Period Poverty: Aunt Flo, CEO?
Period Poverty is hugely emotive, a crossroads in the personal and financial worlds. For those who experience periods, the sinking feeling of being caught without a pad or tampon is one of visceral familiarity and empathy.
The one thing that breaks the ‘don't talk to strangers’ rule: is the ‘don’t talk to strangers unless it’s a woman in a bathroom and you need a tampon’ rule. We are told that we are joining an international sisterhood of cramps and passing pads to one another in bathrooms. However, this sisterhood has a monthly premium of sanitary pads and tampons that many in modern Britain cannot afford. And arguments over how much periods cost women in Britain, why the cost is so high and who should be bearing these costs, have yet to be answered.
People don’t like talking about periods. When we do, we are going against generations of shame and silence, which makes discourse around the subject rife with generalisations and assumptions. Period Poverty is an intersection between public misogyny and wider issues of commercialised, consumerist healthcare that needs to be unpacked within the context of their history.
Period Poverty is endemic in Britain. A Scottish survey found almost a fifth of women have experienced Period Poverty, using sanitary products from food banks or friends. Some resorted to creating make-shift protection out of newspaper, old clothes and toilet paper. A similar proportion stated they had not changed their pad or tampon as often as they’d like, due to financial concerns, often harming their health in the process. Monica Lennon MSP has also linked conditions such as Thrush, Unitary Tract Infections and Toxic Shock Syndrome with Period Poverty. ‘Plan International’ found similar rates of Period Poverty amongst teenage girls in 2017, with as many as one in seven being forced to borrow sanitary products from friends as they could not afford their own.
So, why has the discussion on Period Poverty suddenly exploded and What’s changed in 2018?
It is hard to imagine that Period Poverty is a new experience. The answer seems to be part of the wider discussion of women’s health and women’s experiences of poverty. Works such as I, Daniel Blake have brought Period Poverty into the limelight; while efforts such as ‘Bloody Good Period’, provide menstrual supplies to asylum centres and food banks. Alongside this, #FreePeriods, a campaign to provide free menstrual products to children receiving free school meals, has begun to make tangible efforts to address the problem.
For many, MP Danielle Rowley’s June 2018 declaration in Parliament that she was “on [her] period” was something of a shock. She continued that it had “cost [her] this week, already, £25”. Much was made of her ‘taboo-breaking’ speech as she challenged the government to tackle Period Poverty. Her speech, however, had its flaws. She claimed that the “average cost of a period over the year is £500”, or £41 a month. Although this is true to an extent, the statistic hides a more complex picture.
Based on a 2015 VoucherCodesPro.co.uk survey, the infamous £500 is the cost of a period that many cannot afford. What it deems a necessity includes DVDs, new underwear and chocolate. As Channel 4’s Georgina Lee has demonstrated, the monthly breakdown sets aside over £15 each month on these non-essentials- creating a somewhat more luxurious image than that which Period Poverty activists are protesting. This hyperbolic image, therefore, undermines the work of activists, suggesting it is a first-world problem.
Whilst a giant bar of Galaxy may be a period must for many, it misrepresents the challenge facing those for whom even a box of tampons is a stretch. ‘Bloody Good Period’ estimates a more conservative average cost of around £11 per period, but even this is more than the amounts those facing Period Poverty are able to meet. For example, a 10 pack of own brand night time pads are 55p and a 32 pack of tampons are 75p, in Asda currently. This presumes, however, that superstores are reachable and own brand disposable sanitary products are usable - many find that own brand products are not suitable for their flow. For some, therefore, it is possible to manage menstruation using standard, disposable products for less than a few pounds a month. But even this is out of reach for some.
Although the conversation around Period Poverty is rising and awareness seems to be growing in government, the response is slowly altering the situation for some. The problem of Period Poverty within the education system frequently dominates the conversation. #FreePeriods promises Scotland free, disposable sanitary products in all educational institutions, which is certainly encouraging. Also, North Ayrshire Council’s move to provide disposable sanitary products in all public buildings is a step few could have predicted even ten years ago. More and more employers and institutions are quietly joining the ranks.
However, they are still a minority. A quick trawl through Period Poverty hashtags on Twitter and Tumblr will bring many comparisons between the unavailability of free sanitary products and free condom schemes. Across Britain, in cities, towns and villages from Abberton to Zelah, free condoms are available for colleges, sexual health centres and pharmacies. Arguments run along the lines that it’s easier to refrain from sex than from menstruating. So, why is our response to menstruation that it is a private problem for those in possession of a uterus, and yet safe sex and the prevention of pregnancy is a public concern? The success of the latter obviously contributes to the former. Yet those in Period Poverty are still largely left to struggle alone.
Here the women’s public bathroom returns. That strangely intimate moment when a friend or stranger asks you for a tampon. After I had an IUD fitted and my periods stopped, I carried pads for months in preparation for these moments. It is impossible to know how many instances of Period Poverty are hidden in these exchanges but this year’s Scottish survey suggests it is higher than we imagine. In schools, these exchanges can be magnified. In March 2017, one report suggested that in some urban high schools girls were regularly missing school due to embarrassment surrounding their sanitary protection, or lack of it. Menstruation is made into enough of an embarrassment by inquisitive teachers refusing to allow pupils to leave lessons and the rigmarole of “I’ve got my period, Miss” to get out of PE when swimming, cramps or running shorts appeared. Too many of us know of PE teachers who kept records of who had ‘abnormal’ cycles. For many trans students, the situation is horrendously complicated, although some schools are finally beginning to cater to these pupils. School can be embarrassing enough before the risk of leaks, feeling as though you need to beg for pads, or the permission of your geography teacher to check your pad, is added to the mix. Before real progress can be achieved for those in Period Poverty, the social constructs which govern most daily interactions around menstruation must be considered.
