Historically, the topic of menstruation has been stigmatized. Taboos and social perceptions paint periods as dirty, unhygienic, and shameful, encouraging menstruators to hide their periods and remain silent about their experience. Menstruators all over the world have felt the effects of this stigma through issues such as period poverty, poor menstrual education, and the tampon tax. However, conversations surrounding menstruation have begun to change, and social media has played an interesting role.
Menstruation Meets Social Media
Ball State Department of Sociology MA alumna, Amber Urban, ’20, has studied menstruation all throughout
her educational career. As an undergrad, Ms. Urban investigated how individuals learn and talk about menstruation. This research led her to Ball State where she wondered if the modern menstrual advocacy on social media helped break long-lasting taboos.
“I’m really interested in how we, as a society, talk about menstruation since it historically is such a taboo subject. A big form of communication nowadays is social media, which then led to the creation of my thesis” – Ms. Urban
In 2019, alongside advisor and sociology professor Dr. Mellisa Holtzman, Ms. Urban began researching conversations about periods taking place on the social media platform Twitter. Dr. Holtzman explains, “Twitter is almost an integral part of our society at this point. And it is a platform that allows people to connect with each other and talk about subjects even if they themselves aren’t connected. It gives you a really good peek into what society might be dialoguing about.” Unlike Facebook or Instagram, which mostly connect individuals to their friends or acquaintances, Twitter has a broader scope offering a unique look into larger social perceptions.
To begin their research, Ms. Urban and Dr. Holtzman collected data from three separate months in 2018 and analyzed 644 tweets related to menstruation. They found these tweets with the “locator hashtags” #PeriodProblems, #Menstruation, #MenstruationMatters, #ThatTimeOfTheMonth, and #AuntFlo and sorted them into five dominant categories.
Out of 644 Tweets:
- 42% explicitly advocated against menstrual stigma
- 29% were women/menstruators complaining about their periods
- 14% provided information about menstruation
- 10% marketed menstrual products
- 5% joked about menstruation.
Dialogue Dismantles Stigma
After breaking down the tweets and determining which category they fit into, Ms. Urban and Dr. Holtzman
considered the effect they have on stigma. They found that most tweets, primarily the ones that view menstruation positively, worked to undermine stigma. However, the tweets that made jokes about menstruation reinforced stigma. Some tweets, like the ones that complain about periods, do both. At first glance, it may seem that complaining about periods reinforces the stigma, and to some extent they do, but Ms. Urban and Dr. Holtzman point out that having open conversations about menstrual experiences, helps normalize menstruation as a whole.
“If you’re looking for social change in society, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one sided. There is movement to be made even if the tweets themselves, to some degree, reinforce that stigma” – Dr. Holtzman
Overall, Ms. Urban and Dr. Holtzman’s research found that through open conversation and public dialogue, people are pushing back against menstrual stigma. As a global issue, breaking this stigma remains as relevant as ever and Twitter provides a place for people all over the world to speak out. However, there is still work to be done.
“The stigma sill exists. But because we can, through our own dialogue, help construct our social world, if we maintain this dialogue and continue this dialogue, we can continue to break down the stigma. And that makes a more equal world for everyone” – Dr. Holtzman
After Ms. Urban won the Ball State “Three Minute Thesis” competition in 2020, and placed third at the regional level, Ms. Urban and Dr. Holtzman’s article “Menstrual Stigma and Twitter” was accepted for publication and will be available to read in Sociological Focus.
Amber Urban is currently working toward her Ph.D. in sociology at Western Michigan University. Alongside her peers and professors, Ms. Urban has been researching gender perceptions related to fertility and plans to study Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) for her dissertation. She was recently published in Human Fertility as the second author of the article “‘I just think it’s weird’: the nature of ethical and substantive non-ethical concerns about infertility treatments among Black and White women in U.S. graduate programmes.”
Modern menstrual activism, which works to destigmatize periods and promote menstrual equity, requires open conversation around a historically silenced subject. Ms. Urban and Dr. Holtzman’s research shows us how social media can foster this open conversation and work to challenge long-lasting, harmful, taboos.