Menstruation is still a taboo. 40% of women make sure that nobody sees them going to the toilet with a sanitary napkin or tampon. Every third one of us makes sure that nobody knows we are on our period, and 14% of women are afraid that a friend will see that they are buying sanitary napkins.
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During my adolescence, menstrual blood was blue. It appeared in commercials, making them quite controversial back then. In the school playground, boys used to shout at us "always dry, always clean, always sure", and it amused them terribly. At school, I heard about menstruation once – in a biology lesson. I was lucky that my mother spoke to me openly about it. And the first menstrual blood didn't scare me. But I didn't say a word about my period to my dad.

That was the 90s. Nowadays, teens grow up in a different world. Bloggers and artists talk about their periods, there are discussions about menstruation in Family Life Education classes, and we are now more aware and open minded as mothers. Right?

The report prepared on behalf of Kulczyk Foundation shows directly that this is only half-truth. Still, when going to the toilet to change the sanitary napkin, we hide it shyly in a cuff or pocket, so that no one can see it. There are still teenagers who are completely surprised when they get their first period and have no one to talk to about it. Their fathers are still silent or mocking: "another one to stain the sheets". And there are still women in Poland who have to choose: I will buy either food or sanitary products.

Menstruation is still a taboo

It is rarely discussed even in colourful magazines. If it does appear, it is usually in sponsored articles advertising painkillers, antispasmodics, sanitary pads and tampons. TV series have started to feature important social topics which used to be wrongly thought of as taboo, yet menstruation is still very much absent. Just as it is absent in youth literature. For example, none of the over thirty heroines of Małgorzata Musierowicz's[1]  books ever menstruate. In commercials, women still say "I have these days". If we talk about menstruation, we choose a physiological narrative. We do not discuss what it really means for a woman, what emotions or tensions it involves. You can discuss it with your friend. But not in every environment. In many cases, medical knowledge is not transferred and there is no sharing of experience between women. Because why should we talk about it? Not only is it intimate, it's also... disgusting.

Yes, the theme of shame and disgust is prevalent even in female discourse. 40% of women make sure that nobody sees them going to the toilet with a sanitary napkin or tampon. Every third one of us makes sure that nobody knows we are on our period, and 14% of women are afraid that a friend will see that they are buying sanitary napkins.

And those who do try to speak about menstruation are met with social hatred. Do you remember the cover of Wysokie Obcasy[2] showing white panties with a red glitter spot faking menstrual blood? Some women said: disgusting. "It's a shame you didn't show smeared shit there," they wrote. In our culture, menstruation is still a scapegoat. Negative comments in response to realistic representations of menstruation correspond to the "ritual of being on the side of the stronger", distancing oneself from one's own menstruation, perceiving it as something hideous, disgusting, says one of the interviewees who took part in the study, conducted by research company Difference. Their report analysed the phenomenon of menstrual exclusion and period poverty from an economic, social, and educational perspective.

Okładka 'Wysokich Obcasów'
Okładka 'Wysokich Obcasów' 

Why this focus? Kulczyk Foundation supports projects that aim to strengthen the position of women in the face of discrimination and gendered stigma. The Foundation puts a special emphasis on fighting period poverty and menstrual exclusion, as this problem affects women around the world and negatively impacts almost every aspect of their lives. The authors of the report talked with experts, teenagers, students, young women, teen mothers, and men.

‘And the Amazon has poured out’

How do we talk about menstruation? 42% of the women surveyed admitted that they have not talked about it at home. 25% -– that it is an embarrassing topic. And if we do talk about menstruation, then how? The authors of the report have identified two types of "period semantics". The first is negative and shows menstruation as something that has, unfortunately, got a grip of us. The second is a lenient narrative with a hint of sarcasm or jokiness. All sorts of colloquial terms for menstruation are included here. And there are really many of them. Some of the phrases used: "Aunt Flo", "the Crimson Tide", "Code Red". On Facebook forums, women encrypt information: "Well, the Amazon has poured out" – they write. Or "Blood will flood me soon", "Wasted week", "At least it will be warm in the ass".

