From what I remember of one particular teen magazine in the early aughts, there was a monthly column that comprised submissions from readers who recounted their most embarrassing, I-want-to-crawl-into-a-hole-and-live-there-for-all-of-eternity memories — the kind that comes screaming back in the middle of the night and robs you from any semblance of sleep. So many of them were about their periods: bleeding without any access to period products and resorting to tissues only to have them fall out, leaking while on a date or in front of a crush, ruining countless pairs of pants, or even fainting from painful cramps. Entertaining, yes, but these words were written with a quiet plea, tinged with shame. And as a reader, I devoured these voyeuristic glimpses into the most vulnerable parts of others’ lives, because it meant one thing: I’m not alone; we’re the same.
Even now, I can recall an embarrassing period story (or two, or three) with startling clarity — we all have that shared experience. But the fact that these memories are characterized as such only reinforces that menstruation has and continues to carry a stigma, which is why so many hide or avoid discussing their experience — which in turn, results in more dire outcomes.
“Stigma can hinder open and informed conversations about menstrual health,” says Dr. Joanne Armstrong, VP and chief medical officer for women’s health at CVS Health, who shared prime examples of the shame that persists today, like young menstruators hiding pads on the way to the bathroom in school, missing class because of cramps, or skipping sports practices because they don’t know how to manage their symptoms. “Unfortunately, due to stigma, inadequate education, and barriers to accessing menstrual products, many people are unable to meet their menstrual needs, and that leads to medical, social, and economic harm.”
First, it’s important to understand just how unfathomably expansive the number is: a staggering 500 million people across the world have difficulty affording or accessing menstrual products. And of the 16.9 million low-income women in the U.S., two out of three could not afford menstrual products in the previous year, and half of these women were put in a position to make the impossible decision between purchasing menstrual products or food. The fact that 21 states have a state sales tax on menstrual products feeds into the misconception that they’re not basic necessities, that they’re considered luxuries.
“This has lasting health consequences, with some studies showing that lack of menstrual education and limited access to menstrual products are associated with higher risk of infection and lower health quality of life,” says Dr. Armstrong, who cites a study in which 37% of Americans reported not being taught enough about menstruation in school; a 2023 survey from The Harris Poll and CVS Health found that two-thirds of people had never heard of the term “period poverty.” “There’s also a perception that menstrual health is not part of whole health — but there’s a direct correlation between reproductive health, total health, and societal status. Reproductive health is part of whole health, for people of all ages and backgrounds.”
A lack of education can affect broader health — the most significant one being the delay in diagnosis of menstrual-related conditions, like endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), incurring years of pain and medical costs.
From a big-picture perspective, the effects of “period poverty” are devastating, creating ripples in the fabric of society. “It also impacts women’s academic, social, and professional success. Nearly one in five girls have missed school due to an inability to obtain menstrual products,” Dr. Armstrong explains. “Missing school and work can exacerbate existing professional barriers for women and contribute to long-term economic disadvantage. Without paid leave, it can lead to a lost day of wages.”
While Dr. Armstrong has seen more of an open dialogue around menstruation in recent years, studies show that many still experience difficulties accessing period products and menstrual education — and the pandemic certainly didn’t help. It added to existing barriers to accessing period products, particularly for those who were already experiencing period poverty pre-pandemic.
The first step to achieving “period parity” — a term that Dr. Armstrong defines as “fair conditions for those who menstruate, ensuring that every individual has a just chance to have access to menstrual products, hygienic environments, adequate menstrual education, so that they can address their menstrual needs without stigma, economic barriers, or societal biases” — is as simple as talking openly about menstruation with families and loved ones.
“Though these conversations can feel uncomfortable, it’s important not to shy away from this natural part of health. People who don’t menstruate can also be a part of these conversations and help reduce stigma by learning what menstruating people experience,”continues Dr. Armstrong, who has helped CVS Health shape a string of incredible initiatives, like its 2023 “Buy One, Donate Two” program in which the retailer is donating one million period products to Feeding America; and last year, CVS Health reduced the cost of store-brand menstrual products by 25% or more, paid the menstrual tax on behalf of customers in states where legally allowed, worked with policy groups to eliminate sales tax on menstrual products, and increased access to menstrual care through new in-person and virtual MinuteClinic women's health services. Other new resources to note: CVS Health offers free period education online and sells First Period Boxes; and MinuteClinic services include evaluation of menstrual disorders, gynecological exams, preconception consultations, menopause treatment, anemia and osteoporosis screening, mental health counseling, and more.) “To build a better future for the next generation, we must see menstruation as part of holistic health, and ensure that they have the education and resources they need to address it properly.”
Watch the video below for more insight into menstrual education and menstrual equity with Dr. Marni Sommer, professor and author of A Girl’s Guide to Puberty and Periods.