End the shame around menstruation

I’d like you, if you are female, to think back to your first period. Can you remember it? Do you remember how it happened? Do you remember what your mum or the adults in your life told you beforehand, to prepare you? Did you feel supported? Did you feel informed? Did you feel confident?

The chances are, no, you didn’t. There are still huge gaps in education and support for young people, which are of course passed on intergenerationally. Many women feel shame about periods, and this is culturally reinforced by the messages in advertising that tell us, for example, that a period product is great because nobody will hear you opening the wrapper, or that show us how their products work using the ubiquitous blue liquid.

Of course, we need to smash the shame of periods and break this cycle. To do this we need to all think about ways in which we can destigmatise menstruation – for example by being open about our periods, our period products, how periods feel and even our period blood in front of our own children from a young age, rather than keeping this aspect of our lives hidden. Doing this involves doing some work on ourselves. How do we feel about periods? Can we use words like vulva with confidence? Giving thought to these issues can bring up complex feelings and even memories of difficult
experiences. But it’s helpful to do this because if we want to change the way the next generation feels about periods and their female bodies, we have to start with ourselves.

Having said that, it’s also normal for girls to feel awkward or embarrassed about their periods or other aspects of puberty, such as their changing bodies. Smashing period stigma is not all about running down the street waving a bloody tampon – although if you wish to, you do it! It’s actually also a positive thing for all people to have clear body boundaries. And this can mean having an awareness that some of our body parts and experiences are private, and not feeling comfortable sharing them with anyone and everyone.

For this reason, I would always support single sex toilets from age 8 and upwards in schools. It’s frustrating when this discussion gets framed around ‘prudishness’ – ‘they’re just bodies! Get over it!’, or even around period positivity – ‘it’s great for boys to be exposed to these things!’ – etc. As someone who has worked as a therapist with children in care, who have experienced abuse, this attitude rings alarm bells for me. Anyone who knows anything about child safeguarding or abuse will tell you that clear boundaries are such an important message for children, for example, “Your body belongs to you”. And it’s not just relevant in abusive situations – as young people become teenagers and begin to have their own sexual experiences, it’s again extremely helpful to them to have a clear sense of body boundaries, and to know that some parts of their bodies are not to be shared unless they absolutely want to.

Whether it’s to help teach and reinforce clear body boundaries, or simply to make periods and puberty less embarrassing for young people, single sex spaces are much needed. This means safe spaces that are structured around sex, not gender identity. It is ok for girls to have boundaries and their own specific spaces built with their needs in mind. If we start eroding these spaces, I feel we send a worrying message to girls, that their privacy and boundaries do not matter.

Milli Hill will be speaking at our webinar on Sat, 19 March 2022, from 10:30 – 13:00 GMT. Book your tickets here.