Despite all the social and professional advancements for women, the monthly period is still treated as a taboo. Because of this persisting social stigma, women will surreptitiously slip a tampon up their sleeve on the way to the bathroom. They’ll talk about having their periods in code. They’ll hide their symptoms from bosses or teachers.
To explore just how deep this goes, a recent global survey conducted by Clue, a women’s health app, and the International Women’s Health Coalition, an advocacy group, asked women about their attitudes toward their periods. They received responses from 90,000 women who use the app from 190 countries.
The survey found that globally there are thousands of euphemisms women use to talk about their period.
In the U.S., women commonly refer to it as a visit from Aunt Flo, that time of the month, their monthly friend, or, as coined by Cher in “Clueless,” riding the Crimson wave. The Swedish may say, “Lingonveckan,” which means “lingonberry week” and the German say “Erdbeerwoche,” which means “strawberry week.” Some French say, “Les Anglais ont debarqué,” which means “the English have landed” – an ode to the bloody battles of yore.
The survey also found that most women, regardless of whether they lived in the Eastern or Western world, were uncomfortable talking to a male family member, colleague or friend about periods.
“For you to understand your body and take care of your body you have to first not be ashamed of this part of your life,” Ida Tin, Clue founder, said. “Without cycles there would be no humans on this planet, it’s that fundamental. That taboo is left over from the dark ages.”
IWHC president Francoise Girard recalled being at a conference on sexual health in Ghana and one of the male speakers started referring to “intimate parts.” The lack of clear, straightforward language is confusing for girls, especially ones in the developing world who receive such little, if any, information about menstruating.
“You internalize the shame, it suggests something is wrong and something you should be ashamed of,” Girard said. “Society is suggesting this is something (women) should keep hidden.”
If women can’t even say the word “period” without someone laughing, or themselves feeling embarrassed, it can then be challenging for women to be advocates for their own health. By using cute names for periods, and other reproductive organs, it can suggest women shouldn’t be taken seriously.
It’s a huge public health issue in the developing world, where some girls think they’re dying when they suddenly start bleeding because they had no education about their periods, Girard said. Many stop going to school while they’re menstruating.
But it’s also an issue in the developed world. Women are still dismissed as having PMS if they’re perceived to be in a bad mood. This even came up in U.S. presidential politics when GOP frontrunner Donald Trump said after the first debate in August that Megyn Kelly of Fox News had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Though he denied it, most people understood it as he was saying she asked tough questions because she was on her period.
This prompted women to tweet about their periods with the hashtag #periodsarenotaninsult.
There have been other movements to address the social stigma around periods. Thinx, for instance, is an underwear that absorbs menstrual blood. The company’s mantra is, “we bleed for women’s empowerment.” Its website says “100 million girls in the developing world fall behind in school just because of their periods, forcing many of them to eventually drop out.”
It’s an issue in American schools too, which is why a New York City councilwoman has pushed to get free tampon dispensers in public schools.
“It’s important to de-stigmatize feminine hygiene products, which help us carry out our daily functions without interruption and avoid those risks,” Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland told Yahoo in September. “It’s also a matter of giving young girls dignity throughout the process — they shouldn’t feel ashamed of being women.”
For her part, Tin developed Clue when she tried birth control pills in her twenties and couldn’t bear the side effects. She looked for other contraceptive options and realized there hadn’t been many major developments in family planning since the pill came on the market in the midst of the 1960s sexual revolution.
With all of today’s technological advancements, she was baffled that no one had successfully brought family planning into the modern-age. Sure there were plenty of period tracking applications, but, in her view, they lacked scientific seriousness and most were pink and flowery in a way that felt stereotyping and almost belittling.
So Tin, a Danish woman who lives in Germany, started Clue, a free smart phone app that tracks not just a woman’s menstrual cycle, but also moods, physical symptoms like headaches and cramps, sleep, sex drive and energy level. The idea is to give women a complete picture of their health.
“Women use it for many different reasons,” Tin said in an interview. “They use it as a body diary and that is very empowering. Anything from figuring out what that headache is about to a young woman starting out on her first period.”
Since she launched it about three years ago, more 2.5 million women from nearly 200 different countries are users.
It also recently integrated with Apple to allow users to merge its data with the iPhone’s existing health app. So now, alongside daily steps, nutrition, and body mass index, women can maintain a record of their basal body temperature, cervical mucus quality, menstruation, ovulation test results, sexual activity and spotting.
Tin is quick to say that Clue itself is not a contraceptive. But she said it can be a tool to help women know when to have sex if they want to get pregnant, and when not to if they don’t.
But the larger goal, she said, is to give women the power to know what is going on in their own bodies, and not be ashamed of it.