There is no stigma surrounding the discussion of menstruation. At least, not when you are among women. It’s easy and comfortable to whine about cramps among girls who also undergo this messy, painful and obtrusive process of shedding the uterine lining every month. The stigma, however, lies in discussing this process with men. The topic of menstruation has become stigmatized because it oftentimes fails to include men in the conversation. We cannot move past sexism and its role in silencing the pain associated with the female body if we do not also have the full support of non-female allies.
Recently, Antonia Leggett ’15 initiated an effort to make free tampons and pads available in major buildings around campus. Leggett said, “I hope that by bringing this [project] to campus, the common reaction of shock or disgust when any mention of periods comes up can be eliminated.” I admire Leggett for her boldness and persistence in finally realizing and tackling this issue. We must understand, however, that providing tampons and pads will not completely solve the problem at hand. Periods are still a taboo topic for many male students. The tampons and pads stay behind closed restroom doors, and the announcement email will probably be the first and last mention of this project that most male students will encounter. Issues pertaining to the female body are perceived to be exclusively the responsibility of women.
The stigma surrounding periods not only needs to be eliminated, but it also needs to be eliminated with the help of men. We cannot move forward in society as a feminist movement with solely the support of women. The value in empowering each other and growing as independent women is important. The government, as well as various companies and organizations, however, often directly or indirectly control issues pertaining to the female body. In theory, periods are an exculsively female issue. Nonetheless, it is evident that beneath the surface these ostensibly feminine issues are intertwined with male power structures that exist in society.
The global HeForShe movement, for example, addresses the importance of involving our male peers in places where women find themselves oppressed or victimized. The initiative encourages men to identify as feminists and support the advancement of women worldwide. It has even garnered the attention of prominent celebrities such as Emma Watson. Last year, Watson’s highly publicized UN speech brought the HeForShe movement to the public eye. Their mission statement summarizes their efforts eloquently: “HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.”
The fight for gender equality and elimination of the stigma surrounding female “weaknesses” are fights that we must confront head-on as a society. It is not men against women. Rather, it should be men and women against preconceived stereotypes of gender roles and stigmas surrounding menstruation, pregnancy and other issues often considered exclusively feminine. Making tampons and pads accessible is the first step, but until they can be comfortably discussed by all on campus, not locked behind the doors of the women’s restroom, subliminal biases against women and womanhood have yet to be defeated.