We Bloody Need Tampons

November 15, 2017
Hand-drawn wallpaper of bloody tampons surrounded by rainbows.
Art by Kirsten Hemrich

I’m not one to hide the fact that I’m on my period. “Feminine hygiene products,” in all their shrouded mystery, are really just a necessity. This isn’t always the mode of thinking. The start of menstruation is classically hailed as the day a girl becomes a woman; it is also the day she starts to hide this womanhood. From the moment we are labeled women, we learn that the supposed “essence” of womanhood is a taboo for everyday conversation. We discreetly slip tampons or pads into shoes, waistbands, or sleeves before heading to the bathroom during class.

All of this secrecy and all of the euphemisms (that includes you, Aunt Flo) may save us from embarrassment, but not talking about it means that menstruation becomes more stigmatized.

A few years ago, a marathon runner completed her race on her period without a tampon in. To some this was an act of endurance, and to others this was disgusting. I am sure that other racers that day were menstruating, just not visibly. We can see, then, the issue is not that periods and athleticism are incompatible, but rather that periods and public visibility are. We are not allowed to talk about periods, but also we are not allowed to just bleed freely because the stigma is so severe that visible period blood is offensive. Then we’re forced to buy products to make sure no one knows what’s going on inside our bodies.

This stigma is a also roadblock to change. Cisgender men make up a disproportionate percent of our policymakers, local and national, and these representatives don’t understand our needs or bodies. We rarely talk about periods publicly, let alone give cis males education on what periods even really entail. And while women do hold leadership positions in policy, they often are wealthy women. They do not have to worry about where their menstrual products are coming from. Many low-income and disadvantaged women worry about how they are going to afford a box of tampons when they can barely afford food.

I have a bad habit of never packing enough tampons when I’m going on a trip. Without fail, I am always forced to go to a random convenience store and stock up. Imagining not being able to simply go buy more products is uncomfortable. It’s this action of buying and swiping a credit card that clearly separates certain women from others. For all, menstruation is a burden, but for some it is a matter of livelihood. We can look to homeless women to see examples of menstrual product substitutes, and can imagine other impoverished women making similar difficult decisions and sacrifices each month. In the lives of so many people, every day includes choosing which necessity is most important, with menstrual products just another option amongst many.

These issues aren’t removed from our own University community. Like most social issues, this problem is reflected at UVA. In 2016, 7.1% of the first year class was classified as low-income students. These are students who work jobs while being enrolled full time, students who are in debt to pay their tuition, students who struggle to afford food and rent, and these include students who get their period.

Outside of Charlottesville, there are movements to help individuals who struggle to afford the cost of menstrual products. The PERIOD movement is a youth-based nonprofit that works with high-school and college chapters. Even more relevant, JMU recently started an initiative to provide free pads and tampons in women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms. A more progressive example is New York City, which is the first city in the US to provide free feminine hygiene products in public schools, prisons, and homeless shelters.

For holding status as an innovative public institution, UVA is behind on providing care for all its students. We know that there are individuals here who are low-income and need menstrual products. We also know that in today’s society, letting a period go in public is not an option without shame and embarrassment. Students are possibly missing class or neglecting studies because of their lack of access to hygienic options. Our peers and their concerns are the responsibility of the institution, and we must take steps towards equipping our environment with sustainable resources of menstrual products.

Perhaps the solution isn’t asking privileged, majority cis male policy makers to provide accessible and free menstrual products--do they have any idea what it means to be poor and menstruating? There’s a quote along the lines of “If men had periods, they would brag about the size of their tampons.” Well, if cis men had periods, they would also probably receive menstrual products for free. We must end the stigma around the cost and accessibility of period products with education and advocacy. It’s bloody well time.


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