GRAPHIC BY MIA ABULAF/SAGAMORE STAFF
I understand the aversion. If I had the privilege of missing out on the sight and smell of menstrual blood, I would avoid it like the plague. I’m squeamish when it comes to fluids of any kind. To be honest, I would not be too keen on writing an article about any of my other bodily functions.
But urine is not politically divisive, so here we are. Since menstruation is an experience isolated to female-bodied people, it is not normalized in the same way that other fluids and discharges are. Men hold the majority of positions of power in our country (a separate issue I don’t have the column space to touch). Because of this, female-bodied people continue to experience barriers on their right to much-needed menstrual and vaginal healthcare.
One of the simplest ways to break down a stigma is simply to talk about it. While the demand for legislative change is coming, and has come from a strong base of mostly female lawmakers, we also need to end the fear of the period in male-bodied people.
For instance, most people would balk at the idea of having to pay for toilet paper in a public restroom. Tampons and other menstrual sanitation products, however, are not considered essential. We would respond with similar agitation if toilet paper were provided for free, but was located two floors away from the bathroom. Even though sanitation products are provided by school nurses at the high school, sometimes it’s not possible to get there, especially as teachers get stricter about students spending too much time out of the classroom.
The Huffington Post predicted that the average woman will spend $1,773 throughout her life on tampons alone, and that the total cost of a woman’s period in her lifetime is $18,171 dollars. According to NPR, while ChapStick and even Viagra are exempt from sales tax as “healthcare products” in many states, menstrual products are not. In 36 out of the 45 states that charge sale tax, tampons and pads are legislatively considered a “luxury.”
It is not just institutional problems that make menstruation difficult; there is also a cultural barrier. Because of the pervasive stigma, many female-bodied people feel awkward handling sanitation products in public. People fear being caught in public holding a pad. I used to zip tampons into my boots so that I would not have to take them out of my backpack in class.
Another cultural problem is the phrase, “are you on your period?” The problem arises not when it is said with the intonation used between, for instance, two female-bodied friends when one says, “I can’t eat lunch because it feels like my stomach is being ripped into shreds!” And the other friend responds affectionately, “Aw, are you on your period?” I mean when someone exhibits a show of weakness or emotion, and someone sardonically spits, “are you on your period?”
The only reason why menstruation is equated with weakness is because of its association with women. Gloria Steinem once wrote that if they could menstruate, “Men would brag about how long and how much.” Female-bodied people do not disappear for a week every month. We go to school or work. It can be hard to function with business as usual on your period, but we do it.
In the end, no cultural, social or legislative change can come until female-bodied people stop feeling like their bodies are abnormal, or inappropriate, or flat-out disgusting. I don’t love talking about my period, but until menstruation becomes as normalized as other routine body activities, actively combating the stigma is the only way to end it. While the voices of female-bodied people are essential to this change, advocacy for equitable healthcare has to come from both sides of the table. Male-bodied people need the education that will prevent them from shaming menstruation and hiding from the issues of legislation. Maybe they just need another round of seventh grade health class.