I was in my second year of business school and I had been training for the 2015 London Marathon for a year. When I approached the starting line, I knew that I was going to get my period at some point, but I didn’t know I would get it right then. Like many women who have been caught on their cycles unprepared, I started evaluating my options.
I could have used a pad, but chafing is a problem for all marathoners, and I didn’t want to hurt myself. Tampons were another option, but I didn’t want to have to run 26 miles while holding a backup tampon, ready to change it at any moment.
These options seemed so uncomfortable. To me, it made far more sense to do the race without any foreign objects in my body, take some Midol and just run. While I didn’t think this would be such a big deal, as I started to run, I realized it was. I realized that, while I had the freedom to reject my own shame that day, millions of people who menstruate around the world do not because of the stigma still associated with periods.
Stigma is one of the most effective forms of oppression because it denies us the vocabulary to talk comfortably and confidently about our own bodies.
Because menstruation is not seen as a life-or-death issue, combatting the stigma is often disregarded as a low priority in the global fight for gender equality. However, it is important to recognize that, unlike many issues facing women around the world today, this is a problem that can actually be solved within our lifetime. I believe there are four levers that we can pull, depending on each of our spheres of influence, to create the change we want to see.
Subscribe to the Motto newsletter for advice worth sharing.
1. Activism: Shake things up. Sometimes we have to shock society into re-evaluating its problematic norms. Protests and petitions are great options. The arts also have a history of inspiring change, largely because they live in a seemingly non-threatening place: fantasy and the intangible. Because of this very reason, art has the potential to shape a future vision of the world we could live in, thereby challenging daily norms in our subconscious. If acting radically to effect change isn’t for you, think about the artists or the movements that could use support in your community instead, and offer a helping hand.
2. Education: Access to education directly combats stigma because, when something as normal as a period is something that is understood by everyone, it becomes difficult for people of any gender to treat it with disgust. Furthermore, being informed about how the female reproductive cycle works generates empathy and makes it easier for everyone to reject shame together. Examples of leaders who are creating access to education include the media, teachers, doctors, NGOs, parents and others.
3. Policy change: As period-related issues gain more attention, it becomes easier for policymakers to focus on them. When the masses care about an issue, policymakers are forced to care about an issue. A great example of this is governments removing the luxury tax on tampons.
4. Innovation: Having an open dialogue about periods makes it easier for us to talk about our bodies and thus for innovators to come in and build better solutions. We get a new iPhone nearly every six months, but in the last 500 years, there have only been three solutions when it comes to women’s periods: Tampons, pads and cups. While these are functioning solutions, there are still problems with them—like access, price, comfort level and their impact on the environment.
While menstrual practices vary across different cultures, menstrual stigma is the global common thread. The menstrual cycle is the bedrock of the human race. Without it we wouldn’t exist. If we want to make the world a better place, we have to start combatting taboo now—and, in the process, make it easier for women and girls to access their fullest potential. The good news is that this is something we can actually win within our lifetime. The future is female.
Kiran Gandhi is a Los Angeles-based drummer who ran the 2015 London Marathon bleeding freely to combat period stigma.