Red flow. Period. Rag. Cycle. Whatever you call it, menstruation has a bad rap. Although certain cultures have honored the menstrual cycle throughout time, most cultures view it as a taboo issue. Even though more than half of the world’s population experiences this natural cycle throughout the reproductive years, menstruation remains a topic mainly discussed behind closed doors.
Just like many other women, I grew up believing that my period was an embarrassing and often painful hassle. TV commercials for Midol controlling the “cramps, bloating, and fatigue” of one’s period, along with Playtex ads that emphasize “discrete” tampons, only strengthen this image. It makes sense that women (and men) grow up with the message that a woman’s period is not something to celebrate, let alone discuss openly. In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey sums up the image society has drummed up for the menstrual cycle:
I was ten years old. I had noticed something was weird earlier in the day but I knew from commercials that one's menstrual period was a blue liquid that you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency. This wasn't blue so...I ignored it...
Although I went as far as obtaining a birth control implant to prevent my period, I had a change of heart when I began my graduate studies and joined the Clinical Neuroscience and Women's Health track offered through my school. In this program I learned the in-and-outs of the menstrual cycle and how to incorporate it into psychological practice. After learning more about how my own reproductive cycle works and how it relates to the field of psychology, I began to appreciate and become interested in the very thing I used to dread. I was amazed to discover that the majority of psychologists and other mental health workers do not ask about the menstrual cycle during intakes or treatment sessions although there is a growing body of literature that connects it to psychological functioning. I often find myself wondering why as a clinician-in-training I am able to discuss very personal issues such as suicide, self-harm, infidelity, and abuse, but have not been trained to discuss my patients’ periods. The menstrual cycle remains an uncomfortable topic even for mental health employees with whom patients expect to share any and everything personal about themselves.
There is hope for putting an end to this once taboo subject! The establishment of pioneering organizations such as the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research (SMCR) has created a movement aimed at reducing stigma and providing research and education about reproductive health. After attending the SMCR Conference earlier this year, I realized the extent to which women are starting to promote menstruation in a positive light. Being on your period may even be the new up-and-coming trend! While I wasn’t quite prepared to display a symbolic Red Stain Badge of Honor pin like many attendees wore, this conference helped to fuel my interest in the issue. I had the privilege of meeting dozens of female leaders and founders of companies such as Menstrupedia, The Period Store, and the radio show Holy Hormones Honey! who are taking steps to empower women and provide accurate information and resources. Other campaigns such as Free the Tampons are working tirelessly to promote rights for menstruating women. Much like toilet paper comes standard in bathrooms in the U.S., this campaign urges public facilities to provide free supplies for women.
I am very excited to see these organizations and campaigns taking flight. My hope is that these new messages will create awareness about the menstrual cycle and its importance in psychological functioning. With this knowledge, women should be more open to discussing this once taboo topic and clinicians should be able to provide a better standard of care for their patients!
Written by Lisa Hoyman