Students fighting period stigma
It’s a bloody shame
1 The taboo
It’s been thirteen years, but the memory is still fresh in Lea’s mind. She went on a camping trip with her father, in the same year she’d gotten her period for the first time. They slept in tents, living rough. ‘On the second day, I got cramps and started bleeding. I was too embarrassed to tell my dad I needed to buy tampons, so I would go off into the woods and stuff my underwear with leaves and grass.’
But the makeshift solution didn’t work. Lea, now a student of religious studies at the RUG, bled through her clothes. Not wanting her father to find out, she threw them away. By the end of the trip she barely had anything to wear. ‘My dad was upset with me, because he thought I had lost all my clothes’, she recalls. ‘The entire camping trip revolved around my obsessive need to hide my menstruation.’
The entire trip revolved around my obsessive need to hide my menstruation
Lea is not her real name; even now, she only wants to share her story on the condition that she remain anonymous.
Sophia Löwe, also a religious studies student, has a horror story of her own. She remembers giving a talk to a group of teenagers at a community centre when she was nineteen. ‘On my way there, I got my period. I was wearing white trousers and the blood had seeped through.’
She remembers dreading that her audience would notice and make fun of her. ‘I felt that if people knew, I would lose face or at the very least my authority.’
2 The numbers
Almost every woman has her own story of shame or fear associated with her period. Even though women in television ads waltz around in white trousers, seemingly unaware of their menstruation thanks to their wonderful pads, reality is different. A survey among RUG students shows that many of them still feel embarrassed about their monthlies.
UKrant asked 103 female students about their experiences. 66 percent of them reported feeling ashamed, even though the majority were fine with talking about their period to other women. Discussing this subject with male friends was deemed unacceptable by most, however.
‘There’s that moment when you’re making out with someone you don’t yet know very well. You think it might be leading to sex and you’re like: shit, I have my period, I have to tell him’, one RUG student said. ‘You feel kind of self-conscious, at least for a second. Most guys take it well, but you can’t be sure of that beforehand.’
Sophia, who is an artist in addition to a RUG student, decided to turn her own story of period shame into a work of art at SIGN, a project space for experimental art in Groningen. ‘Everything relating to the uterus still gets treated like a female problem’, she says. She created an installation that shows the womb as our common place of origin.
It’s a hiding space of 3 by 5 metres, made up of colourful blankets and pillows. ‘I wanted to make the visitors feel at home,’ she explains, ‘so they can engage with the menstruations and ovulations in my work from a place of comfort.’
I wanted to make the visitors feel at home
Sophia’s message is that menstruation leads to the potential to create new life for all, so it should serve to connect all people, rather than to ostracise women. She wanted to address the stigma by creating a novel approach to the topic, instead of feeding into negative stereotypes like disgust and anger.
While menstruation is often portrayed as gory and painful, Sophia draws attention to the nurturing and safe environment the womb provides. ‘I wanted it to be playful, to ease visitors into the topic in a loving and quirky manner’, she says.
4The problem solver
It’s not just the stigma surrounding menstruation that’s the problem, however. There’s also the matter of money. 12 percent of the students that UKrant surveyed indicated there were times they couldn’t afford to buy sanitary products, while 16 percent had to ask a friend for help.
This tracks with a recent study by Plan International in the Netherlands into so-called period poverty. It found that 9 percent of Dutch girls between 12 and 25 years old sometimes have trouble paying for sanitary products.
International relations student Deniz Selcuk hopes to help RUG students dealing with period poverty. You may have seen the little green baskets she placed in the women’s toilets, saying: ‘Fellow Sisters. Let’s start a #padinitiative. Get one when you need & don’t forget to return the favour and put one back later!! XOXO.’
In Deniz’ home country Turkey, she says, many women don’t have access to sanitary products and washing facilities. It doesn’t help that Turkey charges 18 percent tax on tampons and pads. ‘Yet condoms are only taxed at 8 percent.’
You feel safer knowing that you can just grab a pad when you need one
Even though buying sanitary products has never been a problem for Deniz herself, she wanted to do something for others. ‘I’m lucky that I have access to pads, but thousands of women don’t and this directly affects their daily life’, she says. When women can’t afford sanitary products, they may stay home from school or work when they’re on their period.
Deniz’s goal was twofold: to raise awareness of period poverty and to offer practical help when someone gets their period unexpectedly. ‘I thought the pad initiative would be a lifesaver when your period starts and you can’t find a pad. You would feel safer knowing that you can just grab one, instead of having to think about where to get one when you’ve already started bleeding.’
The project was received with great enthusiasm, she says. ‘I got so many thank-yous via Instagram.’ She’s back in Turkey now, ‘but I hope this idea will spread’, she says. ‘It’s easy, thoughtful and anyone can join in.’