So why is it that when this particular bodily function is broached on national television that hundreds of letters of complaint follow shortly after?
When Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui post-analysed her 100-metre backstroke at Rio 2016, she – albeit unknowingly – broke down a major misconception in her home country about menstruation.
The 23-year-old – who fretted about the speed of her performance due to the early onset of her period – innocently enlightened an unthinkable number of Chinese teenage girls who had not previously known that swimming while menstruating without leaving blood in the pool is possible.
An influx of social media posts on this very topic flooded the internet the very next day.
This is because tampons are reportedly rare in China – due to wildly fictional health taboos surrounding them, including that they could devirginate those who use them – leading to a mere 2% uptake of people who use them.
This taboo – further exemplified by the many euphemisms that fall in its place; some 5,000 slang words worldwide allegedly – runs so deep that in 2015, there were no tampons manufactured in China, but there were 85 billion pads produced in the country.
In the neighbourly subcontinent of India, it’s common practise for menstruating women to not be allowed in the kitchen or attend ritual practices. The concept of menorrhoea (read: menstrual blood flow) is considered everything from unnatural to unsanitary – causing children all over the world to forego inquiring about its very nature due to fear of shame.
Some 23% of Indian girls go the whole hog and actually drop out of school upon reaching puberty, humiliated by their peers and unable to access clean, private toilets.
Cultural taboos and squeamishness may be one thing, but in Ireland, figures collected by Plan International show that nearly half of teenage girls in this country are struggling to afford sanitary products during their period, resulting in school days missed.
The shame is not simply about periods, but of the embarrassment of not being able to afford something so fundamental.
This is why more action is required instead of more endless conversation. While the latter is important, it is legislation that will help the next scourges of period poverty: homeless women without access to sanitary products and the tampon tax that still exists.
However, the wheels are slowly in motion for change. More women are reporting to gynaecologists when curious symptoms show. Children are now being taught to speak up instead of skip school. And, at the time of writing, even governments are tuning in to the conversation for the first time.
Just last year, a group of English activists single-handedly created a world in which sanitary products are dispensed freely to those who attend school. Following the Scottish model, tackling period poverty is now firmly on the agenda thanks to a cross-government push. About bloody time.
For years now, campaigners emboldened by social media have warned that the majority of girls from low-income families continue to miss school during their periods as they simply can’t afford sanitary products and fear ‘free-bleeding’. Others, doubled over with pain, are too terror-stricken to request pain relief for fear they’ll be outed as ‘dirty’ or ‘dramatic’.
Following the footsteps of our British counterparts, the Seanad just months ago passed a motion on “period poverty” proposed by the Oireachtas Women’s Caucus, having already been passed by the Dáil on 13 March.
The motion calls on the Government to provide free, adequate, safe and suitable sanitary products in all public buildings, and to arrange more comprehensive menstrual education in schools. It also calls for the Government to prioritise the issue of menstrual equity for gender equality as central to its overseas development programme.
Tampons and sanitary towels are not subject to VAT in Ireland which has a zero rate treatment on women’s sanitary products.
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The Irish rate was implemented before EU legislation imposed reduced VAT rates on certain goods and services. This legislation has prevented other EU members, like the UK, from reducing their VAT rate on sanitary products to 0%.
In Ireland, sanitary towels can cost anywhere between €2 - €6 a pack, with the average pack containing 10-15 pads. Tampons range in price from about €1.50 - €6 a pack. A 12 pack of pain relief tablets costs somewhere in the region of €4.20. A woman will have 13 periods a year with some using up to 22 tampons and/or towels per cycle leading to an estimated cost of €132.34 for sanitary products per year.
With economical uncertainty at the forefront of people’s minds, spending disposable income on disposable products is just not a fiscal priority in the nation’s current mindscape. And, understandably so.
For any learned women whose formative years have been shaped by the media, it’s easy to say that the overbearing stigma attached to our monthly flows is a direct result of consumerism. And, yes, while a discussion held by men in suits who decided that the miracle of the womanly form was indeed offensive has definitely perpetuated the narrative – I’m afraid to say that this particular mark of disgrace has actually been around for as long as women have had uterine lining to shed.
To counteract the idea that period reticence is a direct result of multi-million pound ad campaigns looking to target the meek and weary, let us look at how the stigma around menstruation existed long before the world of economic theory was born.
Long before the production of sanitary products – of which even the wording would suggest that those who make use of them are ‘un-sanitary’ – it was actually religiously-affiliated, misogynistic societies which chose to believe that people who menstruate are unclean 5-7 days out of every month.
In Biblical times, it was the four Evangelists who boasted most interest in a woman’s monthly flow, stating; “If a woman have issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even”
“Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean, they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus, 15:19).
The Quran states that one should “go apart from women during the monthly course, do not approach them until they are clean.”
The first Latin encyclopedia (72 AD) mentions that “contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour … and a horrible smell fills the air”, and even the word ‘taboo’ itself comes from the Polynesian word tapua which roughly translates to “menstruation”.
However, periods haven’t always been taboo in Ireland. While countries further afield have shamed women and even banished them from places of worship during that time of the month, Ireland’s association with the natural process that is catamenia has always been taken at face value.
Stories of mythological Irish creatures often involved candid conversation about menses, with the likes of Queen Medb frequently and openly discussing the state of her uterine lining. Even more commendable, were the tales of old Irish heroines who wished the physical pain of menstrual cramps on the males who irked her.
Is this because mythological Ireland heralded stories of both female and male warriors in equal measure?
For the ancient Celt, the essence and harbinger of all life was female. Women were revered for their minds as well as their bodies. As a result, Celtic women were free to bear arms, engage in politics, and become Druids until at least the seventh century.
