The Invisible: Menstrual Taboos in the 21st Century

by Vanessa Smiley | 3/28/18 2:20am


Menstrual stigmas are rooted not in what is said but in what goes unsaid. We encounter them in the silence between words, in the euphemisms that have spilled into our social script to claim a language of their own, reflexive but prosaic. “I’m under the weather.” “It’s my time of month.” “Aunt Flow is here.” All substitutes for a process whose denotation of blood and connotation of dirtiness have rendered it too “unfeminine” to be called by its formal name: menstruation.

We relegate menstruation to the private and thus invisible sphere. Kaysi Herrera-Pujols ’20 believes firmly in the de-stigmatization of women’s hygiene. “It’s a silencing factor for a lot of women,” Pujols said. “It’s something that we are taught from when we are young to be ashamed of even though it’s something natural.”

On International Women’s Day, Pujols worked at a booth handing out women’s hygiene products. Hannah Gallen ’19, who worked for the company Brandless during her sophomore spring, set up a “Take Care” booth in Novack Café that handed out free tampons and pads as part of Brandless’s initiative to deconstruct the shame associated with menstruation.

“I was very obnoxious about it,” Pujols admited. “I thought, ‘This has got to happen,’ [so] I just kept yelling, ‘Get your tampons!’ and things like that.”

It was a timely yet unorthodox gesture that naturally raised a few eyebrows.

“There was a range of [reactions],” Gallen said. “I think most people were really excited ... [but] there were also people who were maybe made a little uncomfortable about it, or were confused or a little embarrassed and wanted to kind of just walk past without making eye contact.”

It’s the 21st century after all, an era characterized by relentless activism and an unwavering commitment to equality. Women no longer have to embrace docility as a marker of femininity. They no longer have to confine their identities to the cult of domesticity, or sexual expression to the domain of marriage. However, this vision is only one side of the coin, as the same backward beliefs that once conflated menstruation and uncleanliness have not vanished despite our progress.

Pujols locates the origins of this invisibility in the widespread adherence to gender binarism. “A lot of people believe in the [gender binary] when it’s obviously a spectrum,” she said. “And since women are viewed as being so different from men, [menstrual periods are] just another factor that makes women different.”

Difference: a double-edged sword. On one hand, difference forms the bedrock of identity. After all, we perceive the world in binary oppositions, such that the first step in defining who we are is determining who we are not. We are living because we are not objects, humans because are not animals and, in the context of gender, male because we are not female, or female because we are not male. The condition of ‘difference’, then, sustains the very categories that form our gender binary. As a biological marker of femininity, then, menstruation becomes the chosen point at which a unified human race fragments into gender categories and males and females diverge into their separate scripts.

What began as a differentiating factor between the sexes has morphed into a social stigma.

“Everything [about menstruation] is supposed to be very hidden,” Pujols said. “I feel like that’s very unfair because you shouldn’t have to hide something that’s just a normal bodily function.”

Serena Nanji-Totani ’21, whose life experiences in England, France, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Romania and Singapore have forced her to navigate multiple cultural terrains simultaneously and with ease, expressed similar sentiments.

“There’s a belief that being on your period makes you unclean, so culturally I understand why there’s a stigma,” she said. “But do I think it’s right? Of course not. It’s such a natural process ... The reason why men are on this earth is also because of menstruation.”

Nanji-Totani observes that menstrual stigmas wreak the most havoc in “places where women don’t have as much authority.” She cites a study identifying Kenya as one such place.

“In Kenya,” Nanji-Totani said, referencing the study, “girls’ school attendance goes down when they are on their periods ... because they think that boys are going to shun them for being on their periods.”

The deep-seated, if outdated, associations between menstruation and uncleanliness account as much for such declines in school attendance as does women’s inability to access adequate hygiene products. Therefore, the Kenyan girls in this study likely fear not their period itself but rather the reactions that a visible period stain may elicit from their male counterparts, revealing the extent to which blood has become a source of shame. The solution? Conceal any and all signs of menstruation, even if this means compromising their education.

