Brainstorm: Stopping the stigma

Neya Thanikachalam, Web Editor

Auntie Flo has come to town… and not everyone knows what that actually means. Our latest episode of Period Pressure dives into the stigma behind periods and why it’s so hard to talk about them.

SPEAKER 1: Auntie Flo’s come to town…

SPEAKER 2: …That time of the month…

SPEAKER 3: …Satan’s waterfall…

SPEAKER 4: …Code red

SPEAKER 5: …Shark week…

SPEAKER 6: …Riding the crimson tide…

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: There are just so many euphemisms for menstruation. I can honestly say that I didn’t know a couple of those were code for “period” before I looked them up online. But, according to a study done by Clue with The International Women’s Health Coalition, there are over 5,000 different euphemisms for the word period.

But why are periods so hard to talk about?

Hi everyone, this is Neya Thanikachalam, and I’m back with another episode of Period Pressure, a multi-part series about period poverty and menstrual health. In our last episode, we learned about what exactly menstrual health is, and some issues that affect menstrual health management. Now we’re going to focus on the stigma surrounding periods.

DEVIN LAGASSE: We tend in our culture to treat, I don’t want to say women’s health care because obviously people that don’t identify as women still have periods. We tend to treat it as something separate from the rest of health care. We debate about it on political floors, we pass laws about it, because we treat it as something separate (and so) I think it goes beyond just social norms. It goes into political norms and cultural norms around bodies that bleed.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s Devin Lagasse, the HIV/STI specialist from Planned Parenthood of Illinois we spoke to in the last episode.

Devin’s an educator, and has spent a long time teaching people about maintaining reproductive and menstrual health.

DEVIN LAGASSE: Normalizing conversations around our bodies is the big first step, starting those conversations, really young. There shouldn’t be anything shameful about body parts and how they work and what they do.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: In fact, the movement to educate people about menstruation is only growing. Organizations like PERIOD., a national nonprofit dedicated to addressing period poverty and accessibility to menstrual products, runs period “boot camps” that are meant to teach people about menstrual health activism. Anusha Singh is one of the campaign leads at PERIOD. national and she leads The Ohio State University’s chapter of PERIOD. She helps run virtual boot camps. They usually run once a week and meet seven times total.

ANUSHA SINGH: Every call has a specific theme to it, whether it’s learning how to speak to legislators across the aisle, like learning valuable skills like that… One week was focused on how to write petitions, how to launch them, how to amplify them, how to really push for signatures.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Weinberg junior Meghna Gaddam attended these boot camps, and they taught her how to lead Northwestern’s chapter of PERIOD. and petition for menstrual equity. The group is pushing for greater access to sanitary products for homeless menstruators and to hopefully support a bill getting passed that would make it mandatory for homeless shelters to provide free period products to menstruators in Illinois.

MEGHNA GADDAM: I thought it’d be a really cool idea to put a petition together and just kind of launch it and try to just get some attention and maybe see where we could go with that.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Meghna and her co-founders, Mahie Gopalka and Samanvi Kanugula, are all Desi-Americans, and they’re familiar with issues surrounding menstrual equity in South Asia.

This is definitely something that I understand. Just like Mahie, Meghna and Samanvi, my family is from India, and there, menstrual health is often considered a taboo topic. Many regions in India still consider menstruation to be dirty and impure. Because of this, women are restricted from doing all sorts of things, including cooking and worshipping, while they’re on their cycle. According to the United Nations’ (campaign to End the Stigma), this is an antiquated mindset and only reinforces gender inequalities.

Of course, India isn’t the only country that stigmatizes menstrual health, and Mahie said it’s important to remember that the taboos surrounding menstruation differ from place to place.

MAHIE GOPALKA: Again, this is different I think for different communities, different cultures and different people just on an individual basis, but I do think that there’s a stigma around being comfortable with talking about periods and talking about menstruation. We shouldn’t be nervous about talking about them — they’re human, and they’re biological and they’re important and necessary so I think that’s a big thing that is another roadblock that hopefully education and just kind of humanizing this problem that we’re trying to address will hopefully also do.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: There have actually been movements in India to increase awareness surrounding menstrual health. Movies, like Pad Man, which is based on a real story about an Indian man making affordable pads for women, and documentaries like Period. End of Sentence., all help reduce the stigma surrounding periods and menstrual health management.

Similarly, Devin said one of the best ways to get non-menstruators to care about menstrual health here, in the U.S., is to just start having educated conversations about periods and our bodies in general.

DEVIN LAGASSE: Once you normalize talking about bodies, you can normalize talking about periods and making sure people understand that this is just a normal part of how things work, and some people have them, some people don’t. Another part of that is making sure people have access to the things they need to take care of their bodies. So after we can talk about it we can talk about how not everybody has the ability to deal with their periods with dignity. So once we can get politicians talking about it and once we can get health care workers talking about it, it just becomes a normal part of everyday life.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: It can be tough to have a conversation with a non-menstruator about period poverty and menstrual health. But it’s important to continue speaking about menstruation in order to normalize it. From her personal experience talking with her family, Mahie said she learned that it takes time.

MAHIE GOPALKA: I have a younger brother and my dad, there was a hesitation I think and then as we started talking about it more that stigma and that hesitation kind of decreased and now we’re having really open conversations about why menstrual equity is a problem.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Having open conversations at home is a great first step. However, Devin said that only having conversations in our homes isn’t enough, which is why it’s essential that students are formally educated about menstrual and reproductive health from a young age. Planned Parenthood of Illinois is backing the REACH Act, which would make it mandatory for public schools to provide age-appropriate health education to students. 

Planned Parenthood of Illinois is also making sure that it has telehealth services available to those who need them. Please check The Daily’s website to get a comprehensive list of different services that Illinois residents can access to maintain their health during the pandemic.

DEVIN LAGASSE: It’s just an important part of public health, and we are really trying to meet those needs. Because historically we know pandemics, health crises disproportionately hurt people of color and people with low incomes and undocumented folks who already faced challenges accessing health care, so we’re here to help.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: When we shame people for menstruating, it only spreads disinformation, because they become too afraid to ask questions about their bodies. Which is why we need to talk more.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s all that I have for today. Thank you so much for listening, and stay tuned for our next episode, which is about the issues that homeless menstruators face.

This episode was reported and produced by me, Neya Thanikachalam. The managing editors of The Daily are Sneha Dey and James Pollard, and the summer editor-in-chief is Emma Edmund.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @neyachalam

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Brainstorm: Facts behind the flow

Desi-American women fight period stigma during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month


(This list will continue to be updated with resources for menstruators)