Blood and pain

What is menstruation associated with? Negative references dominate: blood, pain, irritability, weakness, lower mood, and stress. For poorer women, menstruation is also connected with discomfort and problems with access to sanitary products. Such a negative perception of menstruation has its consequences, emphasise the authors of the report. It results in the lack of acceptance for a woman’s body, femininity and sexuality.

The experience of the first menstruation is often full of shame, anxiety, and loneliness. Teenagers say: "I was afraid of everything, I did not really know what menstruation was. I knew it existed but not much more beyond that. There was not much said about it at school, my mum didn’t tell me much either, I did not really know how to deal with it on my own. I had a strong stomach ache and I was wondering if it was going to be like that all the time and I also wondered if everyone was so much in pain or was it only me?”

What are girls afraid of? That they start to menstruate too soon or too late, that their lives will have to change profoundly, that menstruation comes with acute pain, that their relations with parents will change, that they will no longer be children. They are terribly afraid that they will have a stain or will not have a sanitary pad on them. The trauma of stained bedding and underwear is one of the strongest fears associated with menstruation and is the source of the most common problems and harassment from a peer group.

Specialists emphasise that adolescents primarily lack knowledge but also support from adults. Relationships with mothers are particularly important.

A chocolate bar from a mother...

The research has shown that mothers could be divided into three groups. The first group constitutes mothers that are absent, withdrawn, unable to talk about menstruation.

The second group includes "technique-focused" mothers.

They will say what and how, but there is no room for additional questions in this conversation. “When I was approaching the moment of my first period my mum told me where everything was and how I should handle it but we did not have any open conversation” recalls one of the teenagers quoted in the report. The last group involves supportive mothers. They celebrate the first period of their daughter, considering it as an important step in puberty. A supportive mother was described by one of the teenagers interviewed in the study: “I remember I was stressed because I was afraid how my mum would react. She got her first period when she was fourteen years old so I was scared that I was too young, if I had reached puberty too early and if she was going to start to treat me differently. On the contrary, she was happy and she bought me a chocolate bar so that I was less worried”.

Specialists conclude: This kind of support gives a lot of self-confidence. – Girls that are taken care of do not withdraw from society but start to be more conscious and become leaders in peer groups.

... and the silence of a father

According to the report, fathers could be divided into three categories: absent, awkward, and supportive. Absent fathers feel embarrassed and do not want to talk about menstruation. This is how teenagers describe them: "My dad told me to my face that he is embarrassed to talk about menstruation, that he does not know much and could tell me something incorrect", or: "One day, when I put a new package of sanitary pads on the table, my dad said I should take it away as it was a place where we had meals".

Absent fathers do not participate in their daughters’ puberty, the sphere of sexuality is a taboo for them. Awkward fathers do not initiate the conversation about puberty and menstruation, but if asked, they to "rise to the challenge” and talk about it. But they tell awkward jokes that can embarrass their daughter. Meanwhile, a supportive father will not allow it. He is discreet and understanding.

On menstruation at school

Menstruation at school can be a big problem. If, God forbid, a girl has a blood stain on her trousers or skirt, she becomes an object of mockery because other kids know she has her period. It is humiliating for her, she wants to disappear. And no woman exists who would not have experienced such a thing at least once. She feels guilty, dirty, worries she smells and other children say it is blood coming out of the butt – as reports one of the research respondents.

"The worst moment is when you need to take a sanitary pad out of your backpack in a discreet way. Everyone is looking at you, watching what you are rummaging for" says one of the teenagers interviewed.

The girls admit that during their period they are paralysed with fear that they will be called up by the teacher to the whiteboard and their period will be noticed. When they forget sanitary pads, they have a big problem. If the nurse’s office is closed (sometimes it’s open only two or three days each week), they basically have no one to contact. In school toilets, there are often no bins, no toilet paper, or it is rationed by the janitor. "The sound you make while removing a pad from your pants is a problem, because then everyone knows you have your period. It makes quite a sound, especially during lessons when only the janitor is in the toilet. There are of course different ways of masking it: you either cough or you flush the toilet. Or you can drop the toilet seat very quickly – then you can’t hear this sound" says one of the teenagers interviewed.

