extends beyond education into research, lowering the quality of studies conducted on the connection of menstrual disorders and menopause with education, mental health, sexual health, and genetics. Because this field of research is underfunded, many studies are often based on small sample sizes or anecdotal data (Geertz, 2016), leading to inconclusive results. For instance, there have only been two studies conducted on menopause in Indigenous Australian menstruators. Though they experience a myriad of symptoms that harm their health, there is not enough research to understand the mechanisms behind their symptoms. Consequently, their healthcare providers are unable to effectively treat them (Jones, 2012). It is crucial to have a constructive discussion about menstruation, so menstruators can gain access to high-quality and equal healthcare.
The ability to advocate for one’s menstrual needs becomes increasingly complex in low-income and Indigenous communities. They are unable to afford the high costs associated with menstruation, and governments often refuse to acknowledge this problem. For example, the United States of America does not include period products in any of its welfare programs (Carroll, 2019). One study found 17% of Canadian menstruators reporting that they had to choose between pads and food (nearly one-quarter of Canadian women have experienced inadequate access to period products, 2020). It is unethical to make a piece of cotton attached to a string cost $45 per package in Indigenous communities when it is the only solution keeping blood from seeping through their clothing (Vieira, 2019). These communities already struggle with food insecurity and limited access to clean water, making menstruation an extra burden in their daily lives.
Even when menstruators in high socio-economic strata complain about their severe symptoms, they are classified as overly emotional or dramatic. Suppose they report extremely light bleeding during menstruation. In that case, they are viewed as lucky rather than realizing that it is abnormal and could indicate something more serious, such as Oligomenorrhea, which can cause infertility, vaginal dryness and more (Norman, 2020). How can menstruators advocate for themselves if their problems are overlooked and experiences ignored? Disregarding these concerns can allow medical conditions to go undetected and can negatively impact menstruators for decades, severely decreasing their quality of life. Government officials must overcome their stigma and listen to the communities by passing legislation to give them the help they need and deserve. Such progress can include menstrual health and hygiene as a mandatory topic in the school curriculum or mandating schools and community center washrooms to provide free menstrual products. Scotland made headlines as the first country to implement a policy to provide free menstrual products in these washrooms to eliminate period poverty (Gross, 2020).
Society must emphasize and reinforce understanding in all areas of menstruation to give menstruators the ability to feel comfortable in their bodies and participate in society with dignity. More quality research needs to be done in this critical area of global health so that menstruators can get the diagnoses and care that they deserve. Menstruators should not be punished just for having a uterus, and eliminating the stigma around menstruation and period poverty is integral to achieving a higher quality of life.
Carroll, L. (2019, January 10). Even in the U.S., poor women often can't afford tampons, pads. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-menstruation-usa-idUSKCN1P42TX.
Geertz, A., Iyer, L., Kasen, P. et al. (2016). An opportunity to address menstrual health and gender equity. FSG. https://www.fsg.org/sites/default/files/An%20Opportunity%20to%20Address%20Menstrual%20Health%20and%20Gender%20Equity_0.pdf
Gross, E. L. (2020, November 24). Scotland Will Be The First Country To Make Period Products Free. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/elanagross/2020/11/24/scotland-will-be-the-first-country-to-make-period-products-free/?sh=12ceb0875577
Jones, E. K., Jurgenson, J. R., Katzenellenbogen, J. M. et al. (2012). Menopause and the influence of culture: another gap for Indigenous Australian women? BMC Women's Health, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6874-12-43
Krusz, E., Hall, N., Barrington, D. J. et al. (2019). Menstrual health and hygiene among Indigenous Australian girls and women: barriers and opportunities. BMC Women's Health, 19(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-019-0846-7
Lomsadze, A. (2017, December 17). Feminine products kept hidden. the Southerner Online. https://thesoutherneronline.com/66080/lifestyle/feminine-products-kept-hidden/.
Nearly one-quarter of Canadian women have experienced inadequate access to period products, causing devastating effects on their health and wellness. (2020, August 5). Cision Canada. https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/nearly-one-quarter-of-canadian-women-have-experienced-inadequate-access-to-period-products-causing-devastating-effects-on-their-health-and-wellness-839484279.html
Norman, A. (2020, September 20). What is Oligomenorrhea? Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/an-overview-of-oligomenorrhea-4584379.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/premenstrual-dysphoric-disorder-pmdd.
Sommer, M., Hirsch, J. S., Nathanson, C. et al. (2015). Comfortably, Safely, and Without Shame: Defining Menstrual Hygiene Management as a Public Health Issue. American Journal of Public Health, 105(7), 1302–1311. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2014.302525
Thapa, S., Aro, A.R.(2021, February 28) ‘Menstruation means impurity’: multilevel interventions are needed to break the menstrual taboo in Nepal. BMC Women's Health 21, 84. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-021-01231-6
Vieira, J. (2019, September 9). The heartbreaking realities of period poverty. The Star https://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/2019/09/09/the-heartbreaking-realities-of-period-poverty.html.
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