– BY KELLY GREHAN AND SARAH CROOK –
On June, 28th in the UK Parliament a little-known Labour MP called Danielle Rowley grabbed headlines when after being berated by the Speaker for her poor punctuality, she apologised and explained her lateness was due to being on her period. She went on to say that this period had cost her £25 and that the average woman in the UK spends £500 per year on period-associated products.
‘The reason for the news coverage wasn’t the point Danielle Rowley made about period poverty; it was because she had dared to commit the cultural sin of mentioning being on her period in mixed company’
Period poverty is an issue that’s plaguing girls in the UK. A recent survey of 14 to 21 year olds by Plan International found that 15% of British girls have struggled to afford sanitary care at some point, with one in ten girls admitting to borrowing or improvising with sanitary products. Shockingly, 7% of girls described using socks, newspaper or fabric to get through their period, instead of tampons or pads. This is despite the UK being the 6th richest country in the world.
But, predictably, the reason for the news coverage on this matter wasn’t due to the point Danielle Rowley made about poverty. It was because she had dared to commit the cultural sin of mentioning being on her period in mixed company.
‘From the time we start menstruating, girls are taught periods are something to keep a secret and sanitary towels should be kept hidden’
Despite attitudes towards sex becoming more liberal in the UK, the topic of menstruation remains largely taboo. Perhaps this is unsurprising, as until the 1990s sanitary towels weren’t even advertised on television. In fact, in 1993 an advert featuring popular Agony Aunt Claire Raynor for Vespre Sanitary towels was banned following 700 complaints. These protests concerned matters such as offence being taken ‘about the format in which lots of women talk freely and easily in their own words about the product.’ Comments included things like ‘I didn’t know where to look when it came on and my husband was sitting beside me.’ The complaints led to sanitary adverts being banned between 4pm and 9pm. The first time menstrual blood was depicted as red in an advert (as opposed to blue) was in October 2017.
It’s no wonder women keep quiet about periods. From the time we start menstruating, girls are taught periods are something that should be kept a secret and sanitary towels should be kept hidden. Research has found women go to lengths to hide their period – from concealing tampons and pads at the bottom of their shopping basket, to putting a used pad in their handbag when there’s no bin in the bathroom. Ourselves, we recall trying to work out the least conspicuous way to go to the toilet at work with a tampon. Is it taking our entire bag, hiding it up our sleeve or squeezing it tightly in our fist and hope no-one notices? We’ve both started using menstrual cups and it’s astonishing how many women still view them as a bit disgusting.
‘Women in the UK need to work together to break down this culture of silence and normalise menstruation. This won’t only lead to a better understanding of female bodies, but of each other too’
We believe the attitude that periods shouldn’t be discussed is harming girls in the UK. It makes them feel ashamed of their bodies and promotes ignorance about gynaecological illnesses, the symptoms of which are often ignored until it’s too late. Those diagnosed with such illnesses often feel compelled to hide them or attribute their complaints to something less embarrassing. There’s an assumption that period pains should be disguised too – best pretend it’s something else – so women are isolated in their suffering, believing they’re alone in their experiences.
The stigmatisation of something as normal as periods also means those experiencing period poverty are doubly disadvantaged. They’re stigmatised both by their poverty and by the hygiene consequences this situation brings, which inevitably leads to a lower self-esteem and self-worth. Women in the UK need to work together to break down this culture of silence and normalise menstruation. This won’t only lead to a better understanding of female bodies, but of each other too.
About the authors
Volunteers Kelly Grehan (pictured) and Sarah Crook started the Red Box Project Dartford in Kent, England. The Red Box Project is a nation-wide initiative that ensures that no young woman misses out on her education because of her period. The community is run by women around the UK. They place constantly stocked Red Boxes of sanitary wear in schools for young women to access, aiming to reach those who may not be able to afford these vital items.
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Need some inspiration?
A very public menstrual leak, by Sarah Sahagian
Dear Period, by Yayeri van Baarsen
Me & My Cycle, by Mariette Reineke
Period changes and chemotherapy, by Cruz Santana
A time for celebration, by Robyn Jones