Imagine you’re back in middle school, and you’ve just started your first period. You learned all about “that time of the month” from your health teacher, or maybe you had “the talk” with your parents, and now you have to go buy period products. You go and see an aisle marked “Feminine Hygiene Products” in the store. Most people get their first period between ages 10 and 15, with the average age being 12. The harmful term “feminine hygiene” gets burned into the mind of every young individual who menstruates. Those two words have quite an impact because words are powerful and language matters. People deserve not to be ashamed of something that is natural. We all need to start talking openly and positively about periods.
Every young person who gets their period has learned the term “feminine hygiene.” The language behind “hygiene” comes with the notion that periods are unhygienic and unsanitary. There is nothing dirty or unhygienic about having periods, and this term perpetuates the stigma around a natural human function. Since this term is plastered on every period product, people grow up feeling ashamed of having their period. Teens and young adults are bombarded with media and messages that undermine their self-esteem. Words used in marketing of products should be positive and provide a realistic sense of normal bodily functions.
A poll says 58% of women have felt embarrassed because they were menstruating, and around 42% of women have experienced period shaming. This shame stems from the fact that women have been told their bodies should be clean and hygienic. This $4.22 billion industry coined the phrase “feminine hygiene” products, and they keep using it to capitalize on the shame that women experience. In addition to it being psychologically harmful, the stigma of hygiene has contributed to medical issues associated with women trying to stay clean. There are ongoing court cases against a pharmaceutical company for promoting the use of talcum powder linked to ovarian cancer. If people don’t push back against the notion of uncleanliness, industries will continue to create more and more products for women to buy.
Let’s talk about the history behind the term “feminine hygiene.” It started in 1873, when proclaimed anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock presented his ideas to Congress and set his anti-obscenity bill into motion. That same year, the Comstock Act passed in Congress. The legislation banned all materials deemed obscene. Items labeled as contraceptives or anything “immoral” or “indecent” were banned. This created an issue for the birth control industry. While birth control practices have been around since ancient times, choices were limited. The remaining choices were sometimes dangerous and often ineffective at preventing pregnancy. Margaret Sanger popularized the term “birth control” when she became the first to open a birth control clinic in 1916, only to be shut down nine days later because it violated the Comstock Act. For the birth control industry to continue, they needed to disguise their products with creative wording. Manufacturers at the company Zonite created the term that is still used today: “feminine hygiene” products. While this helped the company get around the Comstock Act, it also capitalized on the shame and stigma that society had attached to a normal bodily function — a bodily function that is needed in order to keep human civilization going.
The Comstock Act is a prime example of how men in Washington have been disappointing women throughout history. Due to that law, the term that shames people for menstruating was created. This has made generations of people feel embarrassed that they are “unsanitary.” We continue to see people in Washington — the majority of whom are still white men — controlling women’s bodies. The most devastating and recent display of control occurred on June 24, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. We need our leaders to stop having a say over women’s bodies. We need to never again elect a president like Donald Trump, who publicly said “blood coming out of her wherever,” so we can be sure someone with that mentality will have no say over our bodies. Having a president who speaks so poorly of women, time and time again, perpetuates in the minds of others that women are second-class citizens. That makes it easier for lawmakers to think that they should be the ones who have the final say about issues like ending a pregnancy.
There are some movements that are lessening period shaming due to outspoken individuals striving to end the stigma around it. On Oct. 19, 2019, the United States celebrated the first National Period Day. This day is dedicated to raising awareness about period poverty issues and advocates to reduce the stigma and shame that surrounds periods.
This stigma around periods must change for the happiness and well-being of everyone who menstruates. Change needs to happen at all levels of government. Women should be able to make their own decisions about their own bodies. Men in power should be called out if they ever speak about women as if they are second class citizens. Parents should educate their children, those who menstruate and those who don’t, to show respect for everyone. Marketers and industries need to change the words they use and stop inventing products that are unnecessary and potentially harmful under the guise of cleanliness. The biggest change we can make to affect the way periods are perceived is to replace “feminine hygiene products” with “period products.” Make growing up just a little bit easier on middle schoolers. End the stigma that has been in our country for far too long. Just change two words, and we can break this cycle.
Christina Suarez is a sophomore in the college of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
Have thoughts about our articles? The Michigan Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of Op-Eds & Letters to the Editor. Submission instructions can be found here.