“I was really scared that my menstrual blood would seep out in front of all the passengers.”
—— Wang Yanan, 20-year-old.
Wang Yanan was using the washroom on a high-speed train when she suddenly realized she had started her period. Without any sanitary pads on hand, Wang frantically searched the small toilet but couldn't find any menstrual products.
Eventually, Wang had to use the toilet tissues for simple treatment and exited the washroom cautiously, fearing that the paper might fall off.
With several couples of eyes staring at her strangely, Wang trudged down the aisle and eventually located the train attendant, who was pushing a cart of products for sale. However, the attendant told her there were no menstrual products available.
Throughout the remainder of the journey, Wang had to frequently visit the washroom to change the toilet paper and prevent any leakage.
“I still feel stifled every time I recall this experience… I wonder why there are still no menstrual products in public facilities' toilets,” said Wang.
Out of the 18 railway bureaus in China, only a handful have made strides towards addressing the issue of menstrual hygiene. Reports available online indicate that the Chengdu, Kunming, and Shanghai Railway Bureaus have taken steps to provide menstrual products to passengers on select train lines. However, it remains unclear whether the remaining 15 railway bureaus have followed suit.
The absence of menstrual products in public facilities has been a topic of ongoing discussion in China. Unfortunately, when women spoke out about their need for menstrual products – even if they were just asking for the sale of pads rather than free provision, as in some other countries – some people responded with outrage, going to great lengths to rationalize the absence of menstrual products in public facilities. They stigmatized the period products as something “unpresentable,” criticized females’ requests as “childish adult behaviors”, and accused females of “being spoiled.”
As the voices demanding public menstrual products from females grow louder and louder, period stigma, an issue that has long been swept under the carpet in Chinese society, has finally been closer than ever to becoming a public agenda.
Stigmatization of menstruation
dates back centuries
Menstruation is undeniably one of the most natural bodily functions. However, it inexplicably bears a certain degree of stigma. This stigma is evident in the prejudice that some individuals hold against menstruation, as well as the widespread occurrence of period shaming experienced by countless females. Period shaming refers to the negative emotions, such as shame or embarrassment, that females can endure due to their menstrual cycles.
The roots of period stigma can be traced back centuries. For instance, in the Quran, a fundamental Islamic scripture dating back 14 centuries, there is a directive for people to “go apart from women during the monthly course, do not approach them until they are clean”.
Similar discourse can also be found in Europe. The Bible states that a woman is considered "unclean" during her menstrual impurity, and whoever touches shall be unclean and shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until evening”.
Time goes by, and while humans have made significant scientific progress to understand menstruation, outdated attitudes towards it persist. Globally, people use coded language to talk about menstruation, such as "Aunt Flow," "on the rag," and "Bloody Mary" in Western cultures, and "大姨妈 (Aunt Flow)," "那个 (That time)," and "亲戚 (Relative)" in China.
According to Menstrual Perceptions and Status Report 2022 by Tencent, which provides statistics on the use of various terms for menstruation and sanitary pads, the most commonly used code name for menstruation in China is "大姨妈" (Aunt Flow).
SITUATION AMONG YOUTH:
Do generation Z
experience period shaming?
“I was completely taken aback when I saw someone walking out of the convenience store with a pack of sanitary pads in hand. She didn't seem embarrassed at all, even though people were staring at her! It made me question why I felt so surprised.”
—— Beata Mo, 21-year-old.
Mo has experienced period shaming since she started menstruating. She would use code names like “Aunt Flow” to refer to her period. When she suffered period pain sometimes, she would simply say “stomachache” to avoid talking about it. This even led to her taking the wrong kind of medicine.
Moreover, Mo would avoid buying pads or tampons in shops to avoid being seen. Instead, she would purchase in bulk online.
"If I suddenly found I had my period, I would carry my backpack or ask for a non-transparent plastic bag to purchase pads," said Mo, adding that perhaps that is why she was so surprised to see the girl walking straightly out of the store with a pack of pads in plain sight.
Mo's experience led us to wonder if period shaming is a common phenomenon among youth in China. To find out, we conducted a survey targeting people aged 13 to 25, collecting a total of 138 questionnaires, 104 from females and 34 from males. The questions were tailored based on the respondents' sex.
The survey results show that Mo is not alone. Girls aged 13 to 18 and 19 to 25 exhibit different levels of period shaming, with the former age group experiencing more serious levels of stigma.
It is worth noting that the majority of female respondents aged 13 to 18 were in junior or senior high school, whereas those over 19 had at least a university degree. This suggests a negative correlation between education level and the level of period shaming experienced.
Furthermore, the survey results suggest that period shaming also reflects on whether or not females would talk to the opposite sex about their period.
It was found that girls are much more likely to discuss menstruation with other females than with males. While this may be due to the fact that females have more knowledge about menstruation and can relate to the experience, it is not normal for girls to never or rarely talk about periods with males.
In fact, 43.3% of girls surveyed reported never mentioning periods with male family members, and 40.4% never mentioning it with male friends. This shame around discussing periods with men may contribute to why some men have limited knowledge and even prejudices about menstruation.
