The great period taboo: Why can't we talk about them?

A photo of lots of panty liners
Fifty per cent of the population have them - so why can't we be more open about periods?

Shark week, Aunt Flo, Code Red… It’s amazing how many alternative names there are for your period. But in an era where we’re more open about the menopause and talking frankly about mental health, why is it that we’re still ashamed about our perfectly natural periods?

The Great British Bake Off star Candice Brown bemoaned the unwritten ‘rules’ about having a period on the latest episode of White Wine Question Time.

“We need to stop hiding our tampon up our sleeves,” she said. “We still do that, don't we? It's just weird. It's a weird taboo subject.”

Candice spoke about meeting Emma Barnett, author of a new book Period, at a recent awards ceremony.

“I was at the Marie Claire awards the other night and one of the winners was Emma Barnett,” explained Candice.

“She was working amongst men. She'd written the book about periods and she said to one of her colleagues, 'I've written a book' and he said, 'Oh, what was the book about?'. She said 'Periods' and he said, 'About what period have you written about?' She went: 'The one in my pants!' And she said he went white… He looked like he was going to pass out, throw up everything.”

Amika George, an activist who set up Free Periods to end period poverty in the UK, believes this embarrassment starts from a young age.

“I believe it's so culturally engrained in us, this huge sense of shame and embarrassment that stops us from talking about our periods,” she says.

Amika George, 18, the founder of campaign group Free Periods, speaks during a Period poverty protest opposite Downing Street in Whitehall, led by Free Periods, a group which is asking for free sanitary products for all girls on free school meals.
Amika George, founder of campaign group Free Periods, speaks during a Period poverty protest opposite Downing Street in Whitehall

“It's engrained in us from a really young age that periods are something we keep to ourselves, don't discuss with our friends and family - almost as though it's something we need to apologise for.

“The manufacturers of period products haven't helped either by calling products names like 'whisper' or 'discreet' like periods are a shameful secret.”

READ MORE: Internet users amazed by man who doesn't realise periods continue at night

Leah Remfry-Peploe, co-founder of OHNE, an organic tampon delivery service, agrees.

“Taboos persist where there is no conversation,” she says. “Until we're teaching and demonstrating to young people that it's okay to talk about periods, they'll read our silence as shame and learn to be ashamed too.”

This is something that Candice knows only too well. She started her periods quite late and kept quiet about what was happening to her.

“I didn't tell my mum for months,” she told Kate. “I used rolled-up tissue because I was so embarrassed!”

The reality of period poverty

What’s perhaps even more shocking than young women being embarrassed about something so natural, is that fact that many children in the UK are suffering from period poverty. It’s reported that 7% of girls have missed school due to their periods.

These staggering facts are what triggered Amika, aged just 17 at the time, to create Free Periods. She says: “I started it after I learnt that children in the UK were missing school every month because they couldn't afford to buy pads or tampons. That's wrong.

“I felt really strongly that we had to do something, and I started lobbying for all schools to provide free menstrual products for all students. No child should have to miss school because of their gender.”

Thankfully her campaign has made a very positive change – after two years of campaigning, the Government have finally pledged to give funding to every school in England so they can provide period products for all their students.

“I'm really happy about that,” Amika says, “because it means that no one has to compromise on their education because they are too poor to afford to manage their periods.”

READ MORE: How a woman's period changes throughout her life

She believes there’s definitely more work to be done though, especially in breaking down the taboo about something that affects 50% of the population.

“What I'd like to achieve next is to extend this to Europe and any other countries where there is period poverty,” she explains.

“But I also want to tackle the shame and stigma surrounding periods. We have launched #FreePeriodStories, where people can share period stories. We need to be talking more about them so we can normalise the conversation around menstruation.”

Breaking down the period taboo

Leah agrees, and this is one of the reasons she launched OHNE. She says: “We want to create space both online and in real life for women and people with vaginas to talk freely about periods, menstrual cycles, and their bodies without the shame and stigma that is all too often attached to these topics.”

She’s also keen to ensure women know exactly what products they’re using and the affect they can have on their health.

“Women will use up to 11,000 tampons over the course of their lifetime in the most sensitive and absorbent part of their bodies,” she explains.

“This is as serious as a product relationship gets, yet we've all grown up totally in the dark about what's in the products we're being told to put in our vaginas - which fyi, has the thinnest and most absorbent skin of anywhere in the body.

“We want to make sure everyone with a uterus knows that taking care when it comes to managing their periods is just as important a part of self-care as considering the food they eat or their skincare routine.”

Hopefully, as we all start talking about periods more, it will become something that everyone is more comfortable with. Candice believes this is something that definitely comes with age.

“I feel like as I've got older it's now like, actually no, we all have periods,” she said. “We all have boobs of different sizes. We've all got marks and stretch marks and spots and funny teeth… Actually, nobody's perfect cause that's just Instagram filters!”

READ MORE: Holland & Barrett launches high street’s first reusable period-wear range

Leah agrees that change is coming – even if it doesn’t feel as if it is.

“It can be easy to be impatient and get frustrated at the pace of change, but we do believe perceptions of periods are slowly changing!” she says.

“You only have to look at the news and see how the government and other institutions are starting to take real measures to end period poverty, or go on Instagram and see the multitude of activists and amazing brands and organisations working within the period space to see that there's been some truly incredible changes recently.”

Hear Candice Brown and Kate Lawler chat about periods, their hormones and whether children are in their future on the latest episode of White Wine Question Time. Listen on iTunes and Spotify.