Why We Need To Completely Change The Way Society Views Periods
The Debrief: And no, period leave isn't necessarily the answer
Last week two Indian companies made international headlines when they introduced a policy which would give female employees period leave should they wish to take it. Mumbai-based Culture Machine and Gozoop’s menstrual leave policy, which they say will fight taboos when it comes to menstruation, followed in the footsteps of the British Britsol-based company Coexist who introduced the same idea last year.
Inevitably, predictably and unsurprisingly there was a backlash. A female gynaecologist spoke out to call the plans ‘silly and regressive’. In recent years the conversation around period leave, period pain and embracing our menstrual powers has become increasingly more mainstream, with period leave being the conclusion and solution offered by many.
Now, the concept of menstrual leave is not new. It’s been proposed before and in many countries across Asia is a reality. In South Korea, women can take one ‘period day’ a month, in Indonesia it’s two days, in China it’s available, Japan introduced the concept in 1947 and women can take three period days per year in Taiwan (any clues as to how they worked that out send them my way). More than this, in some places around the world women being banished because they are menstruating is, sadly, a practice that has not been consigned to the history books.
That said, the conversation here in Britain, lead by Coexist, the Red School and the likes of Lisa Lister, was much needed and long overdue. If, like me, you suffer with particularly painful and heavy periods you’ll know all too well that, sometimes, periods can be more than mere irritation and become debilitating. I’ll never forget the morning when I got my period on the way to interview Sadiq Khan and didn’t have my Mefenamic Acid tablets because I’d switched handbag. I was in so much pain I thought I might throw up on him but, thankfully, I didn’t and I got the interview done, called in sick and went home to lie in the bath. Since I tuned into my cycle and began recording it I’ve been able to predict when I’m going to feel crap and organise my schedule accordingly. I rarely take days off (thanks to the Mefenamic) but I wouldn’t choose to do a massive interview the day before or first day of my period if I could avoid it.
For some women, periods are a minor inconvenience. Another woman in my office, for instance, experiences no pain, no PMS and minor bleeding. For others, like me, they can be agony. From speaking to other sufferers I know that my experiences are by no means as bad as they could be. According to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare three quarters of women and girls experience some sort of pain during their period. For one in ten, this pain can be so bad that they are unable to go about their usual lives for anywhere between one and three days. This is medically termed dysmenorrhea and it’s thought that it affects around 20% of women.
However, even as a heavy period sufferer, I worry about period leave. I fear talking openly about my period pain at work and, in the past, if I did have to take time off for it I would say I had a stomach bug. Why? I feared being seen as incompetent and weak. I don’t think we should suffer in silence but nor am I an out and out advocate for period leave. When we’re still fighting sexism on all fronts, looking down a gender pay gap gorge every day when we go to work and trying to establish equality once and for all, anything that fuels the beleaguered yet persistent stereotype that women are weaker than men or not capable of doing the same job is a serious threat to our cause.
The playing field is far from level for women and men. We know that women’s pain still isn’t taken as seriously as men, as established by the landmark study The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain. We know that women are more likely to be failed by the doctor when it comes to diagnosis of endometriosis than a man is if he presents with a problem. We also know that having a woman’s name can be enough to stop you getting a promotion and that women still aren’t being paid the same as men to do the same jobs in the most liberal of establishments in this country.
Gloria Steinem’s 1978 satirical essay If Men Could Menstruate could have been written yesterday. It’s worth quoting at length:
‘So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?
Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:
Men would brag about how long and how much.
Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.
To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.
Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- "For Those Light Bachelor Days."
Statistical surveys would show that men did better in sports and won more Olympic medals during their periods.
Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ("men-struation") as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat ("You have to give blood to take blood"), occupy high political office ("Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?"), be priests, ministers, God Himself ("He gave this blood for our sins"), or rabbis ("Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean").’
Flip reversing the period problem in 2017 is as striking as it was in 1978. The status quo is, slowly, changing and books like Angela Saini's Inferior (which chronicles the extent to which the male-dominated world of science has got women wrong since, well, forever) are chipping away at it, but we need more. We need a national and collective conversation about the inherent and insidious societal sexism women face.
Some women might benefit from period leave, others might not need or want it and that’s OK. Whatever your experience of the monthly bleed from your uterus, it doesn’t not affect who you are or how capable you are. It’s a physical and biological fact of life. We need to destigmatise and demystify periods. If we start talking about them honestly and openly, if we stop hiding tampons in our pockets when we go to the bathroom and if we stop saying we have the shits when we actually have really awful period pains then we can set a new precedent.
I'd like to live to hear a female Prime Minister who was unafraid to talk about her period or experience of menopause if she wanted to. I'd like to live to see state funded free tampons. I'd like to hear that girls are taught how amazing their bodies are at school and encouraged to keep period diaries charting how they feel. Like Gloria, I want a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to be founded, where they make official period policies. I never want to catch anyone sneaking their tampons to the toilet in their sleeve out of the corner of my eye again. I'd like us to think of our periods as a strength and not a weakness, even if they sometimes cause us pain. Perhaps we could stop refering to menstruation as periods altogether, after all that's a euphemism. I remember being 14 and saying, tongue firmly in cheek, to boys that I wasn't 'on my period', I was, in fact, 'bleeding out of my vagina'.
We need to change attitudes with our actions. We need to stop talking about women as a homogenous group and acknowledge the different lived experiences amongst us. What works for one woman won’t necessarily work for another. We need to end the stigma that surrounds being a woman and having periods as well as the sexism that women face every day once and for all. Then and only then, will we be equal.
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