Why Is Talking About Periods Taboo?

One of the most taboo topics in history is the female body. Not only is female reproductive health massively underresearched, but it is rarely even discussed. This has left many women and trans men worldwide feeling unrepresented and as though their health is not taken seriously. In recent years, talking about periods has become more widely accepted. Even the proper scientific word, menstruation, is rarely used outside medical environments because it is considered taboo. But when did menstrual stigma start? And how can we work to change the negative attitude toward what is a normal bodily function for half of the population? 

It is essential that we unpack why menstrual stigma is such a big issue across the world because it puts women’s health at risk. Not only are women metaphorically and, in some countries, literally exiled while on their period, but the stigma also negatively impacts their view of themselves. It is crucial for both women and the planet that this taboo is left in the past and that we move toward an open and honest approach regarding periods.

Where Did Period Taboos Originate?

The word ‘taboo’ originates from the ancient Polynesian word for menstruation, ‘tabua’. This shows that prejudice around periods is a long standing issue. There is evidence of menstrual stigma throughout history from many different areas in the world. But where did this stigma come from? Was there ever a time when periods weren’t a source of shame for women? Ancient societies had their own beliefs on menstruating women; many saw period blood as dirty and menstruating women as powerful and dangerous. They were thought to have the ability to ruin crops and that even touching period blood could cause death. None of this is true. However, it began the belief that periods were something to be shied away from and that women should be ashamed of - which is still an underlying belief today.

The Time Before the Taboos

Menstruation has existed as long as humans have and even before that in our ancestors. It has been a source of shame for women for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time existed when periods were celebrated. But there was a time before all this stigma began when menstruation was a powerful and healing time of the month. There is evidence that the females of a tribe had syncopated menstrual cycles in line with the moon's phases. The Mbuti tribe in Zair is even a modern day example of periods being seen as powerful. They build the largest grass hut as a ‘Menstrual Hut’ where women go when they experience their first period.

The Silent Struggles Women Face

Talking about periods is essential in tackling the stigma and lack of understanding of female reproductive health. The lack of conversation around menstruation has meant that it has slipped under the radar when it comes to medical research into women’s health. This has a direct negative impact on the wellbeing of women around the world. The number of women and trans men who face serious health issues due to menstruation is growing, and unfortunately, taboos around periods are impacting their health further. A lack of conversation leads to a lack of awareness and knowledge of the scale of the problem. Conditions concerning the female reproductive system are often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, leaving women suffering monthly pain without being taken seriously. Some even have to quit their jobs because their symptoms prevent them from performing daily tasks.

Periods In the Workplace

This is a big topic of discussion in workplaces at the moment. Since women have been accepted into the professional world, they have had to carry out their daily work while menstruating. The continued taboos around periods and the female body has meant that those experiencing debilitating menstrual symptoms, such as endometriosis sufferers, have been expected to show up to work and produce the same output level as they would when not on their period. 

Research conducted by DPG found that:

  • 74% of women felt they needed to hide their sanitary products at work
  • 60% of women felt uncomfortable discussing periods with their colleagues and management

Periods and the Pandemic

In further research carried out by menstrual product provider Mooncup Ltd, 36.2% of women said that the Covid-19 pandemic positively affected their period experience because they could work from home on menstruation days. There is no doubt that working from home has brought many benefits to all employees who can do so. However, it still doesn’t tackle the problem of period stigma in the workplace. Is it merely just avoiding the issue? 

If this is the case, how can women ask for time off work when their period is causing them severe pain? If this topic were more widely accepted and spoken about, then many more women would feel like they could be open about their struggles.

The Importance of Removing Taboos in the Workplace

Almost half of the workforce in the UK is made up of women, so ignoring the topic of periods is no longer an option. Those suffering from health conditions such as amenorrhea (loss of period), endometriosis, and PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) face going undiagnosed because of the lack of research into the signs and symptoms. Women suffering from these conditions are more likely to miss work due to the painful side effects they experience. But they feel unable to be honest with their employers about their struggles. It takes an average of seven years for a woman to be diagnosed with endometriosis after displaying symptoms. During this time, she will likely have missed a lot of work due to painful periods, but she cannot communicate this in the workspace for fear of the response.

How Can Employers Help?

Giving women the space and support to be open and honest regarding menstruation is essential for employers to find out how they can best support them and help them work more optimally throughout the month. This can mean allowing them to work from home or take leave when they feel unwell and providing sanitary products and sufficient sanitary waste disposal bins in workplace bathrooms.

Has Stigma Perpetuated Period Poverty?

Period poverty is a widespread issue for women across the world. But if periods can’t be spoken about, then how will the scale of the problem be known? Women and girls living in poverty experience the same menstruation as those who do not face danger and health risks when they cannot access proper period care. The lack of conversation around periods is partly responsible for the scale of this issue. It leaves women unable to manage their periods with dignity making them vulnerable to infections and diseases due to poor menstrual hygiene.

What Is Period Poverty?

Those who menstruate and don’t have access to or cannot afford period care products are considered to be in period poverty. It is a serious problem in most countries worldwide but it is particularly prevalent in African countries. Anyone required to use sanitary products for longer than is safe because of a lack of supply is also considered in period poverty because they risk developing potentially fatal infections. African women and girls are often denied access to period care because of the shame and stigma surrounding menstruation, including the belief that they are dirty and not to be touched during their period. Many also have to put themselves in physical danger to access sanitary products each month.

Scotland Make Period Products Free

In 2021, the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation making period products free in the country. They were quoted as saying that their government “believes being able to access period products is fundamental to equality and dignity” for women and trans men in the country. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 will help to remove period poverty in the country, providing young girls, women, and trans men with direct access to the healthcare products they need without having to worry about the cost. Undoubtedly, this will be a huge relief to many menstruating people in Scotland.

How Can We Break the Period Stigma?

We can only tackle the issues around period stigma by opening up the conversation and being more vocal about the topic. People of any gender should feel they can approach the topic confidently, curiously, and without shame. Getting more specific with how periods are discussed will also help remove some of the mystery and lack of knowledge around such a common experience. Similarly, if and when a woman chooses to speak about her struggles with her period, they should be received with compassion and understanding. 

Spain Offers Monthly Menstrual Leave 

As of this year (2023), the Spanish government has decided to grant women up to three days of menstrual leave every month. The legislation will apply to all workplaces, allowing women to take menstrual leave during the worst days of their cycle on top of their annual leave. There is also the option of extending this leave to five days if a woman experiences particularly painful period symptoms due to an ongoing condition. They are the first European country to pass this legislation, which is incredibly important in removing taboos. Providing women with this additional time off demonstrates an awareness and understanding of their struggles, making them more visible to employers.

There is still a long way to go in removing period taboos from the world, but Europe is heading in the right direction. To raise awareness and dismantle the stigma around menstruation, we need to continue the conversation and not be afraid to learn about and see periods as the normal and essential bodily functions they are. This is essential for helping women view their own periods as a vital part of who they are and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Greater awareness and acceptance will help reduce the risks associated with poor menstrual hygiene and lack of access to sanitary products.

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