When I think back to my most embarrassing high school moments, the time I bled through my pad and stained my light jeans is high up on my list. Fortunately, it happened at the end of the day and I had a sweater to strategically wrap around my waist. But had this not been the case, I can assure you I would’ve feigned sick and asked my mom to pick me up. That was sixteen years ago, however, if the same thing happened today, I’d be equally mortified as I was back in high school.
“I would like to live in a world where it’s okay to stain your pants,” says Chris Bobel, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In her book, New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, Bobel acknowledges there’s more interest in issues related to periods now than there was seven years ago when her book was released. That being said, she thinks our culture still spends a disproportionate amount of energy on creating a “menstrual mandate of shame, privacy, and secrecy.”
We’re talking about periods more than ever, and yet the focus of those discussions remains on how we can clean up menstruation and hide our menstrual status via the use of better products, explains Bobel. But why do we have to keep our periods private, she asks? Think about it: we’re inundated with images of blood in the media, yet we’re never shown a single drop of menstrual blood, and even the smallest of leaks can lead to ridicule.
Perhaps 2017 will be the year period shaming ends and honest conversations about menstruation begin.
In April of last year, Newsweek published a cover story titled: The Fight to End Period Shaming is Going Mainstream, which featured a photo of a girl with blood-stained pants. Bobel points to the article as an example of the strides we’re making, but says we’ve still got a long way to go. It may be 2017, yet when girls get their first period, the important event quickly turns into a talk about pads vs tampons rather than a genuine discussion about what is occurring in the body. The professor and president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research would like to see an increase in menstrual education, as well as conversations on the topic that don’t revolve around products or complaining.
In the 2009 book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim write that our somewhat backwards attitudes towards menstruation can be traced back to centuries ago. For thousands of years, there were no separate words for female genitalia, which the authors say was a result of women being thought of as nothing more than poorly designed men. Consequently, menstruation was barely talked about, and when it was – only the vaguest of terms were used.
This helps explain why euphemisms like “you’re on the rag” or “aunt flo is in town” came about and continue to be used today to talk about periods. And it’s not just an American thing — people around the world euphemize their periods. In England there’s the saying “I’m flying the Japanese flag”, while in Japan they like to say “Ichigo-chan” (Little Miss Strawberry). Stein and Kim argue we can’t talk honestly about menstruation if we continue to use sanitary and negative language to describe our bodies and their processes.
I’m guilty of what the authors refer to as thinking of periods as the “dreary thing that happens to us – and not a complex and active process that’s actually an integral part of our breathing, sweating, digesting, thinking bodies.” I admit I don’t know very much about my period at all because all my attention has been devoted to what Bobel refers to us making “menstruation a non-issue”.
On January 21, over five million women worldwide, and over one million in Washington D.C., came out for the Women’s March to have their voices heard on issues such as abortion and affordable healthcare. Professor Bobel was there, and says she was delighted to see menstrually themed signs with messages like “shed walls don’t build them”. Perhaps 2017 will be the year period shaming ends and honest conversations about menstruation begin.