Menstruation myths and beliefs are passed on from generation-to-generation around the world. Different cultures or religions hold specific practices and beliefs, but overwhelmingly, menstruators deal with a culture that holds periods as taboo and deeply shameful. This means that simply having a period can complicate everyday events like family gatherings, going to school and can even result in death.
In liberal Western cultures, there’s a strong stigma that surrounds periods. Menstruators are taught to conceal their period because it’s considered embarrassing. In our daily language, we use unflattering terms for menstruation such as Aunt Flow, the curse, and Bloody Mary. If there’s a visible period stain, we’re immediately ashamed. Even when we’re are on their way to the bathroom, we feel the need to hide tampons in our pockets, purses, or up our sleeves. It’s like the walk of shame. While for many, it’s no big deal to keep their cycle of the month a secret, it’s actually disempowering. We’re trained from an early age that our period is repulsive.
This belief adds to the period poverty problem. Some people are so embarrassed to talk about their period that they don’t know how to ask for help when they can’t afford period products. This impacts millions of people, especially when they have to choose between food or tampons.
It can get worse in the Global South, where these problems are multiplied by extreme poverty. Due to a huge gap in access to sexual and reproductive health education, many girls are exposed to unprotected sex, pregnancies, STDs, and infections. Many girls miss school each month during their periods because they don’t have reliable access to menstrual products. According to ZanaAfrica Foundation, 65% of girls in Kenya cannot regularly access sanitary pads. And it’s been reported that 10% of young girls have transactional sex in exchange for pads, putting them in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. (Aisle works to alleviate period poverty through our Dignity Projects).
Menstrual taboo appears throughout the world. In some parts of Nepal, the cultural practice is for menstruators to leave their home and live in a menstruation hut for the duration of their period. This practice is called Chhaupadi. These menstruation huts are unsanitary, and there have been reports of death due to lack of menstrual hygiene and animal attacks. The good news is a bill has been passed last year in Nepal that will criminalize anyone who forces a woman into a menstrual hut (the practice was banned in 2005). However, this is no guarantee; families are still practicing this century-old tradition, as well as the belief that menstruation causes ritual impurity.
Being of Indian descent and growing up around a religion called Jainism, I was presented with a set of rules when I started my period at the age of 11. The rules basically state that menstrual blood is considered impure and a person with a period is not allowed to touch anything, including clothes, food, and they aren’t allowed to attend temples or pray. On the 4th day of my cycle, I had to wash my clothes and wash my hair to make myself *clean* again and then I was allowed to touch everything again. My parents weren’t super strict on this rule. My grandmother, however, was very strict. Once, I accidentally touched her, and she felt the need to immediately take a shower and wash her hair.
While I respect my family and their beliefs, I never understood this rule. I followed this rule until I was about 18 years old, but I’ve also never been a religious person. It became something I let go.
To be honest, this practice actually made me feel devalued. Having a period is a natural process, and this rule made me feel like something was “wrong” with me. I had to always announce when I was on my period and it just felt like a huge burden on top of just having my period and dealing with the cramps and pain that came with it. Once, as a child, there was an event at my cousin’s house where everyone was informed that I was on my period, and I had to sit in a chair on the side. My aunt came up to me and waved her finger at me and told me to stay in that chair and not move or touch anything. Years later, as an adult, these beliefs caused conflict between me and my aunt.
Having to process this as a child made no sense to me, however, as an adult, I understand that it was a cultural practice rooted in menstrual taboo. It looks like the next generation creating their own beliefs. We are able to choose whether to participate or not in these traditions. However, not everyone around the world is as lucky, whether because of culture, poverty or simple misinformation. Periods are normal, and this taboo has to go.
What has your experience been with culture and menstruation? Share your thoughts with us on social media.
Priya Shah is a Chicago-based freelance copywriter and serial blogger armed with a journalism degree and a strong background in providing clients with value, creativity, and a killer voice. She’s also a world traveler, has lived abroad, and loves exploring other cultures.