"Periods are gross!" "Don't tell me about menstruation!" "Don't talk about how you need a 'feminine product!'"
I'm sure most people have heard at least some of these phrases. Periods are treated globally as disgusting, shameful, and impure. The ironic part is that menstruation is a natural phenomenon that has maintained the survival of humankind for centuries upon millennia. However, periods themselves and the experiences of those who have them are silenced to the point of repression. Even menstruating people express vexation and uneasiness when addressing their own periods.
Such an endemic societal stigma is present everywhere, from the books we read to the music we listen to. These patterns undoubtedly repeat themselves when it comes to education.
Where did this all start? An upbringing where students are coerced into believing that menstruation is filthy and should be kept on the "down low."
If your health-class experience was anything like mine, you will vividly remember the subject of menstruation coming up. Boys are asked to leave the room, everyone erupts in a blanket of hushed giggles, and an exclusively female audience endures incomplete and noninclusive information. To put it simply, it is a bad experience.
As a menstruating person, I have, for the most part, come to terms with my period, femininity, and philosophy on menstruation; but those who were never given a well-rounded view of comprehensive and scientifically accurate information will mature into adults who espouse and practice exclusive ideals about periods.
I, like many other menstruating people, have experienced the utter horror of starting my period sans a pad or a tampon. You are simply existing, when all of a sudden a literal wave of uterus lining is shed into your underwear. Not simply staining your pants, but the white chair that you so conveniently happen to be sitting on. You rush to the nearest restroom in an attempt to cover up the crime your body just committed, but upon arrival, you find that no menstrual products are in sight. You feel awkward about asking someone else for a tampon, but you were not expecting "shark week" for another couple days. You proceed to stiffly exit the restroom and shuffle into hiding where any ambitions are forgotten, all because of an uncontrollable bodily function.
Of course, this sounds absolutely horrific, but some struggle with this monthly. Some simply have no access to menstrual products at home because of financial instability. Shouldn't school be a safe haven for menstruating students? Sparing the discomfort of embarrassed peers or faculty at the expense of the dignity of young menstruating people is unacceptable.
One traumatizing experience with a monthly flow and another poorly taught sex ed. class later, we have adults who continue to giggle like 3rd grade boys when the word "tampon" arises in conversation; we have others who remain silent about their dysphoric symptoms that arise when "Aunt Flo" comes to visit; we even see some who are alienated for not being financially stable enough to purchase feminine hygiene products.
Poverty has an overwhelming impact on people in the United States. In fact, over 42 million women live at or near poverty according to the 2014 statistic from the Shriver Report. Nonetheless, many American programs designed to assist low-income families exclude menstrual products from the list of items covered, leaving many young people struggling to afford pads and tampons.
A significant paradigm shift must occur in our educational institutions to combat this endemic problem. To start, we must provide menstrual products in accessible, free, and inclusive manners. Urge school administrators to place pad and tampon dispensers in all restrooms. Provide menstrual products for all teachers to distribute as needed to students who do not have access otherwise. That's right: No more missing class on extensive voyages to the nurse's office, or irrelevant debates between students and teachers about whether or not they "actually need to go to the bathroom."
Let's also focus on our sex ed. classes. The taboo of menstruation is only perpetuated by our sex education systems, as we give girls a how-to booklet on keeping menstruation a secret, and shield boys from the bloody horrors that periods are perceived to be. Instead, let's focus on teaching menstrual education to girls, boys, and nonbinary people. Everyone will, at some point, come across someone who is on their period. As has been proven with racial insensitivity, sexism, homophobia, and ableism, simply because one does not identify with a particular group or experience does not negate the fact that it is important to be sensitive about it. Perhaps we would have a more compassionate and inclusive society if we did not limit our education to such outdated binaries.
Menstrual equity is a challenging topic to tackle. We need an open dialogue, sparking healthy conversations about periods. It is high time that we block the harmful stigmas associated with menstruation that infiltrate not only our educational institutions, but the minds of future leaders.
Maggie Di Sanza is a 16-year-old high school sophomore who lives in Madison, Wis. She is the founder of the social justice campaign Bleed Shamelessly, which works to put an end to the harmful stigmas against menstruation and further gender equity through journalism, education, and protest.