Seventeen MU students met for their second club meeting of the semester. After mapping out their goals to serve the community, they ran through the usual icebreakers. Members shared their names, year in school and majors.
But at this gathering, they added one more fact: the stories of their first periods.
Some laughed through their anecdotes. Others nodded empathetically. Most said they did not know what to do when it happened.
“I was in fifth grade, and I remember I got it at home,” Ellie Bonucci, president and a founding member of MU’s chapter of PERIOD, said. “I told my mom, and she was, like, ‘Oh, my stars!’ and walked away.”
PERIOD is a nationwide nonprofit organization promoting what it calls a menstrual movement. The focus is on service, education and advocacy: The national group donates “PERIOD packs” (nine tampons and six sanitary napkins) to people who are economically disadvantaged, reduces the socialized stigma around menstruation and works to remove the luxury tax charged on menstrual products.
Bonucci said one way the MU club localizes the national mission is to create community change. Members work in partnerships with organizations such as Tiger Pantry, the MU Women’s Center, Aunt Flow and the Associated Students of the University of Missouri.
Tiger Pantry offers food assistance, free toiletries and more to MU students or employees in need. Through the PERIOD chapter’s recent partnership, Tiger Pantry clients can pick up free feminine hygiene products that were collected through drives and donations.
Abby Mauer, fundraising coordinator for Tiger Pantry, said the products donated from the PERIOD chapter are from national brands, like Kotex, rather than the generic products originally supplied by Tiger Pantry.
“Most of our clients love that we hand that out because that’s $10 to $20 less they have to spend that month,” Mauer said. “Our clients really like it. They’re really disappointed when we run out.”
Mauer said her clients sometimes hesitate to explicitly request tampons; they often ask, “Can I have some of those?” Because of this, she said she wondered at first how they would react to new, reusable silicone menstrual cups that came from the partnership with the PERIOD chapter. After Tiger Pantry had regularly offered the menstrual cups for about a month, the clients started to try them, Mauer said.
“It’s a more sustainable option, especially for people with lower income,” Mauer said. “I’m hoping that they’re into that and continue to use them.”
Jane Kielhofner, vice president of external affairs for the MU chapter, said she wants to open up the conversation on campus about menstruation because everybody knows and cares about somebody who gets a period.
“They don’t know if that person can afford it or if that person struggles to have access to those products every month,” Kielhofner said. “That’s something that’s really hard to talk about in our society and something that we really want to make easier to talk about on campus.”
The founder of PERIOD’s national organization, Nadya Okamoto, said in an email that she wanted to make it as easy as possible for people around the country to join the movement. More than 150 chapters exist in high schools, colleges and other communities worldwide.
Since founding the organization in 2014, Okamoto has written a book, organized a world youth activism conference on menstruation and spoken at women’s conferences around the country, including Columbia’s 2018 Women’s Leadership Conference. She said that through her nationwide travel, she has learned the importance of inclusivity in menstruation.
“Women are not the only ones who menstruate,” she said in an email. “Trans men and nonbinary individuals menstruate as well. This is why when I talk about people with periods I use the term ‘menstruators.’”
According to the national organization’s website, PERIOD has provided services for more than 380,000 menstrual cycles as of Tuesday. A $2 donation covers the cost of one menstrual cycle.
A person can be of menstruating age for about 38 years, which can total 450 periods in a lifetime, according anthropologist Beverly Strassmann. Menstruators spend $18,171 on their period, according to the Huffington Post. A 2013 survey of women aged 18-54 conducted by the Free the Tampon Foundation stated that:
- 86 percent of responders have unexpectedly started their period in public without the necessary supplies.
- Within that 86 percent, 51 percent did not have the necessary supplies because they forgot to restock their purse, bag or emergency stash.
- 79 percent have improvised by “MacGyvering,” or creating makeshift tampons or pads out of products like toilet paper.
- 34 percent stated that when they unexpectedly start their period without necessary supplies, they go home immediately.
In addition, people who buy menstrual products pay the “tampon tax,” meaning that they are subject to the state sales tax on nonessential items. In Missouri, tampons, sanitary napkins and other feminine hygiene products are not covered under a tax exemption for products considered basic necessities, such as groceries and some over-the-counter medications. Missouri has a 4.225 percent general sales tax.
PERIOD’s MU chapter advocates for public policy change through a partnership with a student-run lobbyist organization that bridges the gap between students and lawmakers. Every year, eight interns work with the legislators at the Capitol to pass legislation especially pertinent to students, executive director Natalie Butler said. This year, the student lobbyist group and PERIOD are working to find ways to make menstrual products more accessible and affordable.
Butler said members of the student group try to learn everything they can about each legislative topic before they talk with the legislators in Jefferson City. Members have comprehensive conversations with each other, which have helped reduce the stigma around talking about topics such as menstruation or sexual assault on campus, she said.
“It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have,” Butler said. “You have to figure out ways to break down that uncomfortable conversation and be able to have it in a way that is still effective and gets your message through.”
Kielhofner said MU’s PERIOD chapter is pressing to open up those conversations and eliminate taboo. As a public health major, she said she loves creating conversations about stigmatized topics. For example, when she was a sophomore, she wrote a research paper about male circumcision. That same year, she learned about the national menstrual movement.
“That (reducing the stigma) is one area that I want to grow with the club,” Kielhofner said. “What we try to do is have these meetings that open up these conversations and have these icebreakers.”
Bonucci was a freshman in high school when she first took notice of the stigma around menstruation. She was sitting in the student cheering section before a volleyball game when a senior shouted to the crowd asking for a tampon.
“Everybody was mortified, and everybody was like, ‘How did you just say that?’” Bonucci said.
MU’s PERIOD chapter meets on the third Tuesday of the month. Bonucci said having open conversations about menstruation with everyone is important.
“We are cultured to think that something like this is private,” she said. “More than half the population has a uterus, so it’s natural. It’s not like we choose it. Let’s just talk about it.”
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey: firstname.lastname@example.org, 882-2632.