By Emma Libner for the Menstrual Health Hub (MH Hub)
Nearly half of the world’s population menstruates at some point in their lives. Menstruation can affect everything from education and gender equality to the economy and the environment. So why aren’t we talking about periods more?
When Berlin-based student Franka Frei planned to write her bachelor thesis in applied media studies at a major German university in 2018, no one would have thought that it would eventually cause a stir that would shake the country. Unlike her fellow students, Franka was passionate about understanding more about the taboos surrounding menstruation for her bachelor’s thesis.
There was just one problem: not a single professor in her faculty was willing to have anything to do with her project.
Writing back and forth to different professors, both men and women, Franka received a handful of comments about how unacceptable and unsuited for academic research they found her topic to be. A few even tried to talk her out of it. In the end, Franka followed her instincts and went on to write her thesis on the taboo of menstruation as portrayed in German media.
Upon graduating she reflected on her experience in a Facebook post, in which she critiqued the conservative academic culture that almost prevented her from doing her research. The post went viral overnight, and Franka suddenly found herself at the center of what looked like a small period revolution in Germany.
Franka’s story is a funny one, as it proves the very thing she wanted to show: that menstruation is indeed still a taboo in our society, even in a wealthy ‘Westernized’ country like Germany that often prides itself with being open and allowing for critical thinking.
Franka’s story also proves another point: that menstruation is a political issue that intersects with almost every sphere of society. This is why we need to draw inspiration from Franka and talk about it!
The long history of menstrual taboos
The discourse surrounding menstruation goes back thousands of years and has been shaped by different historical and cultural factors throughout time. In Everyday Discourses of Menstruation — Cultural and Social Perspectives by Victoria Louise Newton, we have learned that the earliest written accounts of menstruation are the The Old Testament’s book of Leviticus and the Corpus Hippocraticum, a collection of medical texts written in ancient Greece around 400–500 BC, and have often linked to Aristotle.
In both texts, menstruation is specifically linked to a woman’s social status: In the book of Leviticus, menstruation is presented as impure and a sign of women’s sinfulness, and in the Corpus Hippocraticum it is interpreted as a sign of women’s weak nature and her inferiority to man (by then it was even believed that women were degenerate versions of men and that their vaginas were in fact inverted penises).
Since then, many texts have additionally described the polluting nature of menstruation, sometimes linking the mysterious blood to a woman’s destructive powers. One often-cited source is Gaius Plinius Secundus (also known as Pliny the Elder, 23–79 AD), who believed that a woman on her periods would turn wine sour and cause food to go bad (among many things).
It wasn’t until 1958, after centuries of speculation and superstition, that menstruation was finally proved to be harmless. But even so, many of the deeply rooted beliefs remained.
Secretive discourses continue to keep periods hidden away
Despite scientific evidence that periods are a normal biological sign, mystery and shame surrounding a woman’s monthly blood flourishes in varying forms to this day, one of the most prevalent being the way we are taught to keep menstruation a secret.
Fueled by the lack of accurate information, adequate education and the fact that in places like the US and Australia, companies have used blue liquid to illustrate menstrual blood along with words like “secret”, “whisper” and “discrete” in the marketing of menstrual products. In fact, menstruation takes up such a tiny space in public that images of actual menstrual blood have been censored several times by Facebook and Instagram for not complying with the sites’ community guidelines.
As a result of the secrecy and shame surrounding menstruation, people who menstruate continue to be held back from enjoying the same privileges as those who do not.
Menstruation as a prism for political action
Despite the culture of hiding it, menstrual health is omnipresent in every layer of society: female health matters in schools and workplaces as well as in any other place where we work, live or play. We simply cannot avoid menstruation. Because of this, periods intersect with so many spheres of society and raise important questions about human rights, gender equality, education, healthcare, the economy and the environment.
For instance, if a menstruating person does not have access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities in their school or workplace, they may not be able to comfortably study or work for the duration of their period, or their productivity would decrease a great deal because of fear of bleeding through and face shame and stigma.
Another possibility is that symptoms of menstrual discomfort, such as cramps and pain, can keep them from performing well in school or at work (or going at all) — this was recently uncovered in a large Dutch survey about menstruation and presenteeism in the workplace.
Studies show that when girls and women get the same access to education as boys, they marry later, have fewer and healthier children, experience less sexual violence and raise their country’s annual per capita by 0.3 % for every 1 % more girls who attend secondary education.
In other words: when tackling periods as a societal issue instead of reproducing shame and stigma, everyone benefits.
Hence, periods are political. It’s about time we treat them that way instead of dismissing them as simply a “women’s issue”.