How often do you talk about your period?
I’ll start. While reporting on this story my period started. Menstruation, bleeding, cramps, and everything that comes with a monthly period is usually only spoken about with close friends or sometimes no one at all. The stigma surrounding periods has amplified period poverty, which is the lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, education, and waste management.
Black women represent 22.3% of women in poverty but make up only 12.8% of all women in the United States population. For some, symptoms can include abdominal cramps, fatigue, headache, mood swings, vomiting, and dizziness.
Even when a menstruating person has access to menstrual products, the symptoms alone can impact their education, work, and personal life. But when these symptoms are compounded by period poverty, the toll can be even greater.
That was true for Lynette Medley.
“I wasn’t born in period poverty,” she says. “I was married and my husband at the time ended up getting incarcerated. So, my (now) ex-husband is serving life without parole — and my family went from middle class to poverty overnight.”
Medley says she was suddenly thrust into being a single mother, she quickly realized there was not a space to talk about menstrual health and wellness, leaving her to suffer in silence.
In 2012, she founded No More Secrets Mind Body Spirit Inc, a sexuality awareness and consultative organization. Later in 2021 Medley opened The Spot Period in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. It’s the nation’s first menstrual hub where they offer a safe space and free menstrual products for marginalized folks.
At The Spot Period, they provide a three-month supply of period products, giving out 63,000 products a week and servicing more than 1,000 in the same week, Medley says.
Without access to menstrual products, menstruating people stuff their underwear with toilet paper or wear a pad or tampon for more than four hours which puts them at risk to infection, a national study finds. The study also found one in five teens have struggled to afford period products, while more than four in five students have either missed class or know someone who missed class because of a lack of access to period products.
Medley says the most in-demand menstrual care products are pads. At Walmart.com a box of 36 Always Maxi pads sells for $10.47 and a box of 34 Tampax Pearl tampons sells for $7.97. Both brands are owned by Procter & Gamble Co., which has a near-50% market share in menstrual product care supplies.
When asked what is contributing to period poverty Medley says, “lack of understanding, stigma, taboo, inherent racism in the menstrual space dominated by white perspectives and privilege, misogyny, patriarchal ideas … lack of inclusivity.”
Unspoken truths about period stigma
Bleeding through clothing, feeling uncomfortable pain, and struggling to perform daily tasks is a menstrual experience so stigmatized, that some parents do not talk about it with their children and society often avoids the conversation.
But folks like Medley are working to break the barriers surrounding period stigma and educate others about sexual and reproductive health. She says part of the stigma can come from American and religious ideas that periods are nasty, disgusting, and do not need to be addressed.
When Medley was trying to get back on her feet, she says food and clothing were offered to her the most but due to stigma, nobody ever talked about menstrual care products.
Some religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism traditionally view menstruating women as unclean, impure, or polluted. Although the result of this perceived uncleanliness varies, the attitude can be characterized as anti-feminist, according to The Internet Journal of World Health and Societal Politics.
“We live in a society that doesn’t understand or care about women’s bodies as a whole which we’ve seen, and they don’t understand the autonomy of a woman’s body or are unable to deal with their health care,” Medley says.
For menstruating people growing up with certain religious ideas and in a society that treats periods like a disease, stigma can quickly lead to shame.
Of the teenagers surveyed by Thinx & PERIOD, 64% believe society teaches people to be ashamed of their periods, 69% feel embarrassed to bring period products to the bathroom, and 80% feel there is a negative association with periods — that they are gross.
Although tampons and pads are the most used period products, there are stigmas in the Black community around using menstrual cups as an alternative. Some Black women associate the cup with being nasty and too bloody, a stereotype that has historically been inflicted on Black Americans who are generally seen as dirty.
Menstruation is a taboo topic in many cultures, customs, and lands. But despite the hush-hush attitude and apparent shame, periods will continue.
The intersection of period poverty with food, housing insecurity
Medley says, lower socio-economic communities, folks who are living in poverty, and communities who are struggling the most are often bombarded with multiple forms of poverty deficiencies.
“So, if you can’t get food, you can’t get clothing — if you can’t have housing —then you can’t buy period products,” she says.
That’s a sentiment Jennifer Gaines agrees with. She is the program director of Alliance for Period Supplies, a network of more than 125 individually operated nonprofit organizations that distribute period products across the country and in local communities.
Gaines says something she has noticed is the intersectionality of not having enough money to purchase necessities with not being able to afford food or housing.
“Folks experiencing period poverty are most likely food insecure and some folks are homeless and unable to participate in daily life,” she says.
Nearly 17 million people who menstruate in the U.S. live in poverty. Two-thirds of these women could not afford menstrual products in 2021 and half had to choose between menstrual products and food, according to the Journal of Global Health Reports.
“Unfortunately, disproportionately Black and Latina (people) are experiencing period poverty at higher levels than their counterparts,” Gaines said.
The impact of COVID-19 on period poverty
At the outset of the pandemic, many schools and local organizations shut down, leaving folks who relied on them for period products without access to pads and tampons. Gaines says to combat these issues, the organizations in the Alliance network made efforts to meet people where they were — offering period products at food banks, schools, and diaper distributions.
