Period Shaming and the Taboo of Female Agency

Over 800 million women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 are menstruating on any given today. At this moment, 800 million people are having their periods. And yet, despite its staggering commonality, menstruation needs remain woefully underaddressed and, consequently, stigmatized. Girls and women worldwide suffer inordinate consequences for the mere reality that they menstruate. The problem ranges in severity from developed countries to developed countries. In developing countries like the United States, menstruation is taboo and menstrual products such as tampons and pads have historically been taxed as luxury items. It goes without saying that taxing a hygienic item that the vast majority of women of reproductive age need, every single month, is outrageous. Girls in high schools across the country have to trek to their school nurse to get pads and tampons rather than being able to access them in the bathrooms. The not-so-implicit message is that menstruating is equivalent to being ill. The shame only begins there; over the course of their lifetime women will be taught to hide the “dirty” reality of their physical functions. Women are also faced with the repeated and internalized notion that periods make them histrionic and irrational. The oft-used trope of PMS as an explanation for a woman’s anger is a multi-edged sword. It continues the tradition of de-legitimizing women’s anger or irritation while also reminding them that their body, when it behaves in natural non-sexual ways is shameful. Periods are used to lay the blame for other’s poor behavior or irrational disgust on women’s physical functions rather than on the source of the irritation or the person with irrational disgust. In other words, it’s always “our” fault. That alone justifies campaigns such as #ShoutYourPeriod, #LetsFaceItPeriod and http://www.letsfaceitperiod.com. (As an aside, May 28, 2017, is “Menstrual Hygiene Day” and if you happen to be in NYC, see https://www.eventbrite.com/e/menstrual-hygiene-day-workshop-2017-tickets-34176614173).

Thankfully, though, access to hygienic products in developed countries is a reality and girls are not forced out of school when they menstruate. That is unfortunately and infuriatingly not the case in developing countries. Indeed, in many cases, menstruation causes a rage-inducing number of girls to forego education (and, as a result, employment and self-sufficiency).

A 2009 UNICEF study reflected that girls miss 20% of the school year in areas where menstruation is considered taboo. In Kenya, for example, girls drop out at twice the rate of boys once they start puberty. If they are able to remain in school, 1 million adolescent girls in Kenya miss at least six weeks of school a year because they are menstruating. According to ZanaAfrica Foundation which provides sanitary pads and reproductive health education to girls across Kenya, “If every girl in Kenya finished secondary school, there would be a 46 percent increase in the country’s [GDP] across her lifetime.” In Nepal, women and girls on their period are “untouchable” and “impure.”  They are forbidden from participating in daily life. They cannot live in their home, touch family members, or share meals. In certain places in Nepal, women have to sleep outside their homes, in sheds or huts. If this were not bad enough, this practice often leads to women dying from animal attacks, snake bites, hypothermia in winter, and asphyxiation from the fires made in the huts to keep the women warm.

Assuming women can continue to interact with other members of society, women’s periods present a hurdle because many people don’t have access to either hygiene supplies or bathrooms or both. This creates an insurmountable hurdle for women and girls who need both in order to continue participating in educational, social and professional activities. According to UNICEF, over fifty percent of schools in developing countries don’t have private toilets. This alone forces girls and women to avoid attending school because they would have nowhere to change whatever they are using to absorb their menses. Assuming that girls do have access to bathrooms, they don’t necessarily have access to adequate supplies. In Afghanistan, 62% of school girls report using torn clothing and strips of material to capture their flow. Women are also told to avoid washing their vaginas during their periods for fear it will lead to infertility. This is exceedingly common in developing countries the world over.

So why is this the case? What is the taboo with women and periods? Interpretations vary. At their heart, however, the taboos coalesce over a unifying theme. When the female body behaves in an animalistic way, it departs from being an object for male gratification and instead manifests its innate and self-serving utilitarianism. In other words, when women menstruate, their bodies are exhibiting a function that is distinct and apart from providing men pleasure. (Note that this is similar to the repulsion that exists over nursing breasts while breasts for the purpose of arousal and intercourse are plastered across advertising surfaces all over. More on this in another post). Menstruation taboo is the flipside of sexual objectification. If women are valued as objects for male heterosexual consumption, when they cease to be that, they lose their value. If they lose their value, they can be discarded and, therefore, despised. So although campaigns for access to hygienic materials, restrooms, and de-stigmatization are critical to the fight for menstrual rights, real change will come—like many other changes—when half of the world population stops being seen, interpreted, and viewed as a mere object of sexual gratification for the cisgender-heterosexual-male half of the population. Menstrual equality will come when gender equality is closer to fruition than it is now.

Female functionality signifies strength. Strength brings autonomy. Depriving half of the population of autonomy gives the oppressing portion of the population power through control of human capital. Denigrating women when their bodies manifest their functionality, through menstruation, is the first step to stripping women of their strength and depriving them of their autonomy. When women fight for, and gain ground regarding, menstruation, they are reclaiming their position as autonomous beings rather than objects of sexual gratification for the male gaze. We are more than decoration; we are women, we are strong.

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