By: Cassie Carr, Red & Black Contributor
NOV 14 - When I was a high schooler, my biggest worries included college applications, passing my Advanced Placement World History exams, and whether I could find my favorite pair of jeans that miraculously vanished. Noticeably absent from this list of worries was how I was going to scrounge up the means to purchase pads and tampons for my next menstrual cycle, something no teen should have to worry about. However, as of 2021 in the U.S., as many as 1 in 4 girls are unable to afford feminine hygiene products according to a joint survey from company Thinx and the non-profit PERIOD.
Menstrual inequality, or period poverty as it is sometimes called, is the inability to afford the items necessary for concealing and managing one’s menstrual cycle. This includes being unable to access and afford things like pads, tampons, and menstrual education. While period poverty can impact people of all backgrounds, it is particularly prominent amongst students of color and low-income students (according to a “State of the Period” survey commissioned by Thinx and PERIOD) populations that are already vulnerable. This is especially important when considering that in Washington County, approximately 10 percent of kids are in poverty according to the 2020 U.S. Census. But why is menstrual inequality such a problem?
Menstruation is still a taboo topic in American culture. Many menstruators might recall being in high school and attempting to hide a tampon or pad up their shirt sleeve during trips to the bathroom when on their cycle. Those experiencing period poverty, however, lack even that ‘luxury.’ They do not possess the means to conceal their period at all. Notably, when peers become aware of someone’s menstruating status, this results in classmates viewing that individual more negatively according to a 2003 Psychology of Women Quarterly article. Thus, when period poverty victims are forced to ‘free bleed’ (i.e. menstruate publicly without a pad or tampon), they have no choice but to experience the social stigmatization that comes along with visible signs of menstruation. Therefore, for the sake of our children’s social development and emotional protection, access to feminine hygiene products is essential.
And the consequences of the period stigma do not end there. Those who fear that they might not be able to access another period product in the future might wear such products for longer than recommended, a choice which can have severe health consequences according to a 2022 Cleveland Clinic health essentials article. Wearing tampons for more than eight hours can result in problems ranging in severity, from vaginal infections on the milder end to toxic shock syndrome on the more severe. Considering period poverty is especially prominent amongst low-income students who might struggle to afford healthcare, this is an extremely dangerous reality due to the life-threatening nature of these conditions, especially when they are left untreated.
Moreover, mental health concerns are on the rise for school-age children, with recent studies showing rates of anxiety and depression reaching new peaks amongst children ages 3-17. This problem is exacerbated by period poverty. Menstruators who are currently experiencing or have experienced menstrual inequality are more likely to report depression than those who have not experienced menstrual inequality. Period poverty victims also report higher rates of anxiety than those with adequate access to feminine hygiene products due to stress associated with their inability to move about with the ease of their peers while on their cycles.
Taken together, for school-age girls, in particular, period poverty and all of its associated setbacks mean that almost 84 percent of U.S. girls have either missed class personally or know someone who has missed class due to menstrual inequality. This is important when one considers that consistent school attendance is essential to academic success for students. Low school attendance is associated with decreased standardized assessment scores as well as decreased rates of on-time school graduation. This reduced educational attainment translates to decreased lifetime economic attainment, demonstrating the wide-reaching effects of chronic absenteeism. Amongst those experiencing menstrual inequality, this might even contribute to larger cycles of poverty, perpetuating their low-income status and creating barriers to their future success. Now consider that students everywhere have already missed out on extensive class time and face-to-face interactions with their teachers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This reality makes it even more urgent that we fight factors which further limit students’ school attendance.
So menstrual inequality is clearly a problem. What can we do about it? This is where policymakers can step in. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have taken the first step by not taxing feminine hygiene products. But considering the expensive nature of these products even at their base price, this is not enough. It is urgent that Representative Guy Reschenthaler takes action on H.R.3614, the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2021. This bill is comprehensive, ensuring access to menstrual products in schools, prisons, homeless shelters, the workplace, and public federal buildings. By co-sponsoring this bill, Representative Reschenthaler would ensure that no one must choose between attending school and concealing their menstrual status again.
Menstrual inequality is a pervasive issue. It impacts menstruators in all areas of life, resulting in stigmatization and isolation, severe health consequences, increased rates of anxiety and depression and decreased educational and economic attainment. That is why it is urgent that we take comprehensive steps to fight against period poverty. For the 14th District of Pennsylvania, it is up to Representative Reschenthaler to take the first step by co-sponsoring the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2021.
The following article is an Opinions piece that contains opinions of the writer. Opinions pieces are not always representative of the Red & Black Student Newspaper as a whole.