The sound of air decompressing as the huge yellow school bus’s brakes engaged was all nine-year-old Layza Ramos needed to hear before she jumped up and launched herself toward the exit. The ride home seemed endless as she sat crossing and recrossing her legs. She had to pee so badly but refused to use the bathrooms at school because they always smelled like mothballs and sweaty armpits. As the metal doors squealed open, she rushed down the steps and took off down the street to her grandparents’ house. By the time she reached her grandmother’s door, she had to go so badly that she didn’t even stop to say hello. She finally made it to the bathroom and sat down, feeling relieved (and maybe a little out of breath), until she went to wipe and saw red.
Sitting on an uneven plastic bench in the middle of Central Connecticut State University’s campus, Ramos chuckles as she recalls the first time she got her period. “Oh, God. I started crying. I yelled for my grandma because I was at her house, and my grandpa came instead! He thought I was bleeding from my nose, so I started crying even more because I didn’t understand if it was my nose or the other area. Then my grandma came in; she started crying, and they told the whole family!” She laughs off her grandpa’s confusion now, but the truth is, the lack of education surrounding menstruation and women’s health has reached a critical level. In 2022, many of the rights that women have worked toward for almost half a century are on the chopping block.
So, why aren’t we learning about the female body? Rachel E. Gross writes in her new book Vagina Obscura, “Most of our scientific understanding of [the female body] is built off of the study of male bodies. It was only in 1993, following the women’s health movement, that a federal mandate required researchers to include women and minorities in clinical research.” How could we teach, or even have a conversation addressing a topic we only recently began to explore?
Going even deeper, why do we as a society avoid talking about the natural cycle of women’s bodies like it’s a flesh-eating plague? Blogger Adi Orlyanchik explained it best in a post on Period.com: “A lack of education has a clear link in the creation of a taboo topic, and the effects are extremely clear when looking at the conversation surrounding periods.” A 2021 survey by Thinx & PERIOD showed more than four out of five students believe they have been taught more about the biology and anatomy of frogs than the human female body in school. There is a clear disparity in the education system regarding the way schools approach female biology. Charles Darwin and other scientists believed vaginas were not very interesting and too insignificant to bother studying, but the people attached to them are and they deserve to know how their bodies operate for the sake of both their mental and physical health.
A 2017 survey by Thinx found 58 percent of women have felt embarrassment from being on their period. During my years at Pulaski Middle School in New Britain, Connecticut, the girls in my grade would whisper to ask if anyone had an extra pad and would slide it under sleeves, carefully trying not to draw too much attention. Pop culture has not provided any sympathy or accurate education for young girls. The film Carrie, based on Stephen King’s popular book, showed a group of teenage girls throwing tampons at a poor girl who just got her period during gym class. Such depictions effectively traumatize menstruators into not even talking about this with other women. Ramos recalls the first years of her period experience. “Even though other girls had it, we never spoke about it, so we would try to hide it and stuff. I hid it until someone showed support that they also had it, or they knew about it.”
Even when the brave and bold have conversations about periods and menstruation, they still beat around the bush, calling it things like “Shark week,” “Red week,” “Aunt Flow,” and over 5,000 other euphemisms instead of just saying period. Chapter 17 of The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, titled “The Menstrual Mark” by Ingrid Johnston-Robledo and Joan C. Chrisler, discussed menstruation as social stigma. “Ads for menstrual products have contributed to the communication taboo by emphasizing secrecy, avoidance of embarrassment, and freshness.” It wasn’t until 2020, when the U.S. menstrual product company Kotex used red liquid in an ad for their pads, that a realistic liquid was shown instead of blue dye. However, this raw and honest depiction hasn’t fully destigmatized period blood, leaving an insecurity menstruators have of people being able to smell when they’re on their period, or the constant paranoia that they’ve bled through their pants, and someone’s going to make fun of them. This anxiety leaves menstruators with not only a fear of being body-shamed and ashamed of their body, but it leads young menstruators to avoid speaking out about difficulties and issues surrounding their body.
