When you walk into your local drugstore and enter the aisle for period products, the words “feminine care” can be found everywhere — on the aisle signs, product labels, and packaging. This is incorrect and harmful because women aren’t the only ones who menstruate; nonbinary and transgender individuals can experience periods too. Yet over the last few years, as I’ve tried to use more terms like “menstruators” in my work — through my advocacy in the six years I spent leading PERIOD the nonprofit, in my book, PERIOD POWER, and now with the work we do at August — I often face backlash from cis women who are offended by the term, thinking it minimizes their worth to just being able to reproduce.
In 2017, activist and author Cass (@theperiodprince) posted a free-bleeding photo with a period stain on their pants, holding a sign that says “Periods are not just for women #bleedingwhiletrans.” In a Teen Vogue article, Cass shares, “I want cisgender people to understand that being trans while having your period can be absolutely terrifying. Aside from experiencing gender dysphoria and anxiety around the way my body changes during my cycle, I have to worry about which bathroom to use, whether or not me carrying a tampon or leaking could out me in an unsafe place, or being constantly misgendered because I couldn’t wear my tight binder that week.”
Kenny Ethan Jones is another trans activist who menstruates and was the first trans man to be the face of a period campaign. “Having a period already causes me a lot of dysphoria, but this dysphoria becomes heightened when I have to shop for a product that is labeled as ‘women’s health’ and in most cases, is pretty and pink,” Jones explained in an NBC article.
Schuyler Bailar (@pinkmantaray on Instagram), a DEI Educator and Consultant, Author, Speaker, and an Advisor to August, shared with me that, “‘feminine’ should not be used to refer to menstrual care not only because it is inaccurate but also because it reinforces harmful and limiting stereotypes about menstruation.”
He adds, “menstrual care should not only be associated with women — menstrual care is just care. Additionally, not all women are feminine and not all those who are feminine are women, and thus referring to anything that has to do with menstruation as feminine (e.g. feminine products) incorrectly genders menstruation.”
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of learning that needs to happen for this understanding to become more mainstream. In the comment section of my TikToks talking about this, cis women have remarked that it would detract from their “sense of femininity” if the labels on period products were changed.
These responses are a reoccurring theme that I’ve heard from cis women for years, being upset and saying “I’m more than just my period, don’t minimize or simplify me.” Some cis women even find it dehumanizing, as written in numerous twitter threads saying things like, “it is dehumanising and epoliticising. As a menstruator, cervix-haver etc.” By calling for more inclusive wording instead of “feminine care,” some cis women think that the term is objectifying them and devaluing their other qualities and personality. I’ve heard from people that they feel it is like being called a “terminator,” like their period is a weapon — but that’s not the intention at all.
And of course, transphobia has existed at bigger, more mainstream levels — a prime example being JK Rowling. And this is just one example out of all the insensitive and hurtful comments that trans and non-binary folks face daily.
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
I don’t blame people that I meet who don’t know that not all menstruators are women, because I was also taught and grew up with this mentality. Since we were young, society has always told us that we magically “become a woman” when we start our periods. In fact, throughout history, there’s a repeated pattern amongst most societies that equates menstruation with women, gendered roles, fertilization, and giving birth.
“Due to the patriarchy, I think that the period industry has largely been used to exploit women, as most women-centric products unfortunately have,” Schuyler says. “It seems that the industry is slowly shifting to be made for women BY women – and there is great power in this; however, this can often exclude those who menstruate who are not women.”
Thankfully, that mentality is something we as a society are slowly realizing and progressing through. I believe that it’s vital that once someone is aware of this, they should seek the tools to be more inclusive in their language. Inclusivity is creating space for everyone and their diverse experiences — it isn’t minimizing any community.
From one cis woman menstruating to another: creating space for inclusivity does not take away from the period experience! In fact, I think by contextualizing this more to our sex than to be a “woman,” it’s empowering. We are connecting it more to our actual bodies, and what is happening in our bodies, than to the gender binary and gender norms that society has imposed on us.
We have so much more work to do to make the period talk more inclusive. It’s on us as cis menstruators to seek out and actively learn from educators who have given time, effort, and space to talk about their experiences.
Schuyler says, “periods must be degendered because, put as simply as possible, they are not gendered. Biology does not have a gender…Degendering periods is not only scientifically accurate but also freeing of harmful exclusionary stereotypes that hurt trans and nonbinary people who menstruate.”
