Caitlin O’Donoghue outlines the importance of universities providing safe and nurturing spaces for people who bleed, discussing how our inheritantly patriarchal society simply does not accomodate for an issue that affects so many members of our student population.
As term starts again, before students rush back to their shared flats, houses, and university halls to take up their studies once more, I see this month as a time to pause and reflect. To reflect on the structure of our institution, to ask who Bristol is designed for, and who is left to feel marginalised within its walls.
For those who menstruate, university is often a site of struggle. Trying to study, attend lectures and meet deadlines whilst developing your critical thought and expression, when your body is in pain and your emotions are at best disruptive and at worst debilitating, is no easy feat. Biology aside, the stigma that accompanies our cycles means many are left to suffer in silence. We are told to ‘put up with it’, to keep it to ourselves, away from others. This is even more challenging considering the intersectional lives of those who bleed: those from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, those who experience period poverty and trans and non-binary students, whose cycles can come with a greater sense of gender dysphoria.
And for some, their ‘time of the month’ is not just a period of minor discomfort. For those with hormone disorders, such as endometriosis, PCOS, PMDD or thyroid issues, like myself, managing our cycles can become an all-consuming task. How are we expected to maintain our academic progression when the pain we experience is so acute and enduring?
It would perhaps be too easy for this article to contribute to the dominant rhetoric around wellbeing, and to place the solution to this in the hands of students themselves. Much mainstream feminism, infiltrated by neoliberal ideals, encourages menstruators to ‘embrace your cycle’, to listen to our bodies and adapt our behaviours in line with our cyclical needs. I am often faced with articles and social media content which gives me ‘tips’ on how to keep up with my peers while my hormones are in flux.
And while there is some merit in this, to encourage those who menstruate to feel empowered, I worry that this individualisation takes away from our structural analysis of menstruation. The idea that self-care can remedy menstrual difficulties prevents institutions from being held accountable. ‘Taking a hot bath’ will not relieve my brain fog and fatigue, symptoms that often stop me from getting my essay done. Menstrual leave, on the other hand, and guaranteed extensions, might. The university, far from being a beacon of progressive and liberated thought – as it is often imagined to be – is governed by patriarchal capitalism. These forces are felt most acutely by those who bleed. The answer to this can only be achieved through a political response, not to a personal one.
Our societal understanding of productivity, for example, at the centre of both academia and the neoliberal order, is built on the male able-bodied norm, and leaves the university a hostile place for those who menstruate. We are expected to maximise our productivity during our studies, at the hands of the pervasive grind culture which has become infused into university life. Social and academic pressure dictates that students should be working 9-5 in the library on an average week, let alone deadline season, when it is commonplace to sacrifice sleep schedules to work on assignments, But for those who menstruate, whose ability to work is impacted by hormonal changes, we just can’t always work in this way. ‘Productivity’ is, then, enmeshed with patriarchal, capitalist and ableist notions of success, notions we must seek to undo if we are to maximise student’s wellbeing.
For menstruators, we have spent time and energy trying to fit into the structures around us. We often medicalise our cycles and feel frustrated with ourselves when we fall behind. But if this is something around half of students at the University of Bristol face, then it becomes an issue for our institution, not ourselves.
There have been many policy suggestions in this area, designed to alleviate this pressure on menstruators. Such suggestions include awareness-raising campaigns, inclusion of menstrual cycles as valid grounds for extensions and ECs and allowing those who bleed to have menstrual leave. While these policies are in their infancy, and require research into their design and implication, it is time the University of Bristol started to think more on how to support those who bleed. Our wellbeing, our health and our studies, matter.