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The emotional distress of period shaming: 3 Indian women get candid about menstrual shame

Updated on:24 May 2021, 17:55pm IST
Period shaming is a reality in India that must be done away with as soon as possible. That’s because it doesn’t just affect the mental health of young girls and women, but also affects the entire fabric of society.
Geetika Sachdev
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Stop period shaming right away. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
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Period is a word that brings up a range of emotions for most women, but in a society like India, it is largely negative. That’s because at an early age, girls are made to feel ‘impure’—they grow up with a belief that something isn’t right with their bodies.

Do you remember the times when your mother asked you to wrap sanitary napkins in a black polythene, so that the world didn’t find out you were menstruating? Or even those times when your father changed the channel, every time a sanitary napkin advertisement flashed on screen? Unfortunately, these may seem like little things but they have huge consequences on the physical and well-being of girls. More often than not, they also become a part of adulthood. 

Shaming girls or women on their period is not just limited to the four walls of a house. It also manifests in several other ways. For instance, Dr Tanaya Narendra (MBBS, MSc (Oxon), FRSPH), also known as dr_cuterus on Instagram, believes that there’s also a lot of health-related misinformation that comes with it. That means the consequences are way more damaging than we can even imagine!

There are a lot of unnecessary restrictions around what menstruators can or cannot do on their period. For example, recently we saw how there were fake claims around not getting vaccinated on your period. These things reduce health care access and increase the global burden of long-term disease,” she says. 

“Take for instance, someone not taking a shower or washing their hair because they have been told that. In this case, what eventually happens is that during the five-day period, they aren’t able to take a shower properly, and they land up with an infection. And then you aren’t treating the infection, because how dare we talk about periods? When it’s left untreated, it leads to something called a pelvic inflammatory disease, which is a deep-seated inflammation, which has long-term consequences, not just through pain, but also affects fertility,” she adds. 

In a nutshell, not speaking about periods openly can do a whole lot of damage.

Stigmatising menstruation

Ashima Bhargava (28) belongs to a ‘so-called’ progressive household, but every single month when her period arrives, her mother speaks to her in a hush-hush tone. “It’s as if my mother wants me to hide from my father and brothers that I am menstruating. It makes me feel that something is wrong with me. The male members in my family automatically distance themselves from me, and I just feel so unwanted. I have tried speaking about this to my mother, but she just doesn’t understand. Her mother did this to her, and the cycle is repeating now.”

This situation exists all over India. According to news reports, a teenage girl reportedly died by suicide in Chennai a few years ago, after her female teacher period-shamed her in front of her class. There was another case, where in a government school in north India, more than 70 girls were asked to strip naked to find out who was menstruating. Unfortunately, these incidents instill a sense of fear within young girls, who associate their period with everything negative. 

“We raise our girls teaching them shame in a very systematic way, and it is important to realise that it has a detrimental impact on everything—the way they view their bodies, the way everyone else views their body, the way, and the way they view violation that happens on their bodies,” says Aditi Gupta, author and co-founder – Menstrupedia.

Period shaming also manifests as other things, like women not being able to raise their voices, says Aditi Gupta. Image courtesy: Instagram/themenstrualeducator

Period shaming teaches girls to be ashamed of their bodies. It manifests into various other things, for instance girls not being able to raise their voice. If she is not able to talk about a natural biological process, she begins to think it is her fault. So if she faces any violation, or someone eve teases her, she thinks it’s her fault.  It takes a lot of time to unlearn it. It starts from puberty, and I do not want to sugarcoat this behaviour of our society, because it affects the fabric of our society. You are raising girls with shame, and it’s not okay,” she adds. 

The negative consequences of period shaming

According to a 2016 analysis conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), only one in eight girls who participated had no restrictions at all during their periods. That’s alarming to say the least! There’s another study that revealed that 71 percent of adolescent girls in India are unaware of menstruation, until they get it themselves. 

Given the nature of how periods are viewed in our society, it is but natural that this kind of shaming is likely to cause long-term mental and physical consequences.

“You are not just affecting their mental health, you are crushing the self-confidence of a human being by constantly telling her how dirty and repulsive her body is. It has a detrimental effect on the girl’s performance,” says Aditi. 

“I have spoken to so many gynaecologists and doctors who have said that girls’ performance starts to decrease when they are on their period. Boys and girls are at par in everything they do, but girls start to lag behind during their period. Parents are often worried that their girls will drop off from sports, or they will have a flat body. Sometimes, it even affects where they are going to reach in life,” she says. 

Dr Narendra says that period shaming is also propagated by companies that make sanitary napkins. This is equally important to understand, so that you do not fall prey to these notions.

“There was a recent ad that spoke of infusing pads with essential herbal oils to take care of odour. They are internalising that shame, and internalising that idea that something is unhygienic about your period. It is a kind of deep-rooted self loathing that propagates the belief that you are impure for a few days every month,” she explains

Period shaming and myths reduce health care access, says Dr Tanaya Narendra. Image courtesy: Instagram/Dr_Cuterus
The last word

Period shaming is not just limited to women—it has far-reaching consequences for men as well. That’s why the first step is to talk about periods and throw away the veil of shame.

“Men who own building offices and workspaces do not have a separate toilet for women. We have all seen this film called Gunjan Saxena. It shows that we have the most innovative aircrafts, but there’s no separate toilet for women. All this is not just affecting women, we are raising insensitive men and robbing them of their empathy very early on,” says Aditi.

“This is by not even talking to them about periods, because it is shameful. We are not just doing disservice to one gender; it has a detrimental impact on boys.  Men also get perplexed on how to be around women and that also results in sexist jokes. That’s why they say it is difficult to understand women. Let’s remember periods are not shameful, but powerful,” she concludes.  

Geetika Sachdev Geetika Sachdev

An independent writer and journalist, Geetika loves sharp and fresh humour, just like her coffee! If not writing, you'll find her cafe-hopping and raiding the best book stores in town.