This is why we are devoting July to menstruation at Alpha Woman. We want to crack open the discussion and help end stigma around this important and sacred biological function. I am incredibly fortunate to have a team of inspirational Young Alpha Interns from around the globe who will be investigating and reporting on how people experience their periods, how they’re educated about their bodies, how they access and pay for period products, how they are treated in their communities as menstruating people, who is innovating in the period product category, the impact on economies of supporting menstruating people and more.
And one thing is desperately clear– people in every corner of the globe are subjected to assault, shame, fear, needless pain, period poverty and unhygienic practices that can lead to long-term psychological, physical and financial problems.
My own story as a woman who grew up in Canada may have some differences, but also many similarities with other women around the globe. In Ottawa where I grew up, the public education system provided “sex education” which exclusively focussed on how reproduction worked, nothing about my female body other than how I will be impregnated and birth babies.
I remember feeling shame and embarrassment, albeit a little bit of pride too that I was now “a woman”/child when I got my period, which is pretty gross when I think back. Looking like a woman but still being a child can be dangerous for young women.
Like many menstruators around the globe, I’ve endured a lifetime of inconvenience, pain, shame, misery and illness when it comes to my journey with my reproductive system and my menstrual cycles. This same biological system also gave me the joy of gestating and birthing my son, which is an incredibly powerful and life-changing experience.
So let’s break it down, starting with what is menstrual fluid and why is it important?
Half of humanity is shamed into thinking something, which is completely normal, and indeed, fundamental to the existence of the human race, is dirty and shameful. Menstrual Fluid is the Endometrium. It lines your uterus and is a mixture of blood, tissue cells and natural secretions from your vagina and cervix. Menstruation is the regular (generally monthly) discharge the endometrium from the vagina, which also indicates that conception has not taken place that month.
Every human being on earth starts life as a two cell zygote that becomes a hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. The blastocyst implants in the endometrium about 6 days after fertilization. Menstrual fluid acts as the media for the embryo to embed into the uterus. Therefore without the media (endometrium), no embedded embryo, no foetus, no baby, no human race.
Many cultures and ancient texts (no doubt all written by men) consider menstruation and menstruating people unclean. Menstruation has been so taboo historically that even the word “taboo” comes from the Polynesian term “tapu,” meaning “sacred” and “menstrual flow”. That’s right, menstruation is the original “taboo”.
Over the millennia, this taboo extends even to menstruators themselves, arriving at the point where we no longer feel comfortable discussing this fundamental biological function with anyone, rather we hide in shame and secrecy. In many cultures, women are excluded from activities and gathering when they have their period, which further creates ongoing psychological trauma. Some are actually shamed and embarrassed by teachers and peers in school settings. Many cannot afford period products and so don’t go to school, or cannot work.
Women in every corner of the globe experience period poverty and psychological trauma. In India, 88% of women still rely on cloths, rags, hay, ash, and even leaves to manage their periods. When their menstruation begins for the first time, over 23 million girls in India drop out of school each year when they start menstruating. 71% do not know what a period is when they get it. Those who remain miss an average of five days of school per month because of their periods.
Western Nepalese women face one of the greatest struggles when they begin getting their period due to the practice of Chhaupadi which is a custom that requires women to be confined to a menstruation hut during their period, and for up to 2 weeks after giving birth. This custom poses a danger to women’s lives, with women dying from smoke inhalation, attacks from wild animals, and serious illnesses like dehydration. Women who observe this practice often spend their period in a cow shed that doubles as a menstruation hut, which many would consider humiliating among other things.
In Canada, menstruators spend up to $6,000 in their lifetime on menstrual hygiene products, with people in rural communities paying double the price for the same products found in larger cities. This means that low-income people and people on social assistance find it difficult to allocate money towards this unavoidable necessity. In only 2015, Canada eliminated the tax on period products however, the high cost of menstrual products still causes these essential items to be out of reach for homeless, low-income, and marginalized women. And women in prison are a whole other topic.
In many indigenous cultures in the Western hemisphere, a menstruating woman was considered sacred and powerful, with increased spiritual abilities, and healing powers. For the Cherokee, menstrual blood was a source of feminine strength and had the power to destroy enemies. For many, the moon cycle was and still is considered a gift. It is a time to for a woman to cleanse herself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually and is considered a time of power, second only to the ability to give life.
During their periods, they do not prepare foods or medicines, take part in ceremonies or use pipes and other sacred items; other family members do all household chores. It is a time for women to think about themselves, their family, their relatives or anyone they think needs help. It is a time of reflection and renewal.
In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder opined that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body can scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning. If she strips naked and walks around the field, caterpillars, worms and beetles fall off the ears of corn. Wow, would that it could be so!
By positioning menstrual blood as gross and shameful and an inconvenience to men’s sex lives, people with their periods will continue to be traumatized and marginalized. But maybe that’s been the point all along. For shame and fear are powerful tools for the Patriarchy to use in their coercive control of the bodies of people who menstruate.