My introduction to last night’s Bloody Shame event at Wellcome Collection
Last night I was delighted to join EquationX for their second event, Bloody Shame – How to lift the menstrual taboo (Debate & Drinks).
Our brilliant panelists were historian Louise Foxcroft, activist Sadia Hameed, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Dr Shazia Malik, and comedian and #PeriodPositive campaigner Chella Quint who, chaired by Chrissie Giles, led a lively and impassioned discussion on how we can tackle the stigma around menstruation.
The panel discussion was followed by a drinks reception, with product demonstrations from menstrual product brands Freda (organic cotton period subscription boxes), Modibodi (period pants), Cheeky Wipes (reusable fabric pads and period pants) and Refreshcup (menstrual cups and period pants).
Several months ago the team behind EquationX – science writers Angela Saini (author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story) and Alex O’Brien – invited me to join them in organising this event, and to introduce the panel discussion. You can read my introduction below.
Firstly, thank you to Alex and Angela for inviting me to work with them on this fantastic event.
While I was thinking about what I wanted to say, I came across this image on Instagram by poet Danica Gim, which really highlights the odd paradox in our attitudes towards menstruation.
“Menstruation is the only blood that is tied to creation but you prefer the kind that is tied to death because the red dripping from a man’s head is strength but the red dripping between a woman’s thighs is filth even though that is the only kind that brings life.”
Menstruation affects 50% of the population at some point in their lives, most of whom are women and girls, but this menstrual taboo has been around as long as periods themselves.
The Old Testament tells us that periods are women’s punishment for Eve’s disobedience, and religious texts in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism all link menstruation to impurity, pollution and being ‘unclean’.
In medieval times they believed a man’s penis would burn up if it touched menstrual blood, and that any child conceived during menstruation would be possessed by the devil, deformed, or red-haired.
More recently, in the 19th and 20th century, there were claims that menstruating women could cause meat to go off, or that they released poisons called ‘menotoxins’. In the 1950s, researchers at Harvard University actually tried to prove the existence of menotoxins, although menstrual blood toxicity was ultimately disproved several years later.
So these are really deep-rooted taboos. It was just 18 months ago, in October 2017, that Bodyform became the first company to actually show red liquid in an advert for menstrual products, instead of the weird blue stuff we’ve got used to.
And the monthly impact of this stigma on those of us who do menstruate is huge.
In her book It’s Only Blood, Swedish journalist Anna Dahlqvist looks at the shame surrounding periods in Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh and India, and how poverty and a lack of proper menstrual hygiene facilities impact on girls’ education, holding them back globally.
She looks at the deep sense of shame girls feel about their periods, the discomfort and irritation caused by having to make one pad last all day at school, and the fear of leaks, blood stains, or being around boys while menstruating.
As she also highlights, “in 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council for the first time spelled out that the stigmatisation of menstraution, and the scarcity of resources required to manage menstruation, are an obstacle in the fight for gender equality, and that they affect the human rights of women and girls.”
Earlier this month, a woman in Nepal died in a fire after being banished to a ‘menstruation hut’ – a practice that’s still widespread despite having been banned there in 2005 and criminalised in 2018. And, even in the UK, more than 137,000 girls missed school on their periods in 2017 because they couldn’t afford menstrual products.
Having said all that, it’s a really exciting time to be talking about periods.
In the last few years, in the UK and further afield, we’ve seen brilliant feminist campaigns against the tampon tax and period poverty, lots of innovative new period products and tech emerging, and a growing number of women speaking out about their periods in the public eye. We’re even getting a period emoji!
But many of us still feel pretty clueless and embarrassed when it comes to this natural process going on in our bodies each month.
Even as adults, how many of us in this room have ever hidden a tampon up our sleeves on the way to the loo, said we had ‘a headache’ instead of period pain, or felt too embarrassed to ask a female colleague if she had a spare pad?
Actress Dakota Johnson last week said her “traumatic periods” were “ruining her life”, and that “I really would like to understand and be able to manage things a little better, know what’s happening in my body and what I’m putting into it.”
At the Rio 2016 Olympics, a member of the Chinese relay swimming team made headlines when she spoke about being on her period. This apparently came as a surprise to many Chinese fans who didn’t even know you could swim on your period because tampons are so rarely used in China.
This week, just in time for our event, a documentary called Period. End of Sentence. became the first film about menstruation to win an Oscar – despite the fact that, days earlier, one of the judges had said he wouldn’t vote for it because the subject is “just icky for men”.
Then, on Monday, the government announced that menstrual education will be taught in schools from 2020, as part of their revamped sex, health and relationships education. So we’ve come a long way, for sure, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.