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It's about time we ditched menstruation shame – it's a period. Period.

When I was in my early 20s, living in Paraguay, my friend Tamara used to mention her friend Andrés with relative frequency. 

Every now and then, when I enquired what she was up to, she’d tell me Andrés was visiting, by which I understood that she was busy. 

Although Spanish wasn’t my first language, I’d been speaking it long enough to understand social cues. I did find it odd, though, that despite me having met every single person in her life — her colleagues, friends and family — she kept Andrés to herself, never offering to introduce me to him. 

It wasn’t until a few months later when I innocently asked if I could meet him, that she burst out laughing and explained my misunderstanding. 

To those of you not familiar with Spanish, allow me to explain. In many Spanish-speaking countries, a common euphemism to describe menstruation is ‘mi amigo Andrés el que viene una vez por mes’ (my friend Andrés that visits once a month). 

The friend that had been visiting all these months was, in fact, her period. 

We laughed a lot.

I hadn’t thought about this for the best part of a decade. But then, the other day, it sprang back into view when I read that a New Zealand supermarket was hitting headlines for its progressive feminist credentials. 

Their newsworthy activity? Referring to period products by their real names rather than using the euphemistic language so often associated with women’s health. 

So, instead of being labelled as ‘sanitary,’ or ‘feminine hygiene’ products, in this particular supermarket, tampons, pads and menstrual cups will now be grouped together under a banner of ‘periods’. 

By virtue of this relatively simple linguistic shift, the shop will become a world leader in promoting positive and realistic messaging around women’s reproductive health. 

The brand said that its intention was to help play a role in shifting the messaging around menstruation away from words that suggest that it is anything other than a normal and healthy process. 

Hurrah! Corporate social responsibility strikes again. 

Forgive me for my cynicism but isn’t this all a little bit depressing?

While any and all progress in the direction of equality is — of course — to be celebrated, it’s hard to read this in exclusively positive terms. Hard to think, ‘wow, this is such a good idea’, without also thinking… ‘but wow, just how low is the bar?’

As a society, we have a pretty dysfunctional approach to discussing both sex itself, and its related organs and their functions. Such is the level of stigma attributed to this subject, that we often enlist a series of euphemisms to spare our embarrassment — or that of others. 

This usually takes one of two forms. Either we use infantilising language — think ‘willies’, ‘minnies’, ‘pee pee’, ‘tinkles’, ‘blobs’ and ‘front bottoms’. Or beyond an age when it is deemed acceptable to do so, we use hypersexualised words — think ‘pussies’, ‘dicks’, ‘jizzing’ and ‘boners’.

I’m not here to promote any sort of linguistics dogma — languages are amorphous things and often move and flex to suit cultural and social shifts. And so they should.

It’s something of which I am personally guilty myself. I’ve often — particularly when younger — used silly words in lieu of saying vagina or even referred to my period as my mate Andrés

What is problematic though, is when the use of such idioms becomes a substitute for a real understanding of our bodies. Or when the shame so embedded in the use of this coded language teaches people — especially women — that their natural bodily processes are something to hide or be embarrassed about. Not to mention the fact that using the words ‘sanitary’ and ‘hygiene’ to describe period products makes the very act of menstruating sound both dirty and unclean by default — and overtly medicalised.

And when this taboo is perpetuated in large-scale advertising campaigns or even something as simple as product placement within a shop – it becomes very problematic indeed. 

Because then it becomes part of a wider culture of ignorance about sexual health, that systematically represses women. 

You may think this is quite a leap, but the stats are on my side. A poll by YouGov last year became the subject of many funny headlines, when it revealed that half of Brits don’t know where the vagina is located. 

At the same time, research by Clue, a period-tracking device, found that there are over 5,000 known euphemisms around the world for menstruation. When analysing these two pieces of information together, can we really be that surprised that our collective knowledge of female anatomy is so appalling?

And not only this, but our inability to speak about menstruation in plain terms without embarrassment means that related issues are often left out of government policymaking or simply left to women to work out. 

The net result of this is wider social inequality that blocks access to menstrual products, such as tampons and pads, for lower-income families, resulting in period poverty. In the UK alone, one in 10 girls can’t afford to buy period products, according to data from Bodyform. 

It also affects the relationship that we as women have with our own bodies — limiting our openness to disclose common problems related to reproductive health, and to seek treatment that could make our lives easier and/or improve our ability to conceive should we want to. 

This, in turn, contributes to a lack of knowledge and understanding even within the medical profession. It also often means that women are much more likely to suffer longer than men when it comes to chronic pain.

It is easy to dismiss the link between language and gender inequality. To dismiss these arguments as ‘sensitivity’. But it all boils down to the simple fact that language is at the basis of everything we do as human beings. It is the way we see, describe and understand the world around us. 

It’s something of which I am personally guilty myself. I’ve often — particularly when younger — used silly words in lieu of saying vagina or even referred to my period as my mate Andrés. But in recent years I’ve tried to shift away from this and use the correct words for each, especially when speaking with young girls and adults that have never experienced menstruation. It may feel awkward sometimes, but it’s important. 

If we are taught from a young age that women’s bodies are shameful and to be shrouded in euphemism for fear of causing offence, this adds another layer of insulation to the patriarchal system that has been responsible for the subjugation of women for centuries.

And so while yes, it is great that certain brands are starting to pave the way for a shift in distorted thinking, this will only be capable of effecting real and meaningful change if it happens in chorus with better, more honest education around sex and reproduction for women and men from an early age.

Oh, and the wholesale rejection of a culture of shame that has governed conversations around women and sex for thousands of years. Just that small matter.

So the next time someone tells you it’s ‘that time of the month’ or ‘the painters are in’ please do me a favour and say, ‘sorry, I don’t understand — are you on your period?’.

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  • Posted on June 30, 2020