Not so long ago I was in the loos at work and I overheard two women hissing at each other in staged whispers next to the vending machines. They were fumbling around with change, trying to pull together the right money to buy some tampons.
I said, in a normal voice:
Do you need a tampon?
Shock registered in one of the women’s eyes, she blushed, looked around to see who might have over heard and then gratefully accepted the tampon being proffered.
No one likes talking about tampons, periods or sanitary protection. It amazes me how many euphemisms there are for the word period: girly thing, time of the month, seeing red, flag day, the curse, and my personal fave… wait for it… fanny shitting. For something as normal and necessary as eating and breathing, having a period is unspeakable, even in the ladies loos.
In fact, pretty much every part of a woman’s anatomy and its functions are off-limits in polite (and impolite) conversation. Vaginas are fufus, front bottoms, punani, lady bits… the list is more exhaustive than the one for periods.
Is this squeamishness around what makes us female a problem?
Well, I believe it is. And there are three reasons why that have come to my attention recently:
1. The tampon tax: did you know you pay tax on tampons? After a big campaign in 2001 the tampon tax dropped from 17.5% down to 5%. But sanitary products, according to the government, are still a ‘luxury item’. Luxury?! I have no idea what the government expects you to do when you’re on your period without tampons/pads and you have to go to school/work/look after your family. Any thoughts?
Anyway, the really alarming thing is that while tampons are a luxury, razor blades are not! Yes, you read correctly, men do not have to pay tax to shave. And yet the consequences of men with facial hair are far less serious than the consequences of women without tampons/pads, but these are still a luxury.
I don’t actually begrudge men getting their razors tax-free. I just think it’s a bit of a double standard that I pay tax on tampons, and I wonder, if tampons weren’t such a taboo, would they be tax-free?
2. Numbers of women attending smear tests are dropping: (for American readers I’m talking about Pap tests) smear tests are even more taboo than periods. I can count on one hand the number of occasions in my life when a friend has mentioned her smear test to me. On all occasions it’s because she’s been worried about the results – things have to be really scary before we talk about smear tests. But the silence around smear tests is putting lives in danger. The numbers of women attending cervical screening are falling every year. The annual uptake is 78.3%. This drops to 62% for women aged 25 to 29. If everyone who was invited for screening attended, incidence of cervical cancer could decrease by 35% in one year and deaths would halve over five years.
Studies show that one of the reasons women don’t take up screening is because they are embarrassed. Talking about smear tests could literally save lives.
3. It’s stopping girls going to school: this actually links really closely to the first point. If women and girls don’t have sanitary protection they don’t go to school. Still think tampons are a luxury?
Very poor girls often miss huge amounts of school or drop out entirely once they start menstruating. This is largely a problem in African and Asian countries where school latrines are often poorly maintained and sanitary protection is too expensive for many families. There is also huge social stigma around mentruation in many countries which hinders efforts to address the problem.
So by failing to talk about periods, women’s bodies and how they function, women all over the world are either poorer, at more risk of death or less likely to get an education, or all three.
Sounds serious? Well, it is serious. We need to stop getting so grossed out by the blood and start talking about these issues because if we don’t, nothing’s going to change.
I’m not saying you need to walk into your office and announce to everyone you’ve got terrible PMT and you’d rather be at home hiding under the duvet with a bar of Galaxy chocolate.
But, if you have spare moment, please sign the online petition to make tampons tax-free. If you have daughters explain to them where their vagina is the same you would their head, shoulders or knees. Next time you have a quiet moment with your mum/sister/best friend ask her when the last time she had a smear test was.
And when you’re done challenging policy-makers, saving lives and being a general, all-round superhero, take a moment to enjoy this. Trust me, it’s worth it! 😉