In her new book, It’s Only Blood: Shattering the Taboo of Menstruation, journalist Anna Dahlqvist explores how menstrual shame and lack of access to products and education affect women all over the world. We talked to Anna about the process of writing the book and her recommendations for what we can do to eradicate menstrual shame and period poverty.
*Giveaway: Because we think these issues are so important for woke women everywhere, we’re giving away 10 copies of It’s Only Blood. Follow Blood and Milk on Instagram, tag a friend and make sure they’re following, too, and on Monday we’ll select five pairs of friends to receive free copies of the book (we know you’ll want someone to discuss it with!).* Update: Giveaway closed.
1. You interviewed so many people, from so many organizations, throughout the book. Is there a specific conversation throughout your research that stands out as being truly groundbreaking or enlightening for you?
One of the more important meetings I had was the interview with which I begin the book—with 14-year-old Saudah from Kampala in Uganda. She made me realized what it means to be totally focused on the fear of being exposed while bleeding, how her days on her period becomes “lost days” because all she can think of is, what if there are stains or what if my cloth falls out? And her experience cannot be measured in absence from school—since she went to school while bleeding—which means it becomes invisible.
But she also proved to me the fact that, if you start talking, people will tell you what they need. In her case she wanted disposable pads, locks on the toilets, water inside the toilets, and more understanding teachers. The demands are there if you just ask and give people a voice. One more thing from that meeting was how my experience as a teenager related to the same kind of shame as Saudah’s. The core issue, the shame over one’s body, is the same wherever you go. But for me [growing up in Sweden], with pads, tampons, toilets with locks, running water—it was easier to avoid the shame.
2. Throughout the book, you talk a lot about physical space: space for changing pads, for cleaning products, for storing them—how these are critical spaces for both equality and health. How should we think about space, mentally and emotionally, for conversation around menstruation? Who should we include? What mediums are best?
I think we need different spaces, somewhere we can share experiences with other menstruators and by doing that, gather knowledge together, share pain, and of course also laugh about our periods. Those spaces can either be in real life or on social media/the internet. But we also need to open up the conversation, make it an issue with political dignity, where we can break the silence, discuss how schools, workplaces, and public places can be more “menstrual friendly,” and in those spaces we need to reach beyond only menstruators.
We also need to address the menstrual products offered to us (are they affordable and comfortable enough?), as well as research and health care. That could be done through campaigns, demonstrations, discussions with your teachers, your boss, or staff at the local health center. We need more public space as well as more private ones. Both spaces only for menstruators as well as with those who do not menstruate.
3. In the book, you talk about how menstruation is often brushed aside within the global health community for health issues that cause high rates of mortality. Does the solution then lie in nonprofits, NGOs, and/or private citizens?
I think the solution lies in the global health community taking these issues seriously and I believe things will change as societies move towards equality. On the way, we need the push from NGOs and other agents of change, but it is important that it does not become an issue that is “on the side,” not a part of general health care. As people, we have a right to and should be treated as though we do. But for change to occur we need to start talking about our experiences and stop seeing health problems as “natural,” “a part of being a woman,” etc., when there is actually help to be found.
4. You talk about how, in the US, it is estimated that “the number of working days lost due to menstrual pain amounts to 600 million per year, to a value of 2 billion US dollars” (104). How would you encourage companies to approach this shocking number?
By making their workplaces more “menstrual friendly.” Is there menstrual protection in the bathrooms? Easy access to painkillers? Somewhere to lie down? Is there an environment where you can talk to a boss about cramps, headaches, PMS, PMDD? Is it possible to work from home?
5. In your conversation with Archana Patkar, she relents how the onus seems to always fall on women, “for the environment, the children, the families – everything!” (156). Especially when we look at the previous question, and how not addressing menstruation impacts the economies of entire nations, what role should men play in this conversation/movement?
As I stated above, men (non-menstruators) are also a necessary part of the change, as they exist in all kinds of positions where periods are relevant—as partners, co-workers, teachers, politicians, and school mates. We can’t just eradicate the silence within the group of menstruators because that means the silence still persists. And in the silence, there are myths, taboos, shame, and stigma. It becomes something that is not normal, and our bodies collide with society.
6. Toward the end of the book, Chris Bobel tells you, “I just hope that we don’t cede this movement to the product makers.” As someone who works for a company that produces period products, can you elaborate on this? What role should producers play in the conversation and movement in eradicating the taboo of menstruation?
The issue is so much bigger than the product; at its core is really the ideas of shame, stigma, and silence, and if we focus on the product we tend to forget the bigger picture because it is an “easy” fix. Producers have also taken the role as reinforcing all this in their communication, talking about how to be “safe, fresh, and clean” as if it is dangerous to be exposed as bleeding and as if our blood is dirty and unfresh in some way. There has been a mentality that also encourages us to use disposables which I believe is a problem. We need to talk more about sustainable options such as cups and reusable pads.
7. What small steps can readers take today to help rid their own communities of the shame surrounding menstruation?
Talk and talk and talk. For me, it took the longest time to even say the word menstruation without a little bit of embarrassment, as well as to stop hiding my tampons, my cup, or pads. Breaking the silence is a political act. And then taking it to the next level: demands! Demand change—be it in the form of cheaper products, access to health care, or longer toilet breaks in school.
Thank you so much, Anna! Don’t forget to follow Blood and Milk on Instagram to win a copy of It’s Only Blood for you and a friend! (Giveaway now closed.)