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Here's why our periods are stigmatized — and how we can change it

Here's why menstrual cycles are still stigmatized and how some companies are working to help women celebrate their cycle.
Ways for women rejoice having their periods
Bee Johnson / For TODAY
/ Source: TMRW

People celebrate when a baby is born, and yet most of society shames and stigmatizes the very thing that enables human beings to come into existence: a woman's menstrual cycle.

Why are young girls often embarrassed about their first period? Why are women groomed to apologize for "PMS," rather than embracing the emotional waves that can come as our bodies prepare to create new life? Why does bleeding through your clothes, which has probably happened to every woman on earth during her reproductive years, still feel absolutely mortifying?

Menstrual taboos exist throughout most religions and countries — restricting women from working, cooking, having sex, bathing, worshipping, eating certain foods and even being buried for fear of impurity, according to the Journal of Environmental and Public Health.

Why do women need to feel embarrassed about their periods? Maybe it's time to embrace menstrual cycles.Getty Images/Refinery29 RF

I first began to shed the negative image of my menstrual cycle in 2015 when I naturally gave birth to my first child and experienced firsthand how mindblowingly powerful a woman's body is. Two years later, while devouring a copy of Lisa Lister's book "Witch," I read this striking line:

"You bleed for five days and don't die: Don't tell me that doesn't make you a superhero."

Just let that sink in a minute.

Lister, a psychotherapeutic coach and menstrual awareness practitioner (among many other things), authored "Code Red" and "Love Your Lady Landscape" to educate and encourage women to embrace and heal their relationships with their own bodies.

To better understand how society cultivated the negative idea of periods and learn how to take charge and celebrate our menstrual cycles moving forward, I got into the nitty-gritty in a conversation with Lister.

TMRW: How have medical practices, education and advertising stigmatized "that time of the month?"

Lisa Lister: Women's health is one of the most under-resourced, under-researched spaces in the medical profession, and so period pain, irregular periods, heavy bleeds are often dismissed or seen as something that women simply need to "get on with" and "put up with."

For so long now, advertising for menstrual products has shown the blood as blue — suggesting a need to sanitize the act of bleeding. While that's slowly changing now, Tampax adverts have recently called our time of the month "mother nature's curse." We've seen advertising suggest that our life shouldn't stop when we bleed and, in fact, we can ride bikes, roller skate backwards wearing white jeans, there's nothing we can't do when we're bleeding.

And of course it's true; our life doesn't have to stop. But suggesting we should "keep going" regardless and pretending like our period is not happening doesn't honor the reason we actually do bleed, which is to restore and replenish our energy. It's a time to slow down and release — the encouragement to "keep going" is a very linear, straight-line approach to what is a cyclic process.

Tracking a woman's cycle can be freeing and empowering, according to Lisa Lister.Getty Images

What are steps we as people who menstruate can take to change the perspective that periods are something to be ashamed of and embarrassed by?

I'm a huge advocate of tracking your cycle. It's why I've created both "Code Red" and "The Red Journal" (which will be released Dec. 29). Because our menstrual cycle isn't just the days that we bleed, it's an entire month-long cycle in which we experience different moods, emotions and energy levels as our hormones rise and fall. Knowing where you are in your cycle on any given day helps you understand why you may act, feel and be a certain way.

For example, in the first half of our cycle (which begins after we finish a period), days 1 through 14, energy levels are rising. In the second half of the cycle, day 14 through to the day you bleed, they fall. So when we know our cycle, we know ourselves better and when we know ourselves better, we realize that we have cyclic superpowers and that we're not supposed to be linear and goal-orientated.

Like the moon, we ebb and flow. And when we realize this, we recognize there's nothing to be embarrassed about or shamed by. Instead you create a sense of strong self-knowing and self-power.

In "Code Red," my husband writes about why our relationship is as strong is as it is, and it's because we both know my cycle. In fact, he's created a two-page guide for the men in your life in the book where he writes about what to expect from each of the four different phases we experience each month with a few dos and don'ts for each phase.