In the article “Period Stigma & Health” on Healthywomen.org, writer Jacquelyne Froeber cites a 2020 study by Angela Weyand that found “period stigma led to inadequate care for women with HUB [heavy uterine bleeding] citing both the patient and healthcare provider being unaware of what defines a ‘normal’ period, so the condition goes undiagnosed.” Not to mention, less than half of the women who suspected they had HUB even went to get a diagnosis because of the stigmas surrounding it. The lack of knowledge on how vaginas work is so vast that even medical professionals barely know what a regular period is supposed to be like and oftentimes just dismiss the concerns menstruators have altogether.
“I spoke to my OB-GYN about it, and she wasn’t really trying to give me any tests.”
Ramos has experienced this stigma firsthand.
“I would get [my period] one month, skip two months, sometimes one month I would get it twice in a matter of two weeks. So, I spoke to my OB-GYN about it, and she wasn’t really trying to give me any tests, and she said ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry about PCOS!’” Ramos was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome almost immediately after she switched OB-GYN’s and got properly tested. The disconnect between listening to patients and actually believing them is a huge reason as to why women don’t come forward and are underdiagnosed. PCOS and endometriosis are conditions that have only recently been taken more seriously and become more frequently diagnosed, when previously, menstruators would just suffer in silence as they passed blood clots the size of baseballs and filled a heavy flow maxi pad within an hour.
So, what changes are being made to fix this? In March 2022, Connecticut Representative Kate Farrar (D- West Hartford) proposed House Bill 5272 in an effort to combat Connecticut’s “period poverty,” or the inability to access menstrual hygiene products, education, hygiene facilities, waste management, or any combination of these. Rep. Farrar is quoted by Patch staff member Chris Dehnel saying, “No one should have to choose between food, housing, their education, and access to menstrual health products, but menstruators across our state, country, and even globally, must make that decision.” Back in 2017, New York Congressperson Grace Meng introduced the Menstrual Equity for All Act, and it opened the conversation for menstrual rights, but there has yet to be any real headway made on the federal level. In fact, when it comes to women’s bodies, the U.S. has actually gone backwards, working overtime to overturn legislation like Roe v. Wade. Some of the over-eager states, and their white male leadership, have already started to take away a woman’s right to choose, creating bounties and rewards for people to collect if they report people who have had abortion after the six-week mark.
There still may be hope for our future politicians, however. The 2021 study by Thinx and PERIOD showed that students believed schools didn’t foster an environment where they felt comfortable discussing periods or even attending classes while on their periods. But in that same study, students voiced their eagerness to learn about periods, decrease stigma, and shift attitudes around menstruation. CCSU juniors Kevin Vassallo and Julian Sanseverino, both shared similar ideas on how we should improve menstrual education. Sanseverino let it be known that it’s not just a menstruators issue. “I feel like they should teach us men, like ‘Hey, this is what you should do.’ Just out of respect to help [menstruators] out.” Vassallo shares a similar sentiment, saying, “I really do feel like if schools taught us a little bit more about the topic, it would just make people less ignorant and not go off what they’ve heard from social media.” But social media apps like TikTok are being used to educate the masses. Companies like August Co. and their co-founder Nadya Okamoto, as well as Period Harmony and Uri, a puppet with the point of view of a uterus who talks about everything from PCOS to the different phases of the menstrual cycle, are making it their mission to educate and destigmatize periods, as well as anything and everything vagina related.
Absentmindedly, Ramos rubs her stomach, staring at the large blossoming tree with pink flowers blowing in the wind. When asked what she dreams the future will be like for her little girl when she begins to learn about her body, she says, “My hope is that she takes it well. I think that being a female is very empowering. We have so much more to offer with our bodies. I hope that she is fascinated by everything her body does.”
Header Photo Credit: Annalise Torres for Blue Muse Magazine
Annalise Torres is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine