Bringhurst: Talk to Children About Periods


By Maggie Bringhurst, Opinion Writer


People who menstruate are familiar with stigmas and stereotypes surrounding periods. We use about 5,000 different euphemisms to refer to periods, to avoid being explicit about this entirely non-explicit topic. Former President Donald Trump said Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” after the 2015 Republican presidential debate, simply because he didn’t like her attitude.

“Menstrual taboos are so widespread, they’re almost a cultural universal,” said Beverly Strassman, an evolutionary anthropologist, to NPR. The way we tiptoe around or outright discourage discussion of menstruation is dangerous for children’s psychological development. It’s time to bring the period discussion into the mainstream, through culture and education.

Psychological Impact

Girls typically reach puberty between the ages of eight and 13. This is an impressionable time when social development can impact a child for better or for worse. Children who hit puberty earlier than their peers are more likely to develop depression and struggle with substance abuse. This isn’t a biological response, but a psychological one. It isn’t caused by early puberty itself, but by the way society responds to puberty.

“If you’re a girl who lives in a single-parent family with your dad, you could be too embarrassed to ask about your period or for sanitary products,” said Claire Best, a volunteer for The Red Box Project, to BBC News. Boys at school might poke fun at hygiene products and girls that haven’t had their first period might think it’s gross. People who don’t experience periods are raised to think it’s gross, and those who menstruate are indoctrinated with shame. When a child’s peers poke fun at physical changes that they can’t control, it takes a psychological toll.

If children aren’t explicitly told that menstruation doesn’t make them dirty, and a period doesn’t rob a girl of her childhood, then there is nothing to prevent them from believing these social stigmas. The ramifications of period stigmas aren’t invisible. “Girls feel embarrassed to talk about their periods … and they can suffer health implications as a consequence,” said Lucy Russell of Plan International UK to the BBC. Period stigma causes women to endure menstrual-related pain instead of seeking medical help. Women may not know how much pain is abnormal or may not know cramps can be medicated. Exposing children to the realities of puberty before they go through it themselves is exactly what society needs.

Bringing Periods Into Mainstream Culture

Kids may be more understanding of their bodies’ changes if their social spheres encourage discussion of puberty and periods. Pixar’s “Turning Red” provides a comical yet accurate depiction of a child’s first period. When the protagonist’s mother suspects her daughter had her first period, she rushes to the bathroom with hygiene products, pain medication and heating pads. It doesn’t dance around the topic with euphemisms or implications. It shouldn’t, because it is a very real part of growing up that many must deal with.

“Turning Red” should be celebrated for nonchalantly expressing such taboo topics, but it has been criticized. Disturbingly, many of the negative reviews left for this movie are from parents, citing its discussion of mature topics as being inappropriate for children. To change a child’s mindset, we first need to change adults’. Current and prospective parents should thoughtfully consider the way they discuss menstruation with their children.

Puberty Education

Many fifth-graders participate in “Maturation Day,” where two separate assemblies discuss their sex’s respective puberties. Maturation education is lacking in Utah, especially after parents criticized it for being “pornographic.” It is vital for adults to separate puberty from sex. Some children have already started going through these changes, possibly for years. Those who aren’t taught about menstruation until after their first period may experience shame and embarrassment. Labeling maturation education as pornographic only reinforces the harmful stigma of menstruation.

Boys may not be formally taught about periods until high school health class after they have already developed assumptions and fears based on social stigma. It would be beneficial for parents and schools to talk about menstruation with their children as early as possible. It isn’t explicit, dangerous or inappropriate. It is a regular part of life.

Before we can tackle issues of gender equality like period poverty, we must talk about it. Destigmatizing periods allows us to talk about period poverty with cis-male legislators who have the same built-in biases against menstruation as the rest of us. We are making progress — Utah lawmakers passed a bill to put free period products in school bathrooms as one in eight women in Utah between ages 12 and 44 live below the federal poverty line. This is a huge stride towards gender equality and rejecting menstruation as a taboo topic. Without a willingness to discuss these topics, we risk leaving behind half of our population.

With conclusive evidence that social stigmas surrounding periods lead to depression and substance abuse, we should rethink the way we discuss periods. People with periods should stop using codewords and leave behind the shame we’ve associated with our bodies since we were kids. Future generations won’t be embarrassed by their bodies if we don’t teach them to be.


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