More and more medical professionals, researchers, reproductive health advocates, and people who get periods are starting to weigh in on one of humanity’s great existential questions: to menstruate or not to menstruate?
Okay, so maybe it’s not a question we’ve even heard before, let alone pondered for ourselves. But should we? We may not think of menstruation as a choice, but it is—and people have strong opinions about what is the healthier or more natural or more feminist choice when it comes to the possibility of maintaining regular periods, decreasing their intensity and/or frequency, or cutting them out altogether.
A few weeks ago, NPR’s Morning Edition put out a story on the increased use of contraception to suppress periods. Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs) such as hormonal IUDs and implants are gaining popularity among doctors and patients because they are easy to use and extremely effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy; they also, as it happens, may lighten or eliminate menstruation. The pill also creates the option of skipping periods; many people use the pill to regulate or ease their period symptoms, but many also skip the typical “placebo week” altogether. (And, contrary to common misconceptions, there is actually no medical need to have a period while using any kind of hormonal contraception.)
Depending on your relationship with menstruation, it might seem glaringly obvious to you why someone would choose to have a regularly occurring period; or it might seem glaringly obvious why someone would choose to suppress it. But the point that matters in all of this is that it should be a choice. People have a right to choose what to do with their bodies, and we can only fully access that right to the extent that we can also access accurate information about our options. Like the choice to use contraception (and which contraception to use), the choice to terminate a pregnancy, and myriad others, the choice to have a period is burdened with the taboos and misconceptions of our sexist and cissexist society.
Consider Alana Massey’s excellent argument in her piece for The Atlantic:
“A brief look at the language used to talk about menstruation reflects how closely it’s tied to the concept of female identity. ‘You’re becoming a woman!’ people exclaim to adolescents experiencing their periods for the first time. ‘Feminine products’ is the euphemism of choice for pads and tampons at the drugstore though there are plenty of aisles worth of feminine-coded products available—razors, makeup, and shampoos marketed toward women with the design of helping them look ‘feminine.’ (This focus on the ‘femininity’ of periods also completely ignores the existence of trans men who menstruate.) All of these products have the purpose of eliminating or disguising those functions of the body that have been deemed ‘unfeminine’ like growing body hair and sweating, just as menstrual products are designed to make the period as undetectable as possible. Periods can be painful and messy, and while they are considered a marker of female identity, there are also social pressures to keep them invisible on account of their ‘ick’ factor. So there are some who find eliminating periods altogether to be their best option…
This is true not only for women like me who just don’t want the burden of buying tampons and avoiding wearing white. There are shift workers who cannot escape to the restroom, women in male-dominated jobs where they feel they have to hide their feminine-hygiene products to prevent further alienation, sex workers for whom bleeding is more than a hassle, and women with young children or otherwise unreliable sleep schedules who don’t need the stress of making sure they take a birth-control pill at the same time every day.”
For some, menstruation may be an important part of their relationship with their body, or a necessary antidote to their fear or anxiety around unwanted pregnancy, or even a spiritual experience. Others may have negative experiences with hormonal contraception or have medical histories that make them unwilling to mess with their cycle. These are all valid. For others, the cost of having a period – on their time, on their ability to go about their day-to-day life, on their bodies dealing with severe side effects, or on their wallets due to the prohibitive cost of tampons and other menstrual products – is simply not worth it. Again: all of these experiences are valid. None of them makes someone less in touch with their body, their various identities, or nature.
Let’s bring periods into the conversation about a person’s right to choose—and let’s lay out the facts.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.