I recently felt challenged to condense my thoughts regarding my experiences with menstruation and taboo in Caribbean society. I don’t think it’s completely necessary to frequent fliers here but I will add the disclaimer that the experience that frames my experiences and observations about menstruation in the Caribbean are the experiences of a cisgender Caribbean woman and I’m applying my knowledge of black feminism and black feminist thought to how I view the subject.
Like most things considered to be “feminine” in the Caribbean, menstruation faces heavy stigma within our culture. There is both shame and pride surrounding the first menstrual cycle. Shame is one of the first lessons that we are taught about menstruation and it’s a lesson sowed so deep that the shame becomes instinct — and therefore, goes unquestioned. This root of this shame is a socially backed feeling that during menstruation, your body is disgusting and repulsive.
There is also shame surrounding your choices for handling menstruation, perpetuated by parents, peers, and educators. For the majority of Caribbean people who menstruate, it’s far more common to use menstrual pads than tampons due to this shame. Menstrual pads are considered to be “appropriate” for people who have not had sex whereas tampons are seen as “inappropriate”. This has the effect of sexualizing children considering the average age of the onset of menstruation is 12. There is nothing “inappropriate” (in reality) about a 12-year-old using a tampon; their vagina is not a vessel for sexual activity and treating it as such leads to shame surrounding the entire menstrual process.
Even as a child, I was cognizant of this, although my awareness might not have been conscious. I was aware however that tampons were all but forbidden and it would have been deviating from expectations to wear them.
This can actually carry damage to a child’s psyche as they approach adulthood. For people who menstruate who are nonbinary or transgender, I can image the damage is even deeper due to the unexamined transphobia embedded in our post-colonial society. For cisgender people who menstruate, the damage might include feeling anxiety about deviating from using pads or carrying other beliefs of humiliation surrounding their bodies that are unshakeable despite technical knowledge of the “facts” about menstruation.
What informs this seemingly harmless cultural preference of pads vs. tampons is nothing positive and the stigma against tampons is steeped in patriarchal assumptions about virginity and sexuality. To be blunt: people believe that tampons damage your sexual purity. Some people might deny it and claim that it’s preposterous but it’s the truth of the majority of our society.
Largely, the discomfort around tampons has to do with how “improper” it is to insert anything into your vagina. Now this is ridiculous on a number of levels but namely, there is nothing sexual about menstruation regardless of your age and there is certainly nothing sexual about a two-inch tampon.
A “lack of education” doesn’t explain it all away because it isn’t simply education. The expected shame surrounded menstruation is rooted in misogyny. And the lack of education simply feeds into this misogyny. However, they are separate entities that feed off of one another to inform our culture’s attitudes on the human body.
Shame about menstruation doesn’t just apply to your choice between menstrual pads and tampons. (Note: There are other options for menstrual management but I’ll get to this at the end.) Through each menstrual cycle, a healthy amount of shame is required to ensure you keep your menstruation a “secret”.
There is a high value placed on keeping menstruation hidden from people. Just keeping periods from cis-men isn’t the limit to the stigma. For the two years I attended secondary school here, teachers and administrators placed great emphasis on being “discreet”. Even in an all girls school, there was still supposed to be a significant shame attached to menstruation and it had to be kept a secret. This isn’t about menstruation being disgusting in that example… There’s nothing disgusting about going to the bathroom with an unused pad to change your own. This is about how our culture perpetuates patriarchal beliefs about our bodies; even educators are in full agreement that patriarchy is correct and doesn’t deserve questioning. It is a way of forcing us to stay “in our place”.
Now, there’s an argument (albeit a weak and unnuanced one) to be made about this “shame” surrounding menstruation being related to the fact that menstruation is “dirty” or “private”. I do believe that certain amount of privacy makes practical sense when it comes to menstruation but the level of shame expected and propagated goes beyond privacy and protecting young people who are experiencing their first menstrual cycles as well as the uncertainty that goes along with it. Menstrual blood is not actually dirty and much of the stigma surrounding menstruation is not based on scientific fact but patriarchal mythology intended to shroud a body’s natural process in humiliation and discomfort.
