Why Good Leaders Challenge the Stigmatization of Menstruation
During a recent Microsoft Teams meeting for an upcoming field exercise, the instructor of my class mentioned that she would bring along menstrual products for students, but that they should also bring along their own products of preference.
Immediately, our informal class group chat lit up with disgust.
“Ohhh- she is not going there.” “Yup she sure is.” “I was not prepared for this conversation.” “What language is she speaking?” This was followed by laughing emojis, a gif expressing revulsion with the caption, “all the guys right now lol.” Both men and women were among those who commented and liked these messages.
Personally, I was grateful that our instructor had addressed a physical need of mine and many others. And I was dismayed that discussion of this need was being categorized as tantamount to a foreign language by fellow Officers, despite the continued selfless service of menstruating Soldiers throughout our nation’s history. Hoping that some might see the implications of their jokes, I responded: “I think it’s pretty important to destigmatize to be honest. It’s a normal thing.” The remarks on the group chat came to a quick halt.
If you don’t see this scenario as troubling, consider this short thought exercise. Imagine you have just joined a new unit and are getting a tour of the facilities. But there’s an issue: no one showed you where the bathroom is, and you’ve been really successful at your New Year’s Resolution to drink more water. You can’t find the bathroom anywhere. No one has mentioned it. You know that others must be using it because, well… everyone needs it. Attempting to veil your desperation, you ask your new colleagues, “Where can I find the bathroom here?”
They react with extreme disgust, shocked that you’ve asked such a forward question. One sharpy replies, “I am not prepared for this conversation” and walks away. One retorts, “what language was that you were speaking?” At last, one colleague tells you where it is in hushed tones, and you gratefully speed walk to it, trying not to appear as urgent as you feel. But after your relieving errand, you realize this colleague noticeably continues to judge you for having the audacity to discuss such a repulsive topic. Resolving that your own dehydration is a preferred burden over the communal shame you might face for venturing into the restroom, you surrender your New Year’s Resolution and begin limiting your secretive trips to the bathroom during the duty day as much as possible.
In both examples, we see the stigmatization of a basic human process. However, while excretion is common to all humans, making the imagined scenario impossible, it bears many similarities to menstruation. Both are processes relegated to the private sphere due to the presence of bodily fluids. However, in the case of excretion, we recognize that it’s occasionally necessary to discuss its related requirements, in unremarkable terms, in order to accommodate for people’s needs. For example, when you arrive at a new location or training site, instructions are given without dramatics concerning the location of the latrines. Similarly, if menstruation is a basic human process similar to excretion in its relation to bodily fluids, why don’t we treat it the same way?
We are in a profession training to use lethal force. An unwillingness to discuss menstruation in the military is not about a lack of intestinal fortitude to discuss a little bit of blood (it’s really only about 4 tablespoons for an entire cycle). It’s about something deeper: cultural stigmatization and discrimination toward menstruating people from a space that has been historically and continues to be normatively masculine. My point is not to just tell anyone they are wrong or that they are chauvinistic. Instead, it’s to encourage everyone to recognize and value the experiences of every person in order to take better care of our troops.
Some Basic Facts
Before we get into the weeds of how this impacts us as leaders, let’s review the basics of menstruation. Why? Because not understanding this natural process and its associated needs will continue to lead to shame and discrimination against people who menstruate. Because we can dispel many myths around the topic. Because not understanding any bodily function can lead to negative health impacts. Because ensuring that Soldiers and leaders—women and men—are educated on this will give menstruating people the confidence to embrace their bodies and feel safe and seen as a part of your team.
Menstruation generally occurs on a 28-day cycle. It consists of the thickening of the uterine lining to prepare for the implantation and growth of an embryo. If this implantation (i.e., pregnancy) does not occur, the uterus sheds its lining and restarts the cycle. The menstrual cycle is guided by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can fluctuate tenfold during the cycle. In addition to being necessary for reproduction, this process helps support bone density, cardiovascular health, and other aspects of physical health. In order to accommodate this process, people may need to change tampons or pads every 4-8 hours or a menstrual cup or period panties every 12 hours. Failing to do so could lead to your Soldiers experiencing Vaginitis and Urinary Tract Infections and potentially worse consequences, such as Toxic Shock Syndrome. They may also use medications such as Ibuprofin to deal with period cramps.
Our Duty as Leaders
The comments from my classmates in my opening story contributed to the stigmatization of menstruation–hardly fitting for Officers charged to lead our military. But while I voiced my disagreement, I don’t fault them for their responses. Such abhorrence to this natural bodily process makes sense in the context of spaces that have traditionally excluded women. It’s a cultural issue more than it is an individual failure.
Leaders are responsible for creating and maintaining inclusive teams in the Army. The Army defines leadership as “providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” If leadership is not only about accomplishing the mission, but also about improving the organization, then understanding and challenging the stigma around menstruation matters.
Leaders need to address this with their teams in order to cultivate a place in which people feel safe and in which their needs are considered and cared about, not mocked. In speaking up against this, leaders will likely attract some pushback. It goes against centuries of ignoring the experiences of women and decades of accepting women in the military only so much as they mute their womanhood in order to fit in.
