The very first scientific encyclopedia, written by Pliny the Elder in 77 CE, devoted an entire chapter to menstruation. According to the entry, menstruating women could kill crops and drive dogs crazy.
Filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte says Pliny the Elder’s misconceptions have persisted throughout history: “(The) majority of world religions view periods as ‘dirty,'” she says. “I wonder why? Let’s take a look under the rug.”
Plioplyte considers menstruation a “beautiful cycle” that happens to half the world’s population – one that “we’re not supposed to talk about.” His new documentary, Periodic chronicles the ongoing social and political movement to erase the shame that has plagued women throughout history.
Plioplyte also wants to challenge the so-called “tampon tax” on menstrual products, which currently exists in 21 states. The tax is a sales tax on products designated as “non-essential,” but, as Plioplyte argues, “this tax is unconstitutional…because these products are necessary for half the population.”
The cornerstone of the film and Plioplyte’s advocacy is the desire to have more open conversations about periods.
“If we suddenly start talking about menstruation, guess what? Our girls will no longer be stigmatized,” she says. “We just need a critical mass of talkers, celebrators… people who talk loud and clear about their tampon needs, their cramps, their PMS or, for God’s sake, the menopause.”
On period poverty
It’s (the) impossibility of buying menstrual products because they are too expensive. It’s kind of a general statement. And it’s also: Why do we need menstrual products? To have maybe… an easy way to go to work, to go to school, to absorb your period so you don’t have a pile of rolled up toilet paper between your legs.
If you’re a single mother raising four teenage daughters, how much does it cost per month to have a decent period for five bleeding people in the house? This is where we start looking at, OK, so if a pack of tampons costs $6.99 and I need three if I have heavy flow in the cycle, plus there’s this tax on tampons, oh interesting!
On the “tampon tax” on menstrual products
I’ll give you an example: toilet paper. Everyone must have toilet paper for a worthy bathroom experience, absolutely essential – therefore not taxed. In some ways, menstrual products have been deemed by lawmakers as “non-essential” – nice to have, much like deodorant – if you have it, wonderful; if you don’t, well, it’s not the end of the world. So in a lot of these states, that’s what happened, that sales tax was put on menstrual products, and, well, as the majority of those who bleed would tell you, that’s all essential fact. It’s not a “nice to have”, which is what I’m really interested in.
Why was this tax imposed on menstrual products in the first place? Well, it turns out that Laura Strausfeld, who is a wonderful activist and lawyer specializing in period law… started going around and talking with legislators. …She discovered that most men didn’t know how menstruation works. …(They thought) menstruation is kind of like when you want to go pee, you kind of hold it there. Then you go to the bathroom and release everything.
On the problem of dividing children’s health lessons by gender
In the majority of education systems in the United States, boys are kicked out of class whenever menstruation is mentioned, which I hate so much, and health classes are segregated. I just wish boys would know what happens to girls, and girls would learn what happens to boys. We would have so much more empathy, so much more compassion just by understanding what’s going on in the other body, which I don’t inhabit.
On toxic shock syndrome
In the 1970s, Procter & Gamble created a great stamp and they thought, wow, wouldn’t that be practical? Imagine putting a tampon in once during your entire cycle. …It seems so easy, especially when we are conditioned that this period is the (biggest) nuisance ever. So why not put something in there that will absorb all your blood for all those days? Turns out it’s a horrible idea. Turns out it’s like an idea of bacteria breeding and toxic shock. At first they didn’t know what was happening, but women started dying. Then the scientific community understood that it was toxic shock syndrome. It’s a new disease that happens if you keep a tampon – or that super tampon – inside your body for too long, and it’s extremely deadly and very fast. So that was a huge wake-up call…for anyone who bleeds. … (By perpetuating) this idea that (a) periods are a nuisance and a filth and this thing that we wish wouldn’t happen, women started to die.
On adding scented chemicals to menstrual products, without regulation
In general, it’s part of that same conversation (that) rules are gross, rules are weird, rules are something to hide. And so, can we make it smell like roses… or, as the actors in the film say,… like a cheap candle? Does it actually cover the period smell? What is this shame? What is the need to hide it by all means and act as if (the) period did not exist? And what would it look like if we removed this shame? We would then no longer need to insert all kinds of chemicals inside this wonderful, absorbent membrane that is the vagina. …It goes straight into your bloodstream, whatever you put in there.
Perimenopause… it’s a bit like puberty in reverse. These are the last few years of your period. If you remember when your period started, the first few years were pretty funky, with spots and anger and crying and random periods and that sort of thing. Well, they say it can also happen at the other end of your cycle, and so it’s normal, and so 200 symptoms, sometimes including hot flashes or night sweats or forgetfulness or rage. …Literally everyone going through perimenopause and menopause finds themselves a little lost, scared, and (feeling like there’s) no one to talk to – which thankfully is changing quickly because these women express themselves. How really cool! As if we are literally experiencing the menopause revolution.
Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Carmel Wroth adapted it for the Web.