Students look to change the narrative behind women’s reproductive health
Educated with American Girl books and a vague definition from her mother on what the menstrual cycle was, senior Chloe Browning felt vastly unprepared for what she was faced with. When she got her first period, Browning equated the experience with death.
“I first got my period when I was 13, during the summer. It was awful because that same day, I had the stomach flu, so my cramps were twice as bad and I was vomiting so much,” Browning said. “I was convinced I was dying.”
The lack of education can result in panic like Browning’s; students don’t know how to stop the bleeding or the cramps, much less, spot the signs of something much more serious. It is a taboo subject; the word “period” is seemingly too much for some, disguised within phrases like “that time of the month,” which supports the stigma behind the discussion of women’s health.
“My father shuts down any conversation dealing with menstruation and women’s health in general,” junior Emma Haddad said. “ [He] wanted nothing to do with it.”
Haddad’s father’s stance is not unusual; many cultures, including Western society, perceive periods and menstruation as dirty and unhygienic. Teen Vogue’s study on period culture around the world revealed that women in India were not permitted to participate in certain religious activities or be in the kitchen. In China, many believe that using tampons compromises one’s virginity, which is completely untrue.
Even though the U.S. allows for more freedom regarding women’s reproductive health, it is still a sensitive discussion and the majority of the responsibility to educate falls on girls. Haddad’s mom took charge of educating her on what a period was and what to do, but Haddad believes like this wasn’t enough and that most girls are still “left in the dark.” Beyond fifth grade, she never had the opportunity to learn more about sex education and the changes that would happen during puberty. Haddad remembers feeling “grossed out” with her body when her period first started at age 14.
According to the Florida Department of Education, the state of Florida does not require sex education, giving each district school board the responsibility on how to handle the topic. Seminole County allows for educational videos for both sexes in elementary and middle school, and an STI and STD unit in Biology classes.
Freshman Amy Desroches remembers watching such videos, but does not think they made a noticeable impact. She did not remember what was taught or realize what her symptoms meant, even when her mom suggested it could be the start of her menstrual cycle.
“Those videos just told you what would happen to you eventually without another word of why, when, or how it would happen. When I did hit puberty, th[ey] weren’t in my mind at all,” Desroches said. “I was in horrible pain; I thought at the time it was a bad stomach ache. But now I know that they were cramps. [My mom] even told me, but I didn’t believe her. That was until I used the restroom and saw for myself.”
Self-diagnosing symptoms as something entirely different or dismissing them can prolong the time it takes to find long-term solutions. Women’s health issues are not always taken seriously, a problem Haddad finds to be especially frustrating. Her increased hormone levels influence her behavior and mood during her period, and she receives irritating comments about it.
“Period pain and just the entire cycle in general is definitely underestimated, especially by those who don’t even experience one themselves. Girls deal with pain, nausea, bleeding and so many other issues related to periods and are just expected to smile through the pain,” Haddad said. “I can barely walk when on my period and dealing with cramps.”
The lack of understanding or preparation complicates the situation, making it a difficult week. For Desroches, it took years to know what works best for her. Her severe cramps sometimes cause her to miss school, so she knows that taking medication on a specific schedule is crucial for a normal day during her period.
She also uses the restroom more frequently throughout the day, especially at school, to prevent leakage. Being on the constant lookout proves tiresome to keep up and can put a strain on daily activities.
“The time that passes in between periods seems to be getting faster and faster. Being on my period is honestly exhausting, so when it comes back around it can be quite annoying,” Desroches said.
Her go-to remedies are a heating pad and planned doses of ibuprofen (also known as Midol or Advil), which is a common solution for cramps along with naproxen (or the name-brand Aleve). While popular, one should make sure they are using them correctly. They should not be taken long term and one should take them after eating to avoid irritating the stomach and potentially causing an ulcer, as recommended by Harvard Health and Healthine respectively.
Yet, ibuprofen is not always enough. With more pronounced conditions, further treatment such as birth control is necessary. Except, with little knowledge of what is normal and what is not, it can be hard to identify a real problem.
Cramping is a regular side effect of menstruating, but irregular and/or perpetually heavy periods and extensive cramping are not. After noticing that her period lasted much longer than a week, sophomore Jane Doe* realized something was not right.
“Before birth control, my period would last more than a week, which left very little of the month where I felt normal. I would get extremely fatigued, emotional, and my flow was heavy,” Jane said.
