In the week when it was revealed that athletes in the Olympic games are only just starting to work with their menstrual cycles to improve their training and performance, period educator, author, designer and activist Chella Quint, whose new books Be Period Positive and Own Your Period discusses how you can become a period activist and how to fight these still-present menstruation taboos.
It was announced this week that the English Institute of Sport will roll out saliva tests tracking menstrual hormones that drive fluctuation in performance. Why are athletes at the Olympics only just learning how to work with their changing cycles now, despite Olympians having periods for… well… almost forever?
Ever since Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui blew Olympic period taboos out of the water in her post-swim interview in Rio 2016, it seems much easier for Olympians to talk about sports and menstrual cycles with the press, and for the media to get used to the idea that athletes have been talking about it behind the scenes for a lot longer than that! Even one of the pupils I worked with on my MA research back in 2013 (dissertation – Period Positive Schools) talked about how she and her teammates discussed periods and performance with her coach. In the 2018 Winter Olympics, periods made the news again, but this time, Team USA figure skater Mirai Nagasu brushed it off with a simple ‘It’s really not that big of a deal.’ So now lots of folks are talking about it and it’s great. This may not be as major news as Chanu winning the silver, but in the menstrual media sphere, it’s something to celebrate!
The major winners are current and future athletes. Finally, more funding is being put into researching how the whole cycle – not just periods – can have an effect on physical performance in athletics and other sports, and also everyday life and energy levels. It’s really interesting reading journal articles about studies showing that hormonal changes make ligaments stretchier earlier in the cycle, and that bloating and inflammation are bigger issues after ovulation. I don’t think menstruators have a raw deal though – charting your cycle is a great way to be in tune with how you’re feeling physically, and your cycle is a great indicator of overall health.
When and why did you first become a period positivity campaigner and period activist?
The moment I discovered that the way I felt [about shame around periods] wasn’t my fault. I wanted to tell EVERYONE.
In 2005, I discovered an archive of vintage menstrual product ads and noticed that the adverts focussed on shame, secrecy, and fear. I realised that ad messages hadn’t actually changed that much since those vintage ads were first printed in the 1920s and that everything was still focussed on shame, secrecy, and fear in adverts, packaging and – worst of all – in the resources these companies sent out to schools as teaching materials. I was teaching at the time and saw the route between those old ads directly to my pupils’ attitudes towards periods and I wasn’t impressed. Not only that, but I remembered my own period talk at school involved branded leaflets that instilled all those worries in me and I didn’t want those fears passed on to another generation.
In January 2021 the UK Government abolished the VAT on menstrual products, that’s great progress, right?
Well, yes, but it was somebody’s job to update the tax code for all menstrual products, but they failed to include period pants, which continue to be taxed at 20 per cent because the Government still classifies them as a ‘garment’. So most menstrual products are now tax-free, apart from period pants… Period pants are better for the environment than some other menstrual products. But someone in government didn’t bother to learn about menstrual products invented since the year 2000, when the tax rule last changed. The irony for me is that cloth is like, the world’s oldest menstruation product, yet modern cloth period pants are still subject to VAT.
You’ve been spreading the period positive message since creating your ‘zine, Adventures in Menstruating, in 2005. Why was it important for you to consolidate your wisdom in a book, and why now?
I was approached by a few publishers just as I was thinking I’d like to write a book so it was excellent timing. I talked about what I wanted to do and that matched up really well with DK for this book and a children’s publisher called Quarto for a book for adolescents.
The book is important to me because sometimes people more recently have been getting Period Positivity wrong. They think it means you have to love your period when the truth is you don’t even have to have periods. The positivity comes from talking out loud about them. If your period sucks it’s Period Positive to say so. Sometimes people say that period positivity should be trans-inclusive but it is and always has been, so it’s important to me to make sure the message gets out there to trans menstruators that they are included in period positivity and reminds anyone who is excluding trans and non-binary people from the menstrual discourse that is not period positive practice and they are not speaking for this movement.
When you look back on the last 16 years of being a period activist, what significant progress has been made in the area of period positivity?
