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Blood Pressures

All around the world, women continue to deal with the fallout of millennia of made-up nonsense about their monthly periods.

WOMEN, ON AVERAGE, EACH SPEND 1,800 DAYS of their lifetimes menstruating, so you would think that we’d be comfortable talking about it by now. But in many cultures, menstruation is seen as somehow negative, shameful, or dirty—a subject to be avoided in polite company. In recent studies involving nearly 100,000 girls in India, almost half did not know about menstruation until their first period arrived. Surveys indicate that 48 percent of girls in Iran and 10 percent of girls in India believe it’s a disease.

This has been a consistent pattern in cultures around the world. Experts believe that it wasn’t until 1946, when Disney made a movie about menstruation called The Story of Menstruation, that the word “vagina” was used in a motion picture. Tampax became the first advertiser to use the word “period”—in 1985. Yet as recently as 2010, the sanitary-pad company Kotex was told it couldn't use the word “vagina” in its ads by three U.S. broadcast networks.

It wasn't until 2011 that the sanitary-pad company Always used red to represent menstrual blood—and even then, it was just a red dot. (Until then, blood had been shown as a blue liquid, and still is today by most U.S. companies.) This lack of direct engagement with a normal bodily function is indicative of deeply seated myths and attitudes. As they encounter these long-standing social stigmas and fears attached to periods, many young girls become isolated from their family, friends, and community, and the damage from these misconceptions has never been fully calculated. (Photographer Laia Abril, the creator of this piece, says that although she views her work on women’s health as an ongoing process, “I've almost never talked about it with my friends—and, of course, never with my male friends.”)




In some areas of Myanmar, women’s lower underwear is never washed together with men’s clothes, and bedsheets are dried, hidden, behind houses. The issue of when and how clothing is cleaned has medical as well as social consquences; drying clothing under the bed, a practice in Burkina Faso, can lead to infection and even infertility. In rural Bolivia, clothing worn by menstruating women isn’t washed at all, because of a fear that this will cause stains and blemishes to pop up on their faces.

In many societies, girls are worried that peers and teachers will know they are menstruating. They especially fear exposing themselves to bullying from classmates through bloodstains and odor. In India—where 28 percent of students in one study reported not attending school during menstruation, due to a lack of facilities—many mentioned that fear of staining their clothes caused them stress and depression.


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Roman men used their wives’ period blood as a guarantee of their fidelity, employing the blood in love charms. Some present-day folk beliefs hold that mixing a drop of menstrual blood in a person’s food guarantees the eater’s love and devotion.

Other phobias related to sexual purity permeate menstruation mythology. In Iran, for instance, many young women won’t use tampons for fear they might tear their hymen. Some even avoid undergoing medical examinations. In some cultures, an intact hymen is required proof of a bride’s virginity prior to her marriage; it’s associated with purity, honor, and worth. Failing to meet that criterion can result in shame, ostracism, or even the horrific prospect of an honor killing. Women who are not virgins, or whose hymens have been otherwise damaged, may undergo a surgical procedure called hymenoplasty to repair or replace it, or they may even use an artificial one to simulate bleeding during their first sexual encounter.



Recent surveys of around 200 people suggest that 51 percent of Iranian girls do not bathe until eight days after the first day of their period, and 84 percent of Afghan women never wash their genitals. (In Afghanistan, there is a misconception that washing your genitals while you’re menstruating can lead to shanda, which means infertility.) In a survey conducted among communities in northern India, 98 percent of girls said they believed they should not bathe during their periods, with 91 percent staying away from any kind of flowing water. In a UNICEF survey, both girls and boys in the Philippines reported that they thought that bathing during menstruation could make a person insane.



According to the Old Testament, a menstruating woman is impure, and most of what she touches becomes unclean. Consequently, early Christians were divided about whether to allow menstruating women to take communion. Though most Christians eventually rejected the Jewish purity laws, some restrictions still exist, as in the Russian Orthodox Church—which holds that menstruating women must be secluded, and should not be allowed to attend services or have contact with men—and the Coptic Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, which forbids women on their period from entering a church or kissing religious icons. 


“They ask you [Prophet] about menstruation. Say, ‘Menstruation is a painful condition, so keep away from women during it. Do not approach them until they are cleansed ...’” (Quran 2:222)

Menstruating Muslim women and girls are often not allowed to pray or fast, a practice that is supposedly done for their comfort. They must sit in a separate area of the mosque and cannot touch the Quran. (Recitation is allowed, so long as the woman does not physically touch the book and recites from memory, or—in a recent adaptation—reads from a computer.) Sexual intercourse is strictly forbidden during a woman’s period.



