A brief history of period shame

Consider for a moment that, Viagra is tax-free, but tampons are not.

My early memories of my period tend to include embarrassment. The worst was when a tampon fell out of my bag in a coffee shop and one of my ‘friends’ passed it back to me, barely bothering to conceal his laughter.

Previously, I would have done anything to brush over the incident, but now I think differently. Periods should never be thought of as funny or embarrassing, especially not by men. Humans literally exist because of them, and for many women, getting a period is just a part of their monthly routine. Periods have had a varied history, with some treating them as something to celebrate and some fearing them. This has an impact on how we view them today.

Periods were not always considered ‘dirty’ or experiences which needed to be censored. In ancient Rome, a philosopher wrote about how menstruation gave women power to prevent hail storms and lightning. The Cherokee people saw menstrual blood as a source of feminine power. But in the last hundred years or so, we have learned to become embarrassed of our periods, especially here in the UK.

In 1896, the first sanitary pads went on sale in America and Europe, but were poorly received because women were horrified at the thought of admitting they were menstruating, even to a shopkeeper. In the early 1920’s a solution was found; women were told to put money in a secret box on the shop counter, and they were passed an unmarked package containing pads, all without having to say a word.

Body Form’s Period Normal campaign has challenged these attitudes by promoting discussion around the realities of periods. It was only a few months ago that red blood was first used on their adverts, a metaphor for a future where it’s possible for women to live openly and confidently whilst bleeding without being silenced by period taboos.

Last December, hundreds of people marched in Westminster wearing red to demand that girls on free school meals be provided with free menstruation products. But today in the UK, girls are still missing school because they cannot afford sanitary protection or feel the thought of bleeding on their school uniform is unbearable.

In the UK, the ideal woman is ‘pure’, untouched and clean, and the reality of messy, bloody periods doesn’t fit into this fantasy. Unfortunately, many of us feel pressure to abide to these ideals, and being silent about our period is one of the criteria. Lots of women, including myself, still find themselves going to the toilet with a pad shoved up their sleeves, or waiting until being in the cubicle to root through their bag to find one.

Some women have challenged this stereotype. To many, Kiran Gandhi became a hero when she ran the London Marathon whilst free bleeding. But, the fact that this was considered controversial news shows how society ultimately denies women ownership of their periods, dictating to them what’s ‘normal’ and what isn’t.

Similarly, the removal of Rupi Kaur’s Instagram post of her lying down with period blood on her trousers and bed, shows us that periods are still something to be censored. On reflection, throughout my life, society has taught me to think of my period as something to be hidden and ashamed of.

Because we live in a patriarchal society, it is inevitable that gender is woven into how we perceive a person’s life experiences and choices. If the situation were flipped, and it was men who had periods, it is conceivable that they would be thought of differently and that they may be more accepted; even seen as a sign of masculinity. A recent survey by Plan International UK showed that almost half of girls aged 14-21 are embarrassed by their periods, this suggests that many women do not consider them a positive sign of their identity or femininity.

In Nepal, some women in rural areas are traditionally banished to menstrual huts for the duration of their periods. A few months ago, a woman died in a hut in a remote village from suspected smoke inhalation after lighting a fire in the freezing conditions trying to keep warm. She is one of the many who, despite a recent legislative bill, paidy the ultimate price for these traditions.

For the last few years, I have made a conscious effort to be open about how I feel and what I experience during my period. But still, I would never feel ashamed admitting I needed a day off work because I had a stomach bug —the thought of admitting that I have period pain fills me with embarrassment and guilt. Systemic change can only be affected when more women are made to feel comfortable and supported enough to share their experiences of menstruation.

Photo is courtesy of Unsplash and was taken by Kira Ikonnikova. It is copy-right free and depicts a white woman’s bare torso and tops of her legs. She is wearing brown tights and you can see her white lace knickers through the material. Her hands are lightly resting on the rim of her tights.

Editorial note, May 2021: This article contains some cissexist assumptions about people who do and don’t get periods, and could therefore be alienating to trans people. We suspect that this was not intentional on the author’s part but, in hindsight, want to clarify our position on transphobia and cissexism