Adverts are starting to change. Reusables are becoming more common. Other than a depressingly vocal minority of people, trans inclusion in the menstrual sphere is becoming the norm. The government has added menstrual wellbeing to the curriculum (although there’s no content yet – I’ve written one though for teachers to use in the meantime!) but there is definitely more to be done.
Is there one positive change that you’re most proud of?
I’ve consistently included all genders of menstruator in my work and challenged some very big charities to change their language, and they now have changed theirs too. Menstrual taboos is a phrase regularly said and people know what it means now. I’ve said at the end of every talk and show that I want colleagues, and I have lots now. I still want more people to say menstrual.
As part of your work in this area, what kinds of people do you talk to, to spread the message of period positivity?
Anyone and everyone, but most often I am approached by teachers, university students, and worried parents. Sometimes guys will ask me stuff about their girlfriends periods so I tend to recommend that people who have periods not self edit when they feel their periods are affecting them in some way. You can keep your period private if you want to but you should never feel you should have to keep it a secret. If taxi drivers ask I always tell them.
Is period activism your whole job, or do you do another job too?
Period-related work is most of my job from consultancy to writing to comedy and education outreach – although I run the Period Positive campaign for free, and sometimes I offer my consultancy and speaking for free or at reduced rates. I’m also an art and design PhD student in Lab4Living as part of the 100 Year Life project at Sheffield Hallam, looking at the future of menopause. In the past, I was a full-time teacher and taught drama and was the head of PSHE. I left to do my Masters in Menstruation Education and perform science communication comedy. I do still enjoy writing comedy shows and they usually have a science or activism focus like Adventures in Menstruating did. I would love to do more of that as things open up again and I am gutted I didn’t get to do a live book launch.
Apart from period positivity, what other things get you out of bed in the morning?
I actually like other kinds of cycles. I really enjoy cycling and recently had to swap my bike for a tricycle because I have a funny hip (funny as in wonky, rather than funny haha). I have always been a bit of a bike nerd. I used to have a retro-look Pashley with a Brook saddle and I am a big fan of folding bikes on holiday and electric bikes are the future. I also love the seaside. I was born in Brooklyn and my mom lives near the Jersey shore and I am a total dork for the amusements at Cleethorpes. Declaring a beach day is something I am known to do at least once a summer. Swimming at Portobello at the Edinburgh Fringe was my favourite.
Who is your book for?
Everyone that wants or needs to know more about periods. It is aimed at over eighteens. Anyone who’s left school and didn’t get what they needed to know out of their school experience, any parents and teachers who want to do better by kids starting periods now – or soon… it’s based on the questions I was asked at my shows and it’s so great to be able to answer them. Especially the medical questions – I worked with a local menopause and fertility specialist to compose some of the more medical answers I was asked about and it was great. I learned so much writing the book that I think lots of folks will get stuff out of it – whether they have periods or not.
Is there anything you hope the book does for your readers?
I hope it reassures people, I hope it gives them a starting point to help them feel confident to find out more if they’re having menstrual problems or fertility issues or want to support someone else. I’d love it if they wanted to help an organization near them earn the Period Positive Places or Schools award.
Your book has important, easily-digestible tips like ‘Be wary of branding’, explaining that if you find a brand logo on literature, you should always check the data against other sources. Do you think it’s becoming harder to detect biased information now, and how can young people be more vigilant?
Two-part question! I wanted the book to be something you could pick up and flip through as and when you need it – you CAN read it all in a row, but it’s not essential. LIke a little period encyclopedia. Also, it would make a great bathroom book. A lot of people used to tell me they kept my zine in the bathroom.
How to detect bias? There are some buzzwords that people should always look out for. Whisper, secret, and discrete are a few. Once you spot little pieces of negativity like that, paying attention to subtle negative messages is a great place to start.
Often a campaign is an advertising campaign not an activism one – surveys lead news stories but are often sponsored by menstrual product companies to generate a bit of news. Look for reputable academic journals or research societies. Ask around. Challenge false claims.
Why should we say ‘menstrual products’ rather than ‘sanitary products’?
