Periods: Why do we still find it embarrassing talking about them?

Why are we still embarrassed to talk about periods? (Getty Images)
Why are we still embarrassed to talk about periods? (Getty Images)

Just when you think we've made strides in tackling period stigma, we find out parents are still finding it awkward discussing menstruation with their kids.

Despite periods being something that almost half of the population will experience, new research has found that almost half of parents say discussing the subject with their children makes them feel uncomfortable.

That's something echoed amongst teachers, with a third admitting to finding menstruation conversations with their students difficult.

The pressure of such a key conversation in a young person’s life means 68% of teachers worry about being seen as insensitive if they say something wrong, while over a quarter of parents (26%) have the same concern with their own child.

The study, by Always, of children aged eight to 16, and 500 teachers, of pupils aged eight to 14, looks to answer often raised questions around period education and their knowledge and confidence around the topic.

The complexity of the topic can mean that being equipped to give a clear picture of puberty to children can require a bit of education, even for adults. 

Read more: What is PMDD? Vicky Pattison diagnosed with condition after 'feeling insane' for years (Yahoo Life UK, 4-min read)

Experts say tackling period stigma could begin with education. (Getty Images)
Experts say tackling period stigma could begin with education. (Getty Images)

More than a third (34%) of parents said their child has asked them a question related to puberty education that they didn’t know how to answer.

The experts felt the need for knowledge too: more than eight out of 10 (84%) teachers felt that educating students about puberty is challenging, with a quarter feeling not equipped to do so.

Less than half of teachers (46%) believe the current curriculum’s coverage of puberty changes is sufficient, with a huge 4 out of 5 (83%) welcoming additional training to better address the topic with students.

And it isn't just when discussing periods with children that we experience embarrassment, period stigma is very much present in the workplace too with a third of men believing it’s "unprofessional" for women to talk about menstruation in the workplace.

Initial Washroom Hygiene surveyed 2000 office workers about all things toilet talk and the results offered some sad proof that talking about periods is still very much taboo, particularly round the water cooler.

Further research, by the charity WaterAid, found that despite being a normal and vital part of most women’s lives, nearly two thirds (63%) admit to feeling embarrassed talking about their periods at work.

Proving that hiding a tampon up the sleeve is still very much a thing, nearly half (48%) say the conceal products on route to the toilet, and 46% saying they have avoided light-coloured work outfits when on their period.

Only 3% believe employers are doing enough to support women and people who menstruate to manage their periods at work, while 80% feel that they are held back to some extent by attitudes to periods in their workplace.

Watch: One in five schoolgirls 'in period poverty'

Period stigma

So what's causing this ongoing shyness about periods?

"Period shame is unfortunately deep-seated in our society," explains Dr Shirin Lakhani, cosmetic doctor and intimate health specialist. "In this country we display feelings of shame by hiding tampons up our sleeves to go to the bathroom, for instance.

"Despite the fact that we live in a digital age in which we have constant access to information at the press of a button, there is still a huge stigma surrounding the issue of period poverty."

Dr Lakhani says menstruation embarrassment is perpetuated by cultural taboos, lack of education and period poverty.

"These stigmas start at an early age and often subconsciously when we see our mother’s hiding their box of sanitary products in the bathroom, at school when girls are taught about periods but boys often aren’t, and as we go through life sneaking out with a tampon up our sleeve when we need to go to the loo to change it."

Read more: Over half of women say period pain has impacted their ability to work (Yahoo Life UK, 3-min read)

There are some other reasons we're still not talking about our periods.

“Historically, even mentioning periods on TV has been unpredictable," explains Ruby Raut, CEO and co-founder of WUKA. "Period products were only allowed to be advertised for the first time in 1972, and until 1985 you weren’t allowed to even say the word period."

Though there has been significant progress in the last five years in the menstrual education sector such as blue liquid being swapped for red blood on TV ads and Scotland being the first country to provide free period products to all children, Raut says we still have a long way to go."

Women still don't feel able to talk openly about their periods at work. (Getty Images)
Women still don't feel able to talk openly about their periods at work. (Getty Images)

So how do we get there?

In order to move forward Dr Lakhani says we need to start thinking about encouraging the next generation to view periods as a natural process rather than something that we shouldn’t talk about.

"This will help to break the taboo," she explains. "As will teaching boys the exact same things as girls at school, and of not being afraid to talk about it openly and factually when questioned by children."

Raut agrees that breaking the stigma around period care requires ongoing efforts, starting with education.

"If we are to successfully dispel myths and normalise conversations about women’s health issues in the media and workplaces, we must ensure adequate menstrual health education in schools is delivered to all children.

"Menstruation is natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Teaching about the menstrual cycle should include girls and boys emphasising the fact that it is nothing to be embarrassed about."

We also need to talk openly about periods and make it a normal conversation about a normal every day experience.

"We need to say the word ‘period’ without shame and without prejudice, talking about it openly helps normalise the conversation about a normal every day experience," adds Raut. "We need to be inclusive and challenge those who aren’t."

Additional reporting SWNS.