Speaking at UCLA’s Culture Talks: Period Stigma


Last night I arrived at UCLA expecting to be greeted by a room of a small handful of people. Instead what I found was a packed gallery of young men and women who seemed excited to be there. The organizers at UCLA’s Cultural Affairs group had a cool way of running the discussion: start with an inner circle first of key people on campus who are passionate about the issue, and then open it up to the larger members of the group. The concept of UCLA’s Culture Talks is intended to be an open discussion: a space where students are empowered to voice their thoughts amidst the routine of daily lectures, and express their feelings without the fear of invalidation.
The main questions that we were addressing were: Where do you see the stigma? Where does it stem from? (Stigma, for example, manifests itself in many ways, for example: hiding tampons in articles of clothing, whispering when you ask for a pad from a friend, ads that tell you how to conceal yourself, biblical references about being dirty while menstruating and that the fact that many schools omit menstrual health education and menstruation processes in biology.) Why is the topic of menstruation still uncomfortable to openly talk about in this day and age? What problems arise from this stigma? (ex: socioeconomic impacts-lack of accessibility for feminine hygiene products in prisons and for the homeless, lack of innovation around period comfort, tax on sanitary products (why is toilet paper free and inexpensive and not menstrual care products?), lack of research in sports especially the relation between body performance and the menstrual cycle, inability to discuss periods comfortably with friends, family and partners, and finally lack of infrastructure around supporting women on their periods in professional business settings).
As we started the discussion in the inner circle, one of my favorite comments was from a young man who ran a group on campus that addressed sexual pleasure and taboo alike. I loved this. It made me think, why don’t we ever ask the question about how to enjoy sex better  – instead it is always about how to protect against all the terrible things that can happen. This was highly enlightening – I loved the idea of promoting healthier and more enjoyable sex for both men and women, in a way that was empowering instead of demeaning.
The first question I asked was tell me why you’re here? and then went on to ask why is it the periods are so difficult awkward to discuss!
For me the biggest learnings were to remember to never necessarily ascribe a gender to those who have periods – I always use the word “women”, when in fact those bodies whom are transitioning and don’t identify with the gender “female” would not feel included. I was happy one of the students corrected me on this, as I won’t make that mistake moving forward. The next was to think about the fact that maybe one of the reasons why we don’t love moon cups is becasue they are not the best innovation for all women! They are a step in the right direction, but are not viable for women who are in a professional work setting and can’t be washing a diva cup in a corporate bathroom, largely because we just aren’t there as a society.
With regards to innovation, we talked about how there’s a new iPhone out every 6 months, and yet, in the past 200 years, we have only had 3 major innovations for women to care for themselves and their blood while on their periods – a cup, a tampon and a pad! The business case to improve women’s comfort on their periods is a huge opportunity right now! Furthermore, one amazing student pointed out how cool and futuristic hand-dryers are starting to look these days…why can’t tampon dispenser machines also be as awesome? In my opinion, the main barrier to these innovations is STIGMA. When you don’t have comfortable language to talk about something, it is difficult to innovate around it.
The main theme address is that women should be able to make the choice that is best for them free of oppression with access to all the options with access to good options and without feeling worried or shameful about the choice that they make.
We also talked about what a world would look like that accommodates womens periods more. We talked about how it needs to be easier to tell your boss or to others in your workspace that you need a Midol or that you need a rest for that you’re in pain or that you’re experiencing discomfort. That you need to be able to better yourself in order to give that company the best work you can give them. But for some reason corporations are so worried that women would just lie about when they’re on their periods! But the truth is that most women still don’t want to talk about their bodies any way, and would, just like men, likely use other excuses to ask for time away from work. Furthermore, just like in reporting rape cases, it is an absurd and sexist assumption to say that women should be denied their rights simply because they *may* misuse them. I believe that this is a tactic used to control and quiet women. In these cases, we do need more women in positions of power changing the rules, as something that does not affect or benefit men is unlikely to be created.
Finally, we also addressed the fact that stigma essentially prevents women and men from having the proper and safe language to talk about their own bodies. Many students addressed talking about taboo subjects in relationships. One girl said that her partner wanted her to shave, and that she wanted to please her partner, but also felt concerned that opinion was likely formed from pornography, and in a setting that is not safe or empowering for women. That we as women do want to be sexy or turn our partners on, but must it always be at our own expense or rely entirely on us demeaning ourselves? Stigma prevents us from having access to proper education about what is in fact what is safe. It makes it tough to ask our partners legitimate questions. We end up having to figure all these things out on our own without having a community or a place to learn more about our own periods, and other difficult topics related to the body.
One of the men in the group shared that he feels often very cautious or sheepish to address difficult subjects with his partner because he doesn’t want to be offensive or hurtful or say the wrong thing. So then I asked the group do you think the onus is on the female or on the male partner to engage in difficult subjects about the female body? The answer ended up being that should be either as long as they have developed a truss in a bond that enables them to feel safe with bringing up a difficult subject. There is so much more that can be said though, and I encourage anyone reading this to consider that question for themselves.
I concluded by discussing the 4 levers that you can pull to make a difference in the world:
1) Innovation – build the solution
2) Media – write/create/speak about your ideas
3) Radicalism – use shock culture to make society question norms
4) Legal – lobby on the Hill and change the law
I said that you don’t need to see how others have acted in the past – you simply need to see what your best self looks like, what you love to do, and see how that passion can be used to make a difference about an issue you care most about.