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Rethinking Periods with Ontario’s Rising Menstrual Activists

I joined Bleed the North as a girl living in oblivion to the horrors of period poverty. I considered menstruation to be a women’s issue and I hid tampons up my sleeve while walking down my high school hallways. I subconsciously fed into these stigmas, ashamed of the blood I shed once a month. How wrong I was! The word ´period´ isn’t gross, it’s empowering. Bleed the North taught me to embrace that part of myself and fight for other menstruators around the world.

The following article is a conversation I had with the leading ladies of the organization, some of the smartest women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. For the reader who likes to skim pages in a hurried glance, I present some of the most moving quotations from Ontario’s uprising politicians and world-changers. 

Isabela Rittinger (she/her): I am the president and founder of Bleed the North and co-founded the National Period Week of events alongside Mia. 

Mia Médic (she/her): I am the co-advocacy chair with Palwashah, and co-founded National Period Week alongside Isabela. I oversaw the major events and 5 teams.

Palwashah Ali (she/her): I am a grade 12 student, and I was the head of logistics for National Period Week this year. My role was to delegate tasks to our logistics team, fostering open communication between our speakers and our attendees and arranging the logistical work for it.

Rhea George (she/her): I am one of the co-social media coordinators at Bleed the North. At National Period Day, I was the promotion head, responsible for getting the word out there and spreading the message about the event.

Canada’s First National Period Day

What inspired you to start Bleed the North, and in turn National Period Day?

Isabela: I started Bleed the North in March at the precipice of the Covid-19 lockdown, in which I was faced with a lot of free time and I had heard the statistic that one in three women under the age of twenty-five in Canada struggle to afford period products. Because of that statistic and because I had all this time on my hands, I decided to start Bleed the North as a chapter of the Period movement. A couple of months later, we decided to follow our own values and become the Bleed the North that you know today.

Mia: I came into my position of advocacy chair roughly around the end of April, so I had my position for roughly a month before we realized that our values did not align with the Period movement. We wanted to create resources for Canadian advocates in the menstrual movement with National Period Day. NPD was originally an American-founded event; we realized there were no similar events in Canada for Canadian menstruators and Canadian activists yet. So we decided that in order to bring this movement to Canada, amplify the voice of menstruators and the activists fighting against period poverty, we needed to create a Canadian National Day.

Siobhan: I also think when you’re a branch of such a huge organization already, there’s probably a lot of policy you have to follow. So it’d be harder to create such a huge national event when you’re part of something bigger.

Isabela: Yeah, I remember me and Mia talking about NPD really early on and we actually decided to email Nadia, who was at that point, who was leading the Period movement. We decided to contact her about our ideas for the week of events in Canada- and we were promptly shut down. We were just told to wait until we were able to follow the directive of the Period movement.

Siobhan: I think that’s super empowering: to create a big thing. Especially when we’re younger, or students, trying to establish a company or a name for ourselves, it’s very hard to get yourself recognized on a platform. So it’s saying, ‘hey, let’s just establish it ourselves and create our own brand, you know, and bring it up enough through promotion.’ So now, we have somewhere to execute our ideas where we don’t have to go to any higher power.

The Issue of Period Stigma

Menstruation is undoubtedly a ‘taboo’ topic both in and out of the classroom. What are the consequences of that and why is it such a problem? 

Palwashah: It still shocks me that something that such a large portion of the world deals with is still so taboo. People don’t realize how much time, effort and struggle menstruators have to go through just to menstruate: not even to do so peacefully or comfortably, just to menstruate in general. And the worst part is that we have the resources to stop this. Collectively across communities or through the government, we can abolish period poverty. Yet still, there are so many people across the world who have to lose opportunities just because they menstruate. Student menstruators can’t go to school sometimes because they might not have the resources or they don’t have the means to physically attend school while menstruating. People who are working can’t go to work. Opportunities lost- opportunities not only lost for them- there are opportunities lost for all of us.

When a menstruator misses out on school or on work, that’s so much potential just thrown away for something out of their hands, and for something that we can change collectively. It makes me so angry: why do I have the means to menstruate properly when such a large population doesn’t? It puts things into perspective in terms of privilege. There are so many menstruators who are facing the consequences of inadequate government systems and the lack of voice representing them.

Rhea: Going along with that, I think in Canada we’re lucky enough to be so modernized and such a way where we can somewhat start the conversation. But in schools, especially elementary schools, I think that the conversation needs to be started.  It’s silent in such a way that schools might split the girls and the guys to only have the conversation around girls. Even though it’s something that all of us should know about, people will say this is a girl-only conversation in Canada. On a global scale, there are some schools that don’t have that conversation in school at all. 