“This is a huge detriment to women,” Nanji-Totani said. After all, Kenyan girls’ decision to skip school not only perpetuates a culture that seeks to render menstruation invisible but also reinforces the very stereotypes that stigmatize menstruation in the first place.

Granted, we must be careful in drawing parallels between girls in Kenya and women at Dartmouth, as the socioeconomic climate in Kenya has denied women choices most students here have. Still, even Dartmouth is not exempt from the social and political implications of menstrual stigmas.

“We still live in a patriarchal society,” Nanji-Totani said, “so tampons are taxed, pads are taxed, even though Viagra is not taxed.” The state governments, that selectively tax these products, thereby participate in the stigmatization of women’s hygiene: in granting Viagra but denying tampons tax-exempt status, they unwittingly exclude menstruation from the now-also-patriarchal category of “necessity.”

To make matters worse, menstrual stigmas have encroached on the terrain of ideology, packaging themselves as the norms and standards to which women hold themselves and others accountable.

This norm of invisibility originates at least partially in a heterosexual male fantasy that objectifies the female body. Unfortunately, women have internalized the male gaze such that they do not merely embrace the size-zero-toned-abs body ideal as their own, but even participate and at times find empowerment in their own objectification.

Unsurprisingly, advertisements for menstrual products often trumpet a non-menstruating figure as the ideal woman and blatantly overlook matters of menstrual health, focusing instead on how to prevent leakages and boost confidence during the menstrual phase. Moreover, in a crass attempt promote an attitude of secrecy towards menstruation, these ads regularly employ blue liquid as a symbolic substitute for blood. Implicit in these advertisements is the message that women ought to hide their periods from the public eye. To appear non-menstruating is to legitimize the invisible nature of menstruation, itself the perfect breeding ground for stigmas.

Sunbir Chawla ’21, who lived in India before coming to Dartmouth, admits that he has “no idea whatsoever” about periods.

“I’ve never talked to any girl about this, not even within my family,” Chawla said. “I never knew things like this existed until I was about 16 or 17 ... we don’t even talk about this in my house.”

Pujols noticed this same unawareness in some of the males who approached her at Novack.

“A lot of guys were super interested and just grabbed products for their friends or sisters,” Pujols said. “But they weren’t sure what anything was [and] would be like ‘Oh I don’t know about this,’ or ‘Don’t ask me about periods because I don’t know anything about them.’”

This silence and lack of awareness fuels the stigma against menstruation.

“If people get to talk less about [menstruation], it means there is less awareness of issues related to the topic.” Chawla said.

The Take Care booth at Dartmouth last term therefore sought to render the invisible visible, and in doing so naturalize a process that has been horribly de-naturalized.

For Puljos, the public nature of the Take Care booth worked to spread awareness of menstration and the stigma that follows it.

“I think it really helped people [realize] that [menstruation] is a normal thing.” Pujols said.

Gallen echoed Puljos’ sentiment, noting the positive effects of “women and people in general interacting with this display in a public space,” Gallen said.

Gallen added that setting up the Take Care booth on International Women’s Day was “an apt way to celebrate” by “de-stigmatizing very natural bodily functions that aren’t talked about.”

As Puljos saw it, the tactic they used to spread awareness was successful. “People kept coming to us and asking us questions about ‘What is this for,’ ... and things like that,” Pujols said.

We cannot tackle that which cannot be seen. Granted, one campaign will not eradicate a stigma that has now claimed a relatively permanent status in society.

“It takes a long time to change people’s mindset,” Gallen said. “Stigmas are a social and cultural force that [are] more complex than just a policy or something that needs to change.”

Nonetheless, the initiative to bring an invisible issue to the forefront is the first step in normalizing and thereby reducing the stigma against menstruation. We too can contribute to this campaign in our daily conversations by ditching the euphemisms and labelling menstruation for what it is. Period.

Correction Appended (April 3, 2018):

A previous version of the March 28 article “The Invisible: Menstrual Taboos in the 21st Century” did not specify that Nanji’s comments about Kenyan girls were in reference to a specific study and were not meant as a generalization of the entire country. This story has been updated to reflect this correction.

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