Feminism Friday: Why can’t periods be private?

You’ve all seen the ‘vagina knitting’ woman, right? Or if you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard about it? (If not, you can read all about it – including the response – here.) But that’s not really what I want to talk about.

When a friend posted it on Facebook, she tagged me in, asking what I thought. (Three friends sent it to me, in fact. Should I be concerned that they all saw ‘vagina knitting’ and thought of me?!) A discussion ensued, during which I mentioned that I thought demystifying periods was important and my friend asked why. Why does it need to be demystified? Why can’t it be private?

My feeling is that we’re not taught so much to be “private” as we are to be ashamed. I was told never to mention periods in front of boys. A friend told me about buying tampons and the (female) shop assistant put a newspaper down on top and whispered, “There’s a man behind you, love.” I read this quote from Stevie Nicks on Rainbow Rowell’s tumblr a while ago:

The world teaches you that the way you exist in it is disgusting — you watch boys cringe backward in your dorm room when you talk about your period, blue water pretending to be blood in a maxi pad commercial. It is little things, and it is constant. In a food court in a mall, after you go to the gynecologist for the first time, you and your friend talk about how much it hurts, and over her shoulder you watch two boys your age turn to look at you and wrinkle their noses: the reality of your life is impolite to talk about.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about either.

The other day on Twitter, I read this from @allthepie: “I was reading recently that discussion of 3rd world sanitation ignores the gender inequality crossover whereby girls are forced to give up school [because] there aren’t facilities for menstruation. How this can be ignored as a social/health issue?”

Girls are forced to give up school because there aren’t facilities for menstruation. 

When I read that, my eyes filled with tears, but then I had another, stranger, reaction – I felt like an electric shock ran right through my body from the top of my head to my toes and it left me almost vibrating. With grief. And anger. And shame.

I went on to read this on WaterAid’s Gender Aspects of Water and Sanitation:

Girls who have reached menstrual age may also be deterred from school by inadequate sanitation in public places. Simple measures, such as providing schools with water and latrines, and promotion hygiene education in the classroom, can enable girls to get an education, especially after they reach puberty, and reduce health-related risks for all. WaterAid Bangladesh found that a school sanitation project with separate facilities for boys and girls helped boost girls’ school attendance 11 per cent per year, on average, from 1992 to 1999.

And I read Jamuna’s Story on Just A Drop.

12 year old Jamuna is from Parumpai Kandikai Village in India. Each month, she – along with 350 million other women – feels ashamed, uncomfortable and unsafe.

This is because in India, menstruation is cloaked in secrecy, negativity and stigma. This taboo inflicts indignity upon millions of girls such as Jamuna, leaving them isolated and insecure. Furthermore, with even more serious consequences, the grave lack of toilet facilities can force menstruating girls out of school, temporarily and sometimes permanently. In fact, 23% of Indian girls leave school altogether when they begin to menstruate.

This is why it needs to be demystified. This is why it can’t be private. This.

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11 thoughts on “Feminism Friday: Why can’t periods be private?

  1. Such an important post, Keris. Only in therapy last year was I able to start talking about the huge public shaming I experienced at school when I started my periods age 9 (thankfully home was ok, my mum prepared me early, but I never told her what happened at school). Even now I feel embarrassed if a man is on the till when I go to pay for STs. (In fact I feel embarrassed now just even writing about it here)

    I hadn’t even made the connection to schooling elsewhere. Are there any campaigns you know of that we can support?

    Thanks again for voicing this.

    1. So sorry to hear of your experience, Alison. Awful. I’m going to find some campaigns and post about them here (but really I want to start one – still trying to find out how to do that).

  2. Really great post. A lot of young women have told me that Mira’s feelings of hiding her periods in ‘ Artichoke Hearts’ are true to them. Especially as young girls are increasingly starting periods in Primary School and facilities may not cater for this.

    1. That’s such a good point, Sita. We were expected to change for PE in front of the boys at primary school (well, in a separate room, but it had glass walls) and at least a couple of girls already had their periods. :/ There was no understanding from teachers, or when we started swimming classes either.

  3. Yes, swimming was always the nightmare, though some bolder than me, have told me that they used periods as a way of getting out of swimming way before they actually started! I think things are changing in Primary now and teachers are very aware of young girls starting earlier.

    1. I do hope things are better now. I can’t remember what provision there was at primary school when I started (it is coming up to 32 years ago now). I don’t recollect any issues at the school itself, the shaming came from some boys finding tampons in my school bag, which was hanging in the cloakroom, and escalated from there. I do remember at secondary school the school nurse not being overly sympathetic about period pains, & I had them & PMS v bad.

      So hope things are better than that. Funnily enough I touch on the issue as one of the side stories in the novel I’m writing.

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