The DOT Org, and anyone who reads this blog, understands that the inequities in access to menstrual products is an intersectional issue that needs to be addressed for the betterment of menstruators, and non-menstruators alike. Governments from countries such as Scotland, and New Zealand recently announced their plans to offer free menstrual products to people. These announcements drew global attention to period poverty, but there are ways beyond governments that people can care for one another when addressing menstrual equity. Since my freshman year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I have been curious as to if the university could provide these products to the student community, and what ripple effects prioritizing this could have.
Receiving a formal education was not something always offered to cisgender women, who currently represent the majority of people that menstruate, so it’s not surprising that schools and other large organizations aren’t set up for their well-being. I grew up attending public schools, where soap and toilet paper weren’t consistent in bathrooms, and if my family did not openly discuss menstruation and could not afford products, I have no idea where I would have turned to get them. When I found out that my school system would start offering them for free following my graduation, I was thrilled. Even though accessing pads and tampons was never an issue for me, knowing that they were available at school made a lot of sense to me. For a lot of people, school is where they spend the majority of their time from age 5-18+, so having the option to get free products there every month makes a lot of sense, especially because not having access can impede on learning. When I started attending college and making financial choices on my own, it became harder to justify spending so much money on pads and tampons monthly, and I opted to invest in a menstrual cup. In the state of Michigan, the tampon tax was recently repealed, which eliminates taxes on menstrual hygiene products, another step in the right direction towards making menstrual products more accessible and affordable. But what about what universities in Michigan, like U-M could do to alleviate period poverty?
If we’re comparing U-M to Big-10, or Ivy league schools in terms of providing free menstrual products, the University of Michigan is lagging behind. Ohio State and Michigan State, U-M’s biggest rivals, already piloted programs to provide free menstrual products. A common thread in what started/pushed these programs at other universities: student power. It’s not impossible for a university to reprioritize its funding, but it often takes a lot of pushing from students. How is this university for the “leaders and best” if we are failing to care for the health of people who menstruate?
There is already a lot of great student work happening at U-M to address menstrual inequity. Here at the Dot Org, beyond providing tangible products to the community, we conduct research and provide educational resources to not only reduce the stigma around menstruation, but also improve the amount of information available to people. Besides us at Dot Org, there is a pilot program headed by the university to provide free pads and tampons, Maize and Blue cupboard hands some out, and there is a coalition within CSG working with administration to make the pilot program a stronger, lasting reality. Groups like LEO, GEO, and OneU provide a framework for what strong organizing for collective liberation looks like, which is inspiring to see as an undergraduate, and makes me wonder what would happen if existing activist groups brought menstrual health into their activism.
At U-M and any other organization seeking to address menstrual equity, it is important to address period poverty as it relates to other social issues beyond sexism, such as racism, transphobia, ableism, and ecological destruction. Social justice around identity cannot be addressed in isolation. The university supplying products is a start but is meaningless without input from their target population. Buying healthy, sustainably, and ethically produced products is necessary, and prioritizing buying from black-owned and queer-owned is even more necessary when considering the interlocking systems of oppression that lead to period inequity. I recognize I sound really cynical, which I am a little bit, but mostly I just want the best and want to draw attention to what I see as a really important part of menstrual health. Lately, amidst the pandemic, the mutual aid groups that have grown in prominence in my home and in Ann Arbor have inspired me to look at menstrual inequity through a new lens. Maybe addressing the issue on campus isn’t up to the administration, rather it is in the hands of students to lift up each other, not through a hierarchical lens of charity, but through a shared lens of identifying the needs of one another and providing for each other. I’m optimistic that within my lifetime, the stigma around this topic will be reduced, and the health of entire communities can be improved.
