You could call it a tale of two periods. On this side of the Atlantic, discussion of one woman’s period erupted with an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity on social media, while another one across the pond was met mostly with derision and disgust. Periods might not be an insult—but they’re still highly stigmatized.
The first, of course, is the theoretical period of Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly, which made headlines after Donald Trump blamed what he saw as a poor performance by Kelly at the Republican presidential debate on the fact that she was possibly menstruating. In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Trump said, “[Kelly] gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions. You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.”
Although Trump didn’t clarify what he meant by “wherever,” and has since said he was referring to her nose, many people assumed that he was making a reference to menstruation. In response to these remarks, outraged Twitter users responded with the hashtag #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult. The woman who started it all, Amber Gordon, even created a set of templates from which Twitter users can automatically tweet about their periods. The results were glorious.
— Queen of Snark (@snarkymcblonde) August 11, 2015
— Persian Introversion (@typicalfeminist) August 11, 2015
— Rebecca Gorena (@rebeccagorena) August 10, 2015
— Jennifer W (@WordsmithJenn) August 10, 2015
But this isn’t the only period-related story currently playing out on social media. Kiran Ghandi, a 26-year-old Harvard MBA and touring drummer for M.I.A., recently published an essay about running the London Marathon while menstruating. Ghandi, who spent a full year training for the race, decided to bleed freely during the marathon—after realizing that she wasn’t sure how her body would react to running 26.2 miles with a tampon in it. Rather than being ashamed of what her body was doing, she embraced it as an opportunity to raise awareness about the impact of the stigma surrounding menstruation.
Ghandi’s essay included not just a recounting of how it felt to run the race, but also pictures of her increasingly bloody pink running pants—as well as facts about lack of access to proper menstrual hygiene around the world. It was an incredibly powerful statement.
Unfortunately, people weren’t nearly as eager to support Ghandi as they were Kelly. In fact, public reactions erred more on the side of disgust than admiration. Some publications even censored images of Ghandi by blurring out the blood stain on her pants. Many people took to Twitter to express how “gross” they found Ghandi’s stunt to be.
I'm sorry, but I don't see how this is empowering. It's flat-out gross. http://t.co/elpViMksKI
— Lauren (@laurenmark95) August 10, 2015
Unfortunately, these people are doing little more than proving the point that Ghandi is trying to make—while negating the entire message of the hashtag campaign trending at exactly the same time. Stigma about menstruation is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we react with disgust even toward something as harmless as a picture of a woman with blood on her pants.
This stigma presents itself in ways both obvious and subtle, as Ghandi discovered when, upon realizing that she was going to start her period the day of the race, she tried to find information about racing while menstruating. In an interview with Cosmopolitan, she describes how frustrated she was by the lack of facts and resources about long-distance running and periods:
I thought, Aw, man, I’m probably not going to be able to run it because I haven’t ever and I don’t want to hurt myself. I didn’t really have good information about what happens when you run on your period. For example, they tell you that for men, their nipples will bleed because of the chafing between their shirts and their skin. I worried that a tampon might have the same effect.
But unfortunately, Ghandi’s fruitless search was a harsh reminder of the reality of what menstruation looks like for millions of people around the world. Darren Saywell, the Director of Water, Sanitation, and Health for Plan International USA, says:
Many girls around the world still lack access to affordable hygienic menstrual products. Instead, they are forced to use improvised materials, such as rags or leaves. Not only are they uncomfortable, but they can lead to leaks and infections. Girls also lack access to clean, safe private toilets. There is no clean water within or near the toilets, which means there is nowhere to clean up and discreetly dispose of used menstrual products.To make matters worse, women and girls often face harsh social taboos about menstruation which excludes them from certain activities, such as cooking or praying—and in some cases going to school.
According to a report co-published by Unicef, Oxfam, WaterAid, and several other organizations, ignorance and superstition about menstruation is frighteningly common. Forty-eight percent of girls in Iran, 10 percent in India, and seven percent in Afghanistan believe menstruation is a disease. “We are taught that things will be spoiled if we touch them during our. We can’t touch food, cooking utensils or the kitchen gardens,” says Shopna, a 14-year-old girl from Bangladesh quoted in the report.
These types of beliefs are not isolated. They exist in many cultures to greater or lesser degrees.
While things might be better here in the West, stigma and poverty both mean that menstruation-related issues can have a negative impact on people’s lives. More than 40 million people in the United States live on or below the poverty line, and menstrual hygiene products (which are not covered by food stamps) cost about $70 a year.
In addition, doctors often downplay or just plain disregard health concerns about menstruation. Difficult or painful periods are the most common gynecological complaint among adolescent girls everywhere and can be a sign of serious underlying health concerns, yet many physicians still don’t take them seriously.
Periods might not be an insult—but they’re still highly stigmatized.
“We have evidence that over half of our patients have to see three clinicians before somebody takes [missed periods] seriously,” Lawrence Nelson, a gynecologist at the National Institutes of Health, told Al-Jazeera this year. Lack of attention to disruptions in menstrual cycles can mean that serious medical conditions go untreated, which in turn can lead to infertility, chronic illness, and even death.
Given all of this, it’s frustrating to watch the support of Megyn Kelly playing out at the same time as Kiran Ghandi is being widely criticized. Why is it not just acceptable but laudable to troll Donald Trump about his views on women’s bodies, but when a woman actually confronts us with the reality of menstruation—one countless women deal with every day—we react with disgust?
If #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult for Megyn Kelly, then they shouldn’t be used against other women, especially those who are using their bodies and their platforms to raise awareness. Solidarity isn’t enough—we need to examine why continue to react so viscerally to images of a natural bodily function and educate others, in order to encourage honest conversations about women’s reproductive health.
We also need to ask an important question: If we were so quick to jump to the defense of a pretty, blond Fox News reporter, why did we collectively turn up our noses at a woman of color who is actively trying to make a difference in the world?
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator. Her work can be found in the Washington Post, Vice, Jezebel, the Toast and others. Her comments on feminism, social justice, and mental health have been featured on TVO’s The Agenda, CBC, CTV, Global and E-talk Daily. She’s really good at making up funny nicknames for cats.
Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)