"My period started last night, so I'm feeling pretty weak and really tired." When she justified her below-average performance in the women's 4x100 meter medley relay at the Rio Olympics with these words, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui sparked a wave of comments online. Here was a woman talking publicly — and point blank — about her menstruations and the discomforts that come with it. That's rather uncommon.
Even though they directly affect half of the human race, periods are rarely discussed in private conversation, and even less so in the media. Some activists think it's time this awkward silence, which is also synonym with injustice, ended.
It's recently become easier to talk about periods, especially on social media. In March 2015, Indian-Canadian artist Rupi Kaur denounced her censorship by Instagram. Twice in a row, a photograph of herself lying in bed with a period stain on her pajamas was removed from the picture sharing app. "I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be ok with a small leak," she said. A few weeks later, musician and feminist Kiran Gandhi ran the London marathon during her period ... without sanitary protection. Her goal was to raise awareness for the many women around the world who don't have access to these products.
"I think it's very positive that women are tackling this taboo around periods, and in particular about the fact of showing them," says Aurélia Mardon, a sociologist from the University of Lille, in northern France. Part of her work has focused on how young girls experience their first menstruations. She says there's some ambivalence in society regarding this physiological occurrence. "Periods are seen as positive because they're the sign of fertility, but we also teach young girls that it's important to hide them, we associate them to shame or disgust."
Birgit Marxer, who organizes working groups with the association CorpsEmoi, also believes there's all too often "a lead weight" around this topic. "Our goal is to explain menstruations to little girls so they can understand what it means and they can develop a positive relation with their bodies," she says.
Along with questioning this taboo, activists are making some very pragmatic claims, especially regarding the cost of sanitary protections. A woman will use between 11,000 and 15,000 tampons or towels in her entire life, which represents an important budget. In many countries, including Switzerland, people are raising their voices against the taxation of such basic hygiene products, which they consider to be excessive.
The innocuousness of these products is also being questioned. Traces of chemicals such as dioxins, formaldehyde, and other glyphosate-like pesticides have often been found and we know little about their impact on health. In May, Socialist MP Valérie Piller Carrard filed a motion demanding more transparency on the components of female sanitary products, but the Swiss federal council dismissed it.
"There's a general lack of innovation in the field of sanitary protections. It certainly would be possible to do better, for instance in the textiles, so as to adapt to women's different needs," says Birgit Marxer. The latest "novelty" in terms of period management dates back to the 1930s with the invention of the menstrual cup. Despite the advantages of this method — the cup can be reused — it didn't become popular until a few years ago.
Paradoxically, the current debate on menstruations and their consideration in society emerges at a time when women in rich countries are able to avoid them. Continuously taking the pill or other forms of contraception make this possible, apparently without any effect on health and fertility. "Originally, this prescription mode was more intended for women suffering from pathologies related to hormone fluctuations, but it's now also offered to improve the comfort or lifestyle," indicates gynecologist Saira-Christine Renteria. So, do these methods make menstruations obsolete? Already in the late 1990s, Brazilian doctor Elsimar Coutinho was asking the same question.
"Not having your period anymore can be a relief, but a lot of women also don't want to give it up," says Saira-Christine Renteria. "The choice shouldn't be forced on them by society. The issue of menstruations shouldn't be doctrinal. It's up to each women to experience her cycle the way she wants to."