The Silence of Periods | Sinéad Brophy Speaks to The Irish TimesMar 28, 2023
As part of a series run by The Irish Times called "The Secrecy of Women's Health", I spoke to Geraldine Walsh about looking at the silence around women's health.
In this piece, I spoke to Geraldine about my take on how the negative narrative around menstruation is doing harm. We spoke about the secrecy surrounding menstruation, the stigma and taboos that are faced and how we can change these unhelpful narratives.
Here is my unedited submission for this piece - all words and views are my own.
Communication about menstruation, like other taboo topics, is culturally constrained. How has Irish culture encouraged the taboo and silence about menstruation?
There are four main contributing factors to the taboo and silence around menstruation:
- The narrative and perspective of women’s and reproductive health in our society
- Lack of education around reproductive health
- Not having the language to have honest and supportive conversations
- Lack of access to free or affordable period products
Historically our support for women, non-binary/trans people, and our reproductive health has been poor. In my opinion, the combination of the Catholic Church and State has been a contributing factor to this, as seen in the Magdalene Laundries, the fact that contraception was not legalised until 1979, and our historical lack of access to abortion. Even the assumption that only women menstruate and that all women menstruate is hugely problematic in itself.
In 2018, Plan Ireland investigated the ‘toxic trio’ of period injustices for girls and found that 61% of girls had missed school due to their period, 50% couldn’t afford period products and 55% were embarrassed by their period.
If we look at the education of people who deal with women, girls, and people who menstruate on a daily basis -Teachers, Personal Trainers/Coaches, GPs, Employers - and our own individual education, there is a dearth of understanding of how menstruation works, how it impacts us, and what is considered normal or healthy.
Women/people who menstruate can suffer for years with invisible reproductive illnesses, such as endometriosis, PCOS, heavy or painful periods or infertility without getting proper support and, perhaps, believing that this is normal and something we have to ‘just get on with’.
We have been brought up in a culture that views periods and reproductive health as shameful, as something to not be spoken about, and as something that only women speak about or have to deal with, which is simply not true. We internalise this patriarchal approach to our reproductive health by using slang language to discuss menstruation (Aunt Flo, The Time of the Month, On The Rag, Riding the Crimson Wave) and trivialising the negative symptoms that some of us have to deal with.
What is being done, and what can we do personally to make the topic of periods socially acceptable?
Recently there has been a big shift in the narrative around reproductive health.
Women/people who menstruate are speaking up and campaigning for their rights and we have seen a much more open and public discourse around menstruation and women’s health in the media and on social media.
Government and national campaigns such as the Menopause Awareness Campaign and calls for the Government to provide free access to period products have shown that it is normal and healthy to discuss and prioritise our reproductive health. More people are coming out and sharing their stories and normalising the conversation - from athletes like Dina Asher-Smith and golfer Lydia Ko discussing their periods in their sports to women like Lisa de Jong speaking about their endometriosis care in Ireland.
We can take responsibility for making the topic of periods socially acceptable by first educating ourselves about periods, the menstrual cycle and reproductive health. We can do this not only for ourselves (if we are women or womb-owners) but to support the younger generations and people in our lives who do. Parents, teachers, employers, coaches - we should take it upon ourselves to be educated about what is going on and the correct terminology to use so that we can facilitate more open, accurate and supportive conversations amongst our community.
Educators, such as myself, Kitty Maguire, Positive Period Ireland, Lisa de Jong, Sarah Sproule and Jenny Keane, are creating accessible and non-judgmental resources for how to shift the narrative around our bodies, our reproductive health and our sexual health. Search out for research-backed information and education that can help remove the fear and taboo around these topics.
The discussion of menstruation repeatedly leans towards the negative - embarrassment, body shaming, self-shaming, menstrual moaning, etc. What are the positive conversations we should uphold about periods?
I’m guilty of having had this view myself. I have a twin brother, went to a mixed school and used to work in quite male-dominated environments, be it the corporate world or gyms, so I had internalised the idea that I had ‘pulled the short straw’. I viewed having periods and having to be the one who physically carried a child for 9 months as a negative thing and a burden.
It was only when I started to educate myself on how incredible our bodies are that my perspective shifted. I now view our bodies as incredible, magical, and strong. Our bodies can change and transform to bring life into this world (whether we choose to or not) and, for menstruation, give us a monthly reminder of what is going on with our health and wellbeing.
ACOG (American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology) has referred to our cycles as our ‘fifth vital sign’. Once we get to know it intimately, it can become our monthly report card to see how well we have been nourishing our bodies, managing our training load and stress, and overall existing in a state of safety and support.
It’s also a monthly reminder to hit pause, to down tools, to prioritise yourself, and stop carrying the burden of the unseen work that women often take on in society.
From an energetic point of view, becoming in tune with the ebb and flow of our hormones can allow you to tap into creative powers and self-care strategies you may have missed before. According to the Red School, there are four seasons of your cycle and each season or phase of your cycle carries a different energy - ideation, development, celebration and discernment - and these can be applied to our creative projects or simply our relationship with ourselves to ensure we don’t burn out.
What does breaking this taboo mean for women individually and as a whole, and for society?
Breaking this taboo is an essential part of reaching true equality in our society. When women/people who menstruate are celebrated and can celebrate themselves for our differences, our strengths and what our bodies can do, then we can step into our power.
When reproductive health, and periods in particular, are part of the school curriculum for everyone, are part of everyday conversations, and are no longer seen as something negative, then we can continue to demand, access and receive the emotional and reproductive health support that we deserve.
In an ideal world, all people who menstruate would have access to the period products they need, have access to the emotional and physical support and care that they need, and not feel like they have to hide their lived experiences. In an ideal world, all people would understand how female reproductive health works so that everyone can feel included in the conversation to change the landscape of our society. By breaking down the taboos that surround menstruation, we can help make this ideal our reality.
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