Menstruating people make up approximately 15% of the force—one in seven servicemembers. In order to lead effectively, leaders must be willing to put their reputation on the line and be a little uncomfortable in order to ensure that all leaders have the information they need to take care of their soldiers. Menstruating bodies should not be objects of revulsion. Menstruating people should feel accepted as their full selves.
Although it is a natural and necessary process in reproductive health, menstruation can be inconvenient and uncomfortable, causing pain (referred to medically as ‘dysmenorrhea’), headaches, cramps, fatigue, appetite changes, digestive issues, depression, insomnia, and a host of other annoyances. As if the physical discomfort weren’t enough, this process has been assigned a large degree of shame and disgust. One study shows that 42% of women have experienced period shaming and 71% of women have hidden their menstrual products on the way to the bathroom. Additionally, 51% of men believe it’s inappropriate for women to refer to their menstrual cycle in the workplace. This stigma causes menstruating people to feel alienated from their bodies, fear asking necessary questions ensuring that their needs are met, and feel excluded from hyper-masculine and physically demanding teams, such as the military.
In addition to this emotional toll, this has real physical consequences. The culture of disgust around the topic has prevented education that would allow people who want to suppress their menstruation (using hormones that stop or reduce periods) from getting the medical assistance they need. Although about three-quarters of women want to use menstrual suppressors during a deployment, only 7% do so. One probable reason for this disparity was because two-thirds of women surveyed had not received any education or counseling on how they could access such medical care. Could this be because of the stigma that has been placed on discussing menstruation in the military? And could the initial desire to suppress menstruation itself be caused by the fear of judgment and lack of accommodation by their teams? If so, this demonstrates another reason why leaders must challenge the stigmatization of menstruation.
How You Can Make a Difference
- If you’ve read up to this point, you’ve already taken the first step: caring enough to get educated on menstruation and how it matters to everyone. If you’ve realized a gap in your understanding, continue to seek out learning.
- Recognize the unique strengths that menstruating Soldiers bring to your team. Our military strives to be representative of the nation that it serves to protect. What valuable experiences, perspectives, talents, and creative abilities are we losing out on when we fail to welcome all people as they are, and instead force them all to emulate an archetypal G.I. Joe?
- Be sensitive to people’s needs. Recognize that people have different experiences and therefore different needs. Take the time during counseling to ask for feedback in a considerate way to understand how you can best support the needs of your Soldiers. This doesn’t just go for menstruation. It also applies to pregnant Soldiers, breastfeeding Soldiers, and parents of young children—especially single parents and parents of children with disabilities. It may sound nerve-wracking if these are not subjects that you feel comfortable with. But it could be as simple as including the following during counseling: “I know that our organization has a long way to go in ensuring that it is an inclusive team. How can I best ensure that your needs are met as a woman / pregnant Soldier/breastfeeding Soldier/parent? I want you to feel safe and comfortable to raise any unique needs or concerns that you have with me.”
- Plan to address those needs. Ensure that the appropriate resources and privacy are available to your Soldiers who are menstruating based on what they have communicated. At a bare minimum, put menstrual products on packing lists for the field and do your best to ensure facilities are available and notify your team in advance when you know there will be a stretch of time in which they facilities are not. For those who would like it, the DOD is also required to ensure that “women members of the Armed Forces have access to comprehensive counseling on the full range of methods of contraception” which includes forms of menstrual suppression.
- Address exclusionary comments and actions. When someone makes a comment that they think a woman is in “that time of the month,” because of their own assessment of her emotionality, call that out as inappropriate and harmful to the cohesive team that you are building. While periods can affect moods, women shouldn’t be reduced to their periods. Not all women menstruate. Not all women experience the same premenstrual symptoms. Additionally, men can experience emotional shifts due to hormonal fluctuation as well (for an illuminating article on this phenomena, click here). Maybe remind others of that when women are stereotyped as “hormonal” or “PMS’ing.” If mentioning menstruation generates a more pronounced reaction than using the bathroom, inquire why this is funny and why they don’t make similar jokes about someone mentioning where the bathroom is located. Ask them to consider how open disgust stigmatizes the experiences of people who menstruate.
- Be humble. We could all afford to recognize that our own experiences do not allow us a full understanding of the unique experiences of others. When we make a mistake in our words or actions and someone has the courage to correct it, thank them for trusting you enough to have the hard conversation and then express your desire to learn and grow.
One way to work toward creating the types of cohesive teams we need in the Army is to focus on removing the stigma around menstruation. Many leaders are lacking in information or uncomfortable with the topic and have therefore allowed stigmatization to continue in their organizations. This has a negative impact by making people feel like they don’t belong because their bodies function in a way that causes others disgust. Leaders who want to take care of their troops—who want to create inclusive, cohesive, high-performing teams—will work to reduce this negative stigma. This will take time, effort, courage, and a willingness to have uncomfortable conversations, but it is also necessary, important, and completely within the realm of possibility for leaders who value their Soldiers.
 I use the terms “menstruating Soldiers” or “menstruating people” because not all people who identify as women menstruate (i.e., transgender women and post-menopausal women). Additionally, transgender men can also menstruate. Now that the transgender servicemember ban has been lifted, Officers should expect that they will lead menstruating Soldiers who identify as men and women.
1LT Joy Schaeffer is a Marshall Scholar and currently serves as a S2 for the 759th MP Battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado. She holds a masters in International Studies and a Masters in Intelligence Studies from King’s College London. She is a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.