“The pandemic itself posed as an issue, but it kind of had this like ricocheting effect on all of these different things,” she says.
A study by U by Kotex showed how COVID-19 exacerbated period poverty in Black and Latino communities, with 35-36% saying they struggled to afford period supplies due to the pandemic. In 2018, 24% of Black people said they wore a period product longer than recommended to prolong its use because of not being able to purchase more products — in 2021, that number rose to 36%.
Medley says because of the pandemic, folks who used to volunteer with her are now in need of period products, due to inflation, high gas prices, and loss of employment.
“Some people had jobs that were kind of sustainable, but now there’s nothing to bridge the gap for menstrual products and I don’t think people realize that there’s nothing out there,” she says.
Period poverty does not just affect people with little to no income. People who are working are also impacted, Medley says. Due to the grave loss of life and employment, she says some folks had to take in their nieces and nephews, or other relatives. While a guardian may get government assistance, these benefits do not cover menstrual products and toiletries.
Inflation has raised the price of gasoline, natural gas and electricity, and food. But pads and tampons have also increased significantly. According to NielsenIQ, the average price for pads rose 8.3% and tampons rose 9.8% this year through May 28.
Additionally, California and Utah experienced the highest rates of menstrual care product shortages in early spring 2022. While the cause of inflation and shortages vary, the Omicron variant outbreak, staff shortages, and the rising cost in materials to produce tampons and pads compounded the already existing menstrual health care crisis.
“The tampon shortage is hitting the privileged communities because it’s hitting Targets and Walmart’s. But our communities haven’t had them in over a year,” Medley says. “If you go into the hood, they haven’t had it for a long period of time.”
Black residents in rural areas also lack healthcare due to racism and poverty. They are also less likely than urban residents to have broadband, preventing opportunities for telehealth visits, education, and employment.
“It was amazing to me how (COVID-19) amplified the difference between the haves and the have-nots,” Medley says. “It was a total separation and seeing how our communities that are dependent on systems were left to their own devices. Systems that are receiving money and supposed to be serving our communities completely shut down and shut their doors when our communities needed it most.”
What period poverty looks like
Ashlie James, executive director of Atlanta Glow, a nonprofit providing essential period products, says she experienced period poverty during her teen years.
“I grew up in a low-income community, I do remember a time where I’ve had to use tissue at school,” she says. “I don’t know if I would call and say I experienced it as like a chronic issue, but I do know there were times where I did not have access to products.”
James’ nonprofit primarily serves young women and girls between the ages of 14 and 25, she says if they do not have access to period supplies, they may miss school, which can hinder their productivity and confidence.
38% of people who menstruate missed school, work, or an appointment, due to a lack of access to period products in 2021. One-sixth of students in the U.S. were forced to choose period products over other essentials, and 57% of students say they feel their school does not care about them if free period products are not provided in bathrooms.
Gaines says not only do students miss getting their education, but they also miss socialization with friends which can affect them mentally and emotionally.
“Not being able to access (period) products, it affects so much how you show up in the world,” she says. “If you don’t have the product that you need, you can’t show up in a room, you can’t show up at work.”
There is also a disconnect between menstrual education and hygiene. Gaines says lack of access to proper running water impacts how a person can care for themselves during their period. Millions of menstruating people do not have access to water and sanitation facilities and do not have a private space to change and dispose of menstrual products, according to the World Bank.
Something Medley is working on with her local city water department is helping to highlight better access to water in Germantown. She says without access to water, menstruating folks are more susceptible to vulva infections and disease.
One of the biggest things that exasperated Medley’s communities were the lack of access to water and waste management. People often use public bathrooms on an ongoing basis because they do not have access to water.
“When I started working with people around bodily autonomy and the MeToo movement, people started telling me that they engaged in survival sex, and were bartering to get pads and tampons or performing sexual acts,” she says.
This motivated Medley to act.
“It just regurgitated in me stuff that I had repressed for years to say hey, I need to do something about this because this should not still be happening,” she says. “That’s why I think this is so personal to me.”
Infamous pink tax
The pink tax is gender-specific pricing on products that are sold for women, like tampons, razors, shampoo, and conditioner — companies use pink or pastel colors to specify which products are for women, and these items are more expensive than the same products sold to men.
Gaines says the pink tax hits communities in different ways.
Currently, 27 states still impose the pink tax on menstrual products, with some state taxes being notably higher than others. Alliance collected data from rural versus suburban areas to pinpoint the different prices for menstrual products, Gaines says some stores take a long to receive products, and gas to reach these stores, plus the tax on top of that is “an extra burden on folks that are already suffering.”
On top of that, menstruators cannot use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits to purchase period products.
Alliance is working with their members to eliminate the pink tax and send a message to legislators who make these decisions, that period products are essential products people need to survive.
- Request period products at The Spot Period
- Donate resources to The Spot Period
- Request period products through Alliance for Period Supplies 125 networks
- Request period products at Atlanta Glow
- Donate to local organizations working to end period poverty. You can also check out food banks and diaper banks to donate or receive period products.
- These campaigns are working to end the pink tax