Maya Jones tells us why the taboo surrounding periods is not just awkward, but dangerous
The women of my family were all late bloomers. By the time my period came, I was fourteen and the novelty had worn off. For me, it was just a relief and a quiet shuffle to the bathroom before I nervously rang my mother, who by my luck was away, to inform her that yes, I was now a woman.
Every month, my friends and I would chuckle at our visiting ‘Leona’s’ – a witty pun on Leona Lewis’s ‘Bleeding Love’ designed to disguise our topic of conversation. Tampons were referred to as ‘mini devils’. The word period was never mentioned. Nobody else needed to know. My younger sister, however, had different ideas.
She saw no reason that my new-found womanhood should be hidden and insisted on bringing up the ‘secret drawer’ in the bathroom whenever anybody came round. The response was always the same: an awkward silence. What I interpreted at the time as a deliberate ploy to annoy me, I now see as mere curiosity.
She was a nine year old who knew nothing about this natural part of many women’s lives. In a few years, it would be a natural part of her life and yet it was still frowned upon to discuss. It was 2010 and periods were still a taboo.
On Thursday May 28th 2014, Global Menstrual Hygiene Day was founded; it was an attempt, in their own words, to ‘help break the silence and build awareness about the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential’.
This year, TWSS decided to celebrate all things menstrual with a trip to the Old Malt House, where the Talk Period event was being held. Sponsored by Grace and Green, a feminine hygiene company who make sustainable sanitary products, and No More Taboo, a social enterprise that invests profits from selling sustainable menstrual hygiene products into charitable projects in developing countries, the event covered all aspects of menstruation.
Bloody Marys in hand, we spent the evening discussing periods.
The evening commenced with a film showing of Menstrual Man, a documentary about Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man who made it his quest to improve menstrual hygiene for women in India. The largest difficulty he faced was not creating affordable sanitary products, but wanting to convince women of rural areas to use his products.
The shame of periods is so ingrained in Indian society that women were sacrificing basic health in order to escape judgement from the villagers. According to the film, seventy percent of all reproductive diseases in India are due to poor menstrual hygiene. It was proof that the taboo surrounding periods is not just awkward, but dangerous.
it is all about ‘small steps’: we must ‘talk about it with men, brothers, boyfriends and friends.
The evening continued with a discussion chaired by Rose George, the unofficial ‘period correspondent’ for the Guardian. The aim was merely to normalize something completely natural: in her words, periods are as ‘trivial as going for a pee.’ Her interest in menstrual hygiene began when during research for her book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters (2008), she found that in the developing world, girls were leaving school because there was no access to a toilet.
Rose then suggested that ‘the biggest driver in leaving was that when girls had their period, it was just too embarrassing, and so they dropped out.’ Panellists Val Thompson from Women’s Night Shelter Bristol, Dr Josie Reynolds, UK Research Coordinator at Irise international and Cassandra Cardiff from OxPolicy then discussed how the problem is not just exclusive to developing countries; as highlighted by Val Thompson, for homeless women in Bristol who have no access to free public toilets, menstruation can also be a danger.
In a later interview with Rose George, we asked what we, as women of the UK, could do to help break the taboo surrounding periods. There was a simple answer: ‘talk about them.’
‘Often we don’t even realise we are ashamed of them,’ she continued, ‘until we find that we’ve hidden our sanitary products underneath something in our shopping carts.’
So TWSS have decided to break the silence: we are going on our period without shame. Over the upcoming week, we will publish a series of articles on menstruation – looking at why the taboo even exists, the deadly period tax, and the environmental impact of our sanitary products.
Rose George suggested that it is all about ‘small steps’: we must ‘talk about it with men, brothers, boyfriends and friends.’ It is about creating awareness, so that women all over the world can think about ‘what they are using and putting into their bodies’ without feeling ashamed. This is our small step in the hope that one day, every day can be Global Menstrual Hygiene Day.