There's a movement in NYC to make femcare products available, for free, in public middle and high schools. City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (D-Queens) deserves a huge shout out for shining a light on and taking action about a situation that most don't want to, or have even thought about addressing. But it goes far deeper than providing a better way for girls to get tampons and pads at school. It's acknowledging the underlying yet powerful message they've been unintentionally getting for decades.
I spent years researching and writing about periods and society's profound effect on how we think and feel about the process. Everything from advertising and marketing, product design, the evolution of language, religion, politics, government, the women's rights movement -- menstruation has history and a legacy in all of them. As I delved deeper into the subject I was often horrified and outraged at what women have had to put up with as a result of this normal bodily process. Being told to douche with Lysol or bleach? Check. Not being allowed to vote? Check again. Being prescribed birth control pills with a minimum of research or testing, later finding out it was cancer causing? Another check. Having uteruses removed, to combat mood swings and questionable behavior -- often against their wills? Check. Communicating in a coded language of protection and sanitary and hygiene that's become so second nature at this point the words period or menstruation don't have to be mentioned for the world to know what's being quietly discussed? World-wide check.
Yet with all this, I missed one place countless girls encounter the message that menstruation is a problem. A place where girls don't have control of the situation. A place where they're made to feel embarrassed about and punished for having periods in the first place.
And that takes place at school.
It's not just advertisers and marketers, religions and governments who decide how girls and women should feel about their bodies. Turns out that middle and high schools, and one could suppose elementary schools as well, as girls are menstruating earlier than ever, provide some of the most negative reinforcements about menstruation out there.
As mentioned by Council Member Ferreras-Copeland, there is no policy in NYC regarding femcare. If girls need tampons or pads during the day -- if they unexpectedly get their period, they leak, they don't have money for supplies or didn't bring anything from home -- they need to visit the nurse.
By involving a nurse, this normal, natural, biological process is not so subtly medicalized. Not only that, should they need a teacher's permission to leave class they now have to involve an additional person in the conversation. This all can eat into class time and learning. Not to mention that at young ages, when first impressions can last a lifetime, girls are getting the message that getting their periods means something is wrong with them and they need outside help for resolution.
Giving girls easy access to tampons and pads in school can not only make the day-to-day experience of period management easier, it can potentially change their feelings about menstruation in general. There are so many societal messages assuring them this process will cause them embarrassment and shame, social stigmatization and public humiliation. One would hope, going forward, that NYC schools would be the place that does the opposite.