Wander down the high street and you’ll likely see phrases like ‘feminine hygiene’ and ‘sanitary pads’ in any shop selling period care products. But should we be challenging these terms in a bid to end period shame?
- Words like ‘hygiene’ and ‘sanitary’ support the myth that periods are dirty
- Continuous use of euphemisms tells us that periods are embarrassing
- Period shame can impact all areas of our lives - from work to our relationships
- In some countries and cultures, young girls are missing out on education and opportunities because of period shame
The Language of Menstrual Health
Language plays such an important role in our culture. It’s how we teach, how we connect and how many of our views and opinions are formed. That’s why it’s so damaging when we speak about periods using negative words. It spreads the message that periods are something shameful, something disgusting or something to be feared.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s not ok to complain about your period when it’s causing you pain! But there are certain words and phrases that many of us use mindlessly without realising their impact.
Hygiene & Sanitary
From ’Sanitary Pads’ to ‘Menstrual Hygiene’ these words are used widely when describing period health or period care products - even by big businesses and industry leaders, who should know better.
Associating words like ‘hygiene’ and ‘sanitary’ with menstruation supports the myth that periods are unhygienic or unsanitary - which isn’t true.
Unlike urine and faeces - which are created to help you excrete toxins - period blood is actually very clean! Mainstream use of these words feeds into a wider societal idea that periods are disgusting, messy, and ultimately shameful.
Of course, we still need good quality period care products to keep us safe and healthy, but we don’t call toilet paper - ‘sanitary paper’, or ask someone to pick up handwash from the ‘hygiene aisle’, do we? So maybe we should stop using these words when talking about periods too.
Another popular phrase to describe period care is ‘feminine hygiene’. Now as discussed, we don’t love the word ‘hygiene’ and we’re not huge fans of the word ‘feminine’ either.
Whilst the majority of people who menstruate are women, there are also trans-men and non-binary people who have periods too - and even some cis-women don’t always connect with the concept of femininity!
There are also some cis-women who don’t have periods - from those who have had a hysterectomy to people born with conditions like MRKH. This lack of a period doesn’t make these women any less feminine than they choose to be, right?
Everyone’s relationship with their gender identity - and their period - is personal. If having your period is a way for you to deeply connect with your feminine energy, that’s great! But when it comes to labelling products or speaking about menstrual health in the mainstream media, we think it’s a good idea to use language that makes everyone feel safe and included.
There seems to be an endless list of phrases that can be used to describe periods and menstrual health, without actually saying the words outright.
“Time of The Month”
“The Painters Are In”
‘“Riding The Crimson Wave”
Whilst some of these phrases might be fun and amusing, it’s important to recognise the impact that continuously using euphemisms can have on us! A euphemism is, by definition, “a mild word or expression used when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.” You see the issue here?
If we’re taught that simple phrases like ‘I’m on my period today’ are unpleasant or embarrassing, it will not only affect the feelings we have about our periods but will also make us scared to talk about them.
The impact of period shame
If you’ve ever hidden a tampon up your sleeve when walking through the office, or said you had a headache when you were really suffering from period cramps, you have been impacted by period shame.
Period shame is the systemic shame surrounding menstruation. It manifests in many different ways - including in language. The societal messaging that tells us that periods are embarrassing, unclean and should not be discussed in public, can affect many different areas of our lives.
We already know that periods - and especially period pain - can cause issues in the workplace. In fact, 77% of our customers say their periods affect their productivity. But the most concerning thing is that many of us aren’t comfortable being honest about our period health with our colleagues or bosses. A shocking 80% of women lie about reasons for their absence if it’s period related! You can read more about periods and the workplace here.
You’d like to think that period shame would have no place in a medical setting. However many people still struggle to talk to their doctors about their period health, due to embarrassment and a fear of being dismissed. A survey by Plan International found that not only had 79% of girls experienced serious period health symptoms and not spoken to a doctor but almost a quarter of them had avoided a GP visit purely out of embarrassment.
But the impact can be even greater in some cultures
Sadly, in some countries and cultures, girls are banished from the family home during their period. This not only stops them from attending school but also leaves them vulnerable to danger. One example of this is the Nepalese practice of Chhaupadi. In Chhaupadi, girls and women on their period are forced to sleep inside tiny sheds, animal shelters or mud huts because they are considered impure and people believe you can get ill by touching them. There have been multiple accounts of people dying during Chhaupadi - due to fires, animal attacks and pneumonia. The practice has been outlawed in Nepal since 2005, but still regularly takes place in rural communities.
How can we change this?
Unravelling period shame is going to take a long time! But if we take small steps together, we will eventually get there.
When it comes to language it can be really helpful to challenge those who use derogatory terms when speaking about periods and also those who consistently lean on funny, euphemisms.
Avoid phrases like:
And instead, swap them for phrases like:
To break the taboo and stigma about periods, we just have to keep educating ourselves, educating others and keeping the conversation going, so even by reading this blog you are doing your bit!