The Menstrual Perceptions and Status Report 2022 indicates that 19.2% of females have experienced discrimination or teasing related to their periods during adolescence. More than half of these incidents were reported to come from male friends, classmates, or colleagues.
A 20-year-old boy named Li He admitted to laughing at a girl when her pad accidentally fell out of her bag while she was taking out her books.
When asked how many pads a female would need on average for one period, he was uncertain and guessed "one". He also did not know how many days a typical period lasts.
"I didn't mean to laugh at her, but everyone else started laughing when the pad fell out, and somehow I also thought that was funny."
—— Li He
CAUSES & IMPACTS:
Why do people have period shaming and what are the impacts?
The lack of sex education
The root cause of period shaming in China can be attributed to the lack of sex education in the country.
According to Education for Children in Rural Areas Research Report 2018 by Rural Women Development Foundation Guangdong and Peking University School of Public Health, less than 30% of students have received systematic sex education. This lack of education on menstruation and sexual health creates a barrier for adolescents and can have long-term impacts on their lives.
To combat this issue, PeriodPride, the first social innovation non-governmental organisation focused on Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) in mainland China, was founded in 2020. Their mission is to promote sex education in rural areas and donate menstrual products to girls in need.
"In rural schools, and many girls did not understand what it meant to have menstruation."
—— Eve Luo Yun, Co-founder of PeriodPride
“We found that there was a taboo attitude towards sex among both teachers and students in rural schools, and many girls did not understand what it meant to have menstruation,” said Eve Luo Yun, Co-founder of PeriodPride and Master of Philosophy at Beijing Normal University. “We offered them some special classes to spread necessary knowledge about sex and put up posters in both the boys' and girls' toilets to reduce shame around menstruation.”
Our survey revealed that respondents with less knowledge about menstruation are more likely to experience negative feelings such as shame and fear when they have their first period.
On the other hand, those who have received comprehensive sex education and have a good understanding of menstruation are more likely to view their first period as a symbol of growth and feel happier about it.
A larger proportion of the respondents are totally ignorant or only have little knowledge about menstruation before their menarche.
Social norms and traditional values
In China, period shaming is exacerbated by social norms and traditional values that prioritize sons over daughters. This patriarchal society has historically neglected and disrespected women's needs, contributing to the stigma surrounding menstruation.
"I feel a sense of rebellion when I speak openly about menstruation."
—— Eve Luo Yun, Co-founder of PeriodPride
“The shame surrounding periods and other topics related to sex is deeply ingrained in our culture, dating back thousands of years. Although the invention of menstrual pads has to some extent alleviated period stigma, it still affects the way we think,” said Luo. “I feel a sense of rebellion when I speak openly about menstruation.”
According to Chun-yan's book Coming out of the Taboo: Menstrual Period Hygiene of Women in Modern China (1895-1949) traditional Chinese values view menstruation as an ominous filth that can result in various negative consequences. The association of menstruation with sexual organs, which is considered taboo in Chinese culture, further contributes to the stigma surrounding menstrual discourse.
Period shaming can have significant negative impacts on women's physical and mental health, affecting their overall well-being and quality of life. However, its effects can also extend beyond the individual level.
In China, society often neglects females' basic needs for their periods. For instance, it is challenging to find pads for sale on public transportation, as mentioned earlier. This lack of accessibility can be a significant issue for females, as their periods can come unexpectedly during a long train ride or other forms of travel.
“It’s just like a vicious circle: females don't feel comfortable voicing their needs in public spaces due to period shaming. As a result, the male-dominated society cannot understand and cater to their needs, leading to a lack of menstrual products in public facilities. Conversely, the lack of these necessary menstrual products reinforces the social taboo on periods and increases females' feelings of shame,” analyzed Luo Yun.
PERIOD WITHOUT SHAME:
What efforts have been made to eliminate period shaming?
In recent years, more and more females choose to speak out and take action to break free from the shackles of period shaming. In 2020, a menstrual pad revolution swept through 378 universities across China, aiming to put an end to period shaming. This movement received significant positive media coverage, making menstruation a more visible topic in the public sphere.
PeriodPride has also been actively organizing educational activities, such as a menstruation-related drama called Menstruation Human Library, to increase public understanding of menstruation and reduce period stigma and shaming.
Despite these efforts by various parties, the phenomenon of period shaming and the social incentives behind it have not been completely eliminated. China remains a patriarchal society dominated by males, which presents numerous obstacles for females trying to resist and struggle against period shaming.
The Menstrual Perceptions and Status Report 2022 reveals that most female respondents think they do not receive enough support from the society during menstruation and most hope to receive understanding from their parters. Many also hope there can be provision of sanitary products in public places.
However, a bleak future should not be a reason for females to remain silent and endure period shaming. Rather, it should be a call to action for all females to unite and work together towards a better tomorrow.
“I believe that one day, menstruation will no longer be regarded as shameful or in need of special treatment. It will finally become a normal and accepted aspect of life, which is also our organisation's ultimate goal,” said Luo Yun.
*Survey created by Luo Yueming, Mo Chengqi and Li Jingqi. Guided by Bess Wang.
Special thanks to Kang Yixi, Shum Chung-po.