The quick answer is because they are to do with menstruation and it’s anything from extreme to inaccurate to constantly refer to periods with words like sanitary and hygiene. Those phrases are relics from very effective advertising campaigns from the 1920s. Euphemisms from the past have a tendency to keep our thinking in the past where periods are dirty and menstruation is a dirty word. Even period is just short for menstrual period. We’ve got a word for this bodily function and so let’s choose to say it more often.
I loved that you have a section of the book dedicated to those who are marginalised by society, such as neurodiverse people and survivors of assault and trauma. Please tell us more about this and why it was important to you to include it.
When we are members of marginalised groups it can sometimes feel like people like us aren’t represented in mainstream media or that nobody wants to hear about our issues in day-to-day life and that’s often down to historic taboos. When you add period taboos into the mix, you may never find any information that’s relevant in most period talk. But as we’ve seen during the pandemic, when you support people on the margins everyone benefits. When you talk about changing attitudes and practices around menstruation to be more inclusive of marginalised menstruators, everyone has the opportunity to get the support they need and for anyone dealing with intersectional oppressions, it’s reassuring to know you are not imagining it when the menstrual discourse reflects that too. In the book it was important to me to give some practical tips to readers and not just implore policymakers to be more inclusive. I wish I could have written more about that.
What about vaginas and vulvas?
A vulva is the whole area and the vagina is on the inside. The vulva is the home of a little happy family of your labia, your clitoris, your urethral opening, your perineum and your urethral sponge, which are all the sexy parts that give you orgasms.
For vulvas, it’s important to say vulva rather than vagina because your words affect your thoughts and feelings so calling your vulva your vagina means you don’t include any of the external genitalia at all. The vagina is inside your body so it implies you don’t have anything on the outside and you are basically a Barbie doll, which isn’t true. Then that means you can’t talk about taking care of your external genitalia, so all those feminine genital wash products come into play that imply you’re dirty somehow or you should clean inside yourself like a doushe, which you shouldn’t do because your vagina is self-cleaning, like an oven. it also means the clitoris isn’t included.
On one of the pages of my books, we have cartoons of vulvas, with lots of different qualities. For the kids’ book there are a few vulvas with different pubic patterns. For some people, it’s a cute little triangle, but for other people, it’s more like shorts, and if you only ever see that cute triangle. you might think you’re a yeti. For my fellow yetis; this is normal too.
What is your school charter for period positivity and how does it work?
In 2017, I began a pilot program where a few schools and a couple of councils could audit themselves against a list of guidelines that would help them make improvements to their environment, curriculum, and policies so that things were better day today for those who menstruate among staff and students and information about menstruation was more accessible for everyone. After a successful pilot and some training programs for other types of organisations, I have just launched the Period Positive Schools Award for schools and colleges and the Period Positive Places Award for other organisations such as companies, charities, hospitals, and local government. These awards guide organisations through using the Period Positive Pledge, a framework that guides those in the menstrual sphere toward more inclusive, sustainable, accurate, and community focussed menstrual literacy. People can find out more at the links below
Can any student make their school period positive?
Not on their own, it takes a dedicated group of key senior staff, pupils, and parents working together to agree to take an honest look at how things are now at their school and support each other to make a commitment to change things for the better. If you are a pupil or a member of staff you can invite me to speak to a head teacher or head of PSHE… But one pupil can absolutely ask about this stuff and not be afraid to talk about it with staff. This book can help older students and teachers with facts and confidence building to help them set things in motion and I’ve actually got a kids book for ages nine to twelve-year-olds in September. It’s called Own Your Period and throughout that book there are loads of suggestions in it for kids like how to give a presentation to their class or comparison shop for disposable vs renewable products in the chemists and interviewing grandparents about historical menstrual products. There are little menstrual activist stories about things I did that helped me feel more confident talking about periods with others and I’m hoping that it will encourage a new generation of young people to do the same.
How can we find out more about period positivity?
‘Be Period Positive is out now and has a staggered release globally. I also recorded the audiobook which is available on Audible and it was a lot of fun, I felt like I was doing stand-up again. Own your Period is out on the 7th September, just in time for school to start again and you can find out all about my work and read the Period Positive Pledge at chellaquint.com and www.periodpositive.com