Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Girls, Periods, and Missing School, or More Hazards of Menstrual Silence

September 21st, 2009 by Chris Bobel

Moon CupEver-alert Liz Kissling drew my attention to this post on Nicholas Kristof’s blog (he’s the co-author of Half the Sky – check it out)

Kristof picked up on the does-menstruation-keep-girls-out-of-school buzz that researchers and on-the-ground development workers have been asking for some time. This is the same link that opportunistic P&G picked up in 2007 with the launch of their cause marketing campaign “Protecting Futures.” The campaign involved Always-brand pad distribution, school bathroom construction and health education, yet, as far I can tell, “Protecting Futures” has ended with a whimper…I can’t find a thing about it on the web, save dated references.

Maybe the campaign has slipped into obscurity because the girls lack commercial products–girls miss school causal connection is being weakened by research like the study cited by Kristof.

Researchers Emily Oster and Rebecca Thorton supplied girls with menstrual cups (note: not single use pads) and measured whether their use of cups had an effect on school attendance and grades. Nope, they found, makes no difference; the girls with and without cups missed about the same number of days and performed about the same in school.

In a way, their findings didn’t surprise me.

Girls have been managing their flow since, well, there were girls, and I bristle at the implication that their lack of access to single use commercial products was high on the global south wish list. It always seemed like a version of those ignorant primitives will never join the 21st century until they consume more stuff line of thinking that motivates (ethnocentric) global north “do-gooders” (and multinational corporations)

But, from my living room in the US, steps away from a washing machine/dryer and a reliable bathroom, I didn’t dismiss the possibility too quickly. The menstrual taboo, after all, does complicate period management when you spend the day with boys, boys who must not know what your body is up to–this takes time and energy

But here’s the thing.

Oster and Thorton DID find a menstruation-school attendance link. Menstruation DOES indeed impact school attendance, they found, in one particular way.

CRAMPS, reported the girls, keeps them home. Get this: nearly 44% of the girls cited cramping as the reason they couldn’t make it to school while they were menstruating.

CRAMPS. Sound familiar to anyone?

So that seems an invitation to find out more.

  • What kind of cramps?
  • What do the girls know about cramp prevention and management?
  • What kind of information and support do the girls need to deal with their contracting uteri so that they can get to school and stay there without sitting in at their desks doubled over in pain?

But addressing the cramp problem aint gonna be easy.

The very same pernicious menstrual taboo that mandates that girls manage (read: hide) their periods, also makes it difficult for girls to get informed and take effective action when the cramps hit.

We just don’t talk about this stuff–and that’s a silence heard around the world.

In rural Nepal and Soweto and suburban Boston and, yes, in your neighborhood, too.

Opening up the conversation about our bodies and how their work–in all their messy, often inconvenient, often mystifying complexity– gives us a chance to take control of our health and our lives.

In other words, the key to keeping girls in school may NOT be “more efficient” menstrual management, but rather, breaking the silence surrounding the body.

But we can’t expect only vulnerable girls to breach the taboo and begin asking the questions. Adult women and men, teachers, policy makers, government officials, health care workers, moms, dads, bloggers, all of us, need to get talking. In other words, those of us with some measure of privilege need to model that it is okay, even GOOD, to speak about the menstrual cycle.

That talk , of course, will sound different in different places and in different cultures. So we need to develop culturally-sensitive menstrual literacies and we need to start now.

What’s that?

Sorry. I can’t hear you.

Could you please speak up?

8 responses to “Girls, Periods, and Missing School, or More Hazards of Menstrual Silence”

  1. cc says:

    this is a big issue. i am a very informed and open adult woman, but never experienced bad cramps as a teenager. they started when i was 23 and actually resulted in a (very expensive) trip to the hospital. i was working on a saturday, setting up a booth at an information fair and the cramps were really bad but i didn’t want to explain this to my male boss who i was working with. when he had left the booth i snuck off to the walgreens across the street to buy some ibuprofen (i generally try to handle pain without medication but i realized this was unbearable). i suffered from a vagal response to the pain and nearly passed out on my way into walgreens. the manager called the paramedics who gave me saline and oxygen because my pulse was so low and took me to the hospital to run tests. when i was in high school i though girls who missed school because of cramps were over-reacting. now i realize that it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. i don’t like the idea of suggesting medication, but it is the most effective thing i have found (hot water bottle to the stomach is my best alternative). you are absolutely right. education and discussion on this topic is critical.