If the issue is ignored, it turns into a dangerous cycle. When people who can’t afford products and skip school, they put their own education at risk. They can’t acquire the knowledge and skills to secure a proper job, and they’re stuck in a cycle of poverty where they can’t afford period products. Then, the next generation can’t afford these products, education, or a job.

Mia: Taboo around menstruation and period poverty go hand in hand; period poverty is amplified due to the taboo around menstruation. We actually had a speaker at NPD, Sommerly Grimaldi-Ertl, who is a member of the Indigenous Communities in Ontario discuss period poverty in Indigenous communities and reserves. A large reason why poverty is such a pressing issue is that there’s this taboo around it. People are afraid to start this conversation, to say ‘Hey, our community doesn’t have access to menstrual products. The shelters don’t have enough donations.’ It’s seen as ‘shameful’ to ask for a pad or a tampon or a menstrual cup or a reusable pad. It’s shameful because it’s uncomfortable. And because of that, our vulnerable communities don’t have access to menstrual products. Because there are many Indigenous communities up North, it’s even more difficult for organizations that operate in the GTA to get periods up there. 

We also see this taboo in schools. I remember when I was in 9th or 10th grade, there was a packaged pad on the floor of my high school, and everyone was walking around it like it was something disgusting. I remember non-menstruators being mortified. I think the big thing is not only educating menstruators but non-menstruators, too. If we leave out non-menstruators, an entire body of the conversation isn’t educated. 

Siobhan: I remember in my elementary school, periods were glossed over so quickly in class. We’re supposed to be taught about our body and period, but it’s so quick and uncomfortable. I feel like by doing that, we’re taught that menstruation is not something we’re supposed to talk about or be comfortable with.

Rhea: I think that’s one of the big things that we try to do, especially in our organization, is separate gender identity from menstruation. I like using the term menstruator instead of woman, because this isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s much bigger than that. Actually, it’s a biological process that so many of us go through and it becomes a bigger topic when you make it inclusive.

I think it’s so important to go through our language that is littered with casual sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. We have to pay attention to the way that we’re thinking and the way that we’re using our language, because by using the term ‘women’ in menstruation, we’re making it a gender issue. These are the types of things that go into our schools.

Period Education

Period poverty, and even menstruation in general, is something that not many people are educated on (especially if they aren’t subjected to it). What is one thing you wish you could scream from the rooftops for everyone to hear in terms of periods/menstrual health/mental health/etc.?

Isabela: People should not be financially burdened by something they have no control over. That’s all. That’s just how it goes, and I feel so strongly about that: I feel like that’s the backbone of our whole argument. It pervades so many aspects of your life, and for what? You don’t get to choose. It’s not new. It doesn’t only affect three people, you know what I mean? It’s just at this point, astounding to me that we need to pay for a period.

Mia: My period is not gross. My body is not gross. Your body is not gross. Your period is not gross. And I think that’s something that needs to be reiterated because periods are seen as shameful. They’re seen as disgusting. They’re not- they’re natural. 

The second thing is, if there’s something I could get everyone to yell, it would just be the word period. It would just be menstruation. I’m tired of hearing people use code words and other ways of addressing periods. I’ve had non-menstruator friends who’ve asked me, ‘are you on your reds?’ As if using the word period is weird. So if I could just get everyone to yell period and normalize using those words, I think that’s important.

Rhea: It comes back to the whole language thing! We have to learn to use these words because they’re not bad. I’ll use all kinds of swear words and things like that, but God forbid anyone says the word period. These are just normal, natural words.

I think mine would be more directed to younger menstruators to say just how normal it is. If someone were to tell me when I was younger just how normal leaks were, I would have had so much less embarrassment. Everybody leaks once in a while, and it’s not a bad thing. This is happening to everyone. Your period is not something you should be embarrassed about.

Palwashah: More likely than not you are here and you exist because someone around you has menstruated in their life. And when a menstruator loses out on an opportunity to go to school or to go to work or leave their house or to do whatever they want to do, we all lose. We collectively lose, and we don’t even have to be losing when it’s so easy for us to all just live and win together. It’s so easy for us to just acknowledge menstruators. You don’t need any resources to be able to acknowledge that and say ‘Hey, menstruators exist and they matter.’

The Menstrual Conversation in the Transgender Community

BTN has been an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, spreading awareness that not everyone who menstruates is a woman. Can you expand on that and the importance of menstrual conversation/representation in the transgender community?

