It’s about time (we change the story)

Do you ever stop to think about the word menstruation? We do, and often. After some questioning and research, we learned its origin (spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with men). Menstruation has its root in the Latin word mensis (month) and Greek word mene (moon). It is not a human feature that has been recently unlocked, it has been around for millennia.

However, not much has been recorded about menstruation in early human history and the little that has been written about the topic (including in religious books) mostly frames menstruation as impure and shameful.

Let’s take a look at the brief timeline of periods to notice how reinforcement of negative language still impacts the way we perceive menstruation today.

  • Circa 2000 BCE: It’s believed that women used rolled papyrus as tampons in Ancient Egypt.

  • 1800s: Many would simply bleed on their clothes or use rags and cloths for menstrual blood (quite similar to today’s reusable pads).

    1867: Menstrual cups were first patented in the United States!

  • 1920s: World War I French nurses started to use medical bandaging for their periods, giving rise to commercial disposable pads. Around the same decade, research from Hungarian pediatrician, Bela Schick, claimed menstruating women radiated toxins named “menotoxin.” The bogus theory was given recognition by scientists up until the 1970’s!

  • 1930s: Tampons were patented and patent rights were bought by Tampax. With women’s growing role in the workforce, their need for practical period products as well as their purchasing power also increased. With this, a new market for period products emerged.

  • 1940s onwards: Advertisements, movies, and books started to address menstruation, establishing an unspoken rule of secrecy. This kind of representation in pop culture painted periods as an inconvenience and a taboo, something that should be handled privately.

Modess Pad advertisement, image via IMAGE Media.

There is still a lot of stigma around menstruation and many superstitions remain alive in shared consciousness. One example of such is not washing one’s hair while menstruating, a myth that was commonly debunked in magazines as I was growing up in the early 2000s. Treating one’s period as a taboo nowadays looks like feeling ashamed when buying menstrual products, avoiding talking about the topic, and might even impact the kind of menstrual products chosen. This happens because period stigma impacts menstruating people’s relationships with their own bodies. People, in turn, are less likely to explore sustainable period products since those require more intimate handling and constant maintenance.

Other serious implications of period stigma range from government policies to the physical and emotional risk of menstruators. Lack of menstrual literacy is behind those issues—without understanding what is going on in their bodies, people are at risk of making harmful choices and lack the tools necessary to lift themselves out of a stigmatized position.

Period privilege

How many times do you keep track of your menstrual cycle in order to prepare for your period? What I mean by this is, do you find yourself searching from store to store for menstrual products days before your period in worry that you won’t find any products or enough products to last you throughout your period? Or worse, won’t be able to afford the products that are available?

Period Poverty, image via Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University.

It is difficult to imagine that the ability to have access to menstrual products is a privilege. In Canada, one-third of women face difficulties trying to afford menstrual products and one out of seven girls missing school because they could not afford menstrual products. Period poverty is closer to home than we realize. Not having access to menstrual products goes far beyond a piece of material soaking up your blood—it leads to loss of wages, loss of education, unmanaged pain, increased anxiety, fear, and embarrassment. When women do not have the access to menstrual products they automatically are at a disadvantage and this disadvantage begins to increase throughout their lives as seen through their education, their career, and their mental and physical health. 

The lack of menstrual products can lead to serious health issues like toxic shock syndrome which occurs when bacteria enters the bloodstream and spreads to organs resulting in dangerous infections that can lead to severe illness or even amputation. Toxic shock syndrome occurs from the overuse of a menstrual product and disproportionately affects women of lower financial wealth. Women who live in extreme poverty usually use old rags, pieces of moss or pieces of mattresses in place of menstrual products, thus increasing the chances of infection. In fact, those who live in rural areas pay double for menstrual products compared to those who live in cities. Beyond financial strain, the lack of access to menstrual products evokes anxiety, social isolation, and decreases one’s self-worth. For years menstrual products have not been offered for free in public places, but condoms always have. Only now, women’s and men’s voices have amplified in the fight for free access to menstrual products in park facilities, libraries and community centres. However, just because these voices have been amplified does not mean enough change has happened.

The Pad Project

In Vancouver B.C., Anisa Mansour, a high school student, watched the short film “Period. End of Sentence” and was inspired to change the way menstrual products were accessed in Canada. Mansour joined the Period Promise campaign and began collecting menstrual products at her school, bringing them to the United Way which then sent them to women in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. It is students like Mansour that give me hope for a promising future where menstruation can be liberating and accessible to all.

