It’s time to go beyond "feminine hygiene" and consider all people with periods.
by Arushi Jacob October 11, 2023
In May 2023, a small liberal arts college made the executive decision to add period care products to men’s bathrooms. Located in the heart of downtown Boston, Emerson College is renowned for its inclusion of the queer community, residing first on The Princeton Review’s list of most LGBTQ-friendly colleges. The school’s recent incorporation of period care products is the result of years of lobbying, and a petition organized and signed by its diverse and gender-inclusive student body, per their student-ran paper The Berkeley Beacon.
Of course, the college’s decision to cater to their diverse student pool wasn’t met without backlash and criticism on the internet, citing Fox News — one of many outlets reporting on Emerson’s attempt at menstrual equality — whose readership was less than thrilled. Responses to their tweet linking the article featured a variety of GIFs, sighs and emoji eye rolls from followers, each designed to express distaste for Emerson’s decision. Replies ranged from “equity looks strikingly similar to insanity sometimes”, “this is so sad”, “so over wokism", and “Menstrual equality?! How is this real life? This is such a slap in the face. And as a woman, I’m disgusted.” The tweet has since racked up over 300 retweets expressing revulsion, the unspoken consensus being “men don’t menstruate.”
On the opposite side of the political spectrum is the rally “People with Periods.” The umbrella term allows discourse about periods and period care products to continue without resorting to gender specifics and pronouns. In addition to cis women, individuals who identify as trans men, non-binary and gender fluid fall under the category of people who menstruate. The term also includes people who are considered “intersex” and are born with reproductive anatomy that doesn’t fit the traditional binaries of male and female. To think menstruation doesn’t exist amongst this population is ignorance at best.
The lack of acknowledgement for the spectrum of people that menstruate is an issue deeply interwoven into society, beginning with period products themselves, which are often labeled “feminine hygiene.” By implying that periods are purely female, we exclude trans men, intersex and non-binary people entirely. Without including these communities in conversations that affect them, we are ignoring them.
Over the last decade, we’ve begun to see a shift in the way periods are branded, namely by period care companies. Lunette and Dame support gender-neutral terminology in their packaging and in their campaigns. Thinx and Tomboy X manufacture period underwear for all genders, collections they launched in 2013. Red Moon features discreet unwrapping, limiting the sound created when opening their products for anyone nervous to use them in public restrooms. All-around, brand missions have been repurposed to cater to all people with periods, not just biological women, and gender-specific language and historically female designs have been abandoned. The result? More people are invited into the menstrual health space.
While there have been many strides toward a more gender-inclusive society, there are still companies who have yet to make the transition. The majority are large corporations that use outdated terminology and cater specifically to cis women. Brands like Tampax and Johnson & Johnson fall under this reign. The rest are in limbo. Period care brand Always showcased this when they made the executive decision to remove the notoriously feminine Venus symbol from their packaging in October 2019. But to what extent is this effort supported when the very same brand whose move to be gender inclusive continues to use labels that reinstate feminine hygiene?
More concerning than the lack of acceptance is the physical inaccessibility of period care products for people in need. In situations where menstrual cycles happen unexpectedly, people who menstruate have zero access to period care products without entering women’s restrooms, surreptitiously confirming the narrative that queer bodies don’t matter — and that is far from the truth.
In a perfect world, it is a given that people aren’t always the genders they were assigned at birth, and are given equal access to basic necessities regardless. In this world, the concept that people besides cis women menstruate is foreign and something people still have a difficult time grasping. The same can be said for those who identify as cisgender; without ever having to question whether your person aligns with your assigned gender, it’s nearly impossible to understand what the trans community endures, and more often than not results in the lack of base empathy towards trans or gender non-conforming viewpoints.
There’s another side to placing period care products in men's bathrooms: The queer community faces shocking violence and crime rates, with a 2021 survey published in American Journal of Public Health finding that trans people are four times more likely to be physically attacked than their cisgender counterparts. Not to mention, some states have even gone as far as enacting “bathroom bans,” prohibiting the trans community from using public locker rooms, shower rooms, changing rooms and other gender-specific spaces where a level of privacy is expected. Discrimination against transgender people is a problem that cannot be overlooked, and it brings into question whether trans men would even feel comfortable using gendered public facilities due to chances of transphobia. Would a trans man reaching for a period product in the bathroom attract confrontation and bigotry? Would the opportunity of accessibility do more harm than good?
Before we consider what could go wrong, let’s consider what could go right. As a cisgender woman, I’ve been lucky enough to feel at home in my own skin. It's a fact I’ve taken for granted at times, never having to explain certain parts of my identity or body, both to myself or to other people. Everyone deserves to have that same level of stability and security, in themself and the space around them. Gender equality doesn’t just refer to women having the same opportunities as men; it means all people are given the same opportunities, regardless of their gender identity. Putting period care products in men’s bathrooms won’t automatically erase the stigma around transgender folk or even menstruation itself, but the change it will create is making the lives of some people easier simply by including them. When we think about menstruation, we need to consider everyone who menstruates and make sure they’re part of the conversation.