Guest blog by Dr Pragya Agarwal
People bleed every day. Life goes on. But menstruating women are dirty. When the boundary between the inside and the outside of women’s bodies blur, they are deemed unsightly.
It was Menstrual hygiene day recently and I was reflecting on how language such as this can create and reinforce shame around a completely normal bodily function. While it is extremely important to address the stigma associated with menstruation, and period poverty, we need to also look at the language used around menstruation. I am personally not in favour of the word ‘hygiene’ associated with period products. It perpetuates the idea that menstruation is inherently dirty, and creates shame and stigma around bodies that menstruate.
The word 'feminine hygiene' used often to promote products by businesses such as vagisil once again creates shame around bodies. We know that this is still a huge problem globally. I speak from my own experience and research in Indian society. As part of my research think-tank and for my book, I have worked closely with women and research groups/NGOs in India who have been addressing menstrual shame and stigma, and period poverty. According to data released by the Indian government in 2016, there are 355 million menstruating women and girls in the country (almost 30 per cent of the total population), and only 36 per cent have access to sanitary towels. In rural areas, 81 per cent of women use unsterilised cloths and many tend to use the dirtiest piece of cloth available, because to them menstruation is synonymous with dirt.
A study as recently as 2018, for those who doubt that menstrual stigma continues, conducted in the USA and polling 1,500 women and 500 men from across the country, found that 58 per cent of women polled felt a sense of embarrassment simply because they were on their period. Forty-two per cent of the women had experienced period-shaming, with one in five being made to have these feelings because of comments made by a male friend. It is so strange to think that in this era of extraordinary freedom, girls are still having to endure the feelings of shame and confusion I did that summer day when I was eleven.
In the 1920s Dr Béla Schick believed that menstruating women produced a toxin called menotoxin, which could wilt otherwise normally thriving flowers. The first chapter of my book ‘(M)otherhood: on the choices of being a woman’ is called ‘The Age of Innocence’. I interweave my own experience and memory of my first period, my life before then and after, and the way it shaped my identity from that point on with research across historical archives, ranging from the Bible to Hindu vedas, to many scientific studies, to understand where these taboos around menstruation have come from, and what its impacts are. Why do we become visible and invisible? Why do we have to hide tampons and sanitary napkins? Why are women who are menstruating still considered dirty? I also discuss trans men who menstruate and how they are marginalised in this discourse.
As I have said many times over previously, we really have to consider an intersectional global perspective on some of these issues because culture, environment, social contexts all play a role in how biases, prejudice, stigma is created and imposed on menstruating bodies. Because it is time we acknowledge that it still exists, and that unless we talk about it and disrupt it, many more young women will internalise this shame around their bodies from a young age.
Material based on Pragya’s book ‘(M)otherhood: on the choices of being a woman’ available now from Canongate