- By Lucia Benavides Special to the American-Statesman
When Jennifer Aldoretta got her period at 11 years old, her first thought was: “What’s wrong with me? I must be dying.”
The severe pain that came with menstruation made her miss school every month. She would sometimes vomit, or be on the verge of passing out. At 14, she was put on birth control to ease the pain, which brought on issues of anxiety and heart palpitations. So at 20 years old, she decided to consult the internet and immediately found answers.
“I stumbled across all of this reproductive health information and learned all of these things that, in hindsight, I wish I had learned in fourth grade about how the menstrual cycle works, why you have a period, what your hormones are doing throughout your cycle,” says Aldoretta, 28. “It really was like a lightbulb for me.”
After changing her lifestyle and starting to track her period, she realized there must be other women who could also benefit from all this information. In 2013, the Austinite launched Groove, a period-tracking app and educational website. And this February, Aldoretta started a Facebook page called Humans with Periods, a spinoff of the popular page Humans of New York, but with a different goal: to destigmatize periods.
“People like myself who have really painful periods or women who struggle with infertility feel so isolated because we’re not having these open conversations,” she says.
Aldoretta is not alone in trying to destigmatize the topic of periods. In the last year, many pop culture moments revolved around this issue: from Instagram user Rupi Kaur posting a photo of her bleeding through her pants (taken down by the photo-sharing app), to London marathon runner Kiran Gandhi letting her period run down her leg, to the rise in popularity of period-proof underwear. It’s all part of a movement propelled by activists, entrepreneurs and everyday people.
“One of the most important things we can do to create change is have a conversation about it,” Aldoretta says. “When we don’t talk about periods, people aren’t aware that there are serious ramifications. Not talking about them means people are facing issues like lack of access to basic sanitation products.”
According to a 2015 report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization, at least 500 million girls and women around the world lack adequate facilities for managing periods. In rural India, 1 in 5 girls drop out of school after starting their periods, according to research by Nielsen and Plan India. Even in the United States, homeless women have trouble getting access to tampons and sanitary pads. Shannon Cavanagh, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, says it’s an issue that needs to be acknowledged, especially as organizations push for girls to attend school.
“It’s a worldwide phenomenon,” she says. “If we’re serious about getting girls into education, we need to think seriously about something as mundane as periods.”
In many U.S. states, there’s tax on tampons and sanitary pads, yet not for things like adult diapers and Viagra. In the rare public bathroom where tampons are available for purchase, the dispenser is a rusty out-of-date machine that accepts only quarters and tends to be empty. Period commercials show blue liquid poured onto pads. Yet menstruation is something half of the population deals with on a monthly basis.
“I think the stigma of periods speaks to a fundamental stigma of women’s reproduction,” says Cavanagh. “Educating women on their periods demystifies them, it makes them feel like they’re in control of their bodies.”
Since its launch, Humans with Periods has received more than 1,700 likes. Aldoretta believes she’s struck a nerve with what she’s doing; the positive feedback shows there was a need for such a platform. And although her initial goal was to start meaningful conversations about the stigma of periods, she also hopes to empower the women she interviews for the page.
“I use it as a way to lift other people up and support them,” Aldoretta says. “I want to show the strong community of women working to help other girls and women and youth.”
Two of the most recent women featured on Humans with Periods were Kay Williams and Maci Jackson, co-founders of the Wantabes, an organization that provides interactive workshops and mentorship for young girls. The three women met at a local coffee shop, where Williams and Jackson shared stories of growing up, their bodies and self-confidence.
“No one told me what my period would look like, so I had no idea what to expect when that happened,” Williams tells Aldoretta. “Girls don’t know about the hormone aspect of their period, so they may not understand why they’re feeling or reacting a certain way.”
Aldoretta agrees. She says she became more confident after educating herself on menstruation and the way her body works.
“When you don’t understand what’s going on inside your body, you’re likely to listen to what other people say or make up your own interpretation,” she says.
Jackson was just as clueless when she got her period at age 12. Although they’re close, her mom never told Jackson what to expect from menstruation. The three women laughed as Jackson told the story of being in the high school dance team and finding out what tampons were for the first time.
“My friend took me to the bathroom and showed me how to do it,” Jackson says. “It was kind of like an eye-opener for me because for three years, I was using pads. And now, tampons are my saving grace, they have been the best things that ever happened to me.”
Aldoretta has interviewed dozens of people with periods so far, including partners of transgender men who have yet to take testosterone and still get periods. She plans to expand her reach and share a variety of experiences from different people, including homeless women and eventually women and girls in developing countries.
“It really negatively affects a lot of people, and that’s one of the things I wanted to change,” Aldoretta says. “I wanted to show that people are having these experiences and it’s OK to talk about them.”