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Period poverty is the public health crisis we seldom discuss

·5-min read
Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Dr. Staci Tanouye is an In The Know wellness contributor. Follow her on Instagram and TikTok for more.

Have you ever heard the term “period poverty“?

If you haven’t, you wouldn’t be alone. Period poverty is the lack of access to menstrual products due to lack of income. It can also include a lack of access to menstrual education, and/or bathroom facilities.

According to a recent survey done by U by Kotex, which polled over a thousand menstruators, half of them believed period poverty was a bigger issue in other countries rather than here in the U.S. But considering the same survey found that 2 in 5 people who have periods admit to experiencing difficulty in being able to purchase period products, it’s a true public health crisis in America.

To understand why such a significant public health crisis is seldom discussed, we need to first understand period stigma. Let’s back up with a little history lesson.

Menstruation has been stigmatized for as long as time. Historically, periods have been considered “dirty“, a sign of weakness and even a symbol of hysteria. In fact, the term “hysteria” comes from the Greek word “hystera,” which means uterus, because way back when, people actually believed that the uterus was the sole source of many ailments, including excessive emotions, sexuality and all mental illness.

In some cultures across the globe, even today, periods are stigmatized so heavily that people who menstruate are segregated from society and forced to remain in literal menstrual huts, tents or other separate living quarters for the duration of their periods. The thought being that menstruators are impure, dirty and should not be allowed to contribute to society in any meaningful way.

This concept might sound crazy to us here in the U.S., but it’s not. Because although we don’t have a physical hut to put menstruators in, period poverty is effectively doing that for us. It serves to isolate people who menstruate by both their income and, disproportionately, by their race, and it has amplified by period stigma since people are embarrassed to talk about their lack of access to menstrual products.

In the past, it was reported that one in five people with periods struggled to purchase period products due to lack of income. In this past year, U by Kotex found that the pandemic exacerbated this problem and left up to 40% of menstruators unable to afford adequate period products. Black and Latina women are disproportionately affected by this.

And when we look at the consequences of not being able to afford menstrual products, we find that one in three low-income women reported missing school or work because of lack of period supplies, which then puts them further behind. It becomes a vicious cycle – can’t work or go to school, less income, less opportunity, less ability to get the period products they need, many times having to choose food and shelter over period products.

So without period products, what do menstruators do?

In that same survey, 40% of Black menstruators reported they used alternative products such as toilet paper, paper towels, rags, socks or diapers. And 36% reported that they stretched their use of a period product longer than recommended.

All of these things can have negative health consequences, both physical and mental. Not having appropriate period products increases the risk of vulvar skin irritation, chafing, itching and possibly even ailments like urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis. And we all know that wearing tampons for longer than recommended increases risk of toxic shock syndrome. Besides the toll on physical health, we also see a rise in feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, and even increased rates of depression.

So through all of this, the stigma that periods are dirty and embarrassing is being reinforced, because without access to these essential products, a menstruator’s mental and physical health is negatively impacted in such a way that they begin to actually feel dirty and embarrassed. Without appropriate products, menstruators have to self-isolate just to get through this normal physiologic monthly occurrence. Period poverty is our society’s equivalent to the menstrual hut.

People with periods deserve better.

Think about it — we don’t require people to carry around their own rolls of toilet paper with them everywhere. Urinating is a normal, essential bodily function and the expectation is that we can find a public restroom and, in most cases, toilet paper will be there. For a good portion of the lives of half of the world’s population, menstruating is no different.

And this has to change.

The first step is to normalize periods and normalize talking about them. Decreasing stigma will allow periods and period poverty to be more openly discussed for broader awareness.

@dr.staci.t

You don’t have to suffer through periods. Find a doc who will listen. #sowedecided #BestThingSince #doctor #fyp #period

♬ Baby One More Time – Cory Nation

If you or someone you know needs period products, call 2-1-1 or visit 211.org to find local agencies that provide period products. And with the passing of the CARES Act last year, period products can also be purchased through your HSA or FSA funds.

Let’s work together to normalize periods and advocate for better access to period products so all menstruators can bleed with dignity.

If you found this article useful, learn about the things that can actually “cancel out” your birth control.

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