After a few years, most menstruators know the ins and outs of their flow all too well. However, many of us still face economic and social barriers when it comes to taking care of ourselves. Policies like the tampon tax present the larger issue of period poverty, and menstruators’ healthcare continues to be inadequate because of the stigma around the topic.
The American Medical Women’s Association defines period poverty as “inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education, including but not limited to sanitary products, washing facilities, and waste management.” Period poverty is partially caused by the shame around menstruation and a lack of accessible educational information. According to the 2021 State of the Period report commissioned by Thinx and PERIOD, 84% of students in the U.S. have missed class or know someone who’s missed class because they couldn’t access menstrual products.
In seventh grade, I got my period at my grandpa’s house where there weren’t any pads or tampons. After making due with toilet paper for three days, it was clear that I needed to tell my grandpa. Embarrassed, I called my mom, and she called my grandpa. Our trip to CVS was unpleasant, but he respected my privacy and had my back. When we got there he told me to grab anything I needed as he distracted my brothers. I must have been radiating discomfort, because a middle-aged woman asked if I needed help. Flustered, I muttered, “No thanks,” grabbed the first package my hand went to and sped toward the register.
Despite how uncomfortable the situation was, I feel very privileged to have gone through it with the support of my mom, my grandpa, and even the random lady at the store. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but I was relieved about the advice, kindness and privacy they provided.
Many aren’t able to go on awkward CVS trips because of period poverty. Some countries, like the United States, tax sanitary products as luxury goods, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies. This is known as the “tampon tax.” In the United States the tax can go up to 7%, and up to 20% in some countries in the European Union.
But menstrual products are not a luxury — they are a necessity to maintain basic hygiene. The 2021 State of the Period report found that “16% [of menstruators] have chosen to buy period products over food or clothes” and that low-income college students of color are “most impacted.”
Menstruation is often an uncomfortable and painful time of the month. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) include but are not limited to constipation, diarrhea, joint and muscle pains, uncontrollable mood swings, social withdrawal, and an increase in anxious or depressed moods. At the very least, menstruators should be able to easily acquire products that can make this difficult time easier to manage.
Those who struggle with painful menstruation are still expected to accomplish their daily responsibilities, such as work and school. Period stigma prevents open discourse on the topic, and menstruators often receive undeserved criticism on their ability to concentrate or their quality of work. A study conducted in India by the National Library of Medicine found that 45% of menstruators experienced concentration problems at school while on their period, but those who used disposable pads as opposed to cloth were 39% less likely to report problems of concentration at school.
Discrimination in academia and the workplace creates a cycle that prevents opportunities for menstruators, and globalized sexism places another barrier on top of the tampon tax. According to the Global Citizen, women are at a socioeconomic disadvantage due to the gender pay gap, and “earn less than men across all regions by an average of 23%,” making it harder still to afford period products. By eliminating the tax, we can work toward a more equitable future for menstruators.
Advocates for menstrual equality such as Chris Bobel, a professor of gender and sexuality at the University of Massachusetts Boston, note that the first step to ending period poverty is for the government to recognize period products as a basic need that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, should be provided with. Normalizing conversations about menstruation will help change cultural attitudes, debunk menstruation myths, and encourage empathy towards menstruators’ experiences. NPR reported that after UNICEF distributed an educational comic about periods in Indonesia, “Knowledge that menstruation is a normal process jumped from 81% to 97% in girls and from 61% to 89% in boys.”
When cultural attitudes start to change, systemic policies like the tampon tax have a better chance of changing. Too often, we are made to feel like a burden while menstruating, but our bodies are not the issue — people’s ability to talk about periods is.