Schools Are No Class Act: Obstacles for Menstruators in Classrooms
There is a subtle art to hiding a tampon up your sleeve and navigating a boisterous middle school hallway to go change it in the bathroom during your few short minutes before the next class bell rings. In 8th grade, I had not mastered it. There was only 5 minutes to return to my locker all the way on the South side of the building, fish my period products out of the little pouch I kept squirreled behind my books, shove through the crowded hall to the girls bathroom, twiddle my thumbs waiting in line, do my business, and then speed walk back to the North side of the building. The bell always rang while I was in the bathroom. My speed walk was always through emptied halls, footsteps conspicuously slapping the linoleum floors, and my face was always a hot red blush by the time I slunk in the door to my front row seat where I would clatter my flute case open and join class late.
My period certainly wasn’t a defining characteristic of my middle school years, but menstruating does change the way that I, and every menstruator, approach school participation. Period poverty, and the fight for menstrual equity, is finally being mainstreamed in order to give menstruators the same tools to succeed as their peers. And I for one, am over the moon about it. After all, how are individuals meant to focus in class when they are experiencing gut-wrenching cramps and constantly running calculations on when was the last time I changed my pad? Do I have enough period products in my backpack to last me through the afternoon? When is the next chance I will have enough time to get to the bathroom to change my tampon without missing class time? How are individuals meant to thrive in their learning environment when they need to choose between purchasing school supplies and period products at the end of the day? That’s enough to pull anyone’s attention away from the task at hand, be it taking notes on a chemical nomenclature or reading Shakespeare.
Let’s face it, from passing times to dress codes, schools aren’t equipped to serve menstruators, and it’s time for a change.
One school administration’s scandal in Chicago shed light on the stresses of menstruating in schools, where the Noble Network of Charter Schools came under fire for their mistreatment of menstruating students. The start of the issue? Khaki pants. You don’t need to be a designer to know how blood red contrasts with beige. Noble Network schools were designed to provide a structured educational environment for underserved youth, and a system of demerits and detentions are tools employed by the administration to maintain discipline in their classrooms. According to their school policies, students who were forced to alter their uniform due to period stains were outed to staff members via email notification, so that staff wouldn’t issue demerits on account of a student wearing a sweatshirt around their waist. Imagine how it must feel to turn a very private hiccup in a student’s day into an ordeal made very public to all school staff.
At the same school network, students dealt with limited bathroom breaks, and were prohibited from moving about the halls without a chaperone outside of passing times. This isn’t something that only happens in strict charter schools either. In my public school, we were given a certain number of bathroom passes that we were eligible to use, and good behaviour could award us points to “buy” more trips to the bathroom. I remember another teacher making kids carry an entire toilet seat as their bathroom pass. How are we destigmatizing periods if menstruators have so many emotionally humiliating hoops to jump through in order to change their period products?
I remember another teacher making kids carry an entire toilet seat as their bathroom pass.
It’s hard to talk about periods in the classroom without talking about concentration and cognitive function. And it’s hard to talk about cognitive function and periods without falling into the she’s-just-on-her-period rhetorical trap that men have built for us.
It’s a biological reality that menstruators’ energy hormones fluctuate during periods, creating unpredictable moods, fatigue, and foggy thinking. I, for one, enjoy inexplicable crying over deer in my backyard, sudden existential sadness while watching art restoration videos, and snapping at family members offering me basic kindnesses. During menstruation, the three hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone take turns working together and counteracting each other to fulfill the functional needs of menstruation, but this often has pretty chaotic effects on the menstruating body. “When estrogen levels fall quickly after ovulation and progesterone levels begin rising, you may feel more tired or sluggish than usual,” explains the Office on Women’s Health.
For me, that means fatigue right before my period starts in earnest. It’s hard to get out of bed, hard to focus, and hard to put one foot in front of the other to complete tasks because I’m just so dang tired. Progesterone is like a chill pill, and once it reduces to trigger the shedding of the uterine lining, menstruators experience a jolt in emotions without the calm balance to process them. (That’s right, the hormone that makes us volatile during our periods is testosterone, thanks fellas.)
Nevertheless, none of this should be “bad news”. Having emotions is not “bad news”. These emotions are always there, but menstruators have less mental space to tone-police themselves, and react in ways that are ingrained as "normal." But menstruation is normal, mood fluctuations are normal. Periods and their impacts on students shouldn't be stigmatized, treated as a private shame, considered weird, gross, unprofessional, dirty, unacademic.
What I want to suggest is this: every roadblock to menstruators’ success in classrooms is preventable. Providing free period products in schools (like HB1273 will enable) alleviates students’ preoccupation with menstrual hygiene access, not to mention the financial burden of purchasing products. Longer passing times, or removing disciplinary action on tardiness, alleviates the stress of sprinting to your locker, to the bathroom, to your next class, when you need to change your pad. Enforcing inclusive dress codes that don’t single menstruators out from their peers ensures that students spend less time in the office answering to administrators, and more time in classrooms learning from their educators. We know the education system at its creation was built for white men (just read more on standardized testing, and collegiate preparation if you’re not convinced), so it’s no surprise that certain groups don’t have the infrastructure to succeed intrinsically built into their learning environments.
Pursuing further research into bodies on periods opens up the opportunity for further education to combat the stigmas proliferated by non-menstruators. It should be noted that conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and endometriosis are very real obstacles to menstruators’ capacity to function due to their disruptive symptoms. These experiences are not solved by passing a law, or changing school rules, but the exacerbated challenges for menstruators would benefit from further de-stigmatization of the symptoms, and progressive health research that prioritizes menstruating bodies. Further research and development opens up the opportunity for innovation in the period space to combat period product inconveniences. For example, Flow Period, LLC. used user-research and engineering with a menstrual equity lens to design a portable menstrual cup , debilitating menstrual pain, and mood swings that confuse menstruators’ confidence in self.
Menstruation shouldn’t necessarily be framed as an impassable hurdle to overcome, though. Yes, menstruators have a different experience than non-menstruators, and this requires adjustments so that our education system is equitable, but this difference does not equate to a negative reflection of menstruators’ capabilities in school. Hormonal changes are natural, menstruating is natural, and reorienting the mindset of communities to celebrate all of the dimensions of menstruation — in addition to the fertility that makes uteruses fruitful as a disembodied resource for the patriarchy — will create the space for menstruators to flourish as whole students, as whole people. Be it in decision-making or perception of class content, the research shows that menstruation does not inhibit cognitive function. The majority of the hurdles that menstruators face are environmental, and pursuing solutions to period poverty and period anxiety for students will eliminate menstruation as a barrier for students.
Yes, menstruators have a different experience than non-menstruators, and this requires adjustments so that our education system is equitable, but this difference does not equate to a negative reflection of menstruators’ capabilities in school.
Dana Ringler is a writer, runner, and thinker local to Bellingham, Wash. As the Blog lead for The Red SEA she works to bring the stories behind menstrual equity work to life.