In the Book of Leviticus, the Torah prohibits sexual intercourse with a niddah, the Hebrew term for a woman who is menstruating or has recently menstruated. Today, post-menstrual immersion in a mikvah, or ritual bath, is common only among Orthodox Jews, and much less common among Conservative Jews. Women and men are discouraged from passing objects to each other or from sharing a bed or plate, and men are not supposed to see a menstruating woman undress.


Menstruation is very complex within Hinduism. Some Hindus convene celebrations at the onset of menarche, while for others menstruation still carries the stigma of dirtiness. However, restrictions placed on menstruating women are often seen as a privilege, giving them a break from household chores and the opportunity to rest.

Harkening back to Vedic times, notions around menstruation have been linked to the deity Indra’s killing of the god Visvarupa: women are seen to have taken on part of Indra’s guilt, which appears monthly as their menstrual flow. As the Hindu text the Bhagavata Purana says, “In return for Lord Indra’s benediction that they should be able to enjoy lusty desires continuously, even during pregnancy for as long as sex is not injurious to the embryo, women accepted one fourth of the sinful reactions. As a result of those reactions, women manifest the signs of menstruation every month.”

The way that Hindus practice these restrictions tends to vary by caste, ethnic grouping, or geographical area. For instance, some women and girls are not allowed to partake in religious ceremonies or celebrations during menstruation. Fear of the monthly period even extends to women’s contact with animals: some think that if a woman touches a cow while she’s menstruating, that cow will cease to be able to bear offspring.



What has been believed to frighten demons; cure warts, birthmarks, gout, goiters, hemorrhoids, epilepsy, worms, leprosy, and headaches; and even help people fall in love? Period blood! Nowadays, in some areas of Nigeria, it is believed that washing sanitary pads can expose one to a witchcraft attack. Likewise, in Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso, used pads are thought to be able to cause infertility. Curses also figure into this kind of lore: some in Tanzania think that if anyone other than the bleeding woman sees a menstrual cloth, bad things will happen to its owner. In certain rural areas of Bolivia, a number of myths surround the usage of sanitary pads—for example, that disposing of them in the trash might cause cancer.



For Nepalese and Gujjar girls, it is forbidden to look in the mirror during one’s period. (The Gujjar are a formerly nomadic group located primarily in northern India and Pakistan.) Nepalese Hindus still isolate women in menstrual huts, a tradition known as Chhaupadi that is also practiced by other religions and communities in Ethiopia, Indonesia, and certain parts of Nigeria and Australia.

This past August, the Nepalese government approved a law that sentenced those found guilty of Chhaupadi to fines or jail time. Although it had already been banned by Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2005, Chhaupadi is still widely practiced in the country, and several deaths have resulted from it. This past July, a 19-year-old girl from the country’s Dailekh District died of a snakebite while she was excluded in an animal shed.



In Zambia, there are a number of myths and misconceptions about menstruation, such as the idea that a woman who is having her period should not be allowed to cook. (If she does cook, she should not put salt in the food, as this will give men an unending cough.) In Ethiopia, a man must not eat food cooked by a menstruating woman, as is the case in Nigeria, where he also may not sleep in the same room as his menstruating wife.

Salt is also an issue in Malawi, where its use is discouraged by bleeding girls or women because of fears that it will make the food’s recipients sick. Local legend also holds that walking behind a menstruating woman breaks your teeth. According to ethnographer Edward L. Schieffelin’s book The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, if a woman on her period cooks or steps over food, the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea believe that anyone who eats it—particularly the woman’s husband—will become “ill with a cough and possibly die.”



Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, has been associated with as many as 200 different symptoms, including stress, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, abdominal cramps, breast tenderness, acne, tiredness, mood swings, increased emotional sensitivity, and changes in libido.

PMS was originally seen as an imagined disease, and women who reported its symptoms were often told it was all in their head. In a 1923 article titled “Periodic Psychosis” published in the National Eclectic Medical Association Quarterly, a doctor detailed a condition observed in one patient that he called “menstrual insanity.” As recently as 2013, premenstrual dysphoric disorder—a severe and disabling form of premenstrual syndrome affecting 3 to 8 percent of menstruating women—was made into its own category as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. In Finland, PMS is sometimes referred to as hullun lehmän tauti, or mad cow disease.




“It would indeed be a difficult matter to find anything which is productive of more marvelous effects than the menstrual discharge. On the approach of a woman in this state, must will become sour, seeds which are touched by her become sterile, grafts wither away, garden plants are parched up, and the fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits. Her very look, even, will dim the brightness of mirrors, blunt the edge of steel, and take away the polish from ivory. A swarm of bees, if looked upon by her, will die immediately; brass and iron will instantly become rusty, and emit an offensive odor; while dogs which may have tasted of the matter so discharged are seized with madness, and their bite is venomous and incurable.” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History)


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