"When I began to track my menstrual cycle manually and learn my body’s social cues, I saw a beauty in myself I hadn’t experienced before."
By staff writer and diversity content specialist, Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez
I can vividly remember my first experience of public shame related to menstruation, or period anxiety. I was in the sixth grade and had my period onset unexpectedly- at that age, reproductive cycles are still regulating. I was so afraid of those around me finding out 1) that I was having my period at school and 2) that I had bled on my uniform, that I was left frozen at my desk.
Period anxiety is best described as the accompanying shame, embarrassment, and fear attached to one's menstrual cycle- especially when those feelings develop out of fear of social ridicule.
These feelings impact individuals who menstruate all over the globe. They limit our ability to engage in social situations, see menstruation as normal, and often makes it difficult to accept ourselves unconditionally.
I would have preferred to literally die than reveal to my peers that I had experienced a natural body phenomenon. So I sat there silently and disengaged with a sweater around my waist until the school day ended. The fear of going through that experience a second time was enough to leave me cemented in a memory of agony.
Most individuals who have periods share some version of my story.
These feelings of discomfort are more than a matter of mental health- they can lead to disengagement from everyday life experiences. Research has shown correlations between menstruation and school absenteeism- particularly for those who fear ridicule. The rates are even worse in developing nations where individuals face higher rates of economic and environmental insecurity in addition to fears of social isolation.
Who it affects
Unlike other forms of social anxiety that are associated with specific life stages, period anxiety impacts women and girls from a variety of backgrounds and generations.
Earlier this year in partnership with OnePoll, Diva International Inc. (Diva), maker of the DivaCup found that a startling number of women were unprepared for their first period. The study surveyed 2,000 American women and found 30% experienced feelings of confusion at their first menses.
43% of those involved reported they were “scared” by the experience and an astounding 52% were embarrassed. However, the most unnerving detail of the survey is 48% of women had no prior context or conversations on what to expect from their period. That’s nearly half!
Those findings confirm many individuals have been robbed of the basic education required to normalize menstruation.
Where does it come from?
There are a variety of factors contributing to the negative associations many of us have with our periods.
First, many individuals are left completely in the dark about the realities and normalcy of menstruation and have their first encounters from a place of fear. The wide range of social stigmas, like women on their periods being seen as unclean, that come from many of our religious texts and historical ideologies doesn’t help.
But it isn’t all in the past. Contemporary culture has a wide range of ways to describe menstruation, think “being on the rag” or “The Crimson Horror .” The euphemisms we use to discuss periods leave us with really gruesome images.
Also consider this: Whenever a woman is firm in her “no” or takes an unwavering stand on a topic, she is asked, “Are you on your period”. Our daily language associates periods with being unreliable, unreasonable, and “hormonal”. It’s no wonder menstruation has an accompanying stigma.
All of this is made worse by our medical system’s unwillingness to look at menstrual irregularities on an individual basis. Instead of conducting proper diagnostics, the pill as often used a “cure all” well exceeding its original contraceptive intent.
Empowerment through education
Individuals who have periods need to more resources that promote empowerment relating to menstruating. The only way we can effectively accomplish this is through education.
Accepting ones period means accepting oneself. Research indicates higher levels of self-acceptance leads to better emotional well-being and even self-esteem.
Thankfully, while many women reported discomfort with their first period, 82 % of older millennials are comfortable discussing their period with others. Much of this shift is motivated by an increase in education, discussion, and peer support for millennial women.
Though not without critique, social movements like “free-bleeding” are signs that we are rejecting old narratives on menstruation.
Leaving period shame behind makes it that much easier to discuss reproductive issues with medical health practitioners which enables us to get past former “cure all” methods.
On a personal note, when I began to track my menstrual cycle manually and learn my body’s social cues, I saw a beauty in myself I hadn’t experienced before. Suddenly, my period shifted from a monthly annoyance to a reminder my body was healthy. Each month, I look forward to that fresh start.
How we can help change the conversation
If we want to continue increasing self-acceptance and reducing period anxiety, we have to do the work. We need to advocate for classroom materials that have more comprehensive sex ed and normalizes menstruation for women AND men.
A Thinx study that surveyed 1,500 women and 500 men found that 42% of women experienced period shaming from male friends families and classmates. We can’t afford to “shield” men from conversations on menstruation. They need to be informed and work just as hard to end stigma.
Starting conversations early and giving input on media programs that spread messages of shame surrounding periods is a great place to start. The Girl Foundation in India saw a 17% increase in school attendance when they had access to proper sanity care and education.
We must reinforce these messages in our own homes by teaching our girls that their sexuality is not a source of shame. Understanding one's body is necessary to be an involved participant in our medical treatment, sex lives, and reproductive choices.
We also need to stop hiding period products and make them more accessible. We supply toilet paper and consider it a hygienic necessity. Why don’t we ensure individuals have access to menstrual products? The lack of these actions sends a message to individuals who menstruate that they have been “othered” and are responsible for their own periods.
Lastly, we have to reevaluate ourselves- are we leading by example and promoting acceptance? Or are we teaching individuals who menstruate that they should be ashamed, one period at a time?Tanja Heffner