To find the right type of birth control for her, Jane had to consult a gynecologist. The gynecologist’s office is a mystery for many; talking about a doctor’s visit with a coworker or acquaintances is acceptable, but the same cannot be said for visits that concern reproductive health. Jane agrees that it can be awkward, but is ultimately necessary to remain healthy.
“I think that gynecologist visits are necessary like it is important to go to the dentist or a regular doctor at times. If something needs to be done, they are the certified specialists that you can go to,” Jane said.
Senior Izzy Pacheco adds that gynecologist appointments are “not embarrassing at all,” and should be freely talked about. She had sought out different methods to regulate her polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that causes hormonal imbalance in women and can cause formation of cysts in the ovaries. Her gynecologist helped both Pacheco and her mother understand how and why birth control was the right option.
“I first went on birth control because I have PCOS and it has caused my testosterone to increase and birth control pills were supposed to lower it,” Pacheco said. “I have known since I was 10; it runs in my family.”
The name makes birth control’s original intent obvious, but it is used for much more. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 2019 lists migraine management, acne control, menstrual cramping alleviation, endometriosis and PCOS treatments as uses for hormonal contraceptives.
Despite a family history, Pacheco had to convince her mother to start receiving treatment; her mom had been hesitant, thinking it would look as if she was encouraging sexual activity. Pacheco admits she still does not completely know what exactly PCOS does or the technical points behind it. When relatives are unable or unwilling to help, many rely on accounts from close friends.
Browning’s friend group is more understanding and talkative about reproductive health than her family, calling it “a very open topic,” so she turns to them for advice. For others, this was not an option.
Junior Jessica Doe* was 10 when she entered puberty; her peers had not, and there was not much support at school. Her mom was the only person who could understand, but even then, Jessica had to figure out much of what was happening by herself.
“It was very difficult to have a period in elementary school, as they didn’t even keep trash cans in the bathroom to dispose of menstrual products; I was embarrassed,” Jessica said. “YouTube was very helpful to me as a young girl and I learned how to put tampons in when I was in sixth grade from [them].”
Platforms like YouTube can offer a wider variety of women’s health information; some host “girl talk” videos that heavily detail their own incidences and recommendations, and others post step-by-step how-to’s, like the ones Jessica watched. YouTube was not the only place she could go to at the time, she calls the school’s curriculum “riddled with misinformation.” She remembers waking up to bloody sheets after being taught that her period stops when sleeping.
An episode of Netflix cartoon “Big Mouth” follows Jessi, who goes through a similar experience, when her first period came while she was wearing white shorts. The character was prompted to embrace her tumultuous feelings through crying and screaming, but her friends (both girls and boys) continued to rally around her. This episode and the show itself has garnered praise for its handling of puberty, including positive reviews from Pacheco.
“ I wish it existed when I was going through the beginnings of puberty,” Pacheco said.
It is a stark contrast to Jessica’s school education, which she believes “was intended to shame us for even having periods.” Browning takes it further and researches beyond local schools, finding information on the role of the government and the economy in women’s lives.
In a mock Congress event held in debate class, she introduced a bill to eliminate the “tampon tax,” a real life Congress bill announced by Ohio representative Brigid Kelly. The “tampon tax” is a phrase used to describe the premium women pay on feminine products which some states justify because they are considered a luxury.
“I was basically like: that’s messed up, what are we doing about that?” Browning said. “[The girls] thought that it is crazy that we have to pay a luxury tax for something we all dread doing,” Browning said. “Some of the guys took a lot of convincing that bleeding for a week straight every month isn’t a luxury.”
Florida banned the tax in 2018 after former Governor Rick Scott’s tax cut plan in 2017, however, women’s lifestyle magazine InStyle in 2018 calculated the cost of the tampon tax that it would be around $200 in one lifetime for an individual person buying the average box of tampons. In 2019, women’s lifestyle magazine Marie Claire reported that women alone nationwide pay around $150 million yearly because of the tax. The price adds up, and for those that require more expensive products for comfort, those in poverty and those who need to buy more than a single box every month, it is not a meaningless couple of cents.
Desroches struggles with finding the right brand of pads at the right price and is disappointed with the fact that she does have a hard time; she doesn’t think that it should be such a complicated ordeal for women to just find a simple, good product.
“I find it hard to find healthy products to use in today’s society. Most popular brands have tons of chemicals in their products which isn’t that great,” Desroches said. “A period is something every woman gets and can’t control it at all. Some women suffer with not being able to afford feminine products to take care of themselves with. The situation in itself sucks, but that’s how society is these days.”
*Names have been changed upon request