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In March 2020, I wrote a brief blog post about how health inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 were also prevalent in the menstruating community. At that time, very little information was known about the virus and its biological implications so I used a sociological perspective to tackle this relationship. Now, almost a year later, I would again like to explore the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted menstruation, but with a biological lens. Although hygiene practices have since been established and first-generation vaccines are being distributed, there still remains a lot of uncertainty about the long-term and various effects of the virus. As the virus spread over the course of last year, patients openly shared their experiences and associated medical issues that arose with their infection. Hundreds of publications, both scientific and not, have explored the symptoms people associated with their COVID-19 experience. Dr. Maria Cohut wrote one such article on the MedicalNewsToday website discussing one of the lesser known bodily changes associated with COVID-19 infection: uncharacteristic menstrual cycle fluctuations.
Before diving into Dr. Cohut’s article, let’s begin with some general information about the average menstrual cycle* for anyone who may be unfamiliar with the whole process. A single menstrual cycle lasts 24-38 days during which a reproductive-aged person’s body prepares for a possible pregnancy. The first 1-7 days are marked by bleeding, which is when the uterine lining sheds after the body experiences a drop in hormones after the corpus luteum, which would otherwise support a developing fetus, is expelled from the body. The remainder of the cycle consists of the follicular, ovulation, and luteal phases, all of which are categorized by different hormone fluctuations and bodily changes to prepare for zygote implantation. Now, let’s focus on the beginning portion of the menstrual cycle, famously known as a period. In addition to a week of light to heavy bleeding, menstruators often exhibit a slew of premenstrual symptoms (PMS) including bloating, fatigue, increased appetite, cramps, mood changes, backaches, and headaches. Even for a standard, healthy individual, the menstrual cycle is subject to some irregularity depending on hormonal changes, stress, or other external factors. This is where COVID-19 comes into play. Again, the full extent of the virus’s biomedical influence is not known yet but Dr. Cohut looked at cases in which patients with long COVID-19** experienced previously uncited irregularities with their menstrual cycles. The interviews and Dr. Cohut’s analysis do not suggest a direct causation, but an intriguing correlation of the virus’s impacts on the menstruating body.
Throughout the article, Dr. Cohut lists several women*** who experienced late or missing periods, an unusual amount of heavy blood clots expelled from the body, and exacerbated PMS symptoms. Each of the interviewees described their cases as having been especially abnormal as they all noticed these changes after COVID-19 infection and often in conjunction with their persisting symptoms. One of the patients explains that these changes occurred in spite of her consistent birth control use**** for the past ten years. The combination of these issues can be incredibly frustrating and often interfere with a person’s quality of life. The people had to readjust their schedules to accommodate for new onsets of cramps and headaches while controlling vicious upper respiratory symptoms during their long recoveries.
Unfortunately, with COVID-19 and its associated troubles being so young in the scientific world, there are not many direct interventions for patients experiencing these menstrual complications. Dr. Cohut’s article brings up a relevant point about the research being done to understand COVID-19. Although this is the first pandemic the world has seen in a century, the impact of other viruses and illness on the menstrual cycle is not often studied. The menstruating population makes up a large portion of the world, so in retrospect, should these effects not be an important field of research? As I have mentioned in other posts, the menstrual cycle is a reflection of a person’s internal health, and with a disturbance like a viral infection, people should know to expect associated menstrual changes. Just as COVID-19 showed us that socioeconomic and access inequities continue to impact menstruators, the virus also shows how the periods are not exempt from the impact of a viral infection. As a virus modifies the body, it modifies the respective functions and states of normality associated with it. The scientific community should take this gap in knowledge as a lesson to expand the biomedical research about how sickness may lead to menstrual and hormonal changes. In doing so, the menstrual community would not have to search for answers to determine whether the disruptions to their normal cycles are a part of the viral course or a sign of greater issues.
*Menstrual cycles and the idea of an “average menstrual cycle” differ between individuals and their circumstances. Information used in this context directly came from the Better Health Channel website linked above.
** Long COVID-19 is the term given to patients who experience COVID-19 associated symptoms for longer than the common 2-week period of active symptoms.
*** Only women were interviewed in this article. This does not mean people who do not identify as women cannot also menstruate or are not subject to the same complications as described in the article or in this blog post.
**** Birth control, depending on the type, often regulates the menstrual cycle and can help decrease PMS symptoms and heavy bleeding during periods