Menstruation has been viewed differently across cultures and over time. You would hope that in our age of advanced medical science and understanding, menstrual stigma would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it still very much exists and does real harm. Find out from Aruna Revolution on how menstrual stigma harms women’s health and well-being and what you can do to break period stigma.
What Is Menstrual Health?
According to the Terminology Action Group of the Global Menstrual Collective, ‘Menstrual health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in relation to the menstrual cycle.’
It’s important to keep this holistic definition in mind when thinking about how menstruation affects a woman’s overall health. Menstruation is a normal part of (and even essential for creating) life, but when menstruators are stigmatized during their period, it impacts mental health and social well-being.
Why Is Menstruation Stigmatized?
Before we look at how menstrual stigma harms women’s health and well-being, let’s see why menstrual stigma exists in the first place. There is a long history of women on their period being considered impure, dirty, or even associated with supernatural power. Regardless of the culture, the common theme is that men have created myths around menstruation which have impacts on menstruator health.
Menstrual stigma, or taboos, have deep roots in religion going back to ancient societies and some of these menstrual taboos still exist today. In the Bible, the impurity of menstruation is considered by many to be a metaphor for sin and punishment. Hindus consider menstruators impure and believe they should refrain from entering places of worship, touching religious idols, and sometimes living separately from men. Muslims believe that women should not pray during menstruation and must perform a ritual purification after their period.
How Menstrual Stigma Harms Women’s Health and Well-Being
What are the effects of menstrual taboos? Let’s have a look at 7 ways that menstrual stigma harms women’s health and well-being so that we can be better equipped to combat it.
1 - Menstrual Stigma Affects Mental Health
Menstrual stigma prevents periods from being discussed openly, which leaves some girls in the dark when it comes to their first period. When a menstruator gets their period for the first time, if no one has ever explained this normal part of puberty to them, they may be terrified and even fear they are dying when they experience their first period. Similarly, being excluded from religious rituals or institutions due to the normal monthly cycle may contribute to anxiety, stress, and depression.
2 - Menstrual Stigma Affects School Attendance and Performance
In many countries where schools lack adequate water and sanitation facilities, it’s common for menstruators to miss school when they have their period due to not having a clean, private place to manage their periods. Fear of leakage and experiencing menstrual pain are also other factors that may prevent menstruating girls from attending school.
3 - Menstrual Stigma Causes Discrimination at Work
Menstrual stigma permeates the workplace too, particularly in male-dominated fields like STEM. One study found that an alarming 48% of menstruators have observed stigma around menstruation at the organization they work for. If employees felt more comfortable speaking honestly about how menstruation may interfere with work, employers would be better equipped to support them.
Even in countries that have implemented a menstrual leave policy that allows women to take leave if period symptoms make it difficult to work, such as in Japan, menstruators report not being believed or harassed by coworkers for taking this leave. In other cases, menstruators may not be believed about the seriousness of their menstrual cramps or other symptoms and not be given time off when needed.
4 - Menstrual Stigma Impacts Physical Health
Menstrual stigma encourages silence around menstrual hygiene, which means many menstruators are not aware of how to manage their periods hygienically, which can lead to infections and illness. Some girls and women resort to using dirty rags, newspaper, toilet paper, and other available materials to manage menstrual blood just because they don’t feel comfortable asking for (or don’t have access to) menstrual products.
Another way menstrual stigma impacts physical health is that there is a lack of awareness and research dollars put towards understanding and treating menstrual health issues such as endometriosis, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and uterine fibroids, leaving menstruators to suffer unnecessarily.
5 - Menstrual Stigma Influences Cultural Norms
Menstrual stigma rooted in ancient beliefs continues to shape cultural norms for many women. In western Nepal, the tradition of chhaupadi prescribes that menstruators (including young girls) be banished to menstrual huts during their periods to avoid bringing bad luck to the family. Menstruators are often forced to sleep and eat among livestock or in small, windowless huts outside of the home, and every year young girls and women suffer from cold, smoke inhalation, snake bites, and sexual assault because of this.
6 - Menstrual Stigma Takes a Toll on Self-Esteem
Menstrual stigma can feed discriminatory attitudes towards menstruators that harm self-esteem. For example, being accused of “PMS-ing” simply for having a stern or sensitive tone, or the belief that menstruators are not able to perform as well as men at work due to their periods can harm confidence. Stigma also encourages silence around menstruation, which causes some menstruators shame or embarrassment when it comes to talking about periods.
7 - Menstrual Stigma Can Influence Economic Status
Despite being essential for period management, menstrual products are often hard to access. The “period tax” is a subset of the “pink tax” and refers to the phenomenon of additional costs being added to tampons and pads when they should be exempt from sales tax.
The inability to access menstruation products and menstrual education impacts the economic status of women who are then unable to leave their homes to engage in work or school due to not being able to manage their menstrual blood, further hurting their economic status. This struggle, known as period poverty, is faced by many low-income women and girls all over the globe, including unhoused and incarcerated women.
Let’s Break the Period Stigma Moving Forward
We’ve seen how menstrual stigma harms women and prevents them from managing their periods with dignity. To break the period stigma, it’s important to talk about menstrual health openly and spread awareness. This is important for educating non-menstruators about how period stigma can harm menstruators, as well as for helping menstruators advocate for themselves.
FAQs About How Menstrual Stigma Harms Women’s Health and Well-Being
What are the Negative Effects of Period Stigma?
As mentioned above, menstrual stigma harms women’s health by taking a mental, emotional, and physical toll. Furthermore, period stigma can harm a woman’s economic status due to unaffordable menstrual products.
How Does Menstruation Affect Women’s Health?
Without adequate access to menstrual education, hygienic menstrual products, and water and sanitation facilities, women’s health may suffer due to avoidable infections, anxiety, and failure to recognize symptoms and seek timely medical help for reproductive health issues such as endometriosis and fibroids.
Final Thoughts on How Menstrual Stigma Harms Women’s Health and Well-Being
Now that you know several ways that menstrual stigma harms women’s health and well-being, you can speak up and spread the word. Whether that’s telling fellow menstruators that menstrual anxiety is real, or helping non-menstruators understand how patriarchal attitudes affect menstruator health, we encourage you to break the silence around periods!