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period stigma

Is The ‘P’ Word NSFW?

As a sufferer of endometriosis, I have had my fair share of extremely painful periods. Along with the pain came the fact that I was misdiagnosed. I was told that ‘heavy periods are normal’, despite a clear underlying health issue. It left me feeling alone, in pain and emotional every single month. I was told to just “carry on with it” by doctors and often felt embarrassed by the level of pain I was experiencing. I couldn’t carry on with normal tasks, and due to the stigma around openly talking about our periods, I found that especially at a school age, I wouldn’t tell my teachers or friends. If I did manage to tell a teacher, I would be told that it is normal and to carry on with work. A study reported that a total of 33% of women lost productivity during their menstrual cycle and 67.7% wished that they had greater support during their periods.

The study also reports that when women called in sick due to menstrual pain, only 20.1% said it was actually due to menstruation-related symptoms, this shows the stigma and shame women can feel when talking about their periods. We should never feel shame for something as normal and natural as a period, so why do we feel it? There are a multitude of reasons. Almost a third of co-workers said that they did not take period pain seriously, resulting in comments such as “you’re just lazy” and “It’s because she’s on the rag.” Even further saying things such as “It’d get better if you had kids.” One in ten women have experienced comments such as these. The same study also showed that 6 in 10 women didn’t feel comfortable talking about their periods and three quarters hid sanitary products.

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These feelings of shame surrounding periods were found to be more common in a male-dominated workplace with 82% of women feeling unable to discuss periods compared to 54% in a female-dominated workplace. It also found that over a quarter of workplaces didn’t have sanitary bins and a third did not have constant access to a toilet, meaning that many workplaces are still lacking basic facilities. This has also affected schools with 81% of women saying that they regularly turned up to school or work despite being sick with period pain. All of these facts and figures show the lack of support for women, whether it’s due to a lack of facilities to support periods or actual support for managing periods during work.

One-third of men said that talking about periods is unprofessional and the study found that women would rather admit making a mistake at work than discuss their period. Periods are one of the most natural parts of our lives, women should never feel shame when discussing them, and should never have to feel like they have to hide them. It seems as though more needs to be done to educate people, particularly those who don’t experience periods and discuss the reality of painful periods, uterine problems and endometriosis, etc. With 15.6 million women in the UK aged 16 and over in employment, we can’t afford to dismiss and hide this part of our life, but rather need to embrace them and find ways to help people who bleed.

From my own experience working in retail, I had little support facilities and had to ask to use the bathroom or take a sip of water, which sometimes wasn’t possible. When you are experiencing low blood pressure and extreme cramps, it can be hard to work whilst standing on your feet for 6 hours with no break. I had many instances where I almost passed out due to the pain and lightheadedness. At first, I tried to manage but eventually asked my manager for a small break which I was allowed. But this still doesn’t change the fact that for many women, working without access to a bathroom, the option for regular breaks or a chance to sit can be a really big problem.

There are many ways I believe we could help women in the workplace to cope with periods and feel comfortable with discussing them. For example, I think it’s important to educate bosses or people in HR with the reality of painful periods, the symptoms and ways they can help. Educating people is the best chance of removing the stigma and thus the shame that comes with it. Perhaps it would be beneficial to create sanctions for people making inappropriate comments on periods, or perhaps there are ways we can normalise periods so that men don’t feel the need to joke or shame us.

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In terms of facilities, women should be offered help and support during their periods if they feel they need it. The effects and side effects of heavy periods can be pretty awful with symptoms such as passing blood clots, intense cramps in the stomach, back, legs and vomiting, etc. These symptoms are serious and need to be treated as such. Ways in which companies can do this is by providing women with access to bathrooms, allowing them short breaks if they need them, if possible, allowing women to work from home etc. Sanitary bins should also be mandatory. Just the understanding that if a woman rings you up to take the day off of work, not to judge but to offer help and support as would be expected for any other health problem.

It’s also important to mention that in places like schools, and hopefully, workplaces, access to free sanitary products and information needs to happen. Many women can’t access sanitary products regularly as they are expensive and are therefore using products like toilet roll and socks as a substitute. They are an involuntary part of our lives, something we can’t control, and it should be compulsory to provide or help provide sanitary products in the workplace. The period scheme for school in place today is only available for women aged 16-19 and although this is beneficial for this age group, periods affect a whole range of ages and more needs to be offered to them.

We are still seeing the negative effects around period stigma and how this is affecting women everywhere. So much can be done to help women and young girls to feel safe talking about their period and receiving the necessary help. When a woman tells anyone about her period, the main message needs to be; don’t dismiss but offer help and support. This is the key way to start building a stronger foundation to stop the discrimination against women and their menstruation. We have to change these figures and do more for people struggling.

Here are some example of charities and companies trying to help women and petitions you can sign;

A petition to help provide women with access to sanitary towels:

https://www.change.org/p/ maneka-gandhi-make-workplaces-period-safe-include-sanitary-napkin-in-first-aid-box

Unite the union talks about period dignity:

https://unitetheunion.org/campaigns/unite-demandsperiod-dignity/

How to create a menstrual friendly workplace:

https://www.ed.ac.uk/centre-reproductive-health/ hope/how-to-create-a-menstrual-friendly-workplace

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