Teachers and Parents Must Challenge Sexist Menstruation Stigma

by

7th January 2020

Over the past two years I have conducted a detailed masters’ project, researching girls’ menstruation experiences in school. I am excited to see the Period Poverty Task Force taking shape and that free menstrual products will be funded in schools. However, as I highlight in the Guardian, there is still work to do. Free products will not mark the end of period poverty and menstrual shame. To move forward, teachers and parents must challenge sexist menstruation stigma.

Source: https://bit.ly/39LVP3Z

To move forward, teachers and parents must challenge sexist menstruation stigma. Click To Tweet

I will never forget the first time I was sent home from work for ‘illness.’ I was 22, working as a Teaching Assistant, and I had severe menstrual cramps. They were so painful that I could not stand up straight. On my way home, things got so bad that I collapsed and screamed out for help. A crowd of random passers-by gathered and someone asked me what was wrong. “Period pain,” I answered, trying to hold back tears. Their response was to state that they “didn’t want to know about it” before launching into foul mouthed and misogynistic abuse.

After numerous A&E visits and GP appointments over the past 10 years, I am finally being seen by a specialist.

As highlighted by Plan UK and Endometriosis UK, thousands of other women and girls have similar stories about menstruation stigma and women’s health issues being ignored. On a macro-level, this is clearly due to a history of sexism in society. On a more micro-level, the way we talk about menstruation from an early age shapes individuals’ attitudes towards women and their health. For far too long, periods have been used to degrade girls or have not been spoken about at all.

I believe teachers and parents should work together to tackle everyday menstruation stigma to improve things for girls and women.

teachers and parents should work together to tackle everyday menstruation stigma to improve things for girls and women. Click To Tweet

The problem

Young people of all genders witness menstruation stigma. Adverts, social media, chats with friends, parents’ comments and lessons in school are just some of the ways in which young people absorb the taboo associated with periods. Such stigmatised messaging has dire consequences.

Menstruation stigma affects the way girls and women feel about themselves. Plan UK found that almost half of girls (48%) feel embarrassed about their periods and that this can detract from their self-confidence with a range of different consequences, such as making them less likely to participate in sport.

Some social science research, including Allen et al’s study, also suggests that menstruation stigma can create a ‘gender barrier’ and make boys feel like they do not understand girls. Burrow and Johnson’s 2005 study indicates that boys use comments about periods to belittle girls. In Plan UK’s research, girls explained that they felt anxious about boys’ comments:

“Umm… they’ll laugh at you, and they’ll probably tell everyone that: ‘Oh, she has her period.’ Yeah, they take the mickey.”

These are huge problems. If we want to improve attitudes towards periods and women’s health, we need to get boys on board. Boys can be useful allies. They will be adult fathers, brothers, uncles, colleagues, partners or friends to women in the future. Teachers and parents should be setting an example for boys and giving them the information that they need to fulfil this role.

If we want to improve attitudes towards periods and women’s health, we need to get boys on board. Boys can be useful allies. Click To Tweet

The effects of menstruation stigma are not confined to school. As I have argued previously, the attitudes we are exposed to in our youth are important. They affect wider societal issues, including health and wellbeing. Recent research from the BBC shows that taboo and stigma provide the backdrop to poor diagnosis rates for certain gynaecological conditions. It is estimated that 1 in 10 women suffer from endometriosis which can cause debilitating pain and threaten fertility. It takes an average of a whopping 7.5 years to get a diagnosis, despite the high proportion of women having the condition. Researchers and activists suggest that this is because health professionals and society as a whole do not take women’s pain, especially period pain, as seriously as men’s. Challenging menstrual taboo could help to change this.

What can we do?

Parents and teachers can challenge menstruation stigma by calling it out wherever they see it and talking openly about periods. For parents, these specific steps might be helpful:

  • Call out and discuss sexist comments about periods in the media.
  • Call out and discuss any sexist comments your child makes about periods.
  • Talk to your child about periods and don’t be afraid of questions. If you do not know the answer, try and find it out together.
  • Talk to other parents and share ideas for talking about periods with young people.

For teachers, these techniques could prove useful:

  • Call out and discuss any sexist comments pupils make about periods.
  • Challenge staff members who make sexist comments about periods. Help them to understand that their comments can be hurtful. Explain that they can set a good example to pupils by talking positively about periods and challenging sexism.
  • Let pupils know that they can talk to you about periods. If you do not know the answer to their questions, refer young people to a specialist member of staff or look things up together.

I know the social and medical problems that menstruation stigma can cause from my own life experience. I passionately believe that we need an attitudinal shift and schools can be a much-needed vehicle for change.

schools can be a much-needed vehicle for change in regards to menstruation stigma Click To Tweet