There are 1.8 billion people across the world who menstruate every month (UNICEF 2018). Periods are totally normal, and necessary for the continuation of human life. And yet they are shrouded in secrecy and shame.
What is period stigma?
Women all over the world are subjected to practices and experiences that add to period stigma.
For example, many menstruating women in India are prohibited from entering the temple and even certain spaces within their homes, such as the kitchen. They are not allowed to touch other people and objects.
Another extreme example is ‘chaupadi’ in Nepal, where women were exiled to special huts during their period (Amatya et al 2018). Thankfully this was outlawed in 2017, but severe restrictions still continue to be placed on women there when they menstruate.
These practices are steeped in the idea that menstrual blood is impure, and anything touched by a woman on her period is polluted. It can cause feelings of abandonment, insecurity, shame and guilt in women, which can be passed down through generations.
Period stigma in the UK
Period stigma is a reality closer to home too. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the charity ActionAid (2022) has shown that:
- a quarter of UK women have faced period shaming (negative comments from other people)
- 1 in 10 have faced negative comments about their period from a current or ex-partner
- more than a quarter of women aged 16 to 24 say being on their period has made them feel anxious in the last 12 months
So it’s not surprising that nearly half of UK girls aged 14 to 21 feel embarrassed by their period (Plan International UK 2018).
Impact of period stigma
Period stigma has a devastating impact on women’s lives. In rural India, 1 in 5 girls leave school after they get their first period (Jones et al 2016). Around 70% of girls in Malawi miss one to three days of school every month due to their period (Piper Piliteri et al 2012). And in Kenya, there have been reports of schoolgirls being beaten for not following instructions in PE classes due to the fear of leaking (Mason et al 2015).
And in the UK, millions of women have missed exercise, education and work over the last year due to their period (ActionAid 2022).
Poor period education
There is also a lack of awareness about periods. A girl’s first period is often a time of confusion, shock, and worry. Around 1 in 4 young women in the UK say they felt unprepared for the start of their period, and 1 in 7 didn’t know what was happening (Plan International UK 2018). Sometimes girls felt physically prepared, but not mentally supported.
Another problem with period education in UK schools is that it typically excludes boys. So half the population has no understanding of the lived experiences of women. This has consequences on relationships at home, in schools and workplaces. It also excludes transgender and non-binary people.
A related issue is the lack of access to safe and affordable period products. Period poverty is not just a problem in less developed parts of the world, it is a reality in the UK. Around 10% of girls in the UK have been unable to afford period products, and 19% have even had to resort to using socks, toilet paper or other unsuitable materials in their underwear (Plan International UK 2018).
The cost of products can mean that girls wear their period product for longer than they should. This can cause leaks, creating shame and ridicule for girls. Poor menstrual hygiene can result in issues such as reproductive and urinary tract infections. The cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated period poverty.
Building a more period positive world
Just as period shame has been constructed by society, we can also deconstruct it and build a more period positive world. Progress is slowly being made:
In January 2021, the UK government abolished the tampon tax, following in the footsteps of Canada, Australia and Germany. This tax had classed period products as non-essential items, pushing their price up further.
Scotland has since become the world’s first country to enshrine in law that period products must be free for all who need them. And in England, the Period Products Scheme enables all schools and colleges to offer free period products to their students.
Work is also being done to improve period education in schools. Chella Quint, founder of the #PeriodPositive movement, is committed to breaking, “the cycle of secrecy, fear and misinformation about periods”. She has worked on a Period Positive National curriculum for England to improve menstrual understanding across Key Stages 1-4 and beyond. A key aspect of this is to make period education inclusive of all genders, and the programme is being piloted in Sheffield.
Similarly, Menstrupedia, a fast-growing Indian start-up founded by Aditi Gupta and Tuhin Paul, has developed period education materials in the form of comic books, workshops and animated videos. These materials are being used by schools and NGOs, and have so far helped to educate 13 million children in India about menstruation.
- Changing the narrative
Organisations such as Bloody Good Period are reframing the conversation around periods. It encourages open discussion and nudges us to change our language.
For example, it urges us to say menstrual or period products instead of sanitary products or feminine hygiene products. This is because periods should not be seen as something dirty or unhygienic (and periods are not necessarily a marker of femininity).
It also encourages us to change the way we talk about period pain, something society has traditionally been dismissive about. Instead, we need to be more empathetic and provide advice and support.
How can brands help shatter the stigma?
Brands can play a big role in promoting period positivity. Some of the newer brands selling alternative products are already doing so, including Callaly, Thinx and DAME. Their promotional materials declare that periods should not be shameful. They call for fair access and education, and advocate sustainability.
Yet, as Koskenniemi (2021) has shown, many of these brands simultaneously use inauthentic marketing language that can be off-putting to consumers.
Here’s how brands can genuinely connect with their audience, while also breaking period taboos:
- Use period positive language
By simply using words like ‘menstruation’ or ‘periods’ and shunning euphemisms (for instance ‘time of the month’), brands can dial down the shame and help eradicate the concealment imperative.
- Capture a diverse range of lived experiences
By providing personal stories and accounts of all people who menstruate, across all ages, brands can help to normalise the conversation around menstruation for everyone.
- Be inclusive
Brands need to target not just women, but all people who have periods, so transgender and non-binary people who menstruate do not feel excluded.
- Tackle period poverty
Brands can play a big role in reducing period poverty by offering reusable products, reducing the cost of products and improving access to their products, for example by offering cheaper ranges or donating free products. This can also boost their standing in the eyes of consumers.
Gayatri is the Head of mHealth at Thrive. With a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, she has extensive experience working in global health projects as well as national level programmes such as India’s National AIDS Control Programme.
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ActionAid (2022) A quarter of UK women face period stigma as millions miss school, work and exercise. News Release. www.actionaid.org.uk/latest-news/quarter-uk-women-face-period-stigma-millions-miss-school-work-and-exercise
Jones, A (2016) The fight to end period shaming is going mainstream. Newsweek, April 20 2016. www.newsweek.com/2016/04/29/womens-periods-menstruation-tampons-pads-449833
Koskenniemi A (2021) Say no to shame, waste, inequality—and leaks: Menstrual activism in the market for alternative period products. Feminist Media Studies. DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2021.1948885
Mason L et al (2015) Adolescent schoolgirls’ experiences of menstrual cups and pads in rural western Kenya: a qualitative study. Waterlines, Vol. 34, No 1. www.jstor.org/stable/24688188
Piper Piliteri S (2012) School menstrual hygiene management in Malawi: More than toilets. WaterAid. assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57a08aa8e5274a27b20006d7/MenstrualHygieneManagement_Malawi.pdf
Plan International UK (2018) Break the Barriers: Girls’ Experiences of Menstruation in the UK. plan-uk.org/file/plan-uk-break-the-barriers-report-032018pdf/download?token=Fs-HYP3v
UNICEF (2018) FAST FACTS: Nine things you didn’t know about menstruation. www.unicef.org/press-releases/fast-facts-nine-things-you-didnt-know-about-menstruation#_edn1
UNICEF (nd) Menstrual Hygiene. www.unicef.org/wash/menstrual-hygiene