If menstruation were a mountain, I have no doubt she’d humble even the bravest climbers. For one, there’s no question she’d be abrupt. Rather than gently rolling slopes, her inclines would be steep and unforgiving, especially to those who decided to wear white pants on the climb. The hiking path leading up the summit would be tiresome and filled with turns so tight they’d cramp any climber’s style. Throughout your weeklong climb, she’d find a way to always keep you guessing. Whether it be through sudden landslides or unpredictable weather, the mountain would find new and creative ways to challenge climbers. Every time climbers reached a new peak, they wouldn't be surprised if confronted by a red hot pool of lava that delays their efforts and disrupts their day. Rather than feeling empowered after tackling the rigorous challenge, those who climb the menstrual mountain would be met with shame and stigma for their act.
Ultimately, that is because unlike mountain climbing, menstruation is not viewed by society as empowering. In the last few years, the United States has seen profound breakthroughs in the fight against barriers to menstrual health. Nonprofits such as PERIOD are building a “menstrual movement.” Most recently, a Wayne State University chapter of PERIOD helped host, along with other university chapters, the University of Michigan’s first National Period Day demonstration in the Diag to call for the University to provide free menstrual products to students in an effort to combat period poverty. In short, period poverty refers to a lack of access to sanitary products and the menstrual hygiene education necessary to ensure menstrual health. Of course, inspiring conversation about menstrual health and period poverty is vital to eliminating them. However, the taboo surrounding periods themselves has made starting these conversations an uphill battle. While period poverty and barriers to menstrual health are problematic, menstruation should not be painted in the same light. Eliminating menstrual stigma will require transforming our views of periods themselves. Luckily, innovation in public health can catalyze this transformation from the mindset that periods are a problem to the mindset that periods are powerful.
If you need proof that periods are powerful, then look no further than the prospect of menstrual diagnostics. It's no secret that periods are snapshots of your greater health. I remember my own family physician insisting that having my period was good because it indicated that my body was healthy and functioning normally. A start-up called LifeStory Health has acted on this realization by exploring the diagnostic potential of menstrual blood. Anna Villarreal, CEO and founder of LifeStory, has partnered with the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering to create tools that can "diagnose and manage diseases" from proteins in menstrual blood earlier than current methods. According to the company's website, LifeStory Health has already concluded a “Proof of Concept study” in which it “confirmed the potential use and pathway” of using menstrual blood to detect early onset Alzheimers in individuals assigned female at birth. In the future, studying menstrual blood will break down barriers to inclusive clinical research. Historically, “menstruators of child bearing ages” have been underrepresented in clinical trials. However, because menstrual blood comes from this unique population, using it as a diagnostic tool will encourage clinical research to look more closely at the impact of new therapeutics on the menstruators’ bodies. It's important to note that "not all menstruators are women;" cis-gender women, transgender and non-binary individuals have all been historically underrepresented in clinical research. Ultimately, menstruation has the power to save lives by enhancing the efficacy of diagnosis and research. One day, it could prove to be the difference between being a survivor or a victim to chronic disease.
Nevertheless, the power of the period is not limited to benefiting menstruators’ health. In fact, periods can benefit entire communities and the environment. Saathi is just one example of a social enterprise that makes “eco-friendly (menstrual) hygiene products.” “Founded by graduates from MIT (U.S.), Harvard and Nirma,” Saathi has developed an innovative method of using banana fiber to create biodegradable pads. According to Saathi’s website, the remnants of the banana trees leftover from the pad production process “can be fermented and used as an organic fertilizer” to grow crops that nourish entire communities. Furthermore, Jayaashree Enterprises is also proving the power of periods through the development of a low-cost, sanitary napkin making machine. By training women in low-income and remote communities on how to mass produce the pads using their machines, Jayaashree Enterprises empowers them to sell the pads and become breadwinners for their families. In addition, innovating plant-based menstrual hygiene products can go a step further and produce electricity through anaerobic digestion, which is the process by which energy is generated through the breakdown of plant-based material under intense heat by bacteria. With the help of this technology, remnants from the production of plant-based pads, or even the discarded pads themselves, could fuel a digester and produce electricity. With the potential to nourish crops, create jobs and power communities, there is no denying the power of menstruation.
On the same note, there is also no denying that menstrual health is a critical issue. No menstruator — regardless of how they identify — should have to choose between purchasing menstrual hygiene products or putting food on the table. Devastating barriers to menstrual health, such as period poverty, deserve to be criticized. However, periods are not the problem. Menstruation does not deserve the social stigma that surrounds it. Furthermore, we should not dismiss the fact that menstruation can be a physically painful process. I am not arguing that all menstruators should learn to fully love their periods. I am arguing that menstruators should not learn to simply hate their periods because of how society stigmatizes them. Luckily, there are organizations and individuals on campus and beyond working to combat barriers to menstrual health through research and grassroots organizing. However, we can’t forget the reason barriers to menstrual health remain today largely stems from the social stigma that forced many menstruators and policy makers to remain silent on the topic. Combating this stigma will require shifting our perception of periods from a problem to one of empowerment. Menstruation holds vast potential to improve society whether through diagnostics, job creation, compost or energy. Even if none of these public health innovations were to exist, periods do not deserve to be stigmatized. At the end of the day, menstruation is a natural process — just as natural as experiencing nature on a mountain climb. As students and community members, our support for innovation in menstrual health will transform society's perception of menstruation, but more importantly, it will normalize the discussion of menstruation. Your support can take many forms, including joining existing menstrual health initiatives and start-ups or developing your own project. Regardless of how you show your support, every step in solidarity against menstrual stigma can help normalize this natural process. It’s time for menstruation to transcend society’s limited perspective. Yes, I menstruate. What’s your superpower?
Soneida Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.