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Period Shame Is More Common Than We Think: Why This Needs To Change

Period Shame Is More Common Than We Think: Why This Needs To Change

by Noha Amer

 

Day 23 of working with my new personal trainer, Tony.

Day 1 of working out on my period with my new personal trainer, Tony.


I had a tough morning. After a short run, my Day 1 cramps came rushing in, and it was bad. Real bad. My cooldown was over, and I was being asked to get up and start squatting, but I couldn’t move. The pain was just too much. So I walked over to a corner in the gym, faced the wall, and keeled over, trying to breathe through the pain. And disappear from the scene.

My trainer, Tony, has become accustomed to my physical ailments. When I started working with him about a month ago, I disclosed that I had Crohn’s Disease and arthritis, which I’d need to accommodate in my workouts. And in just 3 weeks of training with him, I had already shared an abundance of complaints around intestinal flare-ups, aching joints, and even brashly announced a recent bout of food poisoning. This man was no stranger to my bodily issues.

But somehow today, I found myself drawing blanks when he asked me what was wrong. I was hunched over holding my ovaries for dear life, simply just telling him to “hold on a minute.” Given that I wasn’t giving him any hints, he ran down a list of possible issues:

“Is it the Crohn’s? Does your stomach hurt?”

No.

“Are your joints aching? Are your hips sore?”

No.

“Are you feeling dizzy?”

No.

I could sense the frustration in his helplessness, and then it dawned on me, “Why on earth am I struggling to tell this man, this professional who has been hired to look after my body, what I’m going through?” I have no qualms sharing all of the other challenges I face. Why is this one so difficult?

“Uhhh. I have my period.”

There it was. Out in the universe. My bloody announcement. Within earshot of the three other men also in the area. And no one flinched. No one reacted.

“Oh. I give you a lot of respect for showing up today. Now take a breather and let’s finish this workout once you’re okay.” And that was that.

And so we finished our workout, but I had a lot to think about well after the session was over. I had just had a positive experience sharing publicly that I was on my period, but why did it feel so wrong?

It’s called period shame. And 42% of women claim to have experienced some form of it. Period shame is a long-standing consequence of a socially built construct that menstruation is an undesirable bodily event. Despite the fact that at any given moment around 800 million girls and women are menstruating, we still talk about our periods in code, hide tampons up our sleeves on the way to the bathroom, and have skillfully learned to wrap our pads in trash bins, leaving no trace that a woman was there. Ever.

If the average woman menstruates for 3,000 days, or 8.2 years, during the course of her lifetime, I’d say we’ve earned ourselves a career as secret agents. Surely this much time in stealth mode should come with some greater benefits.

The issue is period shame doesn’t just stop at menstruation. Studies show that period shame is connected to body shame, leading to insecurities around nakedness, smells, body hair, and more. Other supporting studies show that this same shame inhibits women’s sexual agency, which is the willingness to exert power in a sexual encounter. Even when not menstruating, this type of negativity can hinder a woman’s voice, confidence, and sexual empowerment. 

Furthermore, while most truths around our periods remain hidden, PMS is often the only discussed condition of our reproductive health, and often inaccurately. PMS has been used as an easy dismissal for a woman’s unwelcomed behavior, often deeming a pre-menstruating woman as emotional, irrational, and mentally ill. While PMS is a real thing, it is not the only thing.

Periods—from pre-menstruation through the last day and right back up to ovulation—can have a real impact on our daily lives. Our reproductive systems are in constant churning through our menstrual cycle, and that can pose a variety of challenges for women all month long. Women miss up to nine days of productivity per year, whether that be school, sports, work, or otherwise, with only 1 in 5 women comfortable enough to share the real reason for their absence. Oftentimes this is out of embarrassment, fear of appearing weak or being marginalized in the workplace. How is it that we remain apprehensive about one of the most natural processes that happen to 50% of the world population?

See the vicious cycle here? Us too.

So how do we break period shame?

  • Discuss periods openly and without shame
  • The only way to dismantle the societal stigma around periods is to actually talk about it openly. Sharing how we feel and our challenges establishes an honest road to solidarity, advocacy, and education. And by normalizing talk on all things menstruation, we also move away from menstrual stereotypes like those around PMS.

  • Ditch the euphemisms
  • While “a visit from Aunt Flo” sounds like it comes with fresh baked cookies, we allow menstruation to stay stigmatized with cute code names. According to the period-tracking app, Clue, there are over 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation around the world. Let’s cut the secrecy, and call it what it is. You’re menstruating. You’re on your period. No biggie.

  • Stop hiding your products
  • Periods are a perfectly natural bodily function. Your products don’t need to be shoved to the bottom of your bags or hidden in a secret drawer. 

  • Don’t feel pressure to “push through”
  • By acknowledging our periods openly, we give way to the understanding that periods can be tough. We can’t always perform at 100% during our periods, whether in a mental or physical capacity, and we shouldn’t feel pressured to always be “on” for everyone else’s sake.

  • Be in tune with your body
  • While pain and discomfort are often associated with periods, extreme discomfort may be associated with other underlying issues. The more we can talk about our periods, the more we can recognize abnormalities, which is key to identifying and managing conditions like PCOS, endometriosis, or other underlying issues with our reproductive health. 

  • Include men in the conversation
  • Your brothers, fathers, friends, or partners can handle it. We promise.

    I have my period. Period.

     

    Noha Amer is an Egyptian-American now residing in Dubai. After moving to the Middle East from New Jersey years ago, she now works for one of the world's fastest-growing tech companies, leading teams across the Middle East and Africa. This paved way for invaluable adventures around the world. Her professional and personal experiences drive her passion to share insight on very relatable topics around women’s health, career, self-growth, and multicultural identity. 

    Noha earned her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Rutgers University. Her work has appeared in Allure, Medium, Unsettled, MissMuslim, and Egyptian Streets. You can learn more and connect with Noha at nohaamer.com.

     

     

    Sources:

    1. Fahs, Breanne. 2011. “Sex during Menstruation: Race, Sexual Identity, and Women’s Qualitative Accounts of Pleasure and Disgust.” Feminisms & Psychology 21 (2): 155–78.

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    2. Schooler, Deborah. 2001. “Messages about Menstruation: The Role Menstrual Education in Shaping Young Women’s Attitudes about Menstruation and Their Sexual Decision Making.” Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Michigan.

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    3. Schooler, Deborah, L. Monique Ward, Ann Merriwether, and Allison S. Caruthers. 2005. “Cycles of Shame: Menstrual Shame, Body Shame, and Sexual Decision-Making.” The Journal of Sex Research 42, no. 4 (November): 324–34.

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