"The biology teacher taught us about blood cells - that some of them die and this is why we bleed. I wondered why it takes a week and why it happens every month. I asked the teacher but did not understand the answer at all" comments one of the teenagers interviewed.

The school curriculum is overloaded and the topic of menstruation is not properly addressed. Menstruation is only talked about in a superficial way, touching only on the physiological aspects of it. Family Life Education classes lessons are often carried out by unqualified people, who are sometimes embarrassed to talk about menstruation.

Menstruation and everyday life

Only 68% of Polish women are fully OK with the fact that they menstruate. 69% of them say that their husband / partner understands that they may feel worse during menstruation. And most of them admit that menstruation is a source of many tensions and negative emotions – “It is extreme, there are moments when I am really stressed. Then, after a moment of thinking why I have been taking it out on everyone who is around me, I calm down. During these days I shout a lot at my kids and my husband. But I also cry – I can start crying uncontrollably while watching a stupid TV programme. It can be really tough” women say. Or: "I cannot do anything well when on my period; I cannot look at myself in the mirror. You retain water, you swell and you cannot wear your favourite jeans so why would you be happy? I cannot go out and meet a friend because I need to stay in the bathroom".

Menstrual pain excludes women from family life. Women isolate themselves, try to wait it out. Sometimes they react with anger and are irritable. Pain dims their senses and suppresses their appetite. It makes them lose control over their lives, destroys the schedule of their day. And this in turn increases the feeling of guilt and remorse. Self-esteem drops. Younger girls are more likely to receive help during this time, and sometimes they even demand "special treatment".

Periods in the workplace

While it is easier to "be out of the game" at home, at work you can't afford to let it go – you have to “keep on your toes", so … we put on a happy mask.

But the performance of a woman struggling with pain is difficult to sustain. And the inability to properly perform her duties creates stress and elevates the situation. Interestingly, the authors of the report indicate that female bosses lack empathy and understanding more frequently than male superiors.

One of the women interviewed said: "In fact, each of us hides it and we don’t talk about it at work, with people, or at home. Because at work no one is interested that I’m on my period. No one - You are employed, work. It is a pity that it is not talked about and that I cannot say: Listen, today I will have to go to the bathroom and someone can replace me then or say that I have low mood, so can I sit somewhere for a while and I would like it to be taken into account, because it is only once a month".

Period poverty

This phenomenon is quite poorly understood, and it is difficult to even define it. It is sometimes perceived as educational poverty, or perhaps as the emotional deficit of menstruating women, while others define it in a very narrow way, perceiving it only through the prism of limited access to sanitary products. But how many times do you run out of sanitary pads in your life so that you can say you are experiencing this? We haven’t decided yet. However, we definitely have a group of excluded women, for example those affected by homelessness, that we can assume will have consistently limited access to sanitary products. And there are also women who will have to decide whether to buy bread or sanitary products. Some experts have pointed out the need to reformulate the language and abandon the stigmatising concept of "poverty" in favour of “limited access”.

The problem of a lack of access to sanitary products may also apply to women who have found themselves destitute, such as teenagers in conflict with their parents, women escaping from violent relationships, or those who have lost their jobs. The problem concerns women all over the world, even those living in the most developed countries. It is present also in Poland. As shown by the study, as much as 22% of the women surveyed admitted that they could not always afford good quality sanitary products. "I really couldn't afford the sanitary pads because I had to buy everything else which I needed for my child. I had a small child then, and I had to think about her, not about myself. I was using what I could" says one of the respondents.

It is estimated that a woman menstruates 350 to 480 times throughout her life. She bleeds for up to nine years of her life.

“Menstruation”. Report on quantitative and qualitative research conducted by research company Difference on behalf of the Kulczyk Foundation, Warsaw, February 2020.

More information on the study is available on: kulczykfoundation.org.pl

  • Małgorzata Musierowicz is a popular Polish writer, author of many books for children and teenagers.

***
Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

***

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