I look down at my bag, trying to figure out how I was going to maneuver my tampon out unnoticed. I could just take out my miniature black clutch where I kept all my supplies, but that would be too obvious right?
I look up and around at my classmates to see if anyone was looking at me. Why would they decide to take their eyes off the teacher or whatever else may have their attention and look at me at that exact moment? Absolutely no reason. But I am still very paranoid.
'Okay just do it' I think to myself.
I reach into my backpack and into the black clutch I had previously unzipped in preparation for this moment. Cautiously, I grab a tampon from the bunch, slip it into my sleeve (while thanking myself for wearing long-sleeves), and sit back up. About a minute later, I get up and go to the bathroom. A few minutes later, I walk back to class with the feeling of a mission well accomplished. Thinking more clearly now, I pick up my pen and start taking notes. Now I can focus.
Every woman experiences her period differently, but what every woman does feel is the overall unpleasantness of the whole situation. I, for one, absolutely hate those few days where it feels like my body is against me. I have cramps that make me unable to move from the bed, I get extremely nauseous at the smallest of things, and my emotions are so sporadic that I feel the need to warn people to keep their distance.
On top of all of that, I am supposed to pretend like it is any other day, and that I don't feel like crawling back under the covers. When I'm riding the subway, walking down the street, waiting in line for coffee, I am constantly aware of the fact that I am on my period. It is a constant paranoia that follows me and makes me feel like there's a giant sign above my head that reads Warning: Menstruating Woman Coming Through.
Now I realize that there is easily a chance that I may be more paranoid than the average menstruating women. So I reached out to others to see if their periods came with a giant sign too, or if it was more of a small button pinned on their shirt. Here, some of their comments:
"I used to definitely care more in high school but in college I don't mind as much. It's natural and should be normalized."
"It was a struggle when I first got my period in middle school. I was so embarrassed to have to go into my bag or locker to get a tampon or pad out because I thought it was the end of the world if boys or other classmates knew I had my period. In the winter when I would wear boots I would put my tampons in there so I wouldn't have to pull it out in public in the hallway.
It was a major problem not having access to any materials in the bathroom for girls. I think it was something that was so embarrassing and was a shame. A lot of companies I work for now have all the supplies in the bathroom for our needs which is very fortunate...."
"I always try to discreetly and quickly get it out of my bag to go to the bathroom. I always try to keep [my period] to myself so men don't try to excuse/use it to explain my work performance, mood, or anything."
"This might sound weird but in high school I used to take a tampon out of my locker discreetly and put it in between my boobs so no one would see me walk to the bathroom with it. Even now I feel the need to whisper to female coworkers while asking for a tampon or pad. If men see me with a tampon and I feel any kind of emotion later, they usually assume I'm being irrational. I'd prefer to hide it rather than deal with men being unnecessarily uncomfortable of something that is completely normal."
"I sometimes will wait it out until I'm home or until most people around me go on break so I can sneak either my bag or a tampon and/or pad with me. I hate doing that because I get my period very heavy, but just knowing that people might see what I'm doing gets me paranoid. Especially if I'm around men. Then sometimes I won't change it at all until I'm home, as gross as that sounds."
As expected, there is a wide range of emotions women feel when dealing with their period. However after hearing other women's experiences and feelings, it is justifiable to conclude that a majority of women, especially younger women, feel the need to be discreet and hide any actions that show they are on their periods.
The simple (and obvious) answer is: The Patriarchy.
Years and years of men being in charge and women being shamed for their bodies. When you look back at ancient and medieval times, it can be hard to find information about women on their periods because the male recorders didn't want to write about it. What is understood however is that women on their periods were often associated with magic and sorcery, with their being myths to explain why they bled and what the blood would do. There was also a lot of religious shame of periods as well. Women were told the cramps were to remind them of Eve's' original sin, they were not allowed to take communion while bleeding, or they were sent away to wait it out somewhere.
Today in the 21st century, society has learned the biology behind menstrual cycles and the appropriate sanitary supplies have been created to help women manage. However this underlying shame that has been embedded in menstrual discourse still remains.
In more developed parts of the world, women fight for period supplies like tampons and pads to be treated with the same amount of importance as the men making these decisions treat viagra. Movements were started to decrease or completely abolish the tax on these necessary products.
In lesser developed countries, women have to deal with much more than feeling paranoid. These cultures are more ingrained in their taboos on periods, considering the topic something people shouldn't openly discuss. In India and Bangladesh some women are not allowed to touch food or enter the kitchen on their periods. In Burundi, women cannot bathe near shared utensils out of fear that the blood will kill family members. In Venezuela, some women have to sleep in huts while they are bleeding.
Because of this shame, there is an extreme lack of education about the menstrual cycle and overwhelming lack of access to proper sanitary supplies. Many young girls are unaware of what a period is when they first start, leaving them ashamed and scared. Girls without access to a sanitary pad are forced to stay home from school and are at a higher risk for infections.
As we all continue to fight for things to be better for women at home and all around the world, let's also try to make them better for ourselves. Yes this is easier said than done, but if we stop feeling shame when menstruating, and aim for an attitude that expresses how natural the product is, maybe men will be forced to see it as well.
In the quotes given above, many women mention that much of their shame started when they were teenagers in middle or high school. If we aspire to change the mindset of young girls to not be ashamed of their period, because it is, of course, one of the most natural parts of life, then we may be able to stop this shame from manifesting and staying with women as they mature and step into their adult lives. We must aim to show men that they can not impose thoughts about us over something they could never fully understand. This type of change can not and will not come easily, but the first step of any change starts with a public conversation.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."