Anisa Mansour holding a basket full of menstrual products in front of a school whiteboard. Image via CTV News.

The Pad Project was an expansion of the “Period. End of Sentence” short film. The Pad Project is an initiative to empower women worldwide by offering menstrual products through pad machines. The menstrual kits that are given out are meant to last two to four years. The Pad Project runs cloth-pad making programs and implements menstrual hygiene management programs worldwide.

A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.

The Pad Project

You might be wondering, why am I talking about pads when our focus is on sustainable menstrual products? We need to first acknowledge that not everyone has the same access to sustainable menstrual products, and there is a vast need for any product that helps with periods. Access to sustainable menstrual products needs to be affordable and accessible for everyone in order to be an option for people who menstruate.

Only in 2015 did the federal government remove the taxes on menstrual products and British Columbia remains the only province that offers free menstrual products to students. As a country why are we still so behind? We need to stop hiding our periods, we need to talk about it, and we need to talk about it with everyone who has a menstrual cycle. The more we talk about it the more we can listen to those who are facing period poverty, the more we can find ways to create change. I believe that to offer better access to menstruators, we need to eradicate the stigma surrounding menstruation first.

If you are interested in signing a petition commanding the Canadian government to provide free menstrual products in public washrooms, you can sign this petition.

Three pink and red speech bubbles with blood droplets. Image via Medium.

How period stigma affects women today

Although society has come a long way in terms of accepting our period, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. Many people still feel ashamed to talk about their period. We’ve given our menstruation cycle nicknames such as “aunt flo,” “ladies days,” “time of the month,” and so on. While it seems harmless to refer to our period as something else, it supports the idea that talking about our periods should be kept on the down-low. This encourages people who menstruate today to keep their period a secret and teaches children how we should talk about, and therefore respect, our menstruation cycle.

In public washrooms, people who menstruate try to open up their disposable period products in secret and feel embarrassed when the plastic wrapping makes noise. Even among peers who menstruate, we still feel the need to keep our period hidden, supporting the idea that a biological function in the female body is wrong. Women who skip the loud plastic wrapping and use reusable menstrual don’t have it any easier. Our menstrual cycle is already described as “gross”, and so if you decide to use reusable products you could be shamed even more for how they decide to care for their body. 

There are also cultural beliefs around our menstruation cycle that affect people around the world. Women and girls in India aren’t allowed to handle food while on their period due to the belief that it will cause food to spoil. In Tanzania, it is believed that if a women’s sanitary cloth is seen by another person, the woman becomes cursed. In Bangladesh, sanitary napkins must be burned so they don’t lure evil spirits. This social discrimination limits women from engaging in their community and shames them for a natural, reoccurring process in their bodies.

Overall, people who menstruate can’t control how their bodies operate, and therefore they face social inequality. Instead of being proud of the work our bodies are doing, society influences us to feel shame, disgust, and embarrassment. No matter who someone is or where they live, society as a whole has to do better to break the stigma and shame around menstruation.

How we can end stigma & tips on how to embrace your period

Switch to reusable menstrual products

Aside from saving money and supporting the environment, using reusable menstrual products requires us to take time out of our day to put towards our period. Disposable products are used and thrown away without a thought, but reusable menstrual products leave us no choice but to handle the blood from our body and embrace every step of the process. Using reusable menstrual products can come with shame from others, but it can also be used as a chance to educate them. It’s your cycle and therefore it’s your choice.

Speak up and educate others

It can be hard speaking up, even if it’s something you strongly believe in. No one wants to be the “buzz-kill” when someone cracks a joke, but if the joke supports social inequality and period stigma, try to find the courage to use your voice. Jokes about women being a certain way “because she’s on her period” can be hurtful. Politely informing others that these jokes are unnecessary can help inform them of period stigma and supports putting an end to it.

Learn about your cycle, how your body works, and your personal symptoms

While most of us know how long our cycles usually last, most people don’t understand the stages of their cycle and how that affects mood, cravings, and other symptoms. Taking the time to learn about menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase can help you understand more about your body, and therefore respect what comes with each phase.

Empowering Resources

Here are some helpful resources to get you started on your journey to embracing and learning about your cycle!

Instagram accounts

  • PERIOD (@periodmovement) is a non-profit that educates and advocates about ending period stigma and period poverty.
  • Clue (@clueapp) is an app you can use to track your cycle, and their Instagram page talks about reproductive health and period stigma.
  • Menstrugram (@menstrugram)is an account that transforms periods into art.


Period apps

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