Isabela: So this is something that I’ve had the opportunity to learn way more about since I’ve been involved in Bleed the North. First of all, I want to say that it’s a learning process, you just start trying to hold yourself accountable to use the proper language. The more you practice and learn about the different ways that people are affected by other periods, the easier it is. 

I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to learn that not only do we need to include the trans community in our conversations regarding menstruation, but we need to highlight the ways in which they’re disproportionately affected by their periods due to their conditionality. For example, less than 50 percent of transgender individuals who were surveyed in this one survey in the States don’t have a health care provider. 19 percent of those have been refused medical care because of their position as a transgender person. So in the first place, health care is a really contentious thing when it comes to being transgender.

A lot of people don’t have the basic health care that cisgender people do have. That, combined with the additional stigma that goes around menstruation for transgender people. Now, because of all of this, I’m not necessarily like hiding tampons up my sleeve. But I did in high school because I was so scared: it was because of the stigma that I have mentioned before. It’s just the embarrassment: not wanting people to know I was bleeding. But for a transgender person, having to hide a tampon or being found out that you menstruate, it can seriously destroy your life. If you’re in an unsafe environment, it has so many different impacts that I literally could not have begun to understand or comprehend before being immersed in this in this community. So I think it’s just important to recognize that as cisgender menstruators, we all have privilege when it comes to not hiding tampons up our sleeves. 

Rhea: Not that we can even speak on their experiences, but if we try to look through a transgender lens, the language that people use is not inclusive. 

We hide tampons out of embarrassment, but they hide it in fear of their whole identity coming crashing down around them. In schools we separate the guys from the girls, but what if there’s a transgender woman that wants to be included in the conversation they’re separated from. It just shows us how privileged we are even though it may not feel like it when we menstruate. So yeah, I think it’s really important that we open the conversation up, especially regarding the different realities for everyone in the community. As much as we do share a lot of experiences, some of us go through a lot more.

Mia: It’s important to reiterate that gender is not binary. In society, we have been conditioned to be gender binary – masculine, feminine, man, woman –  and that there’s nothing in between. This is what many people have been conditioned to, but gender is a spectrum. It’s not man, woman: it´s not binary. 

The first step is to recognize that gender is a spectrum. Second, when it comes to menstruation, we say that not all women menstruate and not all those who menstruate are women. So, for example, menstruation for those in the transgender community can cause a lot of dysphoria, gender dysphoria. I obviously cannot speak on behalf of transgender folks, but based on research we’ve done through Bleed the North, transgender women feel less than women because they don’t menstruate and transgender men feel less of being a man because they menstruate. Because of the gender binary- because we’ve been conditioned that women, menstruate and men do not- it creates this dysphoria. 

If we open up conversations approaching menstruation neutrally, it combats this binary view of gender and menstruation. If we were to provoke these conversations and educate people, it can also help in supporting the transgender community. They’re not only facing period poverty, stigma, and the physical pain of menstruation (because we all know menstruation causes a lot of pain), but the emotional and mental struggles of having gender dysphoria and feeling less of their gender. This is why we’ve really been trying to instill menstruation neutrally, because it is a neutral topic, right? 

Siobhan: I think, again, it all goes back to education: these ideas need to be implemented into the school curriculum. You have these elementary school kids or middle schoolers who are going through puberty, exploring their sexual orientation and gender identity, and they need to know! Whether they menstruate or not, they need to know what a period is, how to go about it healthily and just to understand it.

Palwashah: I really think that we need to move away from our traditional view of a menstruator, which is usually a woman. If we as advocates don’t represent or understand the needs of menstruators, no matter who they identify as, then we’re counteracting what we’re trying to fix. 

We’re creating a stigma by solving another stigma, which doesn’t work. The stigma as a whole is so much more complex than we can ever imagine. I know that as a CIS gender person and female, I know that wherever I go, I will find a washroom or a facility for me that hopefully has some product somewhere. But unfortunately, a lot of people don’t have that access at all. When you go to regular washrooms, you’ll barely find products available for you, especially in school environments. For people who don’t identify as either female or male, there aren’t many opportunities available for them to go and get the products.

This stigma is embedded in everything we do, whether that’s in schools, the workplace, or any sort of public area. We need to learn to become the best allies we can be, and we will make mistakes! But it is up to us to educate ourselves, and take accountability the second we make a mistake with our language.

