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How to Stop Menstrual Stigma

Did you know that menstrual stigma results in discrimination, disempowerment, and even delays in crucial medical diagnosis? True story. It’s yet another facet of the movement for gender justice.

So, how do we stop it? How do we make it better? What can each of us do to stop menstrual stigma?

Prof. Inga T. Winkler, co-editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, has overseen the compilation of a volume of more than 1,000 pages by 134 contributors from more than 30 countries on the diversity of menstrual experiences and the social issues surrounding it. And, today in this guest post we’re super grateful for, she’s sharing how we can all help stop menstrual stigma.

Menstruation: From Moment to Movement

By Inga T. Winkler

Menstruation is having a moment: Scotland just announced it would provide free menstrual products to all to address “period poverty.” While other countries such as Kenya have been at the forefront of such initiatives, Scotland is the first to do this on such a large scale.

But a moment doesn’t necessitate a movement, and pads, cups, and tampons alone won’t fix the challenges people who menstruate experience. These challenges are largely based in the perception and treatment of those who menstruate — stigma surrounds menstruation, down to the word itself.

Why do we have thousands of euphemisms for menstruation? Why is it that we’re told we shouldn’t swim while menstruating? Or that we must hide any evidence of menstruation in the restroom? Experiments demonstrate that upon knowing someone is menstruating, we consider them less competent and less likeable. The painful condition endometriosis, which affects roughly 11 percent of women in the US between 15 and 44, has a diagnostic delay of 7.5 years — and this fact hasn’t changed in a decade. Why is that?

Menstrual stigma is perpetuated by all of us, but on the upside that means that all of us have the power to change the social norms and expectations around menstruation. What role can you play, and how do we make sure menstruation’s current moment shifts to a movement for greater social change?

Do you menstruate?

Talk directly about your menstrual experience — stop using euphemisms like “that time of the month.” There’s no need to panic at the sight of blood on towels or sheets; there’s no need to hide used products with a mummy’s worth of toilet paper. Sex during menstruation doesn’t have to be taboo!

Not menstruating?

Do the research. Listen to and follow the lead of the people in your life who menstruate. Understand that menstrual experiences (and menopause!) aren’t monolithic. Don’t stereotype menstruating people as “emotional” or “hysterical.”

Parents and guardians:

Children learn how to act from you, and do so from an early age. Normalize menstruation, and familiarize them with it. This doesn’t have to be “the” talk, but instead a normal part of life, regardless of whether your child will one day menstruate.

Educators:

Body literacy doesn’t just have to be a part of sex ed. Make menstruation and its social context part of your curricula. New York just adopted a bill on menstrual health education. On a personal note, one of the most fascinating and fun courses I’ve taught is on Menstruation, Gender, and Rights.

Healthcare workers:

The menstrual cycle should be considered a vital sign as much as temperature or blood pressure. Don’t dismiss patients’ symptoms or menstrual pain. Take them seriously and take the time to listen and work with your patients to find solutions to menstrual health conditions. These should receive the same level of attention, funding, research, and care as other health conditions.

Employers:

Create a workplace where employees can address cramps and period pain without fear and shame, and find flexible arrangements to address the needs of people who menstruate. Everyone will benefit — not just those who menstruate.

Organizers:

It’s all connected. How is combatting menstrual stigma connected with the causes you’re fighting for? We need a broad movement that holds space for people from different backgrounds on lines of race, ethnicity, ability, and gender identity. If you’re a white, able-bodied, cisgender woman like me, use your privilege to amplify the voices of those who face marginalization.

Let’s create a world where no one will be fired because their heavy bleeding “soiled” the carpet, as in the case of a call center worker in Georgia. Where prison guards can’t degrade incarcerated women by withholding menstrual products. Where people with disabilities aren’t sterilized to better “manage” menstruation. Where a tampon or pad wrapper isn’t incredibly fraught for a trans or genderqueer person. Where PMSing as reason for discounting a person’s thoughts is left in the past. Where education gets ahead of the schoolyard rumor mill and children understand the physical, mental, and social changes they are experiencing — before they reach menarche.

Once we have lifted menstrual stigma, it will be our choice (and ours only) to either curl up on the couch — or take on the world. –Inga Winkler

Inga Winkler is a lecturer at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and the Director of its Working Group on Menstrual Health & Gender Justice. She is particularly interested in the intersections of menstruation, human rights, and culture and focuses on questions of inequalities, marginalization, and representation. Most recently co-editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, Winkler has also written books on the human right to water, and co-edited a volume on sustainable development. The former legal adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, she earned her Doctorate in Human Rights at the University of Düsseldorf and now lives in Ohio.

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