By Nian Hu, a student at Harvard
The stigmatization of menstruation
Call it the crimson wave, Aunt Flo, or cousin red—call it anything but what it actually is. Menstruation, the process by which the body sheds the lining of the uterus through the vagina, is all too familiar to any woman of childbearing age. That “time of the month” is an inconvenient and unpleasant, but also natural and universal, phenomenon.
Unfortunately, despite affecting roughly fifty percent of the world’s population, menstruation comes with a heavy stigma. In the past especially, there were many taboos surrounding a menstruating woman’s behavior. For example, people used to believe that drops of menstrual blood could kill plants and animals. In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that bees left their hives, mares miscarried, and corn withered at the touch of a menstruating woman. People also used to think that beer, wine, vinegar, milk, and jam would become spoiled if touched by a menstruating woman.
Things haven’t gotten much better in recent times. As recently as the 1930s, scientists were trying to prove that menstruating women produced menotoxins, or poisons, in their menstrual blood, perspiration, saliva, urine, and tears. Professor B. Schick first came up with this concept in 1919, proposing that this was the reason why menstruating women supposedly caused wine to spoil and flowers to wilt at their touch.
Thanks to this stigma, women used to be—and in some places, continue to be—forced to leave their homes and spend time in isolation whenever they experienced their period. In many developing countries, girls as young as 10 must spend their menstrual cycles in an animal shed built outside their homes. This practice often causes girls to miss school, contributing to the phenomenon of uneducated women developing countries. In Africa alone, one in 10 girls misses school when she has her period because of lack of information and inadequate facilities.
While the physical ostracization of menstruating women is no longer a reality in countries like the United States, the stigma of uncleanliness and shame lingers. Recently Kiran Gandhi, drummer for M.I.A. and Harvard Business School graduate, decided to run a marathon on her period, without a pad or tampon. She had trained for months for this marathon, and had unexpectedly gotten her period the night before. She decided to run the marathon anyway, citing comfort as her primary reason for forgoing a pad or tampon. During the marathon, she freely bled into her athletic leggings.
When the story broke the news, the entire world recoiled in disgust. Even though the menstrual fluid was contained in the runner’s leggings, only leaving stains in her crotch area, people derided the runner as unsanitary, cited public health violations, and ridiculed her as disgusting and shameless.
Marathon runners often urinate as they run, unwilling to waste a precious second, and this is seen as understandable; yet, when this runner menstruated as she ran, unwilling to wear a pad or tampon that would cause painful chafing throughout the course of a long run, this was seen as disgusting and radical.
Why the enormous backlash? Kiran Gandhi said it herself best: “As I ran, I thought to myself about how women and men have both been effectively socialized to pretend periods don’t exist… Because it is all kept quiet, women are socialized not to complain or talk about their own bodily functions, since no one can see it happening.”
She has a point: in our society, periods are seen as something that should be hidden. Advertisements for pads and tampons are intentionally vague and misleading, showing montages of frolicking women and demonstrating pad absorbency using mysterious blue liquid. Seventeen publishes “period traumaramas” where girls share embarrassing stories about their periods—apparently, the worst thing that can happen to a teenage girl is getting your period around your boyfriend or dropping a tampon in front of your crush. Kotex sells pads with specially designed rustle-free wrappers, so even other women in a public bathroom don’t have to know you’re on your period. In our society, menstruation is so stigmatized that we essentially pretend it doesn’t even exist.
The stigma of menstruation is not only physical, but also psychological. Women on their periods are not only dirty and repulsive, but also moody and hysterical—according to experts on female physiology like Donald Trump, at least. Infamously, the controversial presidential hopeful insinuated that Megyn Kelly was menstruating during the GOP debate. On an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Trump said, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her…wherever.” Though he later insisted that he was referring to her nose, it is obvious that he was implying that she was on her period while questioning him in what he perceived as an overly aggressive manner.
This is not only an unfair assumption that invalidates women’s emotions and reactions as mere hormonal impulses, but also a line of thinking that prevents women from being taken seriously in their educational and professional pursuits. In 1981, a survey of Americans found that over half of the respondents thought that women were more emotional while menstruating, and about a quarter of the respondents believed that women cannot function normally or do their work as well while menstruating. However, studies found that there is no evidence of premenstrual or menstrual decline in women’s mental or physical performances.
Nevertheless, the stigma of menstruating women as being hysterical harpies persists. It is this stigma that caused Newt Gingrich in 1995 to declare that women are unfit for combat because “females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days.” It is this stigma that caused cartoonist Pat Oliphant to portray Hillary Clinton as weepy and weak in the face of terrorists. It is this stigma that caused Marc Rudov to point to PMS and mood swings as the main downside of having a female president.
This stigma even puts the health and lives of women at risk. In the past, women who expressed any range of symptoms—including sexual desire, loss of appetite for sex, and a “tendency to cause trouble”—were often diagnosed with “hysteria,” a diagnosis no longer recognized by medical authorities today, and forced to enter an insane asylum or to undergo surgical hysterectomy.
Even now, doctors often do not take women’s complaints of pain as seriously as men’s complaints. Women under 55 are two times as likely as men in the same age group to die after being hospitalized for a heart attack, in part because doctors often ignore or minimize women’s complaints when they speak up. Women are often dismissed as “hysterical, dramatic, or crazy,” a dangerous stereotype that could even put their lives at risk.
The period stigma sucks. It’s annoying to constantly have your thoughts and emotions dismissed as hormonal impulses, it’s irritating to devise methods of bringing a tampon into the bathroom without anyone noticing, and it’s embarrassing to be shamed for having unexpected period leaks on your clothing or bedding.
But the period stigma has much more far-reaching consequences. It means that women are not taken seriously in the workplace. It means that women are not seen as competent leaders. It means that Megyn Kelly is seen as a hormonal bitch on her period rather than an intelligent reporter brave enough to ask the tough questions to Donald Trump. It means that Kiran Gandhi is seen as a disgusting unladylike rebel rather than a woman who wanted to run a marathon with her family and friends and just happened to have her period that day. The period stigma shames women for their natural bodily functions and for their thoughts alike, making women feel just as uncomfortable in the workplace as they do in their own bodies.
Sure, periods can be messy and annoying and always seem to come at the most unexpected times, but they are also a reminder of the incredible capabilities of the female body. Instead of pretending they don’t exist, we should be bonding over an experience that half of the human population undergoes every month. Period blood, after all, consists of eggs and uterine lining prepared for a potential developing baby—the apparatus used for making life. Personally, I don’t find that gross at all. I find it pretty miraculous.