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The secrecy of . . . periods

Discussion around menstruation is often negative, leaving girls to begin their cycle under a shroud of secrecy

Despite being an overtly natural aspect of life, negative cultural interpretations of periods have contributed to a shame cycle as people do not feel comfortable talking about menstruation. Emphasising why periods remain taboo, secret and silent, these attitudes wrongly showcase women’s bodies as weak, flawed and damaged with pain, discomfort and irritability being a primary focus for conversations, if discussed at all.

Sinéad Brophy, a women’s wellbeing and menstrual cycle coach with Go With the Flow Coaching agrees that communication about menstruation, like other taboo topics, is culturally constricted.

She says there are four main contributing factors to the taboo and silence around menstruation. These include the current narrative and perspective of women’s and reproductive health in our society, the lack of education around reproductive health, not having the language to have honest and supportive conversations and the lack of access to free or affordable period products.

“We have been brought up in a culture that views periods and reproductive health as shameful, as something to not be spoken about and as something that only women speak about or have to deal with, which is simply not true,” says Brophy. “We internalise this patriarchal approach to our reproductive health by using slang language to discuss menstruation such as Aunt Flo, The Time of the Month, On the Rag, Riding the Crimson Wave and trivialising the negative symptoms that some of us have to deal with. Even the assumption that only women menstruate and that all women menstruate is hugely problematic in itself.”


Brophy clarifies that there is “a dearth of understanding of how menstruation works, how it impacts us and what is considered normal or healthy”.

The discussion of menstruation repeatedly leans toward the negative, meaning girls begin their menstrual cycle under a shroud of secrecy as a result of embarrassment, body shaming, self-shaming, stereotyping of “menstrual moaning” and a lack of understanding. A key finding of a survey conducted by Plan Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel in 2018 identified that 61 per cent of girls surveyed had missed school as a direct result of their period and 88 per cent felt less able to pay attention during class, while 55 per cent felt embarrassed by their periods.

Brophy is mindful of the fact that the negative discussions are widespread and often difficult to shift to a positive and empowering conversation. “It was only when I started to educate myself on how incredible our bodies are that my perspective shifted,” she says. “I now view our bodies as magical and strong. Our bodies can change and transform to bring life into this world (whether we choose to or not) and, for menstruation, give us a monthly reminder of what is going on with our health and wellbeing.”

The menstrual cycle is referred to as the fifth vital sign by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Once we get to know it intimately, it can become our monthly report card to see how well we have been nourishing our bodies, managing our training load and stress,” says Brophy. “It’s also a monthly reminder to hit pause, prioritise yourself and stop carrying the burden of the unseen work that women often take on in society.”

Women have long been told that period pain is normal and to get on with it. There is a stigma in complaining about period pain which complicates the understanding of what is “normal” and when a person should get help.

“Since the topic of periods is often avoided in conversations altogether, there is a lack of understanding about when menstrual symptoms require medical attention,” says Fiona Healy, a women’s health physiotherapist with the Bump Room. “Fibroids and endometriosis are two commonly missed conditions due in part to the painful symptoms that have been normalised as part of periods. It can take women an average of seven years to get a diagnosis of endometriosis.”

Healy emphasises that period pain should not be severe. “Women should speak to their doctor if they’re experiencing pain which is affecting their day-to-day life,” she advises. “For example, if they can’t go to school or work or take part in day-to-day activities that they enjoy. Severe period pain should be checked by a doctor first to out rule any underlying condition such as endometriosis.”

Research has shown that physiotherapy can play a vital role in relieving menstrual pain, providing a number of solutions that minimise and eliminate many of the pain-related symptoms. “Many women benefit from the use of stretching techniques that target the low-back and abdominal muscles,” says Healy.

“In addition, contract-and-relax techniques can be used to increase blood flow to muscles and help reduce tension. Physiotherapists also use breathing exercises to reduce the pain of menstrual cramps and can recommend exercises that promote the reduction of pain. Endorphins have pain-relieving effects and have been shown to increase a woman’s sense of wellness and elevate her energy and mood.”

While there has recently been a big shift in the narrative around reproductive health, more can always be done as stigmatised narratives are deeply embedded in society. “We can take responsibility for making the topic of periods socially acceptable by educating ourselves about periods, the menstrual cycle and reproductive health,” says Brophy. “We can do this not only for ourselves but to support the younger generations.”

The consequences of period stigma are far reaching and severe with women’s health heavily complicated and challenged with negative impacts on their education, wellbeing and quality of life. Invisible reproductive illnesses such as heavy or painful periods, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome and infertility have also remained silent and secret as those affected by these experiences are not provided with the effective support they need.

“Government and national campaigns such as the Menopause Awareness Campaign and calls for the Government to provide free access to period products have shown that it is normal and healthy to discuss and prioritise our reproductive health,” says Brophy. “More people are coming out and sharing their stories and normalising the conversation from athletes like Dina Asher-Smith and golfer Lydia Ko discussing their periods in their sports to women like Lisa de Jong speaking about their endometriosis care in Ireland. Women and people who menstruate are speaking up and campaigning for their rights.”

Breaking this taboo means including substantial education about reproductive health, with a focus on the menstrual cycle, as part of the school curriculum for all students. The dialogue of periods needs to become an everyday conversation without conflict, embarrassment or awkward discussions. It also means shifting the focus away from the negative to empowerment.

“In an ideal world, all people who menstruate would have access to the period products they need, have access to the emotional and physical support and care that they need and not feel like they have to hide their lived experiences,” says Brophy. “In an ideal world, all people would understand how female reproductive health works so that everyone can feel included in the conversation to change the landscape of our society. By breaking down the taboos that surround menstruation, we can help make this ideal our reality.”

Contact your GP if . . .

  • If your periods suddenly become irregular and you’re under 45.
  • If you have periods more often than every 21 days or less often than every 35 days.
  • If your periods last longer than seven days.
  • If there is a big difference (at least 20 days) between your shortest and longest menstrual cycle.
  • If you have irregular periods and you’re struggling to get pregnant.
  • If you have severe period pain.
  • If your normal pattern of periods changes.
  • If your periods become heavier than usual or irregular.
  • If you have bleeding between periods or after having sex.
Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family