Is it the by-product of this change in some 650AD that led modern women to believe that hiding tampons up their sleeves en route to the bathroom was necessary?
While times have changed – we say tentatively, knowing that plenty still hold the same beliefs – older vistas are often pardoned due to cultural differences in terms of hygiene and sanitation. Meaning that any sight of bodily fluid would have compromised family health and thus put the weakest at risk.
However, these iron-clad beliefs are often handed down maternally – with misogynistic stigma and the pitfall of generational divide along with it.
Another snag on the ladder of period power? Consumerism, once more.
Playing on the belief that being outspoken about one’s body is a middle-class game, wellness sites the world over have – at the hands of their PR teams, no doubt – released ranges of menstruation accessories to ensure that your period, and most importantly your reaction to it, is sincerely in vogue.
When menstruation in these cases is actually spoken out in the open, it’s rarely at a price that any of us can afford. Cue the flogging of jade eggs, period tracking jewellery and menstrual discs which incur more exclusivity to an already shielded topic by adding a growing cost price that not many can match.
The way to remove the white-knuckled grip of stigma from periods is accessibility.
Earlier this year, coding consortium Unicode – which distributes emojis across mobile devices – included the “period emoji” in the iPhone’s latest update. The emoji – a singular red blood drop – is the result of an online petition signed by more than 55,000 people all aiming to create a world where taboo is lifted and chat about monthly bleeding is free.
While a blood-red emoji is not going to change the world, the unabashed availability of it might provoke conversation – what we’re really looking for.
In March 2019, a 26-minute documentary – which is currently available on Netflix – about period taboo in India won an Oscar. Period. End of Sentence. focuses on a group of women in a small village, 60km outside of New Delhi, as they grow in independence and awareness following the installation of a pad-making machine in their village. Following the film’s airing, the machine’s inventor, Arunachalam Muruganantham said that his goal is to make India a 100 per cent sanitary napkin-using country—far from the current number which is less than 10 per cent.
While the discussion of such topics may not seem revolutionary to those of us who’ve grown up in a Western world, know that the concept of menstrual shame is so deeply prevalent in some countries that the consequences can often be fatal.
As recently as December, Nepali police arrested the brother-in-law of a woman who died in a so-called "menstruation hut". Parbati Buda Rawat, 21, was found dead after engaging in the tradition of Chhaupadi – confinement to an outdoor hut during monthly shedding due to the belief that menstruation is a ‘bringer of bad luck’.
We, as a society, have clung onto the belief that talking about one’s mental health among friends is of utmost importance – so why can’t we adopt the same mentality with our periods?
Charlotte Amrouche is the founder of Míosta, a series of menstrual workshops at national universities which aims to smash the stigma and encourage conversation around the blood flow that befalls some 50% of us each month.
In each two-hour class, Amrouche combines a series of self-reflective exercises with reusable product demonstrations in attempts to provide a fully comprehensive menstruation experience for those interested in discussing.
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MÍOSTA is coming to UCD next Wednesday 3 - 5.30pm, 23/10, Red Room (obvs!), New Student Centre link in bio to get your free tickets lovelies! we’re going to learn all about reusables, smash some menstrual shame, discuss contemporary menstrual issues + create some bloody activist interventions. it’s going to be fab ✨✨ spread the word. tell your friends. tell your enemies. we need lots more menstrual loving in this world + that’s for sure snap of my last MÍOSTA workshop table, including gorge menstrual manifesto tote bags from my friend @cycleseeds + some truly menstrual taboo busting prints + stickers by @hello_catalina all for sale at my workshops also all the gorge sample cups, pads, period underwear + organic disposables gifted to the MÍOSTA project. v. soon i am going to do a wee instagram story featuring all these amazing products so those of you who can’t make a workshop can also learn about reusables + ask all the questions you always had! ps: send me a message if you are not a UCD student + we’ll see what we can do
“People come for lots of different reasons,” she says.
“The workshops are meant to be empowering and about sharing information and oftentimes people come because they’re excited that this topic is being spoken about so openly. But a lot of the time, people come along because they have medical questions which I unfortunately can’t answer because I’m not medically trained.”
Stigma and taboo still dictate the minds of those in pain, too.
“It’s heartbreaking – so many have really intense pain that they don’t know what to do with. I have read a lot on the subject and oftentimes think it may be endometriosis that’s ailing them but I can’t diagnose.
But however safe the space, shame still prevails – as PhD student Amrouche witnesses in her online anonymous questioning.
“Nine times out of ten, the topic of the pill and contraception comes up in class without me even prompting it. Which is great. But it isn’t until I read the responses to anonymous surveys online about the class that the topic of period sex arises.”
Amrouche starts every class with a piece entitled The Period Poem by Dominique Christina which centres around the line “The dude on Twitter says: “I was having sex with my girlfriend when she started her period, I dumped that bitch immediately.”
“It gets the class to open up and say words like ‘blood’ and ‘period’, immediately getting things out in the open.”
The workshops combat everything from sanitary bins to holistic womb health and often develop into deep, nuanced discussion about the interdisciplinary nature of feminine health.
“I think the stigma is being perpetuated by everyone, we do it to ourselves. Men do it, sure, but women do it to each other, too.”
Periods are here to stay and, rather amazingly, our generation has the power to put this stigma to bed by finally reconstructing the archaic psyché that has led us to say the phrase ‘crimson wave’ in lieu of something more biological.
While a young menstruating person is far more than the sum of their parts – a young menstruating person who does not know how their parts work is fighting a losing battle.
As one remarkable woman in Period. End Of Sentence. said: “Women are the base of any society. And women are more powerful. But they don’t recognize themselves. They don’t know how much power they have and what (they) can do.”
This article originally featured in Irish Tatler magazine. Our July/August issue is on shelves now.