  2. j says:

    I missed a day a month (unless my period started on the weekend) of school beginning in 6th grade until I was 16 and put on the pill to regulate my cycle. I’ve been to urgent care a few times because I just couldn’t stop throwing up and I’d become dehydrated (body’s mixed up response to uterine cramping was to empty the stomach). After I started the pill my periods became more regular and I could start taking ibuprofen before my period would hit, that helped a lot. I stopped the pill a couple years later, and my periods are still more regular, and also less painful, but about 3 times a year I still get a doozy. My family was completely comfortable talking about periods (even if I wasn’t sometimes), I think girls with medically severe cramps need a bit more than open dialogue.

  3. Chris Bobel says:

    I agree. Lots of girls and women need serious medical intervention and they should get it. But it all must begin–whatever the situation–with open dialogue. Imagine your situation if your family HADN’T been cool with talking about periods-this is the situation for far too many and as a result, menstruators don’t get the care and support they deserve. I am not advocating for talk ALONE, but talk FIRST. Thanks for posting and sharing your experience and perspective.

  4. Jessica Rice says:

    It would have been nice when I was in high school. I lived with my father and my grandmother (his mother) when I was that age. She never had rough periods when she was young, so whenever I was picked up from school at least once a month (sometimes resulting in hospital visits) she was never exactly receptive. Arguments while throwing up in the morning before school, hiding my pads and tampons because she didn’t want my dad to see them (and arguing because I’d set them out again)… it made high school a lot more trying than it had to be. Of course years later when I’m in therapy, having lunch with my mother’s sister (and later because of the conversation over lunch, eventually confirming with my doctor) that I have a genetic condition that runs in the maternal line which is partially manifested in severe cramps… That, and she was extremely upset over my childhood, but then who isn’t upset over backwards reproductive health? I researched and as soon as I got my diploma I bought my own birth control to tide over the pain. Could this have been solved with real reproductive education in public school systems and a less conservative family? Sure. Was it? Of course not.

  5. Laura Wershler says:

    Talking about it openly and honestly is most definitely a first step to normalizing menstruation and our varied experiences. If we talked about it, girls would learn from other girls and women – you know that “woman to woman wisdom” thing the female gender if famous for – about all the coping strategies that do exist for minimizing the pain and discomfort of cramps, among other menstrual problems. I was one who missed a day of school in junior high during most cycles due to bad cramps (nausea, diarrhea, full body sweats and chills, near passing out) This is what I wished I’d known back then: 1) Take ibuprofen before the cramps start – it’s way more effective if you take it before you’re in full blown cramping mode at both controlling pain and heavy flow 2)Cut way down on sugar intake the week before your period – I was a soda and cookie fiend. 3) Orgasm eases cramps so self-pleasure away 4) Get more sleep. These strategies may not have kept me in school but they would have made some of those days more bearable. I think the other thing we need to do is make it okay to miss a day of work or school to tend to ourselves in the metaphorical red tent. Stop seeing this absence as lost productivity, but rather as a unique source of contemplative wisdom.
    What do we learn from this time alone? What might be lost if we just grin and bear it? Honour the cycle. Start by talking about it with honesty and respect.

  6. Ki. says:

    I have HORRIBLE period cramps and most of the time they make me miss school.
    Because of the pain, the doctors have tried putting me on prescription pain killers (which my body quickly got too fond of), birth control (which messed with my hormones more than it should) and some other pill that didn’t work. Just like Jessica; horrible, painful reminders that I’m not pregnant have plagued every female in my mother’s line.

    I got my first period when I was around 10 (red pants “/) and kept it to myself. Now that I’m fifteen going on sixteen; I’ve gotten over my timidity. I don’t hide my pads or tampons, carry them with me in the hallways (someone in admin from my school told me that was unladylike) and even put them on the table when I’m with my male friends. I can’t stand it when my gym teachers (male of course), to run it off and that I should eat better foods. I eat well AND work out (gymnastics and dancing)! I’m honestly on the verge of kicking one of them in between their legs and then tell them to “walk it off”.

