Menstruation is okay!

Tenderness and freedom

Marta Gruszecka: The results of the latest research by the Kulczyk Foundation are merciless – menstruation is a taboo subject in Polish schools. Why?

Wiktoria Niedzielska-Galant: Because we adults are burdened with it. We cannot talk about menstruation, we feel ashamed, but we also do not have reliable knowledge about it. We pass the stereotypes in which we are stuck on to children. How, if not from us, are young people to learn about this physiological process, which is natural for the body? In school textbooks, menstruation is described in three sentences. If it is a normal topic at home and the child can talk freely about it with their mother or older sister, it will be easier for them to get used to it. Unfortunately, there are cases of adult women who admit that they have only recently learned how to use a sanitary pad with wings... We must start education with ourselves. This requires knowledge, not superstitions, stereotypes and unnecessary tension accompanying the topic of menstruation for generations. In the office, I often hear from teenagers that menstruation in Polish schools is a very stressful thing.

They are stressed by the process itself or the accompanying fears – what is happening to my body, how do I prevent bleeding so that there are no stains on my trousers, how do I relieve stomach and breast pain?

Absolutely everything. Even access to the toilet is problematic. Today’s children are used to high standards – well-equipped toilets can be found at most petrol stations, in shopping malls or McDonald’s. What do those in Polish schools look like? Most often there’s a door with a window, unlocked or with a metal hook. There is often no soap, hot water or even toilet paper in the toilets. Replenishment requires, for example, going down to the ground floor to the janitor and then “parading” through the hallway feeling ashamed, with a roll in hand. Children, used to normal toilets, spend several hours a day at school, where time has stood still. This creates a feeling of confusion.

“Parading” through the hallway with toilet paper can actually be embarrassing. Not to mention a sanitary pad! A traumatic experience.

My dream is to have sanitary pads, tampons and liners in the toilets – hygiene products are just as necessary as toilet paper. There are even pink boxes in some schools, which give teenagers a sense of security. Unfortunately, menstruation is still fraught with tremendous tension and shame. What if someone realises I’m on my period and laughs at me? What will I do if it starts leaking? Do I stink? Intensive thinking about menstruation and the stress associated with it causes the release of cortisol. This hormone acts on our brain like a hot frying pan on a raw egg. A young person is not able to focus on learning, when they have to be vigilant all the time and check that no one has noticed anything. The research of the Kulczyk Foundation shows that during menstruation as many as 17 percent of teenagers do not go to school. If someone isolates themselves every month, there is no chance that they will get the appropriate attendance, and social contacts may also deteriorate. Of course – absences are often simply out of malaise and discomfort, but in many cases, teenagers choose to stay home just because of stress. “She’s weird, she probably is on her period” or “the Polish teacher has given two Fs today, she probably is on her period” – we hear in the school corridors. After the pandemic, young people are even more sensitive to the assessment of their peers, and each assessment, especially at this age, is recorded in our identity.

Why are Polish schools so terrified of blood?

And only menstrual blood. After all, most Netflix shows have blood in them. Teenagers also watch MMA fights, extreme sports or horror films, where it squirts everywhere and it’s not abnormal. In fact, on the screen blood is exciting and boosts entertainment. And suddenly there is menstrual blood that is dirty that needs to be hidden, ideally it should even be blue. It is incredible that the blood of violence is more “sexy” than the one that gives life.

Does school strengthen superstitions?

Instead of equipping children with knowledge, they taboo subjects related to the body. Not only do children feel lost in adolescence and everything is new to them, but they also don’t have any tools to deal with this situation. A girl may go to bed as a child and wake up as a teenager with different emotional and social needs. A moment ago, she was an expert in her own skin, now she wants to shout: “Alien, leave my body!” It’s very easy to get into your head that there’s something wrong with you. Because if you don’t feel good in your own body, you are definitely defective. Teachers should support the young person, talk openly with them, and explain what will happen to their body soon, or what is already happening. This is a topic for the form teacher period! Meanwhile, during the classes, for teachers collect money for school trips...

They don’t know how to start a conversation because no one has prepared them for it.

Together with a teacher friend, we once organised a workshop for boys from a youth social therapy centre. We started with the question – what do you know about your own body? What myths do you know? What do you call your intimate zones? The attitude of being open to young people turned out to be a really good idea. After another workshop, one of the seemingly “dangerous boys” came up to me and said that he had passed the knowledge from our meeting to his sister. Cool – he found out that his sister may feel worse because of her menstrual period and should not tease her about it. After all, he also faces the natural processes of his body that come as a surprise – for example, uncontrolled ejaculation at night. Teenagers love to discuss, search, and drill down into topics. The more they know about a given topic, the less nonsense they come up with. If an open and tolerant person to talk to is waiting for them on the other side, such a conversation can help a young person a lot. I know many teachers for whom menstruation and puberty are not taboo. Students feel very safe in their company.

But the first signs of changes are already visible. I have read that nearly 100 schools that have received menstrual products for their students will participate in the “Sanitary pads at school for every girl” programme. The headmaster of one of them appreciated the fact that, additionally, by engaging in school volunteering students will increase their knowledge about personal hygiene.

What can we do so that menstruation is no longer a taboo at school?

Talk to children about it from an early age. How do preschoolers learn to cross the road? Educators instruct them: look right, left, then right again, make sure the green light is on. Why can’t the body be described in the same way? See – this is your body that is constantly evolving. Here are your hands, eyes, mouth, nose, and here are your intimate places. When young children live in a culture of acceptance and respect for the body, it is much easier for them to later supplement their knowledge about the maturation process. Conscious of what awaits them, teens will respond to the changes in puberty with much less fear than those who do not have a structured understanding of it. The lack of reliable knowledge about one’s own body and the changes taking place in it causes anxiety, while silence full of tension is a signal of a “shameful topic”. What we are not talking about is usually associated with something terrible or unimportant. Young people will sooner or later find information about their body, because they live in it, they are it, and this curiosity is natural. They’ll watch porn, they’ll browse Instagram, and that’s fine too. Except that searching for knowledge in random, often unreliable sources can be ineffective and sometimes risky. The task of the school is to support human development – it is worth asking why is basic information omitted? Attempting to answer this question exposes the problem of adults, not youth.

I have no doubt that the role of teachers is to get young people familiar with the idea that puberty and the related menstruation is a normal developmental process and a sign of health.

Half of humanity menstruate every month – menstruation is okay!

Wiktoria Niedzielska-Galant, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist for children and adolescents

Author: Marta Gruszecka

Illustrated by: Marta Frej

The text was published on wysokie on 23 October 2021