What do you think of when you hear the word poison? Arsenic? The Black Widow? Radium? The Death Stalker, perhaps? Well, I am here to introduce you to a different kind of poisonous substance: menotoxins.
Menotoxins are plant-killing chemicals that women release when they’re on their period. Yes, seriously. In the 1920s, Professor B. Shick conducted an experiment where he found that when a menstruating woman roughly handled flowers (to really get all those menotoxins on them) before setting them in water, they wilted quicker than when he gently set a different bunch of flowers in the water himself (2). It took 60 years for the menotoxin theory and related experiments in the science community to be completely shut down; it went so far that professionals would cite it as the cause of a woman's illness (2).
I don’t think I need to explain what went wrong here.
Unfortunately, this “scientific experiment” is not an isolated event. It goes much farther back, and it gets much worse. A Latin encyclopedia from 73 CE demonstrates this perfectly:
“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” (3).
I’ve always wondered why I can’t keep a single plant alive.
Similarly, according to a thirteenth-century book by Albertus Magnus, called the De Secretis Mulierum (The Secrets of Women), “Woman is not human, but a monster” (2). They’re so monstrous that they “give off harmful fumes that will poison the eyes of children lying in their cradles by a glance” (2).
Good to know. I don’t even need to dress up for Halloween. I’m terrifying enough as I am.
These examples all sound ridiculous, and they are. No modern-day scientist would take these ideas seriously. But however entertaining they are to read, these beliefs represent the deep roots of darker truths we avoid discussing.
Young menstruators in Kenya skip roughly four days of school monthly (that’s 20% of the school year) because they lack access to sanitary products and are afraid of being ridiculed by their peers for bloodstains (5).
In India, women cannot pray when they’re on their period, nor can they touch holy books or cows (for fear of making the sacred animals infertile) (4). The message these religion-tied beliefs send is clear: periods are shameful and impure. The result? People don’t talk about menstruation. A staggering 71% of young menstruators in India don’t know what a period is until they experience it (1). Try to imagine that situation and the immense fear and helplessness you would feel. Because of this stigma, young people aren’t getting the education they need to become empowered and safe.
In Nepal, women and girls are exiled to menstrual huts to face horrendous conditions that can cause injury or even death: assault, snake bites, suffocation due to poor ventilation, frigid temperatures, and more (7). All because they are too “impure” to be in the household during menstruation.
This is a heavy and unsettling topic. But we know that doesn’t make it any less necessary for us to talk about it. I challenge you to be a little uncomfortable this week: spread the word about the consequences of period stigma with one person. Just one. Perhaps that takes the form of sharing a post or an article on your story, calling out a classmate for period shaming, or initiating the conversation with a friend or family member. You have endless options, and not one of them is too minuscule to make a difference. It’s the small things from a multitude of people that lead to change.
We wish you well.
About the author:
Hi! My name is Eowyn Ream, and I am a sophomore at Liberty High School. After understanding the severity of period poverty around the world and the lack of conversation surrounding menstruation itself, I decided to change the narrative alongside the SAPP community- one sentence at a time.
BBC. (2020, May 28). Why India must battle the shame of period stain. BBC News. Retrieved September 19, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52830427.
Clancy, K. (2011, September 9). Menstruation is just blood and tissue you ended up not using. Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/menstruation-blood-and-tissue/.
Druet, A. (2021, June 7). How did menstruation become taboo? Clue Period & Ovulation Tracker with Ovulation Calendar for iOS, Android, and watchOS. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://helloclue.com/articles/culture/how-did-menstruation-become-taboo.
Garg, S., & Anand, T. (2015). Menstruation Related Myths in India: Strategies for Combating It. Journal of family medicine and primary care. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408698/.
Litman, J. (2018, June 5). Menstruation Stigma Must Stop. Period. The Public Health Advocate. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://pha.berkeley.edu/2018/06/05/menstruation-stigma-must-stop-period/.
Staff, P. S. (2016, August 12). A Brief History of Menstrual Blood Myths. Pacific Standard. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://psmag.com/news/a-brief-history-of-menstrual-blood-myths.
Vaughn, E. (2019, December 17). Menstrual Huts Are Illegal in Nepal. So Why Are Women Still Dying in Them? NPR. Retrieved September 19, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/12/17/787808530/menstrual-huts-are-illegal-in-nepal-so-why-are-women-still-dying-in-them.