    If I just had the two days off, I wouldn’t be in the office and extra hostile then my usual to the down right stupidity of others at my school. I think that there should be like, assemblies about periods and what not.

  7. Ava says:

    What a lot of women don’t know is that period cramps are a sign of a bigger menstrual issue. Your uterine muscles need relaxed.

    I’d done TONS of research on this, and I try to spread the word of 3 very helpful herbs. I take all 3 in capsule form. I use the “standard” 00 for herbal supplements. I take 2 caps 3x a day.

    1: Muira Puama bark. I take this in the latter 2 weeks of the overall female cycle. Your menstruation is a cycle, after all, not a period. That cycle lasts 28 days. Take these in the latter 2 weeks, 1 week before and the week of. Muira Puama is known to alleviate menstrual issues. I have Dysmenorrhea. With this I do not feel the pain. If I don’t take it? Ohhh boy.

    2: Red Raspberry leaves. I take these ALL the time. As a rule, every so often, I do take maybe a week off. I just feel it’s safe to do that. But I notice the change very quickly. Red raspberry leaves put your cycle in balance. Your hormones even out. It sets lower in your intestines, which means it targets your uterus very easily.

    3: Fenugreek. This behaves much like Red Raspberry leaves. I have successfully used this when I couldn’t order them. These taste very much like maple syrup. If you like that taste you can also brew fenugreek seeds as a tea or infusion (boiled water, steep for 4 hours).

    Women who try to lactate also use RR and Fenugreek. The same cells in your uterus are also in your milk ducts. I’ve noticed that it seems to affect those cells/tissue due to how similar they are. When lactating, women have said they notice a uterine flutter. I’m guessing that it’s this connection has something to do with it, but I’m no expert there. I have heard of some women losing their period while inducing lactation. I just have no idea if it’s the effects of using Fenugreek, which they swear by. I read their blogs & what not to see what effects the herbs had, to do further research, and to see if they’d help my menstruation pains.

    Bottom line, these herbs work SO much better than midol, and much healthier than BC pills. They work WITH your hormones, not against them. You may find yourself happier and more pleasant.

  8. Ava says:

    Hello again! I’d come here to update on my list of herbs. I wanted to state that my earlier herbs were a result of tons of research for my dysmenhorrhea. My cramps & other symptoms are during the first 3 days of menses. What are my other symptoms? Before my 28th birthday it was usually lower back pain, the usual spot for women, but afterward I’d developed neck soreness. I’ve always had muscle fatigue as well. The passed 2 months I’ve tested using Red Reishi Mushroom in powder capsule form. Guess what? It did the trick! I’m not sure why it had taken me this long to figure out that I needed an herbal fix for feeling horribly tired after 8 hours of sleep. Reishi Mushroom takes away that fatigue and leaves me feeling like it’s another day.

    Now, another herb I tried during my last 2 cycles was Yarrow leaves. Yarrow is supposed to encourage bleeding for those who only spot, or relieve very heavy menses bleeding. In my case, I start out with 1 very light day, 1 moderate day, and 1 super heavy day that has me nervous and leaking in spite of my moon cup. After trying Yarrow leaves, I’d noticed it evened out, but from time to time I would leak. I’d say my menses is fairly heavy in spite of having a cup and the fact it’s supposed to hold up to 12 hours worth of junk. Either that, or I need to opt for a different shape.

    So my verdict on Red Reishi Mushrooms and Yarrow leaves is this: Red Reishi Mushrooms — big yes. Please add this to your daily supplements the week before and during your menses. Yarrow leaves — use this if you want to stabilize your menses. Prevent spotting or prevent that overly heavy day. It does what it’s supposed to, but in my case I feel that I’d prefer 1 heavy day. I may only take it the night before my heavy day, in hopes that it’ll lighten my load.

    I hope this comment helps other women out there. I’m very glad this article is out here for other women to see. The more who know what to do, the better!

Readers should note that statements published in Menstruation Matters are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.