By Jessie Brofsky
I was fifteen when I first got my period, and I thought I was cursed. I cried myself to sleep that night, knowing every month I would feel like a brick had been shoved into my abdomen. Thus was my introduction to menstruation, and I never spoke about it. Out of an almost paralytic self-consciousness, I find I can’t even buy tampons or pads at drug stores. Instead, I ask my mom to send them to me in care packages within the confines of a safely neutral shipping box. I say this because I am ashamed. And I am ashamed to be ashamed.
What is so unfortunate is that the majority of people who menstruate have similar experiences. There is no clear origin story for the menstrual taboo, but this narrative has been normalized. It’s a cycle passed from mother to daughter in a careful hush, fluctuating between shame and ignorance in a culture of concealment. When we get our periods, the first thing we’re taught is to clean it up, cover the mess, forget. We speak in hushed tones, slip tampons up our sleeves, exchange menstrual products out of sight. There is this notion that our feminine culture depends on clean, pure portrayals of the self. But as Chris Bobel, associate professor of women’s studies at UMass Boston, says, “we work hard on femininity” and we don’t wake up like this; instead, “we make ourselves.” Periods represent the “unruly body,” what cannot be contained or controlled. The silence is a means to preserve the feminine image – at whatever cost. And typically when periods appear in the media it is as a punch line against women often in the form of a PMS joke or in some way reinforcing the idea that periods are embarrassing. However, in a few narratives – such as the YouTube video “First Moon Party” and Judy Blume’s Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret – there exist relics of a time when periods signified a transition to womanhood and something to aspire to.
This past year many public figures have been vocal about periods in an attempt to challenge the stigma. NPR even called 2015 the Year of the Period. Rupi Kaur wrote alongside her visual series ‘period’ that, “we menstruate and they see it as dirty. Attention seeking. Sick. A burden. As if this process is less natural than breathing. As if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. As if this process is not love. Labour. Life. Selfless and strikingly beautiful.” This past year, fourteen states have lifted the luxury tax on tampons. And then, earlier this year, the students at Brown University voted to provide free pads and tampons and make them available in bathrooms. Cornell has since followed suit with the Student Assembly Referendum 30, which proclaims pads and tampons are to be free in all of Cornell’s bathrooms.
Although the referendum passed, many students and faculty on campus were confused and even outraged by this. Why did everyone have to pay for something that only benefited half of the population? Why would they need to have feminine hygiene products in the men’s bathrooms? Why do we have to fix a system that isn’t broken?
To begin, the system is already unfair. Abigail Jones writes in her article “The Fight to End Period Shaming Is Going Mainstream” in Newsweek, “Men can walk into any bathroom and access all of the supplies they need to care for themselves: toilet paper, soap, paper towels, even seat covers. Women, however, cannot. In most schools, girls have to trek to the nurse’s office to ask for a pad or tampon, as if menstruating is an illness rather than a natural function.” The products to be stocked in Cornell bathrooms aren’t just for women. They’re for anyone with periods – including trans-gender people – and the products must be stocked in all bathrooms. There’s already enough for people who menstruate to worry about: the inconvenience, the pain, the hassle, the mess. This referendum in its generation of dialogue has exposed students’ vast ignorance to the components of menstruation – only to be solved by menstrual health education.
One of the “cons” comments listed on the referendum by a student reads, “Tampons and pads are not necessary. While they are the menstrual product of choice for most women, there are other reusable options that are far less expensive. A menstrual cup, for example, costs around $35 and can last ten years.” While this is a fair point, I don’t think the function of the free pads and tampons is to take care of all menstrual needs. Rather, I think they will mostly be for emergency situations, and it seems unreasonable for the bathrooms to be stocked with $35 reusable cups that are likely to be thrown out after one use.
