Growing community of menstruation activists seek to destroy period taboo
By Samantha Thompson, Executive Editor, and Aly Laube, Contributor
I remember the first the first time I got my period. I was 10 years old, and it came right before school. I was sent to class with a note for my teacher, in which my mom explained what had happened. When I nervously handed over the letter, my teacher responded, “Congratulations!” and gave me a hug. Suddenly I felt better—maybe this weird thing that had happened was something I should be celebrating, after all.
There are many people throughout the world who menstruate, yet in most societies it remains a stigmatized topic, something we shouldn’t talk about in public. Recently, however, there has been a growing trend of menstrual activism, where individuals are seeking to reframe our discussion and understanding of menstruation.
2015 saw a throng of hashtags that addressed the stigma surrounding periods, including #LiveTweetYourPeriod, #HappytoBleed, #EndtheTaboo, and #MenstruationMatters. Each hashtag served as an outlet for menstruators to tweet about their periods and bring conversations that normally remain hidden right into the public consciousness.
This shift is occurring locally as well—Lana Friesen, Sabrina Duventru, and Jennilyn Carson are currently organizing the Blood Cycle Conference, which will occur in Vancouver later this year. The conference will address menstrual health, sustainability, and taboo, and aims to make information and options about periods more accessible.
“The conference is for people curious about alternatives to the predominant understanding of menstruation; for people who want to believe that menstruation doesn’t have to suck, be painful, be shameful, be embarrassing, or be humiliating,” says Friesen. “It is for people who want to be a part of re-writing the meaning of ‘periods’ from taboo to holistic.”
Friesen cites a number of events as catalysts for pushing a different approach to menstruation, including Rupi Kaur, who posted a series of menstruation-themed photos only to have them allegedly removed multiple times by Instagram.
“As I engage with other menstruators around the world, there is a shared ‘awakening’ where people are realizing that an intimate relationship can be built with one’s period, and that your body should not be a victim in its own natural processes,” says Friesen. “We are revelling in various discoveries we’re making about our own bodies and a process we’ll have approximately 450 times in our lives.”
For many people who menstruate, their early period years hold powerful (and often amusing) memories. For Seraphina Sterling, a student at Simon Fraser University, that moment came when her grade seven class was planning a trip to Splashdown, and her period arrived the night before. For the first time, she’d need to use tampons.
“So there I go into the bathroom, box of tampons in hand, and sitting on the toilet I start to read the little information pack inside, you know, the one that talks about toxic shock and dying,” she recalls. “So I’m thinking to myself ‘Great, now I’m on my period, going to go bleed through my swimsuit, and then die of toxic shock.’”
These fears around periods can be common, but our understanding and conversations around menstruation change as we get older as well. Kristen Gilbert, a sexual health educator at Options for Sexual Health, says that in grade four, when puberty is introduced in the health curriculum, the period sounds like an awesome experience. By high school, periods mostly come up for discussion in the context of birth control. As the personal experience of menstruators change, so too do their questions and the way they absorb information.
“In my practice I have always found women to be eager to better understand their bodies and how menstruation works, and to welcome discussions related to their menstruation experiences specifically,” says Wendy Norman, a family physician from B.C. Women’s Hospital. She reminds us that menstruators can discuss any concerns or questions with their physician and have them answered.
“Sometimes menstruation can be associated with or reflect changes within the uterus or hormonal systems within the body,” she explains. “For example, a menstrual period is more likely to be heavy … or with stronger cramps in the cycles shortly after menarche (the beginning of menstrual cycles and fertility), during early adolescence and prior to the first full term pregnancy.”
In her position, Gilbert speaks to students about their bodies and delivers the standard learning outcomes about sexual health that are mandated by the B.C. Ministry of Education.
To explain menstruation, she draws a uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix and vagina on the board. She describes how the egg is released and travels to the uterus, and notes that the uterus lining is created each month, in case a pregnancy occurs. When an ovum doesn’t meet a sperm, the lining is shed. The shedding of this lining, as menstrual fluid, is the period.
“I explain that folks need something to catch the menstrual fluid, so I show them a pad,” says Gilbert. “I demonstrate how to peel off the backing, and show them how it sticks to the underwear. Everyone leans forward to get a better look when I demonstrate!”
In her fourth grade demonstration, Gilbert explains how to use pads, tampons, and reusable pads. She typically introduced a menstrual cup later on, as she’s found that it’s often difficult for young people to imagine using them.
But, she notes, “Because young people tend to be very environmentally conscious, they are always very interested in my super-cool reusable pads with spaceships on them.”
It’s Just Blood
Our evolving relationship with menstruation has also begun to affect the availability of menstruation products. Lunapads, a Vancouver-based company that’s been around since 1993, is working to provide menstruators different options for managing their periods.
“There is no question that the topic of menstruation is taboo, to varying degrees, all over the world,” says Christa Trueman of Lunapads. “Lunapads has worked to combat these ideas by developing reusable products that allow menstruating people the opportunity to become more acquainted with their cycles and flow by having them interact with the products and their bodies in a way that’s far more intimate than your typical ‘use it and toss it’ culture of disposables.”
According to Lunapads’ website, there are approximately 73-million menstruating people in North America, and each of those people will throw away 125 to 150 kilograms of disposable menstrual products in their lifetime. Because most menstruation products come with plastic as part of their packaging, these products will take hundreds of years to biodegrade.
