Guest blog by Dr Lucy Pickering- based on the original research of Natalie Moffat
There is a lot of pressure on menstruators to hide their periods. Indeed, this is the subject of our recent article ‘‘Out of Order’: The double burden of menstrual etiquette and the subtle exclusion of women from public space in Scotland’, published in The Sociological Review in July. We found that menstruators described feeling under a lot of pressure to hide that they were menstruating, but that the infrastructure on which successfully hiding menstruation depends is often broken or unavailable.
Hiding menstrual status…
By studying the experiences of students at a Scottish university we found that our participants mainly used tampons and pads, sometimes both, and not only when they were on their periods but also ‘just in case’ [Ed- please note that using a tampon when not menstruating can make you more at risk of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome].
Some used the contraceptive pill to regulate their periods and, even then, took extra measures to make sure no one knew they were menstruating, such as hiding a pad in their pocket when walking to the toilet, or waiting for a toilet to flush to disguise the sound of opening it. In short, they worked hard to keep menstruation invisible.
This came at a cost. Not only in pounds for products. Not only in terms of having to hide their blood and hide those products. Because for our participants, menstrual invisibility wasn’t just about making sure their period couldn’t be seen, but about making sure they weren’t talking about it in public, especially in front of men. This meant that women in the workplace often worked through pain – something they wouldn’t have tolerated had that pain been in another part of the body. As one participant, ‘Katie’ put it:
“A lot of women wouldn’t say to their boss, ‘Look, I just happen to have a really bad period this month – I need to take to take a day off’ […] they’d be more comfortable saying, ‘Look, I have knee problems, like, I need a day off“.
Inadequate working conditions…
It’s bad enough that menstruators spend money, time, and effort on keeping their periods invisible. It’s bad enough that they cannot talk about menstruation at work in fear of embarrassment or, worse still, discrimination. But we found more than that…
We found disposal bins so overflowing that there was not room for one more tampon. We found a university library with empty disposable menstrual product dispensers. We found that our female participants (all our participants were cis-women, and we acknowledge the even deeper silence that surrounds transgender menstruation) had to then hide bloody objects in their bags. We also found that they had to leave their desk, search the toilets on every floor, and eventually leave the library altogether to get disposable products from a shop in order to keep their menstruation invisible… while their male counterparts continued to work.
In other words, there is not only the burden of hiding menstruation but a double burden of hiding it in a world where the very structures that support this hiding (well-stocked machines, adequately emptied disposal bins) are inadequate or poorly maintained. And did our participants complain about this? Of course they didn’t! They were too well-trained in the importance of not talking about menstruation in public, particularly in front of men (who make up the majority of the janitorial staff at that University). This silence surrounding menstruation, we argue, is the same silence that has leads to poor maintenance of these facilities in the first place and which, ultimately, contributes to menstruators’ exclusion from public spaces.
So what can we do about this?
Firstly, this research was done just before the roll-out of free disposable menstrual products in all educational establishments in Scotland. But, when we visit these toilets now, the baskets are often empty. Infrastructure without maintenance is barely better than no infrastructure at all. We need to ensure that responsible staff members are aware of how best to maintain access to period-related products and their disposal.
Secondly, we can start to talk about periods in public, to normalise this perfectly healthy and natural human process. This is already happening here and elsewhere, and we are excited to be part of this movement!
Thirdly, we can question whether disposable products are the only solution and shift the conversation to economically and environmentally sustainable alternatives.
If we talk about periods to anyone and everyone, we can make it easier for menstruators to report an overflowing bin or an unfilled dispenser. We can challenge stigma towards periods in the workplace so it feels safe to report menstrual pain. We can shift the double burden of menstrual invisibility and not spend our time working hard to ensure no one knows we have our period and making up for the inadequate infrastructure around this normal life experience.
If you would like to read the full paper, you can access it here: https://journals.sagepub.com/toc/sora/67/4
Moffat, N., & Pickering, L. (2019). ‘Out of order’: The double burden of menstrual etiquette and the subtle exclusion of women from public space in Scotland. The Sociological Review, 67 (4), 766–787. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026119854253