It’s time to talk about periods. The topic seems to be trending in the news again as brands make a growing effort to normalize menstruation.
Singapore-based Freedom Cups is partnering with The Black Women’s Health Imperative to donate 2000 menstrual cups to women in Atlanta and Kigali, Rwanda, where access to basic resources is challenging.
And, as gender identity continues to evolve, Procter & Gamble is removing the venus sign from their packaging to remain committed to period inclusion.
Growing up, we’re taught to hide our periods or trivialize them by using cute nicknames like “Aunt Flo” or “the crimson tide.” We tuck pads and tampons into our sleeves when we go to the bathroom at school or at work. All to hide something that is currently happening to roughly 24% of the world’s population, according to a 2016 report from WaterAid.
The common dismissiveness of periods that is so embedded into society is more than just a monthly inconvenience, it’s an issue that affects how women and particularly women of color survive womanhood.
Like periods themselves, period stigma affects every woman differently. For example, some women live in countries that stigmatize menstruation to life-altering extremes.
In Uganda, the stigma and lack of access to safe products are so prevalent that 28% of young girls miss school completely when they are on their period, according to a 2018 report. Even here in the U.S., two-thirds of low-income menstruating women cannot afford to purchase tampons or pads.
Dr. Magdala Chery, who specializes in internal medicine and speaks on topics of women empowerment and lifestyle behavioral coaching for chronic disease, explained why so many Black women are not getting the care they need, particularly when it comes to our reproductive health.
"I think there's such a mistrust of the medical system and anything related to it, that people don't take the time to understand their bodies and the biological processes that are happening," she said, referring to the huge lack of diversity in the medical community.
Instead, we rely on what we see in commercials and on product labels. This has led to a host of medical issues that Black women are disproportionately experiencing.
According to a 2013 study by the Journal of Women’s Health, Black women are three times more likely than White women to experience fibroids. Another study found endometriosis is one of the leading causes of hysterectomy among Black women.
Last year, Tia Mowry opened up about her experience with endometriosis, saying she had gone years dealing with the pain on her own because several doctors had dismissed her concerns by saying some women just have more painful periods.
In the end, it was a Black doctor that finally confirmed a diagnosis which led to her recovery. “Finally, in my late 20s, I ended up going to an incredible African American doctor who immediately knew what I had.” Mowry said in an interview with Self Magazine.
From the higher frequency of Black women with undiagnosed breast cancer, being more likely to die from treatable endometrial cancer, to the link between hair relaxers and fibroids, to our shockingly high risk of pregnancy-related death compared to White women -- the studies typically leave out the ugly truth. Our health is in the hands of doctors who do not hear us when we say we’re in pain.
Dr. Chery knows a huge part of the problem is that Black women don’t want to talk about their vaginas with doctors who don’t look like them.
“Black women will come and say, ‘OK great, now I can ask you a question because I’ve been so uncomfortable asking my other doctor,’” Dr. Chery said, “They have these health concerns whether they are struggling to conceive or their periods are irregular or their discharge smells funny or something feels weird down there, but they didn’t feel comfortable saying that to someone who didn’t look like them.”
According to Data USA, about 70% of physicians are White, and 60% are male, leaving women of color left to have sensitive conversations with physicians that don’t look like them. When women and girls don’t feel comfortable asking questions, we miss out on the opportunity to learn about our individual needs.
Our reluctance to open up to doctors speaks to a much deeper wound that goes back to the abuse suffered at the hands of doctors like James Marion Sims, who infamously practiced his gynecological techniques on Black enslaved women without anesthesia or numbing techniques.
Sims, also known as the “father of gynecology,” created these ground-breaking surgical procedures based on the notion that Black people did not feel pain, and he considered his patients to be property, which he could experiment on at will and without a trace of humanity.
Since for too many of us, doctors become barriers to help instead of providing it, our education around reproductive health starts with the conversations we have with our mothers, which of course depends on their own comfort with the topic. Then there’s sex education, which is generally taught in middle schools and high schools in the U.S.
Sexual education curriculum varies from state to state but almost completely overlooks menstruation education, instead focusing on intercourse, relationships and STI and pregnancy prevention.
This lack of discussion at such an important age leaves girls (and boys) feeling mystified about what periods really are and how periods can speak to a woman’s overall health.
This also marks the very beginning of a life of mis-education about our bodies, as we are then handed to a community of doctors who are ill-equipped to meet us where we are.
This alarming disproportion is forcing the medical community and brands alike to start changing the way they approach Black women and their reproductive health.
In step with the rise of diversity, menstrual brands are taking notice. A new study from Tampax Radiant surveyed 600 Black women and asked them about their bodies, their periods and the products they choose to use. Twenty-five percent of those women said they made the decision to use pads because they were never taught how to use tampons. Fifty-five percent said they needed information about how to properly use a tampon.
This emergence of brands tapping into what drives Black women to make purchases is opening up the conversation about how and where brands are reaching us.
Menstrual advocate Cece Jones-Davis, along with OB-GYN Dr. Kiarra King, was tapped by Tampax to help reach Black women for their #LiveRadient campaign, which aims to break the awkward silence around our periods.
"[Periods] need to be a thing in Black media and with period brands,” Jones-Davis said when I asked why she felt the Tampax campaign was important. “Black women need to see these conversations happening in Black spaces. I think Black women want to come to their own spaces and not have to lean outside to talk about these things. There's a trust factor involved."
Jones-Davis went on to say that brands need to step up their game when they talk about periods. “What is the blue substance?” she asked? “I don’t bleed anything blue. Why have we stigmatized blood to the point where we can show a ‘bang-bang shoot ’em up,’ but when it comes to menstruation, there’s something all of a sudden that’s too risque and taboo about blood.” Periods have been depicted as everything from a watery blue liquid to a Black woman named Flo, but where are the real facts?
According to Dr. Chery, Black women have to meet the menstrual products they choose halfway by taking the time to know their bodies. “I have patients who don’t know how long their cycle is. They know it’s not regular, but they’re not actually tracking. How long is it? How heavy is your flow? Are there any abnormalities that you notice? Just understanding everything that’s happening.”
There are brands that are helping to encourage the spread of information. Like Tampax and the #LiveRadient campaign, other menstrual brands have joined the effort.
In 2017, Bodyform became the first period product to advertise using red liquid for their Blood Normal campaign, which aimed to normalize periods. There are also new options hitting the scene like Thinx, the all-in-one period panty that eliminates the need for disposable products.
There are also apps that encourage self-education, like Clue, which helps women to track their period symptoms and better understand the cycle of ovulation.
Like so many matters pertaining to Black women, the change starts with self-empowerment and giving women and girls the freedom and confidence to ask potentially life saving questions and stop tiptoeing around our reproductive health.
(Photo: Tim Robberts)
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