Written by Jess Ali.
Aunt Flo, the Red Badge, crimson tide, code red, monthly visitor, shark week, the girl flu—from the cute to the cringe-worthy, there are thousands of names all across the world for what may be the most taboo topic in our society: menstruation.
In a recent ad, sanitary product company Libra depicted menstrual blood for the first time on Australian television. Of course, there was an uproar of opinions—from people celebrating the realistic depiction to those reeling in shock and revulsion at seeing menstrual blood on TV. There were calls for it to be banned, and the usual people shouting, ‘think of the children!’ While falling down the rabbit hole of Twitter feuds and Buzzfeed articles at 3am, however, there was one recurring complaint about this ad that just kept getting stuck in my eye: we shouldn’t be depicting this thing that is ‘private’.
I guess that irked me because, well, it’s not private, is it?
No, I’m not suggesting we all need to wear a t-shirt announcing whenever we get our period, but menstruation is not something that stops at the bathroom door.
In a study by Western Sydney University, it was found that 20% of young people who menstruate reported missing school or university due to period pain, and 40% said that the pain affected their ability to perform academically in class (as cited in The Conversation 2019). This is a serious obstruction to the education and careers of people who menstruate—one that is too often dismissed by our institutions. During my high school years, I experienced pain so significant that I would vomit, experience dizzy spells, and be unable to walk. Not only did this mean I missed at least one day of school a month (unless I was lucky enough to get it on the weekend—which meant missing work), it also meant that the school nurse would often have to send me home, meaning one of my parents would have to leave work and come and collect me. The impact didn’t stop at me.
I was lucky enough to be at an all-girls school, where talk of periods, cramps, and all the fun that comes with it didn’t warrant batting an eyelid—if I was experiencing pain, I had a nurse on-site to medicate me, and teachers that were well-versed in the difficulties that came with a period. When a teacher asked why we weren’t focussing in class, I don’t think many of us felt too ashamed to plainly say, ‘I have my period’. It was just a fact, like having a headache. They would help us work out a catch-up schedule and allow us to participate in class as much or as little as we felt we could for that day.
While the situation at school was great, it meant I was grossly underprepared to face this issue in the professional world.
Working in a physically demanding, male-dominated industry as a chef, there was certainly no flippant announcement that I had my period, felt like crap, and needed to stop for five minutes before I passed out. Looking down the kitchen to the irritated guy shouting orders and telling us to hurry up, I definitely didn’t feel like sharing that information would go down well. Maybe it would have been fine, maybe he would have been understanding, or at the least known why I was underperforming one day a month, but the stigma surrounding the subject stopped me from speaking up. Being too embarrassed to just say what the issue was prevented me from being able to create a solution that was beneficial to both my health and my ability to do my job properly.
In a study published in the British Medical Journal this year, evaluating the loss of productivity associated with menstrual symptoms, it was found that the ‘annual productivity loss due to presenteeism [remaining at work when experiencing menstrual pain] was sevenfold times more than the annual productivity loss due to absenteeism [absent from work when experiencing menstrual pain]’ (Schoep et al. 2019). This doesn’t mean people who experience menstruation are weak or inefficient—it means the system is weak and inefficient.
There are so many deeper issues hidden under the blanket of ‘taboo’ laid across this topic: access to sanitary products for homeless people, access to appropriate and inclusive medical advice for trans* people, wider implications on reproductive health for people who have uteruses. In an independent study commissioned by Libra across Australia and New Zealand, periods were found to be ‘more taboo than drugs, sex, STDs, and mental health problems’ (Ad Standards Australia, 2019). So, in a country where we can’t call a spade a spade and show a small, artfully presented amount of menstrual blood in an advertisement about menstrual hygiene products without people losing their minds, how do we even begin to tackle this?
As with all deeply ingrained taboos, a large part of breaking the stigma is through conversation. In the public domain, conversation is starting to kick off with campaigns like Woolworths’s ‘Share the Dignity’ movement, supporting funding for homeless people who menstruate to have access to sanitary products, and of course the Libra #bloodnormal campaign (which has had the complaints against it dismissed by Australian Ad Standards).
As university students, we have access to so much information and so many platforms. Do some reading, talk to your friends, support social media campaigns that raise awareness, and interrogate the taboo. Be prepared to have the conversation. It is also super important to be inclusive in your language and activism! Some non-binary people and trans men also experience menstruation; lack of awareness around this means more roadblocks for people from these communities having access to the basic resources, like sanitary bins in men’s bathrooms, or appropriate medical advice.Breaking the taboo around menstruation will benefit us in our mental health, physical health, our work, and our education. There is no downside to normalising it. So, next time that Libra ad pops up, or you hear someone making negative comments about menstruation, speak up, stand up, and join the campaign to make #bloodnormal!
hyperlink 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=108gaP2rTas
hyperlink 2: https://lovelibra.com/au/blood-normal/
hyperlink 3: https://adstandards.com.au/case/case-0262-19
Schoep ME, Adang EMM, Maas JWM, Bie BD, Aarts, JWM, Neiboer TE, Productivity loss due to menstruation-related symptoms: a nationwide cross-sectional survey among 32 748 women, research report, British Medical Journal, retrieved 18th September 2019, doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-026186.
Armour M, Curry C, MacMillan F 2019, ‘Period pain is impacting women at school, uni and work. Let’s be open about it’, The Conversation, weblog post, 28 June, retrieved 18th September, < https://theconversation.com/period-pain-is-impacting-women-at-school-uni-and-work-lets-be-open-about-it-118824>.