Lunapads has a number of products, including reusable pads, the DivaCup (a menstrual cup), and an assortment of underwear including leakproof and “period panties.” However, one of the greatest barriers that Lunapads faces is getting customers to get over the “ew factor” of having to wash the menstrual blood out of their reusable pads, or rinsing the menstrual cup out.
“Using a DivaCup is actually very moving to me,” says Aleks Besan, one of the coordinators of Women Action and the Media Vancouver, who recently began using the menstrual cup. “It totally turns me into a real sap, as I lovingly peer into the contents it collects, and I actually feel pretty darn proud of my body for all the hard work it is doing. Disposable products made me feel like my period experience was also that—disposable.”
The menstrual cup (there are several varieties) is folded up and then inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual flow. Once inside it opens up and typically can be safely worn for up to 12 hours at a time.
Reusable pads, conversely, are used in a similar way to disposable pads—they snap onto your underwear and, when you’re ready to change to a new one, just put on a new one and place your other one inside a water resistant carrying case to be washed later. This process is likely where the “ew factor” comes from, but Trueman reminds us that at the end of the day, it’s only blood.
“We often get questions about what ‘special’ methods need to be employed to ‘safely’ launder Lunapads, and we have to remind people that it is only blood—the same blood that comes from the body when you accidentally cut your finger chopping veggies or fall off your bike and scrape your knee,” says Trueman.
Feminization of Periods
When my teacher congratulated me on getting my first period, she also said, “Welcome to womanhood!” Unfortunately this is characteristic of many conversations around menstruation, reinforcing the belief that menstruating is an inherently feminine activity, exclusively experienced by women. This is false, but yet when you look at most advertising for menstrual products, or read posts about periods, much of it is geared towards cis-gender girls and women.
“A society that feeds heterosexual male desire will not even come close to comfortably acknowledging that some men and gender variant folks get periods too,” suggests Besan.
Some trans men, genderqueers, gender variant and non-binary folks have their periods too, and some women don’t have their periods for a variety of reasons. The de-association of sex and gender is another aspect that many menstrual activists are fighting for.
“I see a shift happening in the collective consciousness of the menstrual activist community. People are posting simple reminders that it is not only women who bleed, and slowly this is changing the language chosen for posts—rather than talking about women all of the time, people can start talking about menstruators,” says Friesen. “There’s a concerted effort by some to widen the scope and include non-binary in the movement, although I would say we have a long way to go before that’s pervasive.”
A company called THINX is also hoping to address a need in the trans* community—a line of underwear that aims to address the needs of trans men who menstruate. Lunapads also explicitly addresses gender inclusivity on its website.
Although some discussion is occurring surrounding the feminization of menstruation, Friesen argues that there is much more that needs to be done to include non-binary individuals in the conversation.
For example, a 2014 article in Everyday Feminism written by Wiley Reading explores his experience with menstruation as a trans man:
“My body is its own thing. It does what it does, and that’s fine. Getting my period is painful and bloody and messy and annoying, but it doesn’t have to make me feel like less of a guy,” he wrote. “The amount of pain I hear from trans men related to their periods is substantial. But by talking about it and degendering it, we can lessen the pain. Menstruating doesn’t have to be a girl thing.”
“I had a lot of shame related to my period in my early twenties,” says Friesen. “I remember dating someone who saw a freshly made stain on my pants as I had just started my period in that moment. The sneer on his face coupled with, ‘That’s disgusting,’ really upset me. I felt humiliated that my body would ‘let me down’ or that I wouldn’t be able to know exactly when it was going to happen.”
An article on Al Jazeera by Erika Sanchez reminds us that these feelings of humiliation are often as a result of “ menstruation taboo … [that] is a deeply ingrained form of misogyny.” Women are often told that their bodies are acceptable if they’re sexually desirable—Sanchez cites Rupi Kaur’s photos as a recent example, because her photos were censored while highly sexual photos of women were not.
“In a society that has so hyper-sexualized women’s bodies, discussing the very real, messy, painful aspects of what our bodies are and do ruins an easily consumable fiction,” says Besan. “It also ruins a ready-made script for how to act in a society that clearly values and credits women more when they fit conventional standards of beauty, and don’t trouble these.”
Although everyone experiences their period differently, Trueman says she would like to get to a point where menstruation is seen as a normal, natural thing that happens to roughly half the population every month.
Regardless of how someone feels about their period, the growing community of menstrual activists mean that there are more opportunities for people to engage in public discussions about what menstruation means to them, and to work together in addressing menstruation stigma.
“There is so much support from others, and people reach out in ways that show they really just want to see you succeed,” says Friesen. “I think that’s because we share a common goal— eradicating the negative view of menstruation and replacing it with a positive one.”
Friesen points out that menstruation is just one of the ways the female body is shamed—there’s also breast-feeding and aging. “[It’s] always met with the attitude that hiding it, controlling it, and interfering with it is better,” she says. “I think it’s important we break free from this attitude … eventually I see a world where we don’t need to do this anymore, a world where the shame has evaporated and been replaced with casual acceptance—where you mention your period, and you shrug.”
“Talking about our menstrual cycles normalizes the conversation overall, and this conversation really should already be fully accepted,” says Besan. “We need to model the kind of world we want to live in, and if we want to live in a world where patriarchy doesn’t police what and how we talk about sexuality, reproduction, gender, bodies, appearances, and so much more, [then] we need to be writing the scripts ourselves.”