How period jokes and stories are changing the world on "the quintessential intersectional issue"

“It's easy to put yourselves in those shoes — or rather, those underpants” says "Period. End of Sentence." author

Published June 23, 2021 6:17PM (EDT)

Jessie Glaser gets her period at camp on "Big Mouth" (Netflix)
Jessie Glaser gets her period at camp on "Big Mouth" (Netflix)

Bestselling author and award-winning journalist Anita Diamant still remembers the 2019 Oscars, when "Period. End of Sentence," now streaming on Netflix, won for best documentary short film. As one might surmise from the title, the short chronicles women's and girls' struggles to access menstrual hygiene products around the world.

"I was watching the Oscars when it won, and I jumped off the couch," she recounted to Salon. "The women who got it, and the director, who's like 27, raised the award and said, 'I can't believe a movie about periods just won an Oscar!'" 

In that moment, Diamant was especially inspired by how the documentary's director, Rayka Zehtabchi, didn't whisper her joy that a period-focused project had won an Oscar, but rather, "said it loud and proud."

Shortly after the film's critical triumph, Diamant, who had previously reported on menstrual health and barriers to access menstrual hygiene products, says she was invited to write a "book companion" for it. Her book "Period. End of Sentence.: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice" (Scribner) was released in May.

Diamant's book is a wide-ranging collection of essays, research, reporting, and personal stories on the burgeoning, young people-led menstrual equity movement, which strives toward bridging social and economic barriers to menstrual hygiene products, as well as dismantling period stigma and shame

Can period jokes change the world?

Yes, Diamant's book is enlightening, demonstrating how the lack of access to hygiene products can push young girls out of school, and the lack of menstrual products in many prisons and jails. But it's also undeniably funny.

"I'm a huge fan of humor to poke holes in stigma," Diamant said. More recently, she points out, women writers and comedians have been reclaiming men's sexist period jokes with their own menstrual humor on screen. 

"'Broad City' is a great example of this, those women just went to town on menstruation and broke all the taboos," she said. "And 'Big Mouth,' which is a cartoon show — there's a whole episode about a girl getting her period at camp, and it's hysterically funny. It doesn't apologize, it's just about a girl trying to figure out how to put a tampon in, and the tampons talk to her, she has this fantasy that when she goes swimming, the menstrual pad becomes the size of a whale."

This kind of humor, Diamant says, "happens when [women] get to tell our own stories, not only in books and academia, but also popular culture. . . . It's really powerful, and comedians, women comedians, have been at the forefront of this."

Amid more and more onscreen representation and storytelling around sexual and reproductive health care like abortion — think: HBO's "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" and "Unpregnant," or Hulu's "Plan B" — Diamant also thinks her book has come out at a time of increasing normalization of menstruation in media.

"I turn on shows of any description and people mention menstruation and then move on, and it's no big deal," she said. "Nobody snickers, nobody goes, 'Oh, are you relieved because you're not pregnant?' So, that's what it used to be, any mention of menstruation was either a PMS joke or a pregnancy question. Now it's much more matter of fact."

Storytelling, media representation, and cultural change around narratives of menstruation are so important, not just for the sake of entertainment and undeniably hilarious jokes, Diamant says. They can also be a catalyst for meaningful policy change, and progress for menstrual equity.

"I don't think any one story changes the world," she said, "but rather, it's the cumulative effect of women telling women's stories, and people who are not in the center of history telling their own stories — people in the working class, people of color, queer people.

"Once we start telling our stories, and they reach the public so it's not a niche thing, that's how change is made," Diamant continued. "Not by any one book, not by any one author. It takes more than a village — it takes a lot of voices."

How cultural change has paved the way for policy change

The cultural progress we've seen around menstrual health in recent years has gone hand-in-hand with progress in our policies, too. For example, several states have recently passed legislation to slash the sales tax on menstrual products, which has been widely protested for its implication that period products are non-essential — not to mention the fact male sexual health products like Viagra don't have this tax.

"In Texas, you don't have to pay sales tax on buying a gun license, and in Louisiana, you don't pay tax on mardi gras beads, but [in both states] you do have to pay sales tax on pads and tampons," Diamant said. 

