Cramping in style: why an early menstruation education is important for mental health
Posted by jogreene
23rd Jan 2020

Being tentatively notified by one of your male peers that there’s “something red” on your white shorts – only to discover that your first period has arrived during a class trip – is an archetypal adolescent nightmare. Inspired by the memory of a childhood friend of the co-creators getting her period in this way on a visit to the Empire State Building, this exact fate befalls 7th grader Jessie Glaser in Netflix’s animated adult sitcom Big Mouth, whose third season premiers on 04 October 2019.

When you’re a cartoon character in a surrealist narrative, this scenario is merely the launching pad for the unfolding of a much more elaborate nightmare. Soul-crushing advice comes thick and fast from the Statue of Liberty, whose giant green hand reaches in and plucks a cowering Jessie from the bathroom stall in which she is hiding. “Being a woman is misery,” she explains, inducting Jessie into the Covenant of Menstruation. “Nothing but pain and unwanted babies from terrible lovers, and worst of all, Le Cramp”.

Styled here as a world-weary chain-smoker with a righteous antipathy towards pigeons, Bartholdi’s creation offers scant practical guidance to the preteen as she embarks on this important new phase of physical maturation. As an exemplification of the disorientation and embarrassment that percolates through communities worldwide in the absence of early menstrual education, however, their exchange is brilliantly illustrative.

Misinformation about menstruation is endemic

Confusion around periods is endemic worldwide and has been throughout history, and misinformation has always abounded. The Ancient Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder asserts in his Natural History that menstrual blood withers crops and kills hives of bees, as well as turning wine sour, causing metals to rust and filling the air with “a horrible smell [which] drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”

Equally apocryphally, the actress Jessi Klien, who voices Jessie Glasser on Big Mouth, recalls being informed by an older girl that “when you get your period, you have to just sit and drain for a few days; just stay at home and drain.” This may seem laughable, but Chhupadi – the Nepalese practice of banishing people to a shed outside the home for the duration of their period – was only made illegal throughout the country as recently as 2017.

Poor period knowledge leads to punitive policies

The relationship between poor menstruation education, social stigma surrounding periods, and harmful public policy creation is complex. The world is rife with public policies based on widespread misconceptions about periods, which all too often have no basis in biology and pose obstacles to those affected in living their day-to-day lives. These range from barring people who are menstruating from certain venues and activities – in India, many women are not allowed to cook or attend religious rites – to placing taxes on menstrual products that make them prohibitively expensive for many people, under the misconception that they are a luxury rather than a necessity.

Early menstrual education is a vital means of equipping people with periods to defend themselves against the imposition of restrictions based on bogus information, and dispelling stigma. The work of initiatives promoting period awareness is transformative. In Kenya, the ZanaAfrica Foundation supplies health education and sanitary pads to help girls make informed choices and keep them from feeling the need to skip school during their period.

The organisation notes that, as the vocalisation of the demand for proper feminine hygiene products increases, greater cultural acceptance of periods is being established. This is even reflected in the shifting language of the discourse; male politicians who previously referred squeamishly to feminine hygiene products as “the thing that is used by women” are becoming increasingly comfortable saying the word “pad.”

Menstrual hygiene offers protection against infection

In addition to reducing missed schooldays, proper menstrual hygiene education can protect against a host of physical problems. Where products like pads and tampons are unavailable, people often self-manufacture makeshift versions, using materials like old sheets, newspapers and discarded feathers. This exposes the body to harmful bacterial agents, increasing the risk of problems like urinary tract infections (UTIs), as well as causing skin sensitivity and rashes.

Where sanitary products are available, accessible guidelines on how to use them, and how long to use them for, are needed. According to research carried out by the sanitary pad manufacturer Always in the UK, 11% of those surveyed are putting their health at risk by using products for longer than intended, which can lead to bacterial infections and their potentially lethal complication, toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

Problems resulting from insufficient information on menstruation are often compounded by a lack of basic sex education, leading to the inability to make decisions that provide protection against the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The risk of transmission of infections such as syphilis and hepatitis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is believed to increase during menstruation. Untreated STIs can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can produce internal scarring and cause irreparable damage to the reproductive system.

Menstruation education for all

“How can I wash blood in the toilet? The drain that leads out is not covered. My father and brothers are in the courtyard.” This predicament is described by a female teenager from India in Menstrual Hygiene Matters, a 2012 report by WaterAid, demonstrating the debilitating difficulties that living in the shadow of cultural taboos surrounding periods can engender.

In order to break down barriers to effective menstrual care, it is necessary to educate everybody about periods, rather than just people with a female reproductive system. In contexts in which acceptance and understanding of menstruation is widespread, people find themselves freed from the societal pressure that prevents them demanding the products and facilities they need to live a full life while safely managing their monthly flow.

Wherever you are in the world, early menstrual education and affordable sanitary products should be readily available, without the oppressive sensation that you need to ask for them in hushed whispers. We need a bloody revolution up our sleeves, in place of that sheepishly concealed tampon.

This post was written by Jo Greene, who works with VR Sani-Co, specialists in washroom and hygiene services in Sussex, including sanitary bins. She regularly writes on topics on women’s mental health as it relates to menstrual taboos, period poverty and other menstrual health topics.

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