Periods: Can women sharing stories break down taboos?

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The Pink Protest

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Amika George started campaigning on period poverty when she was 17 years old

From helping friends insert tampons to panicky confessions on first dates, people have been sharing stories about periods on social media.

It is part of an initiative using the hashtag #FreePeriodStories, which campaigners hope will help to tackle stigma around menstruation.

So what are people sharing, and why is it important?

For some, it is stories about awkward encounters with friends.

For others, it means approaching the subject with men.

But as well as funny tales, some stories have highlighted when awkwardness can lead to something more serious.

‘We deal with them alone’

The hashtag was launched by teenage period poverty campaigner Amika George. This year she successfully helped spearhead a campaign to introduce free menstrual products in primary and secondary schools.

She says that she started the initiative because the conversation about periods “has to keep going” in the wake of that success.

“From a young age, we’ve been told to whisper about them, say as little as possible on the subject to anyone, even our friends. We deal with them alone,” she says.

“We need to change the narrative that they are gross, and that periods are not something for discussion in a public space.”

She adds that a pervasive stigma surrounding periods has meant that she has been “shut down” in the past.

“I’ve had people make excuses and wander off the minute I start talking about period poverty,” she says.

‘We need to share facts at an early age’

For Celia Hodson, who founded Scottish period poverty initiative Hey Girls, sharing stories can help break down this stigma.

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Celia Hodson

“One girl told us that her boyfriend asked why she couldn’t wait until she got home to have her period,” she says.

Research carried out by Hey Girls, which offers a “buy one give one” model for period products, suggests that 48% of girls and women are embarrassed to talk about their periods.

She thinks that change can come through education.

“Only by having the conversation and sharing facts at an early age can we begin to dismantle the taboos,” she says.

How humour can help

Gabby Edlin, founder of period poverty project Bloody Good Period, says that laughing about periods can relax people and encourage healthy conversations.

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Jess Schamroth

She adds that not being able to afford tampons and pads is not the only problem – a lack of discussion can be damaging.

“If a taboo is erased, that’s to say you can talk about periods in a newspaper without anyone batting an eyelid, but the stigma means that people’s lives are still affected,” she says.

“Down to somebody not being able to concentrate in class because a teacher says ‘you can’t go to the toilet’, but they don’t feel comfortable saying ‘I need to change my pad’.”

Does ‘sanitary’ sound like a dirty word?

Chella Quint, a menstrual activist who campaigns to improve education about periods, says talking about periods allows people to “compare notes”, and that she found sharing her own “leakage horror story” cathartic.

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Chella Quint

She believes that language itself can perpetuate stigma surrounding periods, and has developed guidelines to help institutions and communities improve their “menstrual literacy”.

“Sanitary implies we are dirty without disposables, and protection says we’re unsafe without them,” she says.

Periods should be private but not secret

Affi Parvizi-Wayne, campaigner and founder of organic period product company Freda, also disagrees with some of the terminology used.

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Affi Parvizi-Wayne

“Periods, like any other bodily function, are private, not secret,” she says.

She says that some potential investors in her company had displayed a “lack of basic knowledge”, questioning why her business predictions factored in bank holidays and weekends.

“I had to explain that periods don’t really care about holidays!”

“The conversation needs to change so period products can be seen as essential as toilet paper,” she says..

True change, she says, will come when they are in “every bathroom outside the home”.