The United Nations has officially declared that menstruation is both a public health and human rights issue.
“In a world where 2.5 billion persons lack adequate sanitation, where menstruation is often stigmatized, and women face multiple forms of discrimination, the failure to take immediate action to guarantee their right to sanitation and hygiene poses dire consequences,” states Craig Mokhiber, Chief of the UN Human Rights Office Development and Economic and Social Issues Branch. “It demands the attention, not just of the human rights community, but of health professionals, governments, activists, economists and broader society.”
Yet, in many countries and cultures across the world, the common misconception is that menstruation is an abnormality and a chronic irregularity within a woman’s body. This concept perpetuates the harmful idea that a woman’s body is both weak and self-betraying. Every month, we are expected to want to hide and not acknowledge our periods.
This global taboo surrounding periods continues to dissuade some women from advocating on their own behalf about the importance of acknowledging how menstruation impacts a woman’s body. For hundreds of years, our acceptance of a culture of period shaming has allowed for the medical community to dismiss the very real issue of period pain. Over 90 percent of women experience some sort of menstrual pain and roughly 20 percent experience moderate to severe pain. In most cases, no matter how extreme a woman’s menstrual pain is, a doctor will only suggest that the woman take an extra dose of ibuprofen. Two other remedies that are commonly suggested to alleviate severe pain are an IUD or oral contraceptive pills. These remedies are not effective for every woman, as they rely on hormonal adjustments, and there is also no guarantee that a woman’s insurance company will cover birth control, no matter its intended purpose.
The stigmatization of the menstrual process has led to a limited amount of research into period pain, which is both a public health issue and research ethics perspective. Laura Payne, Ph.D., the principal investigator for a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research project on menstruation, outlines some of the reasons why menstrual pain has minimal research. “The menstrual cycle is a multifaceted process that requires a very careful approach including multiple assessments of hormones [and] attempts to pinpoint ovulation”, she states. “It’s possible that because it seems so common, it may not [be seen to] warrant further investigation.”
Dr. Payne also points out that NIH-funded research into menstrual pain indicates a change in the way parts of the medical world are viewing periods. But while this bit of progress is encouraging, it does not change the fact that the medical community as a whole has yet to adequately research and treat menstrual symptoms. This brings us to the real question at hand: How do we get period pain to be taken seriously without letting it define and restrict us?
Throughout our cultural history, women have consistently been dismissed outright due to their periods. Menstruation is a complex biological process that affects all women at some point in their lives and thus, it has historically been used as a way to oppress and disqualify women from a variety of ranks and positions. During a segment of The O’Reilly Factor, when the question “What is the downside of having a woman become the president of the United States?” arose, author Marc Rudov responded by saying, “You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings, right?” In 2009, Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s position was attacked by conservative radio host, G. Gordon Liddy, who said, “Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then.” These are just two examples of how society attempts to use period-shaming as a way to limit the types of positions women can attain.
Periods do not have to be regarded as an all-or-nothing issue in society. It is entirely possible to take menstruation seriously as a medical condition without undermining women’s ability to fully function in society. Once we as a society begin to recognize and acknowledge this concept, we can begin to work towards putting an end to period shaming.