In a world in which menstruation is already so stigmatized, we must collectively do our own research to educate ourselves about inclusivity in the periods space. We must do our research, and start with a lot of listening, and acknowledging that uplifting trans and nonbinary folks do not take away from our personal experience. If anything, it empowers us to connect more with our bodies and build empathy for other communities.
Image: Thais Varela / Stocksy
Picture this: you’re scrolling through the “for you” page on TikTok when you suddenly come across a video of a woman shamelessly showing her bloody period pad. What would your initial reaction be? Would you feel shocked? Revolted? Disgusted? Offended? Or perhaps, empowered?
For the last few weeks, most of my TikTok notifications and DMs have been along the lines of the above—and it all started when I playfully used an image of my freshly used pantyliner for a viral TikTok trend.
I’m no stranger to encountering the shock factor when it comes to talking about periods. I’ve been focused on ending period poverty and stigma through my work for the last several years, but my decision to show my menstrual blood as a means to jumpstart the conversation is relatively new. When I embarked on building new period care products with my team at August, my focus shifted from distributing tampons and pads to people in need to improving the individual experience of menstruating. As a brand, we wanted to make sure that we would not perpetuate negative stigmas around period blood by showing blue liquid in ads for absorbency, but really push the boundary on how real we could be about periods.
Most of the content that I or August post that show menstrual blood are taken down for violating community guidelines as “violent and graphic content.” Furthermore, social media platforms are known for filtering out potential “sensitive content” from people’s feeds, which naturally suppresses the accounts of people who want to talk about “sensitive” issues—whether that be around race or, apparently, periods. Since my recent posts were left up, I was able to experience more of the vitriol in comments and found it fascinating. I mean, I would expect that with TikTok having a more Gen Z-centric audience, we’d be more open to being real about periods.
But that hasn’t seemed to be the case. A few of my videos depicting my used pads or tampons have garnered millions of views—with the majority of comments being ones from other menstruators expressing their horror at seeing my period blood and calling it disgusting. Many of the comments are viewers tagging their friends. When their friends respond with puking emojis or the expected “dude wtf why,” the original commenter replies, “if I have to see it, so do you.” Others will comment on the color of my blood, remarking it looks like “fake nail polish” if it’s too red, or accusing me of taking a shit on a menstrual pad if it’s too brown. Some duet my videos and make fun of how “sick” I must be to post them publicly.
I find the response fascinating given that many of the commenters are probably menstruators, and they likely see their own period blood for several days per month. It’s heartbreaking too, because they are directly labeling their own menstrual blood as disgusting and, given that menstruation is a party of their own biology, they’re indirectly calling themselves disgusting. To me, it seems like one of the more obvious examples of internalized misogyny. Periods are powerful, yet society teaches us to feel ashamed and silences us when talking about menstruation. The patriarchal society we live in created and perpetuated this stigma around periods—making them taboo, dirty, and even shameful to talk about. This mentality needs to stop. We need to talk about periods openly and not be silenced or ashamed.
Though I’m often the butt of the joke, I’m excited to see my TikToks gain traction—not because I believe all press is necessarily good press, but because these commenters are only bringing more people into our period talk. By tagging your friends as some sort of punishment that they must participate in feeling uncomfortable as well, you are helping to further show just how widespread and normalized period stigma is. A lot of people, especially cis women from more progressive cities, will tell me they don’t think period stigma exists. But then they see people like me being called gross for caring about it, and they feel galvanized to take up the fight as well.
Social media has allowed us to democratize information and spread it much faster than ever before, and as we’ve seen with the virality of TikTok videos, messages and movements are spreading quickly, providing the perfect opportunity to start more period conversations. I do think that conversations around periods are productive in breaking the stigma, even when they are negative conversations.
Big picture, we not only need to talk about periods to eliminate period shame, but also to open up the conversation to how we can fight period poverty. It’s 2021, and still today, the majority of U.S. states have the “tampon tax” considering tampons and pads non-essential goods. Period products are still not adequately provided to female inmates in prisons and to people in need via shelters and human services. And a national study from last year found that 23% of students have struggled to afford period products. If we can’t talk about periods, we definitely can’t talk about the bigger societal issues around access to period products. And if we can’t talk about or even look at period blood, how are we supposed to communicate the importance of having the resources to maintain menstrual hygiene? In all my work lobbying for legislative change, the hardest barrier was first getting in the room and being able to talk about these issues without the other people in the room trying to desperately change the subject or squirm and make jokes about it. Period poverty is serious, and has real consequences. We need to talk about periods so we can talk about the actions that need to be taken. And if posting period blood helps take a big axe to the stigma and start conversation? I think I’m here for it.
Images: Polina Zimmerman / Pexels