As any woman who's unexpectedly gotten her period knows, finding yourself suddenly covered in menstrual blood in a public place is horrifying. For me, the most harrowing incident happened when I was 19, visiting my dad in the hospital, and I cringe thinking about it even a decade later. It was summer, and I was wearing white shorts. And yet—had the incident happened in school, it would have been elevated from horrifying to unthinkably mortifying.
Which helps explain why one New York politician, Queens City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, is drafting legislation that would provide free tampons to junior high and high schools across New York City—in part to lessen the shame and anxiety women associate with their periods.
"For me, it's about bringing dignity to young girls," Ferreras told Fusion. "Having a period has so much taboo attached to it. Women think it's dirty and want to go and hide. But in reality, [menstruating means] you're a wonderful, healthy woman."
Beyond battling stigma, however, Ferreras believes the measure will offer very practical health and financial benefits. Sure, for some women, spending seven dollars (plus tax) on a box of tampons once a month isn't a big deal—but the lawmaker has seen girls from low-income areas struggle to scrounge up even a few bucks to buy feminine hygiene products. For them, having a period can be a nightmare.
Or as Ferreras puts it, "You shouldn't have to decide whether you should eat lunch that day or stay healthy."
Yes, feminine hygiene products are necessary to stay healthy—without proper hygiene during menstruation women can contract infections. Even the FDA classifies the products as medical devices. Yet as Fusion recently reported, most U.S. states still consider tampons luxury items, which is why they are subject to sales tax. So giving them away for free—well, Ferraras said she's seen some pushback.
"I've gotten some nasty emails, like, 'Why don't you just give people cars?'" she said. But "this is not a luxury item, and we shouldn't limit access to it." Not to mention, schools already give out free condoms, so why not tampons?
Ferreras has gotten encouraging reactions, too. Recently, the councilwoman met with 20 supporters from organizations including Planned Parenthood, Care for the Homeless, Food Bank for New York City, and the YMCA to strategize about the most effective way to implement her plan and meet the hygiene needs of young women from low-income areas.
While the legislation is still being drafted, Ferreras is hopeful that it will pass quickly and the city will start providing tampons in schools within the year. Which could have an immediate impact on girls' lives. As she told Fusion, when food pantries receive tampons and other feminine hygiene products as donations, "they're the first things to fly off the shelves." The demand is there.
Indeed, some Westerners may think of young women missing school due to their period as a remote problem—faced only in far-off countries like Nepal, Kenya, and Uganda—when in fact, many girls at home confront the same challenges. "When I was director of an after-school program in Queens, Ferreras said, "young girls would skip class because they preferred that to asking staff for pads or risk staining their clothes."
Ferreras continued, "I've seen girls use toilet paper and wrap it up, or only be able to use just one tampon for one or two days." Besides being unhealthy and even dangerous—putting girls at risk for infection and toxic shock syndrome—this lack of access to products can lead young women to feel shameful.
"We need to make this process a lot easier," she said—and bring "dignity back to the process."
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.