The Cycle of Inequality

By Kenzie Helmick

Women, while menstruating, are “unclean” and should not be allowed to prepare food or enter places of worship.

When I was eleven years old, I started my first period. As I looked at the red stain on my shorts, a mixture of emotions flashed through me: shock, fear, discomfort, and most of all, embarrassment. I was so humiliated by the changes in my body that I kept my menstruation a secret from my parents the entire time, unable to openly discuss what was happening. It was not until my mom, while sorting my laundry, noticed the blood on my clothes and realized that I had begun menstruating.

Though I wasn’t aware at the time, my embarrassment was driven by an outside societal force, mandating that my body and all its natural processes be condemned, simply because I am a woman. The shaming of female bodies is a common narrative, alienating natural processes from pregnancy to breastfeeding. In fact, the only time society seems to embrace a woman’s body is when it’s blown up on a billboard, sexualized and half-naked. Menstruation is yet another function of women’s bodies that has been kept hidden from society, warped into a process that is disdained rather than embraced.

The stigmatization of menstruation becomes even more severe when we realize it stretches beyond just a woman’s issue. Though this article only addresses the problems faced by cisgender women, periods impact people of all genders, complicating lives already subject to marginalization and oppression. Despite our refusal to talk about periods, menstruation leaves widespread impact on our society. It’s time to change the stigma.

In regions such as Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, this unspoken law is only one of the many forms of alienation women face in response to a perfectly natural, biological process: their periods. Often guided by deeply entrenched cultural or religious traditions, people in these areas hold intense stigmas towards menstruation and place an enormous burden of shame and embarrassment upon women and young girls.

The stigmatization of menstruation becomes even more severe when we realize it stretches beyond just a woman’s issue. Though this article only addresses the problems faced by cisgender women, periods impact people of all genders, complicating lives already subject to marginalization and oppression.

In Nepal, more extreme forms of isolation are imposed upon women through the practice of chhaupadi. Though outlawed by the Nepal Supreme Court in 2005, chhaupadi is still widely practiced by remote villages, requiring young girls to stay and sleep in makeshift huts or cattle sheds during menstruation. Barely big enough for even one person, these sheds are sometimes shared by two or three girls, forcing them to squat or stand for most of the night. During their stay, they face threats of torrential rain, snakes, and sexual assault.

Those who follow chhaupadi believe that any violation of the practice will result in retribution from the gods, cursing their family with disease or famine. The result is a strict adherence to a tradition that completely shuns women from society during their period, denying them access to water, their homes, and their families. There is a common phrase shared among menstruating women in Nepal that summarizes their condemnation: “I am now untouchable.” The humiliation and discomfort felt by these women prevents them from safely and hygienically managing their menstruation. Not wanting their hygiene products to be seen, women refuse to hang their washed cloths or rags out to dry, instead hiding them under mattresses or in clothes. These rags then grow bacteria or mold, leading to infections and other health issues. Their problems are only amplified as they are denied access to consistent water sources or private toilets. Fearful that the effects of their menstruation might be seen, women are too ashamed to change or clean their sanitary materials and have no way to dispose of dirty or used products. These unsanitary practices are linked to health problems such as reproductive tract infections, urinary tract infections, anemia, and secondary infertility.

Though it may seem easy to dismiss cases like chhaupadi as problems of another world, the reality is that the stigmatization of periods is a cross-cultural issue, pervading our everyday lives in the United States.

We, too, are driven by fear, shame, and an unnecessary need to hide our menstruation. As women, it is still considered disconcerting to discuss outright our periods around others, especially in the presence of men. This discomfort is in part caused by the socialization of men to feel uncomfortable hearing about the menstrual process and often voice their uneasiness at the expense of those menstruating. To most women, the story of my high school’s male softball coach banning the words “tampon,” “period,” and “cramps” from the field because they were “too embarrassing” is not unusual, as they’ve shared nearly exact or similar experiences.

