Let’s talk about menstruation.
If you feel like running away right now, that’s the same reaction a group of Swedish teenage girls got earlier this month when they tried to broach the subject in a very public fashion.
The students at a high school near Stockholm wanted to create a yearbook photo that would promote a dialogue about menstruation, to move an uncomfortable topic from “every girl’s worst nightmare” to “just a normal thing that happens, NBD.”
So they asked a photographer to take a picture of them posing with tampons and feminine hygiene pads, some marked with fake blood. The photographer refused to take the picture, and their principal said a photo like that couldn’t run in the yearbook.
The story of the doomed photo went viral.
“At first we just thought the picture would be a fun thing to do,” 17-year-old Ida Pettersson told The Local news outlet. “We didn’t think at all that it would be a big thing, because we don’t think it is a big deal – it’s just menstruation.”
But suddenly it’s more than “just menstruation.” A period-themed movement is afoot around the world as women talk openly, zealously and passionately about their menstrual cycles on Twitter, Instagram, blogs, YouTube videos – and Harvard’s student newspaper.
The topic even came up during the presidential campaign when Donald Trump controversially insinuated that Fox News host Megyn Kelly was aggressive toward him at the GOP debate because she was on her period.
“There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” Trump said after the debate, a statement he tried to clarify when critics called him sexist.
More headlines came this week when artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm, the creator of the “realistic Barbie” Lammily doll, introduced a new accessory.
The “Period Party” pack contains stickers shaped like menstrual pads and a calendar for tracking a menstrual cycle.
“On average, a woman between the ages of 12 and 51 spends a total of six years on her menstrual period, yet, while being a huge part of female life, this perfectly healthy, natural process is still surrounded by taboos,” says the pamphlet that comes with the doll.
“Let’s start an open and positive conversation about our periods. Learn the facts. Debunk the myths. Celebrate life!”
Other conversation-starters this year have included:
▪ One young activist printed messages like this one – “Imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they are with periods” – on sanitary pads and stuck them to traffic signs all over her hometown in Germany for International Women’s Day in March.
▪ Professional drummer Kiran Gandhi, 26, ran the London Marathon in August without a tampon, period blood flowing down her legs inside her leggings. The Harvard Business School graduate wanted to call attention to women around the world who don’t have access to feminine products and encourage all women to stop being embarrassed about their periods. Photos of her in her stained running pants went viral.
▪ Also in August, Temple University student Louelle Denor in Philadelphia sparked a debate about period-related photographs when she posted a provocative photo of herself holding her used bloody menstrual cup to her Instagram account. “Yes, this blood is from my #vagina. It happens every month,” she wrote.
▪ Earlier this month a show called “Our Bodies, Our Blood” featuring menstruation-themed art opened in a Halifax, Nova Scotia gallery. “There’s misconceptions it’s dirty, that it should never be talked about and if you’re on your period, you should never let people know,” organizer and curator Alanah Correia said.
Such public talk is considered long overdue, especially because girls around the world are taught to think of menstruation as shameful and dirty.
“Sure, periods can be messy and annoying and always seem to come at the most unexpected times, but they are also a reminder of the incredible capabilities of the female body,” Harvard University student Nian Hu wrote this week in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper.
“Instead of pretending they don’t exist, we should be bonding over an experience that half of the human population undergoes every month ... Personally, I don’t find that gross at all. I find it pretty miraculous.”
Much of this discussion springs from campaigns to make feminine hygiene products more readily available to women in countries where some have to use leaves and rags for protection during their cycles.
That’s an issue in the United States, too. For instance, many shelters for homeless women don’t have enough tampons and sanitary pads for their clients, partly because supporters don’t think to donate them.
Just this week, the first free-tampons dispenser was installed in a New York City school.
New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland’s #FreeTheTampon campaign unveiled the dispenser at the High School for Arts and Business in Queens on Tuesday.
“I was the director of an after-school program in Queens, New York, and I came to learn that young girls would skip out and go home because they were on their periods. Sometimes it was due to the discomfort, but other times they’d run out of pads and were too embarrassed to ask a teacher or nurse,” the councilwoman told Yahoo over the summer.
Free products, she said, can also help keep the girls healthy, since improper menstruation hygiene can cause vaginal infections and toxic shock syndrome.
“It’s also a matter of giving young girls dignity throughout the process — they shouldn’t feel ashamed of being women,” she said.
“Break the silence” was the theme this year of a World Menstrual Hygiene Day discussion in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where speakers pointed out the serious problems created when cultures and religions attach shame to menstruation.
In remote and rural Nepal, for example, girls on their period are isolated from their villages during their periods. In Malawi, parents don’t even talk to their daughters about menstruation, and girls are told to never talk to boys about it.
In Bangladesh, about 40 percent of school girls are said to miss three days of classes each month during their menstrual cycle, and about one in four women do not seek medical help for extreme menstrual cramps because they’re too ashamed.
“The biggest problem we have, which is directly related to women empowerment, is the idea of shame,” a former faculty member at North South University in Dhaka said at the conference.
“Anything to do with the menstrual cycle is shameful – that’s the idea being perpetuated. And if you want to change this country, move ahead, you have to get past this shame.”
That’s no small task, given how much people don’t like to talk about menstruation. Some bloggers have complained that this new celebrate-your-period thinking leaves little room for women to express their negative feelings about their menstrual cycles.
When Denor posted the image of her used menstrual cup on Instagram, some people branded her a “feminazi.” Others told her to kill herself, others said she deserved to be burned to death.
“On one hand, that I received such a strong negative reaction made it clear to me that I should have done exactly what I did,” Denor told The Huffington Post.
The teenage girls in Sweden trying to make the period-themed yearbook photo were also called “disgusting” by social media.
“Unfortunately we have received a lot of hatred,” said one of the girls, Ida Pettersson, “but much, much more love from people.”