When we talk about how it is for us, the products we use, how we feel with each other, with our partners, with our children, on social media, we break the stigma that it's "icky." We feel much less crazy than we've been led to believe we are. Most importantly, we recognize it as a something we should never be embarrassed by.

What women and companies are doing right now to help empower women, their bodies and menstrual health

Tracking our periods, talking with our partners and creating candid dialogue about our menstrual cycles are integral to the process, but is it enough to shift the mainstream perspective?

According to Carolyn Witte, CEO and co-founder of Tia, a women's health care platform and membership program that integrates primary care, OB-GYN and mental health into one model, there is still a lot of work ahead of us.

"However I do think the tide is turning, and a lot of this is thanks to brave women who have broken stereotypes and cultural taboos — from the singer Kiran Ghandi running the 2015 London marathon while freely menstruating to poet Rupi Kaur challenging Instagram’s standard by posting a picture of herself on her period," Witte told TMRW. "Beyond individuals, it's also the responsibility of companies like Tia to make menstrual health education an important part of their public message."

Here are more companies working to empower women, their bodies, power and period care:

LOOM

Launching this winter, LOOM is creating an online education platform to help women and their bodies thrive. "Weaving together inclusivity, empathy and science, LOOM’s mission is to offer empowered education on everything from periods and sex to pregnancy and menopause," the company's site reads.

Diva Cup

Diva Cup's period kit was created to help first-timers feel comfortable and confident with menstruating.Jason Hartog Photography / Diva Period Kit

Diva Cup created a First Period Kit with all the goodies to help young women enter this beautiful phase of life confidently and comfortably. The kits, which can be ordered online, include a booklet about menstrual education, the menstrual cup (an eco-friendly alternative to one-time-use products that lasts up to 10 years when washed properly), wipes, wash and even some gear to wear the #innerrevolution with pride. The company also created Diva Cares to support menstrual education, advocacy and access to girls globally.

Saalt

Saalt menstrual cups cut back on environmental waste.Natalja E. Kent / Saalt

A woman-owned, B-certified (companies that balance purpose and profit) corporation, Saalt works to simplify sustainable period care, empower women and help end "menstrual shame." Two percent of Saalt's revenue is donated to improve care, education and sustainable period practices in the U.S. and globally, so when you switch to a menstrual cup, you're helping girls and women around the world. The brand also just launched its first-ever line of period panties to let you flow freely without bleeding through your bottoms.

Thinx

Thinx underwear creates leak-proof underwear for all shapes, sizes and flows for an average of $39 per pair. The reusable, washable undies, from sexy high-rise to comfy, full-coverage boxer briefs, cut down on waste and make life easier for women while they're menstruating, during postpartum bleeding and for those who have bladder leakage. Thinx recently partnered with The Boys and Girls Club of America for cart donations and will be giving 15,000 pairs of period underwear to chapters around the country.

The Period Company

This new company, which recently got rave reviews from Busy Phillips on Instagram (which she clarified she was not paid for), is making leak-proof, reusable period panties that are as affordable as a box of tampons. Bikinis, boxers and boy shorts are all $12 each with the most expensive pair, for overnight, at just $14.

Athena Club Period Care

Get a membership for go-to period care from a company that gives back.Athena Club

Female-founded, organic and made in the U.S., Athena's period care line of chlorine-free, unscented tampons, pads and menstrual cups can be ordered via subscription to ensure you're always fully stocked with whatever you need. Since the pandemic, the founders donated one million period products to a nonprofit called PERIOD, which hands out women's health items out to community centers, homeless shelters and women in need across the country.

Ami Wellness

Relieve cramps and pre-menstrual discomfort with this holistic tincture.Michael J. Mitchell / Ami Wellness

This holistic company uses ancient Chinese medication to create tinctures focused on women's top needs, including soothing cramps or helping during the pre-menstrual portion of a woman's cycle. Ami Wellness recently collaborated with Saalt and other companies to create a "Go With the Flo" period kit to enjoy or gift to someone else for that special time of their cycle.

“We’re excited to build on our mission by taking a holistic approach to filling the gap in wellness for women,” said Ami Wellness founder Triniti Gawthrop. “Women need all natural reproductive health options, women deserve to have options, and those options should increase quality of life."