By Yeeun Lee
Around the world, people have various ways to refer to menstruation. Despite it being a physical and emotional experience that all women share, it remains a taboo subject. The word doesn’t just refer to the bodily process of vaginal bleeding or to women’s bodies preparing for pregnancy. The word has significant social and cultural implications. Certainly, menstruation should be considered outside of a biological framework as it indefinitely changes women’s bodies and lives.
In many places, menarche, or a woman’s first period, is seen as a significant event where a girl becomes a woman. Nonetheless, for some reason, viewing it as more than a bodily process has consequences. It is thought of as something that should be kept hidden. And more often than not, it comes with the negative connotations of “dirty” and “unhygienic.”
Around the world, menstruation is seen as something that should be out of sight. In some places, women are still prohibited from entering certain spaces, such as temples, because they are seen as impure when menstruating. In other places, like Nepal, they are isolated in menstrual huts. In Western media, periods are portrayed as something to hide. For instance, Tampax Compak was advertised as offering women “the most discreet protection.” Other brands take pride in providing pads that look “invisible.”
The secrecy around menstruation confirms that menstrual blood isn’t viewed in the same way as other bodily fluids. Additionally, it certainly isn’t viewed in the same light as regular blood. If it were, sanitary pads and tampons wouldn’t be items to hide. In that sense, periods are a hidden stigma. Society expects it to be concealed and thus women go to great lengths to hide it. While we can’t know when women are menstruating, any sign such as a leakage exposes the “stigmatized condition.”
The influential sociologist Erving Goffman explains contemporary stigma as a mark that not only sets people apart but “conveys the information that those people have a defect of body or of character that spoils their appearance or identity.” Periods are stigmatized because menstrual blood is seen as something that “spoils” a woman. When a woman leaks, it is her fault for not taking appropriate measures or using adequate products. The blood leaking into her clothing is seen as unclean, making her seem dirty, and spoiling her appearance. The blood leaking into her clothing is also seen as something she could have prevented, making her seem careless, and tainting her femininity.
Despite menstruation being a completely normal bodily process, it remains stigmatized because it doesn’t exist in the “normative” male body. Historically, menstruation was considered dangerous because the idea that a human could bleed for days without dying was unbelievable. In addition, the fact that men didn’t experience it made them believe that coming into contact with menstrual blood could contaminate or hurt them. These misconceptions have been addressed over time. Nonetheless, the stigma surrounding menstruation remains and has negative health consequences for women around the world every day, especially in poverty-stricken areas.
Researchers from the University of Bristol, the African Population and Research Health Center, and the African Institute for Development Policy have proposed the term “menstrual poverty.” This concept refers to all the “practical and psychosocial deprivations” that menstruating women experience in resource-poor settings. While their research is conducted in the slums of Kenya, they also compare their findings to other studies that were conducted in Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Nigeria to describe the impact period stigma has on the emotional well-being in low-resource settings.
They find that menstruation stigma leads to a lack of support systems and guidance in these settings. Mothers find it uncomfortable and shameful to talk about menstruation with their daughters and daughters find it hard to bring the subject up to their mothers. Female teachers who want to help inform young girls stated that there were limited opportunities to provide formal education on the subject. Thus, menstruation is something that women keep to themselves as they find it difficult to talk to others about it.
Girls and women in these settings also lack the physical resources needed to manage menstruation, which adds to the lack of support. The participants that were interviewed for the above study described how the idea of leaking and body odor caused them constant anxiety and fear. One girl stated: “If you don’t have pads, and maybe that day there is water shortage, you will definitely start smelling and if your parent or the people living with you smell that bad odor, they will complain and you will feel embarrassed to say you are the cause.”
Other girls described how not being able to hide the fact that they’re menstruating could become a subject of gossip and a cause of bullying, to the point where they will avoid going to school. The stigma around menstruation leads to more than anxiety— it causes isolation, depression, and emotional distress. However, the study found that talking about the subject had positive effects. Talking about the subject to their teachers and to other girls in school helped girls overcome the feeling of loneliness.
Having open conversations about menstruation is necessary. It helps break the stigma, improves emotional well-being, and creates discussion around crucial topics such as substandard menstrual products. Women in Kenya, and now in other parts of Africa, have started to talk about their uncomfortable experiences with sanitary pads of the brand Always using the hashtag #MyAlwaysExperience on Twitter.
Hundreds of women have talked about how the sanitary pads in Kenya and other parts of Africa are lower in quality than those found in Europe and the United States. Several have expressed that the pads cause rashes to the point where they had to stop using them. Yet, Proctor and Gamble, the manufacturer of these pads, claims that the pads offered in Africa are of similar quality to the rest of the world. At this point in time, it is unknown whether or not the pads offered in these countries are truly lower quality. Nevertheless, had women not shared their experiences, the conversation and investigation would have never started.
Period stigma is everywhere. It changes the way we talk and how we behave. We need to stop treating the subject as if it were something shameful or illegal. Certainly, menstrual blood is considered to be a more private subject than regular blood. Nonetheless, that doesn’t counter the fact that menstruation is a completely normal bodily process. Thus, it shouldn’t be something women that wouldn’t have to hide or feel bad about. And it certainly isn’t something that changes a woman’s character. Having open conversations is crucial to ending the stigma, normalizing the subject, and improving the lives of women around the world.
 Johnston-Robledo, I., & Chrisler, J. (2013). The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma. Sex Roles, 68(1-2), 9-18.
 Raftos, M., Jackson, D., & Mannix, J. (1998). Idealised versus tainted femininity: Discourses of the menstrual experience in Australian magazines that target young women. Nursing Inquiry, 5(3), 174-186.
 Mcelroy, K. (1990). Blood magic: The anthropology of menstruation: Edited by Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1988. 326 pages. $12.95, softcover. Journal of Nurse-Midwifery, 35(2), 119-120.