When Refinery29 writes about periods, we typically use images that depict periods or period products alongside the article. They might be illustrated or conceptual or quite literal. No matter how many articles we run on the topic, though, I’m constantly reminded by how much stigma still exists around menstruation.
I’ve had people email and complain that a picture depicting menstruation is “disgusting.” I’ve read comments in which people describe being offended, or attempt to explain why it’s inappropriate to show such images. (And for the record: No, showing period blood is not the same thing as showing a picture of feces.) But, I’ve also read really beautiful, appreciative comments, written by people who understand the risks of period stigma, and are grateful for anyone trying to combat it.
The discomfort around menstruation-related images speaks to a larger discomfort many people still have around hearing or speaking about periods in general. But not being able to openly talk about menstruation and related symptoms isn’t just inconvenient or frustrating — it’s harmful. That’s partially because period stigma exists not just in social situations, it still exists in doctor’s offices, too.
In an exclusive interview with Refinery29, Culpo, who recently partnered with Midol for a campaign that aims to destigmatize periods and banish “period apologies,” elaborated on how her doctors told her that her symptoms were normal — and how that made her feel guilty and ashamed, which likely delayed her eventual diagnosis of endometriosis even more. “I had my symptoms since I was 12 or 13, and they were really bad, but I was constantly told that they were normal. And it's really crazy to reflect on it, because not only were my symptoms not taken seriously, but they were completely disregarded,” she describes. “I didn't want to push because I didn't want to feel different, because I was already made to feel shame and guilt.”
Being told pain or other symptoms are “normal” — especially by a doctor — can make someone feel like it’s their fault they’re struggling. Rather than reach out for help, they might be more likely to try to cope on their own. “Anytime we are uncomfortable with a normal bodily function, we are even more uncomfortable discussing when those functions don’t properly work. People who bleed through clothes or have debilitating cramps (missing work or school) may not feel comfortable talking about how this is affecting their daily life,” explains Heather Bartos, MD, an OB/GYN based in Texas.
When it comes to endometriosis, embarrassment, guilt, or shame around symptoms can “prolong diagnosis for months, for years. The average endometriosis diagnosis is over 10 years. It’s also a very, very common story for women to have waited too long and for it to affect their fertility,” Culpo says.
The influencer remembers apologizing for her period a lot. She apologized for canceling plans when her endometriosis symptoms were too intense to go out; she also apologized to doctors. “I spent a lot of time apologizing to my doctors in their offices, when I was bawling my eyes out, crying so hard,” she says.
One reason Culpo is so sure that normalizing talking about periods can make a difference in people’s health is because it happened for her. She admits that at first, she felt uncomfortable bringing up her period symptoms with her mother. “It wasn't that my mom didn't care, it was that she didn't grow up in an environment where [talking about periods] was accepted as normal. And that's not her fault,” Culpo says. Her older sister, however, helped the whole family become more comfortable talking about periods. “I have to give my older sister credit because I still remember when she screamed downstairs, ‘Somebody get me a tampon!’ in front of the whole house,” Culpo says. Eventually, she adds, her own periods became so painful that she had to talk about them — and the more she did, the more comfortable she became with having those conversations.
Culpo hopes to demonstrate through her own actions that it’s okay to talk about periods and period symptoms to everyone — your family, your partner, your friends. While she says there are some symptoms she still isn’t comfortable revealing to her followers, she believes that any conversation about periods is enough to make a difference.
It’s that same rationale that also explains why we won’t stop running period-related images anytime soon. Menstruation is a fact of life for many people — and trying to pretend it doesn’t exist or “prettying it up” with euphemistic language or photos (blue period liquid, anyone?) only feeds into a sense of guilt, embarrassment, or shame that can keep people from reaching out when they need help. If it makes you uncomfortable, the feeling will pass in a minute. But period stigma can leave people in pain for years.