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Removing the Stigma Around Menstruation

As with any topic that is shrouded in secrecy or surrounded by stigma, the fallout is shame, misinformation and an inaccessibility to the necessary avenues of support.  Menstruation is one such topic.  The historical views surrounding it have resulted in both menstruation, and those who menstruate, often being presented as shameful, dirty, inferior and impure.  Only by having open and factual conversations can we all correct this skewed and erroneous view surrounding menstruation and its impact on reproductive health.


Historical Views of Menstruation


The historical writings and viewpoints surrounding menstruation have aided in creating an environment of shame.  A Globe and Mail article based on Jen Gunter’s latest book Blood: The Science, Medicine, and Mythology of Menstruation  speaks of the menstrual cycle as “the wheel that drives humanity”.   


Writings from around AD70, by Pliny the Elder state that menstruation “is productive of the most monstrous effects”. And he further writes that crops “will wither and die”, and bees “will forsake their hives if touched by a menstruous woman”.   The concept of menses being toxic was prevalent throughout many historical writings.  The Medieval Era brought with it religious shame surrounding menstruation, resulting in finding ways to cover up the presence of one’s period.  The Tudor Era (late 1400s-1600s) added another layer of shame and misinformation with the beliefs that “menstruation was thought to be a punishment from God, a curse on Eve for succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden. Menstruating women were regarded to be dirty and unclean, thus the church forbade them from using pain medications to endure the suffering.” 


As much as one would hope that opinions improved into the 1900s, the nature of advertisements point to this as still being a taboo topic that required hiding.  In 1950, Good Housekeeping, the popular women’s magazine, published an advert for Modess’ newly packaged sanitary towels, which read: “So skilfully shaped not to look like a napkin box, that the sharpest eyes couldn’t guess what’s inside the wrapping.” 




A euphemism is defined by the Oxford Languages as “a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.”   And that definition pretty much sums up the tone of how periods have been viewed throughout history.


The sheer number of euphemisms that exist about menstruation support the overriding tone of unpleasantness and embarrassment.  According to a 2016 survey by Clue, the period-tracking app, more than 5,000 euphemisms are used around the world for menstruation.  A few are as follows: That time of the month, Aunt Flo, surfing the crimson tide, moon time, the curse, the visitor, my girl, Carrie, the English have landed, on the rag, shark week, and a variety of others, some by country and regions. 


Removing the Shame


Ultimately, we must all understand that periods are simply a natural biological process that needs to be discussed openly.  The only way to have access to reproductive healthcare, information and products is by having conversations about them.  Everyone needs to feel safe and comfortable discussing menstruation, including having access to period products and healthcare.  Reproductive health is shrouded in misinformation as well due to this uncomfortable and shameful tone through history.  Many people who bleed do not access medical assistance for reproductive conditions due to shame or embarrassment, miss school, sports and work due to lack of access to period products, choose between food/rent/bills versus period products (otherwise known as period poverty), or suffer in silence from painful periods, endometriosis, and other reproductive conditions. 


This overtone is still prevalent in today’s society and this history of menstrual stigma continues to have a negative impact on people who menstruate. In 2021, a group of researchers concluded that feelings of stigma and shame perpetuate the expectation that people should hide their menstruation.

We MUST begin to speak openly about menstruation. We need to remove the euphemisms that shroud it as shameful and secret. We need to make period products (tampons, pads, menstrual cups) accessible to all people who require them.  We need to educate society that menstruation is a normal physical biological process.  We need to remove the verbiage “feminine hygiene” and replace it with menstrual products. As Jen Gunter states “They are not “feminine hygiene” products because needing them is not a sign of being feminine – it’s a sign that you need something to catch blood – and they’re not hygiene products because menstruating is not unhygienic. They are menstrual products. And they’re essential.


It is only by all working together that we can change the conversation around menstruation and reproductive health.

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