A never-ending cycle: the stigma surrounding periods
Periods remain an odyssey for most women around the world. The lack of education, stigma surrounding the menstrual cycle and absence of resources make this natural state as infamous as it is hidden, putting the physical and mental health of people who menstruate at risk.
Day one of your menstrual cycle: you bleed. The sensitivity in your breasts warned you it was coming. Your tummy aches and your body refuses to cooperate as it normally would. Jeans smaller than a medium? I don’t think so. Leggings would be better. You’re bloated because “water retention is associated with a sudden drop in progesterone, which is elevated during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle”, you read. You feel lucky knowing what’s going on inside your body, that there’s a reason for everything, that it’s normal, that it would be worse if it didn’t happen. In three to four days you’ll feel complete and full of energy; in the meantime you’re going to take care of yourself, eat less salt, treat yourself to some chocolate and maybe even a bubble bath before bed. Ufff, your kidneys are killing you. Time for a hot water bottle. Pizza for dinner? Abso-bloody-lutely (pardon the pun). You change your cup, tampon or pad and you’re already that little bit closer. Before you go to sleep, you read up on the topic: “48% of girls in Iran believe that menstruation is a disease”. No. No way. That can’t be right. You keep reading and you discover that the stigma surrounding periods has no end.
What people think periods are:
In many developing countries, the menstrual cycle is a total mystery and periods are treated like something evil that should be hidden from view. Menstruating women suffer in silence from a lack of information, hygiene and solutions to the symptoms of something as natural as their period.
In Afghanistan, not only are sanitary products like pads and tampons hard to come by, but it is frowned upon to practise personal hygiene, with people believing that washing during menstruation can cause infertility. However, with regard to hygiene, this isn’t the worst thing we women face around the world. In India, women on their period are seen as cursed. They mustn’t wash either and, due to their limited access to sanitary products (70% of women can’t afford to buy pads) and the shame they are subjected to when they menstruate, they try to hide it at all costs. Rags, leaves and even sand or ash – that’s how women try to soak up their blood in the south Asian country, leading to serious infections and even death.
The Pad Project is one of several projects working to improve the lives of Indian women exposed to this unnecessary risk, providing them with pads for as little as $0.13 per unit. Arunachalam Muruganantham is the force behind the initiative, driven by his curiosity and determination. Motivated by the idea to create a menstrual hygiene product for his wife, he successfully designed a machine to manufacture pads with recycled materials. Now, after being rejected by the vast majority of people he asked to work with, and without really knowing what menstruation was, he has 1,300 machines across 27 Indian states, with each employing 10 female operators. A small but mighty contribution which he hopes to roll out elsewhere, such as in Kenya, where the situation is very similar. To find out more about this project, watch Period. End of sentence, the Oscar-winning documentary available on Netflix.
The product of superstition, this aversion to periods is also latent in India’s neighbour, Bangladesh, where women have to bury their bloody cloths to avoid attracting evil spirits. People are also superstitious in Tanzania, where it is believed that if someone sees your menstrual blood, you will be cursed.
In developing countries, women who menstruate also face social health obstacles. In Bolivia, for example, it is widely believed that period blood causes cancer and, for that reason, sanitary products are disposed of separately from other trash. This attaches a sense of shame to the first few days of the menstrual cycle, so women—and above all girls—wear their used sanitary products all day, putting off changing their pad or tampon for as long as possible. Here, the lack of hygiene isn’t the only problem. Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, is a serious infection linked to tampons being changed infrequently. And although it’s rare, not changing your tampon significantly increases the risk.
What periods really are:
A period is essentially just the vaginal bleeding that occurs at the beginning of the menstrual cycle. If the egg to be fertilised does not meet a sperm cell, it is expelled. The uterus, which was getting ready to receive and nurture this egg, then sheds its lining to begin the process all over again…et voilá! Your period, menses or flow (whatever you want to call it) starts and a new cycle begins.
- Periods are not a disease under any circumstances. Nevertheless, they may or may not be accompanied by certain conditions such as amenorrhoea, which is the total absence of menstruation. The only natural, healthy form of amenorrhoea is that which occurs with pregnancy or the menopause. As a general rule, most people’s periods start at 12-16 years of age and continue for around 40 years. The opposite of this would be heavy menstrual bleeding—menorrhagia—which is defined as blood loss of more than 80 ml per cycle. In both cases, you should see your doctor.
- As a general rule, your period shouldn’t hurt. Periods can cause abdominal discomfort, breast sensitivity and mood swings due to fluctuating hormones, but not to the extent that they stop you from living a normal life. If the pain is intense, you may have polycystic ovaries. Your best bet is to make an appointment with your doctor and, in the event you do have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), there are various hormone treatments you can consider. Changing your eating habits and doing more exercise can also help alleviate the symptoms.
- There are many different menstrual hygiene products to choose from: tampons, pads, a menstrual cup—a method that has recently gained popularity due to being convenient, hygienic and environmentally friendly—and period-proof knickers, which are also waste-free and extremely comfortable! Washable cloth pads are also a great green solution.
- Not everyone collects their blood to discard it, however. Many are tempted by free-bleeding, which involves letting your period flow naturally. This practice asserts that people who menstruate are able to control the muscles of their vagina to collect blood in a more natural way before releasing it later, in the bath, for example. They say it’s a bit like controlling urine in the bladder.
- Your menstrual cycle and your period are not the same thing, and this leads to a great deal of confusion. The menstrual cycle includes all the physical and hormonal changes occurring in the body between periods. It lasts an average of 28 days and is usually regular, but conditions such as those mentioned above may alter the length of your cycle. If you want to learn more about periods, please find below some of our favourite Instagram accounts addressing menstruation, the menstrual cycle and sexuality.
UNDERSTANDING AND ACCEPTING YOUR MENSTRUAL CYCLE IS A TOOL FOR SELF-CARE
Periods are part of a finite cycle, a physiological process that ends to make way for new reactions and processes to follow. However, this does not appear to have reached the global community, which refuses to close the door on stigma, woman shaming and ignorance. How on earth did we ever get to the moon without knowing what happens inside a woman’s womb?
Want to know more?
Here are some relevant links, so you can dive into an interesting albeit much-unknown world.
Nacidas para el placer (“Born for pleasure”), Mireia Darder
The Wonder Down Under, Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl
Period. End of Sentence, Rayka Zehtabchi
Menstrual hygiene products:
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