(Addie Gilson ’19 wrote this op-ed for her Psychology of Gender class.)
Over the past few weeks, Princeton Students have taken strides to gain gender equality as it pertains to menstruation. On November 18th, Princeton Students for Gender Equality (PSGE) and Princeton Students for Reproductive Justice (PSRJ) hosted a three-hour Menstruation Celebration intended to break down the stigma associated with periods. The party was replete with vagina and menstruation-inspired games, snacks and prizes, along with information for both genders that discredited common period misconceptions and gave advice on how to make periods more manageable. Beginning this past Monday, December 5th, Princeton University Student Government (USG) enacted a two-week pilot program to supply pads and tampons in all of the bathrooms in the Frist Campus Center. This program comes in response to a meeting spearheaded by the Women’s Center with representatives from PSGE, PSRJ, Peer Health Advisers, as well as USG.
Gender inequality is not just found in the workplace or in political representation; it is evident in much more personal, and often unexamined, affairs. The Menstruation Celebration and this pilot program represent a movement to address the often-neglected ways in which gender inequality manifests in relation to periods.
Research reveals that menstruation increases female objectification and is a source of social stigma for women. In a study on the effects of menstruation on attitudes toward women, Roberts et al discovered that when a female inadvertently dropped a tampon in front of a subject, she was subsequently rated to be less competent and less liked than when she dropped a hairclip. Furthermore, participants who were reminded of menstruation tended to objectify women in general more (they were more likely to view women’s attractiveness as exceedingly important over their competence or physical capability). It is no surprise then that women are cautious to conceal their menstrual status. In Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler’s theoretical paper on the social stigma of menstruation, the authors observe that period stigma has many negative consequences for women, including self-objectification, a feeling of shame, the avoidance of sexual relations, and even lower social status for women.
This research highlights the importance of celebrations like the one hosted by PSGE and PSRJ. Indeed, according to Tanith Oxley, as cited by Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler, “In order for women to accept themselves every day of the month, cultures must change the way menstruation is viewed…women must resist, and cultures must reduce, the stigma.” The Menstruation Celebration’s toss-the-tampon-in-the-vagina game and edible tampons crafted out of pretzel sticks, white chocolate, and “bloodied” tips made from red food coloring may have come off to some as over-the-top. Ultimately, any effort to reduce the stigma associated with menstruation is going to make people uncomfortable. Oxley’s message is clear: in order to reduce the period taboo, we must normalize menstruation in our culture. The celebration served as an important first step to expose students to the rarely discussed topic of menstruation and to send the message to males and females that periods are not a cause for shame or ridicule. The celebration’s advice going forward to women: talk unabashedly with friends about your period, walk to the bathroom confidently and with a tampon visibly in tow, and lay a dark towel on your bed and encourage your partner to try out period sex.
A related initiative, the new pilot program to supply bathrooms in Frist with free pads and tampons, calls attention to the economic discrimination that exists in our culture against menstruating women. The fact that public bathrooms provide toilet paper and soap but not tampons and pads is notable. As Gloria Steinem wrote in her humorous but apt essay, if men had periods, “Menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event [and] sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.” More striking still than the absence of free pads and tampons in bathrooms is the fact that these products are taxed as luxury items in forty states. In a further example of gender disparity, many states refuse to acknowledge tampons and pads as necessities but conversely consider Viagra a non-luxury, tax-exempt item. In other words, women who biologically have no choice but to menstruate (and therefore to buy pads and tampons) are economically burdened while men who wish to use Viagra to enhance sexual relations—far more of a luxury activity than menstruation—are unburdened.
Furthermore, from an intersectionality standpoint, low-income women are particularly hard hit by the tampon tax. Intersectionality considers the ways in which different forms of oppression—based on race, class, gender, or socioeconomic status—can overlap and uniquely disadvantage individuals with multiple subordinate-group identities. Low-income women are especially affected by the “luxury” tax, often having to borrow sanitary supplies from others or simply go without them. A Princeton student, reflecting on the recent pilot program, remarks, “As a low-income and self-supporting student, I’ve often had to make very sacrificial choices regarding my budget, and once or twice I’ve found myself without pads or tampons a few days before I’ve gotten paid…Thankfully, I’ve had pretty amazing [friends] in my life who have given me some sanitary products, but there’s an amount of shame involved in that… ” The pilot program in Frist is an important step toward ameliorating this aspect of gender imbalance. However, the program will end next Friday, after which the decision to provide pads and tampons in campus bathrooms will be up to administrators.
The Menstruation Celebration and the Frist pilot program represent a critical new lens through which to consider gender equality. Ultimately, how can we hope for the eradication of the wage gap or equal political representation in a world where exposing a tampon alters perception and makes a woman appear to be less competent? Through hosting this Menstruation Celebration, students at Princeton have brought attention and new understanding to the role of menstruation in gender perception and the need to normalize menstruation if we are to move beyond uninformed gender stereotypes and ill-conceived government policies, such as the luxury tax on sanitary products. Sometimes by taking on the most basic taboos and misconceptions, there are outsized gains to be achieved. While the Menstruation Celebration may appear on a surface level to be about games, snacks and fun, its mission is deeply serious: where something as basic as menstruation can lead to perceptions of inadequacy and lack of competence, tackling gender disparity at this level is critical to achieving equality on a broader scale.
Emba, Christine. “Intersectionality.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 7
Johnston-Robledo, Ingrid, and Joan C. Chrisler. “The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social
Stigma.” Sex Roles 68.1-2 (2011): 9-18. Springer Link. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
Larimer, Sarah. “The ‘tampon Tax,’ Explained.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 08 Jan.
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Roberts, Toni-Ann, Jamie L. Goldenberg, Cathleen Power, and Tom Pyszczynski. “”Feminine
Protection”: The Effects of Menstruation on Attitudes Toward Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 26 (2002): 131-39. Sage Publications. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.