When I was in middle school, I watched an episode of Anne Frank: The Whole Story in history class. The episode was supposed to cement for us the cruel realities of the Holocaust. To our teacher’s chagrin, this was the scene that captured the attention of our 12-year-old minds: Anne Frank goes to the bathroom and cries. She had gotten her period for the first time. The scene couldn’t have lasted longer than a few minutes, yet we all sat there speechless, frozen in a moment of collective embarrassment. No one dared to look at each other. Then, a brave boy whispered to the girls at our table, “Do periods hurt?” We burst into giggles. No one answered the question.
The reality is, for many women, periods do hurt. A lot. Several studies say that more than 50 percent of American females experience monthly menstrual pain. The pain often starts at the age of 12 or 13, when women first get their periods, and continues through menopause. That means that well over 40 million people in this country can experience pain consistently for three decades of their lives. One study estimates that 1.7 million women in the US have pain so debilitating that they have to stay home from school or work. Assuming that they each miss one day of school or work a month, we’re talking about more than 20 million days of absenteeism a year. At those numbers, the pain is beyond physical—the pain, to women, is personal and professional.
Over a decade of education since the Anne Frank episode, not much has changed in the way we think and talk about periods. In fact, grown men tend to categorically block out of their minds that part of the reproduction process. Ask men in their late 20s what a menstrual cycle is, and you’ll get a look of disgust, maybe even fear. Push a little further, and you’ll hear a confused jumble of incoherent thoughts. One male classmate likened the female reproductive organ to a grocery store. The “out-of-date” groceries have to be thrown out every month. Another said that periods happen because the ovaries are switching positions every few weeks.
The conversations aren’t much better among women. When women talk about their periods, they use euphemisms, saying they are “having stomach issues” or “feeling sick,” even when talking to other women. These phrases make the menstrual cycle sound like a bacterial illness, as if this natural female function is both shameful and contagious.
So here is what a period is. About once a month, the ovary releases an egg ready for fertilization. In preparation for a fertilized egg, hormones rise and thicken the lining of the uterine wall. If the egg remains unfertilized, both the egg and uterine lining are shed in the form of blood. This process often causes pain. The reason for the pain is most commonly attributed to a contraction of the uterus, which is why we use the word “cramps”.
While the severity of the pain may differ from month to month, the pain for women is cyclical and predictable. The most common way for women to cope is through over-the-counter painkillers such as Advil and Midol. However, sometimes the pain is so severe that it comes with nausea and vomiting, forcing women to call in sick or be excused from school.
The culture of silence around menstrual pain despite its ubiquity is troublesome. In fact, the English word “taboo” comes from the Polynesian word “tapu,” meaning both “sacred” and “menstruation.” Quite literally, menstruation is taboo.
This needs to change.
When so many women suffer pain, they shouldn’t have to do it in silence. They should have the support of other women as well as the men in their lives. Once more people understand and recognize menstrual pain and the productivity loss that comes with it, we can close another inch in the gender gap.
So let’s encourage more people to ask “do periods hurt?” And when they do, answer.
Emily Tung WG ’17, co-founder of Jubilee, an herbal supplement for menstrual pain, contributed to the reporting of this article.