Julyn Shepherd taught her children from infancy as all mothers do: These are your eyes, these are your ears and these are your arms. In the same manner she taught her children about their genitals in respectful, medically accurate terms.
Shepherd worked to remove shame or confusion about their anatomy. As a newborn ICU nurse in Utah, she heard from mothers who didn’t know they were pregnant and were unsure of how the process of procreation worked because nobody spoke to them in explicit terms.
Her daughter was in sixth grade when she came home from school with her heart hurting for a younger classmate she had found panicking in the bathroom. This classmate had never heard of a period and thought she was dying when she found blood in her underwear.
Her daughter taught this classmate how to use a pad, got her in touch with adults who could help her further and provided assurance about the function of a female’s body during a menstrual cycle.
Shepherd taught her children about the normalcy of their bodily functions and how to talk about them.
“We don’t teach menstrual hygiene young enough. And even when we do teach it, we’re just barely touching the surface of what it is,” Shepherd said.
The Knowledge Gap
Earlier this month, Utah legislators passed a bill allocating funds to provide free period products for students. This came on the heels of community groups such as The Period Project advocating for education and access to menstrual products for youth.
The experience of Shepherd’s daughter highlights the gap in knowledge young girls have about menstruation. According to the Journal of Midwifery and Reproductive Health, menstrual health education is inhibited by incorrect information and insufficient knowledge, which then brings on unnecessary health and social problems.
When the Bloody Buddy Cup menstrual cup was created in 2016, there were five menstrual cup options on the market. In addition to the Bloody Buddy Cup, there are now hundreds of brands and companies making not just menstrual cups, but menstrual discs as well.
Courtney Evans and her sister Lexi Rose are co-founders and creators of the Bloody Buddy. Evans grew up with sisters to teach her about menstruation but still had much to learn when preparing to start a business providing a menstrual cup for a bodily process that almost all females experience.
“My experience learning about menstruation was our maturation program in the fourth grade, in the fifth grade and then it wasn’t until eighth grade where it was probably a one-week unit in health class,” Evans said.
This lack of understanding is not limited to young girls, however.
Boys and men can benefit from knowing more about hormonal cycles and tracking symptoms or other changes in the bodies of their family, their peers and their neighbors, said BYU professor Chelom Leavitt. Leavitt teaches students about healthy sexuality and attitudes toward their bodies through the School of Family Life.
“I tried to teach my girls to respect their coming of age and to respect it for other people. Like when boys’ voices change, we don’t harass them, they can’t do anything about that,” Shepherd said.
There are age-appropriate ways to educate or expose kids to the process of menstruation, assisting in lifting the stigma around this natural process.
“My son knows that I have a period and he knows more or less what it is: each month I bleed and my body’s doing that because if I want to have babies it needs to do that,” Evans said.
Leavitt agreed. “I think men need to know about menstrual cycles,” Leavitt said. “This is kind of a big burden, and men need to know to be sensitive, to be aware and not to tease girls about their emotions.”
She also described the lack of knowledge the public has about menstruation and the detrimental effect that can have.
“Too often we’ve kind of fallen into a trap that other people have fallen into where our bodies are a little shameful,” Leavitt said. “It’s important that we learn to master everything about us: our thoughts, our desires, all of these things we learn in order to be disciplined.”
‘The dignity of menstruation’
Leavitt teaches students coming from varied backgrounds of exposure to menstrual or sex education. Students have to decipher what is truth when exposed to online misinformation, internalized fear or shame and different personal experiences.
“Women, we have to spend a little more time on understanding, why do we have daily discharge? Why do we have a monthly cycle? It’s a lot for us to learn to deal with and learn to manage, you know, teaching an 11 or 12-year-old girl how to manage a monthly period, and for us to do it in a positive way,” Leavitt said.
As a mother, Shepherd said she worked on removing shame or embarrassment from the conversation and worked to be the example of confidence and healthy curiosity when teaching her children about available options.
“We don’t talk enough about the dignity around it or having the right to products or having the right education,” Shepherd said.
The importance of teaching and sharing about menstruation does not stop in education or other public places.
“There are so many things that are saving women money, that are more eco-friendly, and are just better for their bodies in general,” Evans said of the menstrual product company she and her sister co-founded.
There are now multiple models of menstrual cups, menstrual discs and reusable pads available to meet the needs of women during menstruation.
Leavitt encouraged women to step up and to speak openly about both positives and negatives regarding menstruation as well as their experiences with various menstrual hygiene products. This first-hand account can help contextualize the experience for young girls or women who have been miseducated.
“Those are amazing, life-altering experiences,” Leavitt said. “And other women are the ones who have to help, to say, ‘I know this is a pain right now. But it’s actually a beautiful part of who you are.'”
The lack of knowledge and exposure in public education is not the only limitation to an understanding of menstruation and the way it affects women. Rose shared the difficulty she and her sister have had trying to find an educational model to use in demonstrating how their menstrual cup works.
“It’s hard to find that stuff, you can only teach so much from a clear cylinder or a glass jar,” Rose said. “We would get a lot of models that said they were life-sized and they were not, they were 70% scale.”
As more menstrual hygiene options have become available, the educational resources to accompany them have not had the opportunity to grow in the same way. The widespread accessibility of even basic products has improved slightly, but not to an adequate degree, Rose said.
There are still women who cannot access the basics of menstrual hygiene. The BMC Women’s Health journal published a study in January 2021 saying more than 500 million women and girls worldwide do not have access to proper menstrual hygiene products or management tools.
According to the study, “14.2% of women had experienced period poverty in the past year; and an additional 10% experienced it every month.”
Girls and women are borrowing products from others, using other materials to address menstruation or using products for longer than recommended. Some even go entirely without period products, which keeps them away from school or work.
The study demonstrated that period poverty among college students has become a growing concern as students lose the benefits of higher education because of a lack of access to menstrual products.
At BYU, student council organizations in the Life Sciences Building and the Marriott School of Business worked to combat period poverty. Free products can now be found in some restrooms inside those buildings, as noted in the map below. This effort accounts for less than 1% of all bathrooms on campus that are publicly accessible for women.
The Daily Universe investigated campus restrooms publicly accessible for women to evaluate the availability of menstrual products for use. (Created in GoogleMaps by Isabel Brown)
Fifty percent of all publicly accessible women’s restrooms on campus offer menstrual products for 25 cents each. Many of the dispensers are outdated, difficult to use or broken entirely. These dispensers are slowly being replaced or replenished around campus.
Students and faculty working together have provided chances for students to change the trajectory of menstrual education and access to menstrual hygiene as the need arises.
“What’s best is just to realize, ‘I now have good information,’ right?” Leavitt said. “‘What can I do with it?’ No matter what people are doing with it around me, no matter what my parents did, no matter what my spouse is doing, I can still make a change in my life.”
The SFL 376 Healthy Sexuality in Marriage course at BYU offers gospel-oriented learning about menstruation and sex for both men and women. The SFL 223 Preparation for Marriage course also addresses menstrual cycles in relationships and the benefits of men and women being fully and properly informed.
Other on-campus resources can be found through the Women’s Services and Resources office in the Wilkinson Student Center. They offer online information sheets about emotional health, pregnancy and reproductive health, women’s health issues, breastfeeding, menstruation and other important topics.