The larger problem of the stigmatization of menstruation, however, is that it has ultimately permeated our laws, granting legal legitimacy to attitudes that marginalize women. These ideas manifest into policies such as the Tampon Tax.

Most states tax all tangible, personal property, with exceptions for certain “non-luxury” goods. These necessities often include groceries, food stamp purchases, and medicine, things that are considered the basic needs of most people. Not included in the list of essentials? Tampons, pads, or any other form of menstrual hygiene products. Currently, 40 states still tax tampons, while exempting a range of nonsensical items from cowboy hats to bags of chips. Yet unlike accessorizing for a rodeo or having a snack, menstruation is not something women can choose to do. Instead, the tax is a charge for a completely unavoidable and natural process, making the message behind the tampon tax clear: women should be punished for their own bodies.

The tampon tax is yet another burden that disproportionately affects the livelihoods of women, who already face countless economic obstacles because of their gender. For every dollar a man makes, a white woman earns 79 cents, and this disparity only grows when we look at the wage gap for Black and Hispanic women, who receive 60 and 55 cents, respectively. Women are also more likely to be living in poverty, as they’re segregated into low paying “feminine,” care-giver jobs or forced to shoulder the costs and responsibilities of raising children. If a woman becomes homeless, it’s practically impossible for her to obtain menstrual products. Unlike hygiene goods like soap or toilet paper, which can be found for free in public bathrooms, tampons and pads must be paid for out of pocket by homeless women. These products often go unnoticed in charities and shelters, as well. In fact, while there have been recent government campaigns to provide support for items like condoms, essential goods such as tampons and pads still go unfunded. The high cost of menstrual products means that homeless women are left choosing between a meal or a tampon.

Keeping these economic inequalities in mind, the tampon tax cannot be dismissed as an insignificant charge. A woman spends nearly $1,800 on tampons over the course of her lifetime, and the tax places immense pressure on incomes already limited by gender biases.

The difficulties faced by women over their periods exist because of the stigmatization of menstruation. Our inability to openly discuss the details of menstruation renders its consequences and problems invisible, preventing any possibility of working toward a solution. The source of this systematic disregard for women’s issues lies in the lack of women in positions of power. The underrepresentation of women in politics is why policies like the tampon tax persist and why public access to menstrual products is limited to those who can afford it. Men hold most government and leadership positions, and since they are not affected by menstruation or are too uncomfortable to speak openly about it, they often have no idea of the related problems that pervade society. This issue can also be observed in the Global South, where the engineers and developers designing the sanitation and water systems are men, unaware of the dire need for a private place for women to manage their menstruation. Their ignorance, intentional or not, means that these problems go unaddressed.

The good news is that women and their periods are not completely doomed. There have been several success stories of situations where positive changes were made and the stigmas confronted. In Uganda, a company called Afripads aims to provide affordable and safe menstrual products to women across Africa. The company is dedicated to empowerment, using a 90% female work force to manufacture cost-effective products and tackle the shame and taboo that accompany a woman’s period. In New York City, movements and national campaigns such as Free the Tampon have led to governmental changes confronting menstrual inequality. In June, the city passed the nation’s first legislative package supplying menstrual products in public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities.

Yet there’s still more the world can do. We must begin to provide women the opportunity to represent and voice their beliefs. Women offer different perspectives and experiences, which represent their own unique interests and problems that vary from men’s. Yet women are the least represented group in the U.S. Congress, making up a little over half of the nation’s population but only 17% of Congress. We also need more female scientists and engineers, able to take on the infrastructural problems that deny women and girls in the Global South adequate water supplies, privacy, and hygiene. Though these goals are vital to the equality of women, the changes necessary to pursue them require long-term systematic and social overhaul.

While that does not mean we should abandon these long-term objectives, we need to focus on immediate change. The first step is to spark dialogue, challenging the stigma and embarrassment towards menstruation. The more we he more visible these issues become.