What NOW | Why Are Periods Shameful?
Why Are Periods Shameful? | Daniella Anastasio
It is always during this time of year, for the past few years, that I am reminded of one of the countless reasons that we need feminism. It is finals week at universities, and students are stressed, exhausted, and scrambling for seats at the library. About four years ago, I was a sophomore caught in a similar scenario and, presumably in unison with many other women, groaned, as I realized I’d be on my period all week. Tired, aching, and trying to remember the difference between single displacement and redox reactions, I headed to the university’s on-campus convenience store for backup.
While I usually made the longer trek to Walgreen’s for better selection, I had too little energy, and just enough dining dollar credits. I walked in, resisted the famed fresh baked cookies, and headed directly to the back to ask for a box of pads from behind the register. Then, I got in line behind another student that was being helped.
At first, I ignored it.
I was unsure if perhaps something was happening behind me that would’ve given this man’s actions some context. But as I glanced around and looked back straight ahead, we made eye contact, and I realized that he was laughing at me. His gaze then shifted from mine to the Kotex box in my hand. Then, back up to me, while apparently unable to contain his amusement at the thought of a woman’s period.
Maybe it was the weariness I’d felt from finals, or maybe it was shock that someone of college age had such a distorted sense of humor; but in that moment, I felt frozen. None of the witty rebuttals I’d think up on the way home came to me as I stood there. While a part of me wanted to laugh in retaliation and at the absurdity of the situation, another part of me felt vulnerable and ashamed, and it wouldn’t let any part of me move. When he finally turned around, grabbed his bags and left (though not before looking back with a grin after reaching the door), I took a few moments to regroup and looked up at the cashier. For a few seconds, I hoped for a sign that she had noticed, too: a playfully snide comment, a smirk, even an eyebrow-raise of solidarity; but she simply began scanning my items. While it’s possible she hadn’t seen, in hindsight, it’s more likely that she had seen, and that it wasn’t the first time.
As I paid and walked out, I stuffed my new box of pads into my purse. Of course, I was consciously hiding it. I was making sure I didn’t make any other boys uncomfortable by indirectly reminding them that yes, I do bleed for 2–7 days on a monthly basis as a result of my biology. Often, I wonder how unnerving it would be if a pack of tampons also disclosed to critical onlookers that these products are taxed as luxury items, rather than necessities exempt from sales tax, such as chapstick, foot powder, Viagra, or dandruff shampoo. While New York passed a bill last year exempting pads, tampons, and panty liners from state and local sales taxes; Florida, where I attended university, along with 37 other states, has not. I likely paid just over eight dollars for a box of U by Kotex to absorb the lining of my uterus ($7.49 + state and local taxes in Miami, Florida), a luxury.
Similar societal and legal issues come up when men dictate the narrative of women’s birth control products. I recently attend a gallery exhibition at the College of Staten Island in New York, Don’t Grab My Papaya, where three artists explored feminist themes related to the medium of their works. Katrina Majtuk’s In Control specifically looks at and challenges the relationship between the idea of femininity crafted by society and the real concerns contemporary women have. By using cross-stitch samplers, a stereotypically domestic embroidery originally intended to prepare women for marriage, Majtuk “[attempts] to stitch all products related to women’s health needs with a fully comprehensive and medically honest approach.”
However, this openness to explicitly acknowledge and understand women’s health and hygiene needs, and the products that accompany them, is far from universal. Sex education in schools, or lack thereof, has led to insufficient knowledge or miscommunication of several issues, including infertility, birth control, and consent. I remember my own ninth grade science teacher struggling to avoid eye contact as we, the students, read through the “awkward chapters” independently. Should anyone still be confused after forty five minutes of feigning study, they were met with laughter from other students, and a look of fear from the man in charge of our education at the front of the classroom. Analogous attitudes continue to dictate our society’s response to rape, women’s reproductive rights, birth control in relation to healthcare, addiction, sex positivity, and a significant number of other issues.
While I have experienced a sense of embarrassment since I began buying pads — male store attendants avoiding eye contact, or finding the section for feminine products tucked away in the back corner of every store — this incident was blatant. The boy’s snicker was a mockery of my body, and though this may have made me uncomfortable for a few moments, its implications are far more disconcerting. His stigma was not the exception, it is the rule.
This sense of shame surrounding women’s hygiene products extends to women’s health, implied sexuality, and health care in general. It’s stench is present in the rooms of men voting on the reproductive rights and legislative policies of women and for women, and it is heavy when girls are degraded for coming forward to report sexual assault. We have seen it in rural villages of Uganda where many children skip school during their “week of shame” due to lack of supplies, and it does not waver when the President of the United States attempts to insult a female journalist by implying she was on her period, or as he poignantly claims, “bleeding out of her…wherever.” Like many stigmas, it has dangerous consequences for both physical and psychological health, and must be spoken about, openly, sternly, and shamelessly, in order to be broken.
Daniella Anastasio recently graduated from the University of Miami, with a degree in English Literature with an emphasis in Legal Studies, and minor in Architecture. Daniella is passionate about feminism and creativity, both through the mediums of writing and visual art.