Sitting in a corner booth of the McDonald’s, I watched as two of my male classmates picked up my backpack, unzipped the side pockets, and threw 10 of my purple pads on the black and white-checkered floor. They laughed for so long and so loudly that the other customers stared, and I sat hugging my arms to my side and hating my 13-year-old body. I didn’t want to ask my mom to buy more because I didn’t want to tell her what happened, and so I had to make do until next time she assumed I would need them.
Almost everyone who menstruates has a similar story about a time they have been made to feel ashamed, scared, or alone about their period, and this doesn’t have to be the case. Menstrual equity refers to the right to equal and comprehensive access to menstrual products, and to the right to education about reproductive health, which both removes barriers to care and reduces stigma surrounding it. The United States has clearly not yet achieved menstrual equity, and this continuously harms people who menstruate. A 2021 study led by Lauren F. Cardoso found that 14.2% of college-aged people were not able to afford period products in the last year, and that an additional 10% experienced this every month. This menstrual inequity is a critical issue, as menstrual care products are as fundamental as toilet paper, and income inequality is caused by colonial frameworks.
However, in this year alone we have made fundamental strides towards menstrual equity, though notably, there is still a long way to go. It was only this year that Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill that removed period care items from the luxury tax list. The city of Ann Arbor made tampons and pads available in every public restroom, and the University of Michigan funded several menstrual care initiatives from Central Student Government, The Dot Org, WORTH, and my own program, the Sustainable Period Project (SPP).
The SPP was funded by the Student Sustainability Coalition through the Social and Environmental Sustainability Grant (SES) and the Planet Blue Student Initiative Fund (PBSIF) and received $2,500 and $18,500 to distribute free reusable menstrual cups and underwear to University of Michigan affiliates. You may have seen these cups and underwear at the Maize and Blue Cupboard or University Health Service, and we still have many online vouchers for reusable underwear available on our website.
I created this program in late 2020 because I felt like University of Michigan students, faculty, and staff deserved more support from the University for sustainable, healthy, and affordable menstrual care. Though pads and tampons are incredible and are what some people prefer, there are other options out there, namely reusable menstrual cups, underwear, and pads. These reusable options can limit exposure to bleaches, contribution to global waste, and some discomforts. Menstrual cups are made from 100% medical grade silicon, which does not leach during wear, and they can be reused for up to 3 years. Further, menstrual cups and underwear require a single investment for the 3-5 years, while tampons and pads need to be bought every month. During economic pressure and harms done in the COVID-19 pandemic, it was important to me that people receiving support from the program would continue to benefit through this particularly difficult time. From the SPP alone, we have now given out more than 1,000 menstrual products to U of M affiliates, which have saved an estimated >77,344 pads and tampons from being thrown away and 1,256 kg of CO2 emissions from being emitted.
Advocating for menstrual equity makes a big difference in people’s lives and is intricately intertwined with the fight for the realization of other rights like racial justice, land justice, and reproductive justice. The more communities are talking about menstruation and supporting people who menstruate on all levels, the less shame, health risks, and financial burdens there will be on the shoulders of people who hold them simply because of the way their bodies work. Further, by coupling environmental justice and menstrual equity frameworks, we open the door to new possibilities for achieving our rights. Through cobbling together University funding and creating relationships, the SPP was able to collect sizable financial power, and though the SPP is just a small piece of the ornate puzzle that is the work for menstrual rights, it was impactful. It is my hope that the next generation of University of Michigan students will continue this work for menstrual equity and reproductive justice and will act on the many problems that they see, and I know it is already underway.
If you are a U of M student, I highly encourage you to visit the Student Sustainability Coalition website for more information on applying for funding that can help you realize your own sustainability and environmental justice goals.