Mia: I think all of us today have talked about schools, that’s a recurring theme. But also, accessibility to menstrual products within schools. Through the advocacy team, Palwashah and I have been working over the past 4 months and will continue to work to get free period products in Ontario schools by the end of 2021. But, we need to ensure that we are being as equitable as possible when working towards this. So this means that we are providing period products in not just the women’s washrooms, but all washrooms. If we were tackling period poverty through advocacy work but only for women, then it’s counterproductive. 

For those who do not menstruate, if they see period products within their washrooms and there’s still this stigma, there will likely be a bad response. In order to counteract that, we also need to push for education. Everything is connected. 

Palwashah: Our curriculum is said to be so embedded and takes years to build- so many people look through it. But, specific keywords can cause such harm for people: for example, many teachers will automatically refer to menstrual products as feminine hygiene products, or even when governments are trying to make them free. It’s not a gender issue, it’s a human issue! 

Join the Menstrual Movement

How can readers join your initiatives at Bleed the North?

Mia: On our social media, in our Link Tree, there is a Google Form that you can fill out to get involved. Once you have done that, our volunteer coordinator will get in touch with you with your preferred contact method, and message you about an intake call. Our intake calls are super friendly and chill, I understand that meets can be super intimidating. We don’t force you to do anything and you can really just sit and listen if you’d like! We introduce who we are, what Bleed the North is, what our teams do, and how you can get involved. There are so many different teams you can join and we will explain that all at the intake call. If you ever have any questions for us or our teams, you can go to our website where you will find emails for all of the different pillars as well as info@bleedthenorth.org.

Rhea: Outside of that, if you can’t commit to joining our organization, just start a conversation within your community. Using that language and educating people around you is what we need right now. 

Rethinking Periods with Ontario’s Rising Menstrual Activists

If you had all of the money and power in the world, what would you do to fight period poverty and stigma in Canada?

Isabela: Making period products free for all. Budgeting and implementing a proper curriculum in elementary and high schools across the boards to ensure that everybody, regardless of gender, stream, or catholic or public has the same proper education about their bodies and their peers´ bodies. Also, give support to shelters- not just women’s shelters- youth shelters, LGBTQ shelters, Indigenous communities specifically. Implement proper programs in the North to ensure that everybody regardless of location or identity has proper access to not only period products, but also to education around how to have a healthy period.

Additionally, put proper funding and come up with proper solutions and implementation and execution of providing sustainable alternatives to period products. 

Mia: I would love to implement gender-neutral washrooms everywhere, that contributes to the conversations about trans communities, or to people who have not necessarily transitioned or aren’t really sure about their gender identity and don’t want to conform to anything but don’t feel comfortable using one washroom or the other. To reiterate Isabela’s point on Indigenous communities, what would really infuriate me is if someone, say, Doug Ford, says ‘we’re making period products free in all of Ontario,’ but then completely ignores Indigenous communities. We need to make period products easily accessible In Indigenous communities, reserves and shelters.

I think that one thing we didn’t really touch on that today, was how Black menstruators are disproportionately affected by period poverty, and I think that’s something really important. Racism and period poverty are intertwined, and we need to approach period poverty intersectionality. 

Rhea: Have you seen in all the commercials how they use that blue liquid instead of anything that resembles blood? It just looks so fake! They try to make it look as glorified as possible so it doesn’t look like a gruesome process. If you look at video games, those are displayed in the most gory way but period blood cannot? It is just so weird to me. 

Palwashah: I think politicians have so much power in their hands, and I think they should be making committees to assess period product companies, and holding these companies accountable who have the money and means to make sustainable products, make sure there’s equitable representation, and go into communities who are heavily affected by period poverty. See what it’s like for all of these people and see how many people who are using paper towels, newspapers as makeshift period products and then tell me that you care about menstruation. 

I would love to see any politician or anyone with prominence to talk about it. I want Justin Trudeau to go in front of a mic and openly talk about menstruation because it’s about time that politicians have those open and healthy conversations. There are so many youth at home watching these big and powerful politicians: this is the way to show them that it is okay to have open conversations about menstruation. It’s so simple and so easy to just start talking about it! And I want all politicians to start the conversation and see how far we can take it collectively. 


Conclusion

So… rethinking periods. It is clear that we have a long way to go before menstrual equity, and it can feel quite overwhelming. This is why we must start with the baby steps. Not sure what a period is? Ask a parent, a friend, our anonymous advice column- simply start a discussion. Speak up for those who are less fortunate, and don’t shy away at the word ‘menstruation.’ 

As youth, we aren’t the leaders of tomorrow, we’re the leaders of today. Make your voice known in the battle against period poverty and help to make this human right free for all in Canada. 

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