We find a million ways to avoid saying it — it’s “that time of the month,” or “Aunt Flo came for a visit.” For those not feeling so delicate about it, they’re “on the rag” or “surfing the crimson tide.”
When the cramps get bad, many women claim headaches or stomach bugs. Tampons, pads and panty liners are hidden in discreet little purses and inundated with fragrances.
This doesn’t speak for all women, but since the advent of female hygiene products, the underlying social message seems clear: menstruation is an embarrassing hygiene problem that women should conceal.
Researchers, such as Ingrid Johnston-Robledo and Joan C. Chrisler, have argued that menstruation has a social stigma, and some say it obstructs the path toward women’s social equality. Without the acceptance of your body, asserting egalitarianism on behalf of your gender is challenging.
And while change is always slow in coming, current research suggests that reusable menstrual products could be the next best feminist tools to fight against this particular social stigma because they can foster acceptance.
Controlling the flow
The monthly ritual of trying to safely and efficiently live with a period has been a process governed by trial and error. As early as 15th century B.C., Egyptians used soft papyrus to soak up their menstrual blood. Ancient Roman women would use wool. The Japanese taped special paper to themselves that they’d change every hour. Native Hawaiians employed the furry part of the hapu’u fern. Beginning around the 18th century, American women used fabrics and eventually disposables pads that were large and cumbersome and not unlike diapers.
The modern tampon didn’t emerge until the 1930s, when Tampax was patented and hired “Tampax Ladies” to tour the country, giving speeches at colleges to educate and convince the public that tampons were safe and effective.
Reusable menstruation products were invented around the same time, but they were shunned from society because disposable products were easier and less intimidating. Only within the past two decades have reusable menstruation products garnered more mainstream use and risen as a new feminist technology. Their efficiency, environmental benefits and the personal growth they inspire provide valuable tools for combating the debilitating unease and embarrassment associated with menstruation.
Plus, these reusable menstrual products come in various forms. Products like DivaCups and Moon cups are two popular tampon-like silicone cups that are inserted into the vaginal canal to collect menstrual blood. Before and after each use they are sterilized with boiling water and can be reused for up to 10 years if properly taken care of. Reusable pads, like GladRags and Lunapads, function similarly as washable cloths that fix to a woman’s underwear and collect menstrual blood.
“The idea is that [with reusable feminine products] you’re really touching yourself more and acknowledging more. You aren’t disposing of your ‘mess,’ you’re living with your body,” says Dr. Gillian Russell, a Boulder-based psychologist with a Ph.D. from the University of London.
Through all the progressive changes surrounding women since the 1930s, the embarrassment associated with menstruation has not yet lifted. Common euphemisms have all but replaced the words “period” and “menstruation” in Western vernacular. Circumventing these words has become a temporary solution for a much larger problem that Russell calls, “a huge challenge in today’s society.”
The base of the problem is a great societal revulsion toward anything “menstrual” that Russell finds has a deeper psychological seed.
“There’s this overarching theme in today’s society of wanting to be in control… [and the] thing is, menstruation represents something messy, dirty, out of control,” Russell says. “Nowadays that’s not how women think they should be.”
Carolina Ramirez, a Women and Gender studies student researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, says, “Menstruation has been seen as an individual health issue and has no space in the public health discourse.”
Earlier this year Ramirez conducted research on the consequences of the silence that surrounds menstruation. Her findings showed that if girls are discouraged to talk about menstruation and female health at a young age, a culture of shame and silence carries into their adult life and contributes to the continued stigmatization.
What exacerbates the problem is that feminine hygiene products and the media have primed women to think this way. According to tampon boxes, menstruation is something that requires “protection” and “discreet” solutions. It’s something that should be hidden, something that women should be embarrassed about. According to them, menstruation is something that requires a defense mechanism.
“There are activists that try to communicate [feminist] ideals, but they are up against a tremendous media presence,” Russell says. “Menseestruation is a sign of sexuality in a woman. But the media just shows asexual women — women with no breasts, no hips, very slim — and that is what is being idealized, unfortunately.”
Russell notes that the squeamishness plaguing menstruation conversations can be harmful to a young girl’s development, making them more self-conscious and shy at a pivotal point in their lives.
Madison Murray, a women’s studies research student at Old Dominion University in Virginia, agrees that products like the DivaCup can be a catalyst for major change.
“Menstrual cups are a perfect feminist technology,” she says. “Part of women empowerment is understanding the vagina in its own beauty and not just being a source of reproduction or sex. Women are often taught to shy away from self-exploration, but there is much to understand. We all have our own flow and understanding it can help one see what your body needs.”
Physical, mental and environmental health
According to the DivaCup product description, “Many women feel uneasy about changing their menstrual care routine. Years of dealing with the sights and odors of disposable tampons and pads cause the familiar reaction: ‘ick!’ The DivaCup empowers women to connect with their bodies and menstrual cycles like never before.”
The environmental benefits of trading tampons and pads for the DivaCup are also impossible to neglect. According to Slate Magazine, “the average woman throws away 250 to 300 pounds of ‘pads, plugs, and applicators’ in her lifetime.” One tampon has the same amount of plastic as three grocery bags, which doesn’t even include the packaging, wrappings, or backing strips that also end up in landfills. One DivaCup weighs, including packaging, less than two ounces.
Switching to the DivaCup is also a healthier alternative. Because the DivaCup is non-absorbent, it doesn’t cause dryness. The DivaCup claims that, “when a tampon is inserted, its composition of rayon and cotton absorbs your vagina’s protective fluid, drying out and disrupting its normal pH levels.”
The cup can be left in for up to 12 hours at a time — meaning less bathroom trips and less stress about leakage — because it can hold up to three times a much as one tampon. The silicon composition ensures there is zero risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome, a bacterial illness that can cause death.
Economically, the DivaCup is a steal. While it will last for multiple years, it only costs about the equivalent of three months worth of disposable supplies.
“If we could get even freer about this, if it could be as normal as buying toilet paper or Kleenex, then we can make some progress. This is a challenge,” Russell says.
To help normalize menstruation, Russell recommends more dialogue. “Really, it’s mothers and female role models that will change things.”