How Menstruation Culture Has Shifted Over Time
by Ava Rognlien
I remember the wretched moment I got my period for the first time as if it was yesterday. I was in sixth grade and using the restroom right before school started, and I caught sight of the blood. Immediately I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. I remember thinking that I had to keep it a secret from my friends because I wasn’t sure if they had also got it. Now, I am twenty years old and I wish I could tell my younger self that there is absolutely nothing wrong with what is happening! Everyone remembers the first time they got their period, and whether feelings of pride, embarrassment, or neutrality come to mind, it is a big moment in our lives.
Although I can’t go back and tell my younger self these things, I have a younger sister in sixth grade, and I’ve always conveyed to her that your period is nothing to be ashamed of. Even with my dedication to show her that menstruation is natural, it’s as if I don’t need to tell her this, because she already knows. She feels extremely comfortable talking about periods. She knows which of her friends are growing hair and where, when they got their period, and more. Now, of course, I often talk about periods and all that comes with it, but it took me a few years to become fully comfortable with what was happening to my body. At first, I thought that my experience was unique and I was one of the only people who felt shameful when I got my period for the first time, but I’ve talked to plenty of twenty-somethings, who had the exact same experience as me. So I had to beg the question, has menstruation culture shifted drastically in ten years? And if so, how? This question also led me into looking into the history of menstruation culture at large, and how something that was once considered taboo has become normalized.
A brief history on menstruation culture in the United States
It is no surprise that menstruation culture in the United States has shifted immensely throughout history. The first tampon wasn’t invented until 1929, and before that, most people used homemade pads from cloth and rags. From that invention and the introduction of mass marketing beginning in the 1930s, mainstream period products began the transition to diminish the taboo of menstruation. Even so, menstrual activism, the movement to normalize and better policy, conversation, and access to period products to support menstruators, was not really discussed until the second-wave feminism movement in the 1970s. With the intermix of abortion and feminist activism, menstruation also became a politicized issue. With this in mind, it is easy to see why menstruation, birth control, and contraceptives are so still politicized today. During the 1980s research on Toxic Shock Syndrome from period products was introduced when thirty-plus women died from the shock effects. These events sparked the growth of conversations on the ingredients within period products. The shocking news of Toxic Shock Syndrome encouraged brands to majorly change their branding strategies to ensure that their products were still selling.
Jumping forward to the 2000s, media and advertising around menstruation products were increasing and the need to discuss menstruation grew across all media forms. The Conversation Journal, an independent news organization, noted that “Since Newsweek defined 2015 as the ‘Year of the Period’ after stories emerged about the censorship of menstruation in advertising and social media, period product advertising has broken all the rules.”
To further this, growing discussions around period poverty created awareness about the millions of people that don’t have steady access to period products. Period poverty still affects millions of people around the world and is an issue that needs continued support to ensure that all people have equitable access to the products they need. The growing popularity of menstrual cups and the environmental and health implications of period products have also helped to normalize periods, and that’s why the work we do at Viv is so important. Menstrual activism is essential to bettering the lives of all menstruators.
Language on menstruation matters
“It must be their time of the month.” Just think about the rage that this statement brings about in 2021. Shifting the culture around language is vital to destigmatizing menstruation. In the past ten or so years menstrual activism has shifted the way we think and talk about periods. For starters, menstruation in the past was often framed as women’s or feminist issue, but menstrual activism has brought to light that menstruation is not gendered and that it is vital to use inclusive non-gendered language when discussing periods. Not all people who menstruate identify as women, and therefore it is so important to use inclusive language when discussing periods.
Although there is still so much more work to be done, like removing the taxes from period products, my younger self would feel so much more comfortable getting my period in 2021! It’s also important to note that I am focusing solely on the United States, and in many countries, menstruation is still very stigmatized. By breaking the taboo of discussing menstruation, we can continue to fight to end period poverty and ensure that all menstruators feel comfortable in their bodies.
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