Why are periods such an awkward topic?
In Britain at least, the answer is largely a long history of silencing and mistrust. The Roman author Pliny the Elder was convinced that menstruation - even the presence of a menstruating woman - could “turn wine sour” and destroy crops. The, almost exclusively male, mistrust of Greek and Roman writers of menstruation can be traced through folklore through much of Europe, where ideas of witchcraft and supernatural powers with menstruation continued. As hunting witches became a continent-wide sport, the need for secrecy around menstruation was clearly necessary. Ideas that menstrual blood could burn a penis like acid or than intercourse during menstruation would produce exclusively ginger children - deemed unlucky or even immoral by many cultures - lasted far longer than modern ideas of rationality would perhaps approve.
The Church, however, bears much of the responsibility. Menstruation and childbirth were deemed women’s punishments for Eve’s role in The Fall from the Garden of Eden by Hildegard of Bingen, and much of early Christianity followed this idea. Pain relief was frowned upon as it lessened God’s punishment. The Bible makes repeated use of “menstruous woman” and “menstrual rags” as comparisons for moral uncleanliness such as in Isiah 64:6 “And we are all as one unclean, and all our justices as the rag of a menstruous woman”. Some historians and religious scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that the limited diets of early nuns were specifically designed to induce iron deficiencies, which stopped their menstrual cycles and increased their holiness, by distancing themselves from the sin of their womanhood.
How was menstruation managed before the modern tampon and absorbent gel pads?
Largely, the answer is free bleeding and homemade, washable pads or ‘rags’. Although there is much debate as to the existence of ancient tampons, Roman ‘subligacalum’, Biblical ‘menstrual rags’ and Stuart ‘clouts’ all attest to the long history of menstrual pads, which would be washed and reused and were held either by belts, girdles or underwear. Elizabeth I had three black silk girdles to hold her ‘vallopes of Holland cloth’. It is worth noting though that regular, heavy periods would not have been the experience of most. British midwife Jane Sharp wrote in 1671 that periods could “sometimes flow too soon, sometimes too late ... or are quite stopt ... sometimes they flow by drops, and again sometimes they overflow”. Most historians agree that the lack of nutrition and higher rates of disease experienced historically would not have resulted in regular periods as a norm. For many, a dark petticoat or underwear could be enough to catch their flow, although some reports of women free bleeding in public, so that a train of droplets of blood followed behind them, suggests that religious and superstitious distaste was not all consuming.
By the Edwardian era, the commercialisation of all aspects of life came for the black petticoats and washable rags. Advertising for the first time persuaded women that their homemade, and more importantly domestically controlled, methods were unhygienic. Companies began to offer rubber skirts and diaper type underwear. But soon a new development occurred. During World War One, nurses began repurposing the medical bandages and absorbent wound pads to create longer lasting, reliable menstrual protection which maintained the strict hygiene required by their training. The idea was soon being packaged and sold back to them by canny businessmen.
Today, the idea of reusable sanitary protection is slowly re-emerging, but disposable products are king. Free bleeding has been largely sidelined into an idea for protest only. As the branding for ‘Thinx’, a period underwear company, makes explicitly clear with their minimalist design and pineapple ukuleles; their period absorbent underwear will bring “unlimited street cred for being a taboo-breaking G”. Their price tag, however, is less taboo-breaking. Their bestselling underwear cost £27 a pair and can only hold up to two tampons worth of blood. Many reviewers find they can’t rely on them alone. They are, however, female-led, as are many emerging companies in the ‘feminine hygiene’ world. The market leaders, however, are decidedly masculine. ‘Always’, one of the largest sanitary pad companies, was founded by Procter and Gamble in the 1980s. Their board includes only four women, despite almost a third of their sales occurring in feminine hygiene and family care products. Tampax, although originally founded in the 1930s by German immigrant Gertrude Tendrich with a sewing machine, was bought by the same company in 1997.
The modern reliance on disposable sanitary products from commercial sources has totally usurped domestic, personally controlled methods. The commercials for these products say everything, however, as innocuous blue liquid is poured over disposable pads as the user is assured no one will ever know of her natural bodily process. Applicator tampons were designed by Dr Earle Haas so that the user would never have to touch their own genitals, let alone their menstrual blood. Even the “taboo-breaking G” considering period underwear is assured no one knows that her body is expelling its unneeded preparations for pregnancy. Commercial sanitary products target the individual both socially and financially, making them feel like it is their responsibility to hide.
The issues surrounding Period Poverty are huge, they speak to the inequality found, and still growing, in Britain as well as the history of shame and individual responsibility. Long-lasting, affordable alternatives are only just beginning after decades of different products. A new advertising campaign by ‘Always’ says the company is challenging Period Poverty, yet they are part of the problem, using the language of charity and sisterhood to boost their own sales. Period pants and menstrual cups are a start, but for many they are too economically inaccessible and risqué. If as a society we can’t even look at a red stain in a sanitary pad advert, how are we supposed to handle our own blood? The economic factors creating Period Poverty must be addressed, but an examination of our reliance on and acceptance of commercialised disgust at our own bodies must also be recognised. It is a privatisation which is never questioned, as essential as water and our NHS, but which affects and shames its experiencers into silence too often.
This month, Barnsley F.C. started to provide free menstrual products in their stadium’s bathrooms. The sign next to the products reads “We don’t believe you should pay for essential items” and why should we?