If you’re in possession of a uterus, a pair of ears or an internet connection, you’ve probably encountered all manner of nonsense on the subject of menstruation.
It’s incredible how many taboos, lies, and myths persist about periods, despite over 300,000 years of human evolution.
We can lay blame at the door of playground know-it-alls, the patriarchy and discredited ‘experts’, but only sharing knowledge and talking openly can begin to eliminate period shame.
In this article, we’ll be busting some menstruation myths and taboos to ensure the facts are out there.
Here’s what we’ll be deep diving into:
- When period myths began and why they are so dangerous.
- Why it’s safe to use tampons
- The link between exercise and PMS relief
- Why periods are not dirty or shameful
When did period taboos and myths first start?
We can never truly know when the first taboos and myths about periods were shared, but helpfully, we have the first Latin Encyclopaedia from 73AD as a reference.
Prepare to roll your eyes skyward as we share this enlightening extract about periods:
“Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
If that was the literary starting point for discussing menstruation, it’s no wonder things only went downhill from there.
So, let’s look at some common menstruation myths and correct them.
MYTH #1: You can’t use a tampon if you are a virgin
First things first, you can use a tampon whether you are a virgin or not.
The idea that only sexually active people can use tampons is the sister myth of that old, mad chestnut – ‘tampons can take your virginity’.
It’s all to do with that skin-crawling archaic notion that only girls with ‘in-tact’ hymens are ‘pure’ and suitable for marriage.
Many people still think that the hymen stretches across the whole vaginal opening and breaks only once you have penetrative vaginal sex. This is nonsense.
What the experts say:
The NHS website explains that “the hymen is a thin piece of skin that partially covers the entrance to the vagina.
“The hymen can also stretch and tear quite easily before a woman has sex for the first time, through activities such as horse riding and other sports, using tampons and masturbation.”
Hymens come in all different shapes and sizes, but usually, there will be a hole that allows menstrual blood to come out and room for a tampon to go in.
It’s rare that the hymen covers the whole vaginal entrance.
When you insert a tampon, the hymen may stretch to accommodate it, but it’s perfectly safe to do this.
MYTH #2: You Can’t Get Pregnant During Your Period
Many people still believe you cannot get pregnant if you have sex while menstruating. Sorry folks, that’s a myth.
We will say that it’s extremely unlikely you’ll get pregnant, but it is certainly possible, and it’s important to explain why.
Menstruation happens as the uterus sheds its lining because there is no fertilised egg inside it, and pregnancy has not occurred during this cycle.
However, sperm can live inside the vagina for five days, so if you have sex while on your period and ovulate a few days afterwards, you can technically still conceive.
What the experts say:
In a study called The timing of the ‘fertile window’ in the menstrual cycle, author Allen J Wilcox et al. found that more than 70% of women are in their fertile window before day 10 or after day 17.
Day 1 is marked as the first day of menstrual bleeding, and a period can last between 3 – 8 days.
Given that sperm can survive for five days, the math tells us that you can conceive even though you are bleeding if your fertile window begins early in your cycle.
If you don’t want to conceive, make sure you continue to use birth control throughout menstruation and during the rest of your cycle.
MYTH #3: You Cannot Exercise While On Your Period
If you are not the person who rushes to the gym during their period, please know there is no judgement here.
But should you be wondering whether exercise is safe and recommended during menstruation, the good news is that it is.
The even better news is that exercising can help to conquer menstrual symptoms, including cramps.
The reason? Exercise produces endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller and mood lifter, and can improve blood flow.
What the experts say:
In 2019, St Mary’s University and FitrWomen studied 14,184 women across the globe who used Strava, the social network for athletes.
The research found that 78% of those women reported that exercise reduces the symptoms related to their menstrual cycle.
It was moderate-intensity exercise (which was defined as exercise that causes hard breathing but where you’re still able to hold a conversation) was the most effective.
The study also showed that women who exercised according to the World Health Organisation’s guidelines and ate five a day were less likely to miss work due to symptoms.
MYTH #4: A Tampon Can Get Lost Inside Your Vagina
There’s a whole range of period products out there, but none have so much myth attached to them as the humble tampon.
We’ve already cleared tampons of the accusation that they rob fair maidens of their virginity – now it’s time to point out they also don’t go AWOL in the vagina.
Some people worry that if they insert a tampon, they’ll lose it forever, but that’s not how biology works, my friends.
What the experts say:
A vagina is around 3 to 4 inches long, and the cervix is at the top of the vagina.
The NHS website has this reassuring advice about tampons and the cervix.
“It is not possible for a tampon to get lost inside you. It’ll stay in your vagina after you have inserted it.
“The only other opening is through your cervix, but this is too small for a tampon to pass through.”
Once the tampon is in there, you can retrieve it using the attached string, but occasionally, it can become stuck.
If you cannot get the tampon out, go to the doctor or a sexual health clinic where a healthcare professional will help you.
MYTH #5: Menstrual blood is dirty
One of the most pernicious and dangerous period taboos is that menstrual blood is dirty.
The continued stigma around menstruation means many people worldwide still believe women are impure and dirty when bleeding.
A Plan International survey of boys from Indonesia, Uganda, the Netherlands and Brazil provided some sobering results.
In Indonesia, 58% of the male survey respondents believe that women and girls shouldn’t be allowed to go to school or work while menstruating. Also, 78% said they shouldn’t enter houses of worship.
Over in Uganda, 55% of boys said that it is not acceptable for a woman who has started her period to remain unmarried.
What the experts say:
Menstrual blood and tissue are no different from any other bodily fluid.
Speaking to Insider.com, OB-GYN Dr Kiarra King was keen to dispel the myth that menstrual blood is dirty.
Dr King said: “Periods are not dirty. [Menstruation] is a physiologic process. It signals that a pregnancy didn’t happen, and it’s getting ready to make that uterus a welcome home again, potentially. So that blood has to go somewhere.”
In some developing nations, girls and women are wrongly advised not to clean themselves or bathe their pelvic area during menstruation, which can lead to infection and illness.
However, going to either extreme of not cleaning yourself at all or doing too much can cause serious problems.
Dr King added: “People often feel the need to go on overdrive when it comes to vulva and vaginal hygiene. It’s really not necessary.
“There’s absolutely no need to douche. [Douching] could potentially disrupt the normal vaginal PH, which can make you more prone to infection.
“I would generally recommend just a mild soap and water externally on the vulva.”
We hope our deep dive into some of the myths and taboos about periods has been enlightening and informative.
Remember, if you have young people in your life who would benefit from learning the facts about common menstruation myths, send this to them.
We’re on a mission to stop period shaming and improve education about menstruation.
Together we can end dangerous myths and ensure people are empowered and informed.
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