Research Blog: The Great Wall around periods: Beliefs and attitudes towards menstruation in China

by Jessica Lin

When I asked my mom what the colorful wrapped squares (sanitary pads) in the bathroom were, the reply I received was “Don’t worry about it.” Being raised in a Chinese immigrant family, I was never given a heads up that I would start bleeding. So when I first got my period in middle school, I didn’t even know I did. I wasn’t taught about menstruation until after I got my period and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Yet, I already knew it was something I should keep hidden and not talk about.

In Chinese culture, I was taught to keep periods a secret, make sure all signs were hidden and never talk about it, especially to men. When I accidentally left a pad’s wrapper on the bathroom floor, my mother freaked out, calling me over and pointing it out with a hushed tone. God forbid if my father found out I was on my period. It took me years to realize that periods are not something to be ashamed of (duh!), but after finally talking openly with my Chinese friends, I found out that they grew up with the same myths and beliefs. We held similar feelings of embarrassment throughout puberty, having to check and double check that all signs of menstruation were hidden. Listening to their stories made me wonder how the secrecy we grew up with around menstruation might have affected other men and women of my generation.

It turns out that a group of researchers in Hong Kong were also curious about current beliefs and attitudes towards menstruation. They distributed questionnaires to 450 Chinese male and female undergraduate students to assess their thoughts about periods: whether they should be kept secret, whether they are annoying, whether they’re a handicap and how pleasant or unpleasant periods are. They were also asked their opinions about different period taboos and myths, like things women should or shouldn’t do while on their period. For example, participants would rate how much they agreed or disagreed with “Women must avoid exercising while they are having their periods.”

Based on my own experience having periods, I wasn’t surprised to find out that more female students felt that periods were annoying compared to male undergraduates (cis men don’t exactly have to deal with changing pads and tampons). They also found that female students were less likely to feel that periods should be handled with secrecy compared to the male students. Again, this is not surprising, given that we need information about our periods and it’s kind of hard to get that when we can’t talk about it! Men might not even realize that they need to know more about periods. In China (and a lot of places in the U.S.), students are educated separately about health and puberty, which means boys never receive formal education about female reproductive health during sex ed.

Overall, Chinese undergraduate students had a mostly negative view on menstruation, seeing it as unpleasant and annoying.[1] This wasn’t too surprising to me given that it is common in Chinese culture to practice diet modifications during menstruation. There are certain foods and herbs that should be avoided during your period (like sushi and raw vegetables), and certain foods that should be eaten (like root vegetables and peaches). There are also beliefs that women on their periods should avoid washing their hair, visiting temples and going to funerals. With all these misconceptions, along with commercials emphasizing the embarrassment of staining and leaking, it makes sense that Chinese undergraduate students would have a negative attitude towards periods.

But before you get too depressed about how far we still have to go towards accepting and normalizing old Aunt Flo, there was a silver lining in their findings. The researchers found that students majoring in health studies were much less likely to believe in period myths than students in other majors. This makes sense since the group with higher health education, would have learned more about menstrual health and be able to bust period myths (they would learn that exercising is actually great for easing cramps, for instance).

Growing up, I was also taught these cultural myths by my mom and made to feel annoyed and embarrassed about my period. Now, I know it’s nothing to be ashamed of (and that I should not drink grandma’s mysterious herbal concoctions.) But obviously there are still far too many people who buy into these myths. And this misinformation and silence around menstruation is not limited to Chinese culture. A survey conducted by Flex (a menstrual disc company) of 2,000 women around the world found that 73% of women hide their period and 68% feel afraid to talk about it with men.[2] Millions of women still see periods as shameful and debilitating because of the stigma and taboos.

On the bright side, periods are gaining more attention and slowly becoming destigmatized thanks to a lot of amazing women speaking out. In the last summer Olympics for instance, Chinese Swimmer, Fu Yuanhui openly talked about her period in her post-race interviews. And Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex is battling menstrual taboos in India, being the first royal member to voice her opinion on menstrual hygiene and publish a powerful piece in TIME magazine on the problems that women and girls in India face during their period.

So let’s just talk about it. Talk to your mom. Talk to men about it. Don’t be afraid to ask your coworker (not in a whisper) for a tampon when you inevitably forget one. Eventually, we’ll all realize menstruation is just a natural human process that may be annoying on occasion, but I bet will be much less annoying once we are able to freely complain about cramps or ask for that extra tampon without being embarrassed.

[1] Wong, W. C., Li, M. K., Chan, W. Y. V., Choi, Y. Y., Fong, C. H. S., Lam, K. W. K., … Yeung, T. Y. (2013). A cross‐sectional study of the beliefs and attitudes towards menstruation of Chinese undergraduate males and females in Hong Kong. Journal of Clinical Nursing22(23–24), 3320–3327. https://doi-org.proxy.wexler.hunter.cuny.edu/10.1111/jocn.12462

[2] Boden, K. (2017, November 28). Periods Around the World. Retrieved from https://flexfits.com/blogs/thefixx/periods-around-the-world

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