Updated: Jul 8, 2022
When you walk the aisles of pharmacies, it’s common to see the period care section labeled as “Menstrual Hygiene”, or machines in public washrooms filled with “sanitary pads”. We have a problem with menstrual hygiene versus menstrual health and here’s why.
Periods are not unhygienic. Menstrual blood is not unsanitary. Period.
It may not sound like a big deal, except it is, because words have power. And in this case, these words contribute to the stigmatization of periods—which is one of the main contributors to period inequity. Let’s take a closer look!
Why hygiene is a dirty word: menstrual hygiene and other taboos
When it comes to periods, hygiene is a dirty word. While periods are not unhygienic, those who menstruate face shame and ostracization around the world for this normal bodily function. According to the World Bank, “menstruating women are considered impure and are systematically excluded from participating in everyday activities, such as education, employment, and cultural and religious practices.” Why is this?
Interestingly, the origin of the word “taboo” traces back to the Polynesian word for menstrual blood. “Tapua” or “tapu” makes menstruation the OG of taboos.
Historically, anything that humankind doesn’t understand is surrounded by mystery and fear—and the female anatomy was misunderstood from the earliest of days. Considered one of humankind’s greatest minds, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) characterized the female body as simply a “mutilated male”.
More specifically about menstrual blood, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) said that it:
“...turns wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
And this is from his book Natural History, which was an authority on scientific matters up until the Middle Ages!
These attitudes that the female form is an aberration and that menstruation is impure and unclean formed a foundation that still affects women’s health in the modern-day, as evidenced by the fact that menstrual conditions—such as PCOS and endometriosis—can take so long to get a diagnosis. In fact, PMDD takes on average seven to 10 years to be diagnosed.
The power of words
Attitudes have changed over the centuries but there is still work to be done—and the power of words must not be underestimated.
In her article, "How does Language Shape the Way We Think?", Lera Boroditsky (a cognitive scientist and professor in the fields of language and cognition) explains a study she conducted on how language shapes perception and concluded:
“...when you're learning a new language, you're not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking…these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”
It’s easy to see, then, how using terms like “menstrual hygiene” and “sanitary napkins” perpetuates our cultural views that menstruation is dirty – with a connotation that’s rooted in impurity and malignancy.
When we change our words, we begin to change our perception—much like when learning a new language. Referring to period care as menstrual health instead shifts the attitude from one that insinuates that menstruation is impure to a perspective that menstruating bodies are worthy of care and that period care is tantamount to health care—which is a human right.
How the term “menstrual hygiene” perpetuates period poverty
So we can see, then, how historical views have shaped the medical system and how female bodies are perceived, and how that is compounded through the language we use as a culture. Together, they form a barrier to equitable period care. This is how.
As discussed, the term “menstrual hygiene” is rooted in shame. Through continued use, the notion is perpetuated. When period care is stigmatized, people don’t talk about it. This makes it difficult for people to talk to their doctors about menstrual problems, makes some afraid to ask for help with obtaining period products, and has stopped period care initiatives from reaching legislative levels. All because we can’t talk about periods.
If you’re wondering if this is an exaggeration or a current problem, look at the recent reaction to the film Turning Red. In it, Meilin’s mother thinks she has gotten her first period and pulls out an array of pads. While there was much support for this, there was also a strong reaction from parents who were now upset they would have to talk to their children (primarily their sons) about menstruation, or how uncomfortable it made male parents who were watching.
Healthy attitudes begin with healthy language. Talking about periods in a way that is devoid of stigmas (like the word hygiene) encourages the perception that menstruation is a matter of health. And at that, a matter to be discussed in terms of healthcare to the highest of governmental levels. Only then can policies be put into place to bring real change to period poverty.
We see this happening! In Scotland, where period care is now free to access in public washrooms, the language surrounding legislation used terms such as “period products” that would be made accessible with “reasonable dignity”.
Why periods are not unhygienic
For the record, menstrual blood is the same as venous blood. Menstruation is the process of the body shedding the uterine lining from the uterus. It’s not toxic and it’s not the way the body rids itself of toxins.
But period care is important to menstrual health. Lack of access to period care can result in illness from using period care for too long or using unhygienic items not meant for period care (like balled-up toilet paper or a sock). Not having access to safe period care that works best for your body can result in urinary tract infections, swelling, and blisters from dermatitis, and can affect the pH level of the vagina, which then supports bad versus good bacteria.
In the battle between menstrual hygiene versus menstrual health, it's important to emphasize it’s not menstruation that is unhygienic but rather the inaccessibility to period care that can lead to health issues.
Let’s focus on menstrual health
If you consider someone without access to period care as unclean, it comes with a lot of shame and judgment about not taking care of yourself. Calling menstrual health for what it is—a health issue—flips the script to a place where we can talk about it.
Menstrual health instead of hygiene is, frankly, more accurate anyway. Because the issues around period equity are not issues about cleanliness! The issue is about having access to what you need for your health.
And that is why we don’t use the term menstrual hygiene and focus on menstrual health and period care. We believe that doing so will lead to greater period equity initiatives, remove stigmas, and contribute to greater dignity for all those who mensturate.