A big part of the culture surrounding menstruation revolves around keeping menstruation a “secret” from cis men as I mentioned before. Tampons and menstrual pads must be obscured. The realities of menstruation are hidden (and often times, not even really understood) and menstruation becomes something “disgusting” and something deserving of mockery. This comes from the fact that schools and families are both unaware of the scientific truth behind menstruation and our patriarchal culture requires cis men remain protected from the realities of “the feminine” as it is repulsive and to be avoided at best, despised at worst.
My first academic encounter with menstruation in primary school in St. Lucia involved the girls in the class being separated from the boys to learn the truth because the boys would laugh? Because they didn’t want to make the girls ashamed? But the only reason for either of those things to occur in reality would be because of the teachers.
Teachers and educators set the tone for what is acceptable in a school environment — not nine-year-olds. Education surrounding menstruation should not be gender specific. For this to be the case is transphobic and it’s sexist. Every person alive should know how the human body functions. Othering bodies of those who menstruate serves no practical purpose in our society.
Another facet to the poor education surrounding menstruation includes poor education about complications surrounding menstruation which are actually quite common. Conditions like endometriosis (affects in 1 in 10 people who menstruate), Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (affects 1 in 10-15 people who menstruate) as well as PMDD (3-8% of people who menstruate) affect many people yet these common disorders are not included in a comprehensive education regarding menstruation. Combatting stigma comes first with a comprehensive education based in reality, not myth or pseudoscience.
The ways mainstream feminism chooses to combat this stigma is incongruent with Caribbean culture. Largely, the stigma surrounding menstruation is discussed from a first world white American ciswoman’s perspective. Combating the stigma doesn’t take into account the specific ways misogyny is enacted in the Caribbean. It doesn’t take into account the religious fundamentalism that’s widespread in the Caribbean and how that might affect attempts to eliminate the stigma surrounding menstruation. It doesn’t take into account that the shame surrounding menstruation runs so deep that transitioning to complete comfort with the subject of menstruation will not happen overnight and might make the target audience (people who menstruate) less accommodated by a movement to de-stigmatize.
When people are not properly educated about menstruation from an early age, there is room for patriarchal culture’s myths and pseudoscience to take the place of scientific facts. Removing stigma is not about shocking the population into blindly accepting “okay periods are fine now, I guess”.
We can remove uneducated beliefs with factual evidence and ensure that we talk about menstruation casually (not necessarily crassly) like we do any other facet of life.
The Caribbean does have an advantage here where we understand that women should be able to breastfeed publicly (and this has never been up for debate). We do tend to have open conversations amongst our family members regarding the sometimes unpleasant truths surrounding our own menstrual cycles. However, this is not culturally widespread enough for there to be no room for positive change.
Going forward, I think what the average person can do is:
– Educate themselves about menstruation from reliable sources (Google it.)
– Speak candidly to their children or the children they’re responsible for regarding menstruation.
– Educators and those involved in education can work towards changing their classroom environments to be more accommodating towards people who are menstruating, setting the example that menstruation is not shameful or disgusting, but a natural process.
– Communities can work together towards providing free tampons, pads or menstrual cups to people in need.
My mention of menstrual cups here brings me to my final point. In a previous post, I wrote about my foray into using menstrual cups and all the benefits associated with them. Now, menstrual cups are not for everybody but they do provide an option for managing menstruation that is simple, sanitary and doesn’t require multiple changes throughout the day. A push to increase the usage of menstrual cups in the Caribbean and provide free menstrual cups — especially in communities where buying tampons and pads might be too costly — would be positive for the people of our region. You can check out my previous post for a more in-depth explanation why.
Overall, we have a lot of work to do with removing the stigma surrounding menstruation. We do not have to do this the way mainstream feminism dictates; rather we can fit our solution to our culture. Honest conversations, practical discussions and individual changes in our mindset are a good place to start followed promptly by organized community action.
P.P.S. Check out my Caribbean Voices interview last week with Tennille from Trinidad and Tobago. Click here to read more.