Breaking the bloody silence
By Maxine Ali
Period. The word itself has the capacity to evoke embarrassment and discomfort. A physical reality experienced by more than half the world’s population has been rendered near-unspeakable by the cultural taboos and negative discourse surrounding it. Whilst codewords, slang and euphemisms for menstruating are in no short supply, an open and honest dialogue remains absent from the daily lives of many, telling us a lot about the stifling social norms surrounding periods, and the culture-wide censorship of those who dare to bleed out loud.
Historically, the language of periods has been shrouded in silence and secrecy. From early Greek and Roman writings of menstrual blood as ‘unclean’ and ‘toxic,’ to late nineteenth century gynaecological case reports which diagnosed menstruation as a ‘debilitating illness' (1), cultural narratives have shaped the pervasive attitude that periods are an abnormality, something dirty and dangerous, something to be met with disgust. Throughout time, the language of periods has been used to marginalise people who menstruate.
Despite being such an archaic notion, the perception that menstruation is a hygienic crisis persists even today. In 2019, the ‘feminine hygiene’ market grew to over £490 million, advertising period products as a form of ‘feminine protection’ and ‘sanitary care’ (2). For many girls, women, transgender and intersex people around the world, first encounters with the word ‘period’ come in the form of an education in menstrual etiquette, teaching discretion and privacy as a rule for menstruating 'correctly.’ Social scripts emphasise feeling ‘fresh,’ and keeping it ‘secret,’ as though someone else discovering your period would be the worst kind of humiliation.
Implicit within this language of cleanliness and purity is the belief that periods threaten our safety and modesty. Instead of highlighting period products as the human right and basic necessity they are, ‘feminine hygiene’ exploits menstrual stigma (3), selling shame and insecurity in order to market a ‘solution’ to this supposed ‘period problem’ we face each month.
In a series of essays titled ‘Out for Blood,’ Breanne Fahs calls out ‘feminine hygiene’ as the ultimate double standard. “What does a product for ‘masculine hygiene’ look like, and what would it clean up?” she asks (4). Why aren’t tampons, pads and cups afforded the same descriptive neutrality as razors, deodorant and aftershave, or even praised the same way people deify condoms? The answer is quite simple, though nonetheless problematic.
The language of periods upholds the myth that women’s bodies and bodily functions are defunct and defective. That, unlike men’s bodies which are the apex of stability, normality and equilibrium, women, with their so-called ‘raging hormones’ and ‘monthly fluctuations,’ are in anatomical disarray.
There is a male bias in the conception of what constitutes a ‘healthy’ body, incurred from centuries of men being at the helm of medical writing, research and education. Emily Martin, a socio-cultural anthropologist at NYU whose work explores the sexist roots of scientific opinion, found the language of periods in contemporary medical texts to be overwhelmingly negative. In her essay Medical metaphors of women’s bodies, she reveals how descriptors such as ‘degeneration of the womb lining,’ and ‘consequence of failed conception’ were common parlance in clinical explanations of periods (5). This reflects an outmoded tendency in medicine to view female bodies as little more than reproductive vessels, and periods as a deviance from our supposed biological purpose as mothers and caregivers.
Period shame has been weaponised to subdue those who disturb the patriarchal status quo. Susan Bordo, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky, describes the female body as a site of social control (6). Whether through beauty rituals, dieting habits or feminine hygiene practices, women are commanded to mute their bodies and conform to self-silencing norms of femininity. These social scripts are less about commanding the body itself, and more about yielding ideological control over women and those whose bodies don’t align with what society sees as 'normal,’ ‘good’ or ‘right.’
The way a society talks about periods also corresponds with the political landscape of women’s rights. Tracing the history of medical and scientific languages of menstruation in her book, Images of Bleeding: Menstruation as Ideology, Louise Lander demonstrates how the pathologising of periods corresponds to the economy’s need for women’s work (7). When having women in the workplace benefits the economy, as in the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and during World War II, menstruation is described as a sign of health. When the labour of women is seen as expendable and scandalous, as it was in the Victorian era, menstruation becomes a sickness. This shows us how language is used to dictate and restrict the activities available to people who menstruate.
Changing the language of periods isn’t just about rejecting the wildly inaccurate belief that menstruation is dirty, unhealthy or immoral. It’s about addressing the widespread disparities and injustices that are a daily reality for more than half of the global population. Menstrual shame, which stigmatises the open discussion of periods, contributes to the pervasiveness of taxation policies like the tampon tax. Girls and women are disproportionately affected by poverty worldwide, and a lack of affordable period products leaves many unable to fully participate in society, robbing them of the opportunity to learn, to work and to build a better life. Communication taboo plays a direct role in the maintenance of gender inequalities.
Breaking the silence around periods liberates us from the scripts of shame that people who menstruate have been bound to for many lifetimes. When we recognise the power of period talk, of speaking our reality out loud, we rob silence of its power over us. By taking back control of the narrative, we take back control of our bodies. Period.
Maxine Ali (MSc) is a health writer and linguist, specialising in gender biases in the language of health and wellness. She is also an advocate for inclusive health care.
Find out more about Maxine Ali at maxineali.com
More bloody interesting reading...
(1) Julie-Marie Strange, 2006, Menstrual fictions: languages of medicine and menstruation, c.1850-1930, Women’s History Review, 9:3.
(2) UK Feminine Hygiene and Sanitary Protection Products Market Report, 2020, Mintel.
(3) Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, 2006, Capitalizing on the curse: The business of menstruation.(4) Breanne Fahs, 2016, Out for blood: Essays on Menstruation and Resistance.
(5) Emily Martin, 1988, Medical Metaphors of Women’s Bodies: Menstruation and Menopause, International Journal of Health Services, 18:2.
(6) Susan R. Bordo, 1997, The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.
(7) Louise Lander, 1988, Images of bleeding: Menstruation as Ideology.