The sales tax might seem small, but Diamant points out that it can add up, and can be as much as 9% on top of the sticker price of a box of pads and tampons.

"If your family household has to make a choice between food and menstrual products, it has to be food," she said. "That means women and girls have to fend for themselves. That means stuffing toilet paper down your pants, trying to spend your day at school or work or life always worried you're going to bleed through."

While recent activism to end what's popularly known as the "tampon tax" has excited Diamant, in "Period. End of Sentence," she also explores how much more work remains to be done on the local, federal and even global levels. For example, while federal law requires federal prisons to ensure period products are available, many state and city-run prisons and jails aren't required to abide by this. Diamant's book comes one year after nationwide protests against police violence erupted across the country, and she examines how widespread arrest and jailing of protesters subjected many to discomfort and embarrassment from lack of access to clean menstrual products.

Some incarcerated folks earn just $0.75 or less from prison labor per day, and in some prisons that offer menstrual products, costs of these products can range from $2.63 for 24 pads to $4 for eight tampons. 

Access to clean menstrual hygiene products doesn't just affect someone's physical comfort, self-esteem, and ability to go to school or work. It can also increase your likelihood of dangerous infections, cervical cancer, and other health conditions. "If you're a woman of color and have a menstrual problem with your body, getting adequate medical care, and physicians and personnel to take your pain seriously, is historically and to this day, dismissed as less-than," Diamant said. "There's a whole lot of medical gaslighting about, 'Oh, it's just cramps, you just have to deal with it.' Women suffer for years, some of them with serious endometriosis and other things."

"A quintessential intersectional issue"

Diamant's book focuses heavily on lack of access to menstrual products in prisons, immigration detainment centers, refugee camps, and among people experiencing homelessness, because, she notes, menstrual health justice "is the quintessential intersectional issue."

"I know people hate that word, because they don't understand it, but this is a place where all kinds of issues intersect to create pain and discomfort," Diamant explained.

And yet, she also points out menstrual health issues pose a "problem in every zip code," and not just prisons and poorer countries. "It's not just 'over there' — there are people around the block from you wherever you live who are dealing with one issue or another around menstruation," Diamant said. As "Period. End of Sentence" explores, people of all walks of life and even those with considerable privilege can face menstrual health inequities, if they unexpectedly get their period and are in a setting that doesn't carry menstrual products.

The menstrual health justice movement resonates on a global scale, Diamant says, because all women and people who menstruate can see themselves in each other's period stories. When the pandemic exacerbated barriers to get menstrual health products for many, and especially students who relied on their school campuses for access, Diamant recalls being inspired by the wave of community activism to support medical personnel in a hospital in Wuhan that was being overrun by COVID.

"[Medical personnel] were told menstrual products weren't an essential product and they had to fend for themselves," Diamant said. "Someone caught hold of this from the internet, and it became a big cause célèbre. They shipped an enormous number of pads to [the hospital], and it made the news. So, of course the government responded, because it was embarrassing for them — the government was shaming women for having these bodies that bleed."

"Period. End of Sentence" isn't Diamant's first book exploring the complexities and politics of menstruation. Her 1997 novel "The Red Tent," which offers a fictionalized account of the biblical character Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph, explores the community women build while they must take refuge in a tent for menstruating and giving birth. It's in this tent that the women find support and community from their mothers, sisters and aunts. Unlike "Period. End of Sentence," "The Red Tent" is a work of fiction — but both books show the community and power women and people who menstruate can find together, whether they're sharing a physical space, or a movement for social change.

Period stories are unifying, whether from the perspective of a young girl in the global south who struggles in school without menstrual hygiene products, or a detained immigrant woman who's denied these products, or even a woman in a corporate setting whose office bathroom doesn't offer tampons and pads. "If you've ever had a period, you feel it, and it's an outrage," Diamant said. "I think that's why those stories are so powerful. It's easy to put yourself in those shoes — or rather, those underpants."

"Period. End of Sentence" is now available at Bookshop and other booksellers. You can watch the documentary on Netflix or on YouTube.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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Anita Diamant Big Mouth Books Broad City Interview Menstruation Periods Sexual Health