Tampons and pads are primarily the “menstrual product[s] of choice” because of their mainstream advertisements in the form of sanitized commercials with mysterious blue liquid. While cups would be cheaper if we used them as they were intended, I don’t think this is realistic. I’ve found that most people haven’t even heard of menstrual cups or cloth pads or sea sponges. People who menstruate have been essentially hardwired to dispose quickly all of their used hygiene products because they don’t want to face what their bodies have dispelled. Chris Bobel talks about our “power of discourse” and how our trivial linguistic differences contribute to making menstrual fluids into something gross. We call it blood even though it is uterine lining tinged with blood – and it is neither dirty nor clean. Our use of language weaponizes and contaminates periods, turning the thought of reusing products into confrontation we aren’t psychologically prepared for.
This fearful and disgusted attitude towards periods causes us to ignore a slew of problems with the current popular products. Not only can tampons harm us by causing toxic shock syndrome and be full of carcinogens and pesticides, but there is also a serious waste component from pads and tampons. As a student commented in the forum, a single woman will go through 17,000 menstrual products in her lifetime and over 20 million of these products are disposed in landfills annually. And it’s not just their disposal we have to consider. Bethany Jorgensen, a Cornell PhD student in Natural Resources, says, “It is important to consider their environmental impacts starting from their production, packaging and shipping; including their impacts on the person using them; and then what happens to them after they are used and discarded. Just because a tampon is 100% organic cotton doesn’t mean it is low environmental impact – cotton is a very water-intense crop and tends to require a lot of pesticides (even if they are organic ones). The nice thing about cotton is that at least it biodegrades, whereas the plastics in a lot of tampons and pads will persist on and on wherever it ends up in the environment.”
Sometimes it isn’t even possible for us to know what is in our tampons, which means we cannot possibly know its exact environmental impact. The FDA does not make tampon companies list the ingredients of their products. Chris Bobel says, “We don’t have good, reliable data that tells us the things we’re putting inside our body, in the most absorbent part of our body, for days at a time, for 40 years, are safe or not. It’s symptomatic of the silence around menstruation.” We not only don’t know what we are putting into our bodies but we also don’t know what is being produced and thrown away–and this impacts everyone. In this way, it seems that the two causes–feminine hygiene and environmental concerns–have the potential to fit together perfectly. What might be better for people who menstruate might also be better for the planet.
Socioeconomic status and race also tie into the taboo. Chris Bobel says that for black women there is even more potential risk associated with speaking about periods because they are already viewed by society as hypersexual, animalistic beings. It also targets people of low socioeconomic status as they cannot afford the products to cover up periods and have to alter their lifestyles to escape the shame of exposure. In her article “The case for free tampons,” Jessica Valenti writes, “I was lucky. For too many girls, the products that mark ‘becoming a woman’ are luxuries, not givens. And for young women worldwide, getting your period means new expenses, days away from school and risking regular infections. All because too many governments don’t recognize feminine hygiene as a health issue.” This isn’t just a women’s issue or a Trans issue or a race issue or an environmental issue or an SES issue–it’s the intersectionality of these identities. Cornell Senior Hannah Harris says, “when people can feel free to express their thoughts, education will increase, accessibility will increase and women as a whole will feel comfortable in their own skin.” I am proud that Cornell can be a voice for so many who can’t speak up.
I don’t think the answer to the period taboo is in the product, but the product’s problems are embedded in larger issues of silence and the need for an attitudinal change. According to Chris Bobel, “we socially construct and reconstruct what menstruation means. We have the power to reframe it.” We must remember that periods are a vital sign. They indicate what is happening in our bodies and reflect our health much like a heartbeat does. It can attest to things like recovery from illness; I celebrated my friend’s period like it was magic after she missed it for two years as she struggled with anorexia. It has even been the subject of art. Photographer Jen Lewis uses menstrual fluids as the subject of her collection “Beauty in Blood.” It is obvious too in Rupi Kaur’s writing that there is something poetic about it. I don’t see how it can’t be seen as something beautiful.
The SA Referendum 30 isn’t just about Cornell students and faculty and women–it’s about equality, for everyone everywhere fighting stigma. It’s about finding certain aspects of the counter-narrative located within Anita Diamont’s The Red Tent where periods become an opportunity for rest, spirituality and community. Maybe the discussion from this Referendum will get us closer to feeling like we can live in a world like this, bonding beneath the new moon over a mutual biological phenomenon, in awe of something our bodies do to create everything else.