Despite the fact that roughly 50 percent of the world’s population menstruates regularly, periods are still a subject shrouded in secrecy and shame. From “Aunt Flo” to “that time of the month,” our society has been extremely creative when it comes to making up discreet terms to avoid the subject.
An influential 2016 study conducted by Clue and the International Women’s Health Coalition identified over 5,000 euphemisms for periods worldwide. Some of the nicknames are downright witty—a common euphemism in French says “Les Anglais ont débarqué,” meaning “the English have landed,” while some Danes refer to menstruation as “Kommunister i lysthuset,” which translates to “communists in the gazebo.”
Other nicknames are not quite as comical. In Portuguese, a common euphemism is “monstra,” meaning “female monster.” In Spanish, “estar mala” or “estar sonada” translates to being bad or broken. However imaginative these euphemisms may be, the fact that there are over 5,000 of them is extremely telling about how the world generally views menstruation—as something that should not be discussed openly.
The harsh rhetoric contained in some of these euphemisms is troubling and severely outdated. The phrase “on the rag,” still one of the most popular euphemisms for periods, harkens back to the Middle Ages when women would use rags to mitigate their flow. The fact that this language has not changed shows just how strong the stigma menstruation has. Due to the fact that some people cringe when hearing the word “period,” a major aspect of women’s health is kept out of the public discourse, preventing people who menstruate from getting the products and the education they need.
The negative effects of these euphemisms are innumerable. If we are not able to discuss menstruation without discomfort, young women around the world pay the price. One in ten African girls misses one or more days of school per month due to menstruation, according to a report from UNESCO. These negative effects can make it harder for girls to participate in class by preventing them from standing up to answer questions from teachers or go to the board, due to a fear of leakage or scent. Inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products, along with a lack of bathrooms at schools and minimal education about puberty, leave many young girls with no choice but to stay home and miss out on their education.
The taboo surrounding menstruation is detrimental to the fight for gender equity—anyone who gets their period is automatically at a disadvantage in many ways. Whether it means missing school or work, or not being able to afford proper hygiene products (which can lead to medical issues such as urinary infections), the completely natural process of menstruation is an additional hurdle to success and equality for women and all who menstruate.
There is also an overarching and wildly misguided perception that periods make women irritable and weak, leading to euphemisms that reference monsters, curses, and even war. Much of this taboo stems from religious depictions of periods and long-held cultural values, but the overall narrative paints a picture of a woman who should not be messed with when it’s her “time of the month.”
This can have catastrophic effects not only on how men view women on their periods, but how women view themselves. Some cultures in developing nations banish menstruating women, almost like a punishment. Others are so afraid to talk openly about periods that young girls have no idea what their period is when they get it. If periods continue to be perceived as a shameful disease instead of a natural and healthy process, true equality is nearly impossible.
Even period products are designed to be discreet and concealable. Many women can relate to the experience of accidentally dropping a pad or tampon and quickly picking it up with embarrassment, scanning the room to make sure no one saw. Even walking through the feminine hygiene aisle can cause women to feel shame. Being seen with a period product can feel like you were caught shoplifting; it’s something that no one wants to be seen doing.
Using euphemisms to describe periods implies some sort of innate wrongness about a natural bodily function that should be celebrated rather than stigmatized. Simply put, without menstruation none of us would even be here. Avoiding the subject for the sake of comfort is detrimental to societal progress.
Periods are no secret—nor should they be. Using euphemisms to talk about periods may make people feel more secure, but until our society can have honest conversations about menstruation without blushing, those who menstruate will suffer in silence.