It may seem like it wouldn’t be possible to hurt other people with period positivity—how could pride in a natural process be harmful to another person? But like many things, menstruation is nuanced, and its impact on the people who experience it differs wildly.
Period positivity starts from a place of trying to destigmatize menstruation and build a positive conversation around the issue. So often, menstruation is treated with disgust, as if it is not a normal biological process. My friend Charlotte, a young woman active in menstrual communities, is not the only one who noticed that there is a general uncomfortableness with the period thing.
Reversing that discomfort is at the center of Ruby Cup’s philosophy with its work which aims to help young girls understand their bodies and how to care for them, and most importantly to be proud of their bodies instead of ashamed. Because young women in East Africa and beyond often miss school during menstruation because of embarrassment or lack of menstrual products, period positivity has ripple effects that go far—but it can be harmful if we don’t do it carefully.
So how do we foster inclusivity and positivity, simultaneously? This is a question that all of us should have on our minds when we build communities of all types, including menstrual communities. It’s one of the things that Ruby Cup started to examine with the “Letter to the Transgender community” published, and it’s a conversation that we would like to continue. Even when we have the best of intentions, we can cause harm—and that’s why it is so important to be aware of the experiences of others.
The Problem With Celebrating Periods As A Token Of Womanhood
One of the main problems that menstrual communities run into is that most of the time, without thinking about it, we associate menstruation automatically with womanhood. In our society, menstruation is considered a marker for womanhood.
When a girl starts menstruating, she is catapulted out of her childhood and into womanhood. She will very likely be confronted with the typical “You’re a woman now” praises, when she might not feel like a woman yet at all (or ever).
Charlotte said she was taught that menstruation was always framed as female— “it was definitely framed as something that only happened to women. It was a girly thing…Women only have these hormone cycles, or so I was taught.” This is problematic primarily because it constructs a biological image of womanhood, which really simplifies the truth of gender and experience.”
How to discuss periods that include trans and non-binary experiences
Another problem with this understanding is that it excludes the trans and nonbinary community. There are a lot of people who menstruate who don’t identify as women. They may identify as male, or they may identify as nonbinary or genderqueer. They deserve a place at the table when we discuss period positive feminism, and if we focus all discussion of menstruation on women, we aren’t providing one.
The first way that period positive communities can expand their inclusivity is by making sure “women” is not the only label being utilized to refer to people with periods, but that gender neutral labels like “menstruators” or “people with periods” are also being used.
Making period positivity not focused so exclusively on femininity is helpful for all of us, not just trans and nonbinary folks, because even cis women may not identify as particularly feminine, but their experience is valid just the same. If we start from a place of practical information and open discussion around menstruation, we will be able to make much more progress against the myths that surround menstruation for so many people.
Stop spreading the idea that periods make you a “real woman”
There are also women who don’t menstruate, and they benefit from a broader definition of the community as well. Women who don’t menstruate may be trans or have certain health issues. Women who are struggling with eating disorders sometimes don’t menstruate, as well as women with PCOS.
As someone in the latter category, I have struggled with feeling as though my body was betraying me and keeping me from feeling like a “real woman”, especially as a teenager. Because I have PCOS, my periods, when I do have them, are wildly irregular and make me feel sick.
Eventually, my doctor just decided to have me take hormonal birth control pills, skip the placebo week, and forgo a period altogether. My health improved, but I felt isolated from other women because of it. I felt as though there was a club of womanhood that I was no longer a part of, and even as I knew mentally that was untrue, it was a bad feeling nonetheless.
Not all periods are positive, and we have to accept that
Some periods just aren’t easy. For instance, if you suffer from endometriosis or extremely severe menstrual cramps, the pain you experience can be compared to having a heart attack. And it’s very difficult to identify with any celebration of menstruation when you’re literally suffering.
That’s why some might struggle in period positive communities or even get triggered. A trigger is something that makes someone feel emotionally unsafe because it brings back memories of a trauma that they experienced. People can be triggered by a variety of things, including books, movies, and conversations.
Being triggered by something is very different than just feeling uncomfortable. Some people are uncomfortable talking about menstruation because of the stigma associated with it or because they think it is “gross”. We can address that in period positive communities by opening a dialogue and breaking down stigma, but people for whom menstruation is triggering are quite different.
Sometimes menstruation can be triggering for trans and nonbinary people, another reason that period positive communities don’t usually include them. It can also be triggering for women that have had miscarriages, as that can be quite a traumatic experience. We want to honor that experience alongside pride and education about menstruation.
We can be mindful of menstruation being triggering by utilizing content warnings—letting people know before a discussion happens that menstruation will be discussed, and then if this is triggering for them, they can excuse themselves should they need to. This practice is not about censorship or about increasing the stigma around menstruation, just about being mindful of others and caring for one another.
So let’s get period positivity right and be inclusive
What all of us want from period positivity is awareness and community. The best way to achieve both is to keep an open mind to everyone’s experiences and be respectful. In the process, we will have better conversations and more success in our educational efforts. Every one of us can model inclusivity in our daily lives, and it will pay off.