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Robyn McLean is breaking the cycle of period shame one cup at a time
Wellbeing

Robyn McLean is breaking the cycle of period shame one cup at a time

Illustration of a woman on a brown background during her period

Illustration by Māori Mermaid

Hello Cup co-founder Robyn McLean thinks it’s a bloody shame we don’t talk freely about menstruation.

"Sorry. We won't talk about periods on prime time."

That was the reply we got when my company, The Hello Cup, suggested a prominent New Zealand current affairs show might like to have Rain Dove, a non-binary international model and activist, appear as a guest to talk about period stigma. Our business, based right here in Aotearoa, makes and distributes menstrual cups, and we’d come to Rain's attention in 2019 after they tried – and loved – our cups.

US-based Rain was in New Zealand to help us understand what life is like for someone who has a period but doesn’t identify as a woman. As a former journalist, I knew Rain’s story was the stuff of dreams and would make great television.

“Oh, we’d love to have Rain on the show,” said the producer of the show in question. “But they can’t say anything about periods or menstrual cups.”

Um, hello? This was exactly why Rain was in New Zealand. It’s safe to say that the interview didn’t happen.

I have to admit it was a real blow – not so much because we missed a media opportunity, but because it showed yet again how ingrained the shame is when it comes to period talk.

Half the world’s population will experience having periods for a significant part of their life. Conversation around them should be normal. After all, periods are more common than colds and not talking about them just increases stigma.

Periods are more common than colds and not talking about them just increases stigma

The Hello Cup was founded by me and my best friend, Mary Bond, a registered nurse, after we discovered how life-changing menstrual cups could be. We’d both dealt with heavy periods at school, but despite talking about pretty much everything under the sun, we never really discussed our periods openly with each other. I still remember the feeling of terror that someone in the adjoining cubicle might hear me unwrapping my tampon and know I had my period. Oh, the shame!

But what was I actually scared about? It’s really unsettling for me to reflect on that time now, especially as the mother of a teenage girl.

When we started The Hello Cup, one of our main aims was to do everything we could to get the conversation going – to normalise period talk; to encourage it. We owe it to the next generation to do everything in our power to remove the burden of shame.

Menstrual cycles are intrinsically linked to every one of us existing. Why aren’t they celebrated? When I asked our team at The Hello Cup about their period experiences, with the exception of one, they all had a negative memory etched in their minds.

One of our staff members got her first period while waitressing and was too terrified to tell anyone, so she had to make it through the night feeling emotional and overwhelmed. Another said that when she worked as a teacher, her male friends would happily ask how her job was going. Now she works for The Hello Cup, people are hesitant to ask.

How can this “out of sight, out of mind, out of conversation” attitude exist in a country I’m so proud to call home? We’re incredibly progressive in so many areas, especially when it comes to female role models. Yes, it’s awesome that period products are becoming available in schools this year (although we’d love to see reusable options such as menstrual cups and period underwear being offered too), but it feels a bit like chucking a tampon in a corner and saying, “There you go”.

Period education in our primary schools is seriously lacking. Parents are able to opt their children out, and what’s on offer only skims the surface. Typically, genders are educated separately. Why? Boys are key to helping us remove the stigma around periods!

My 12-year-old son doesn’t bat an eyelid at period talk because, not surprisingly, it’s a big topic in our household. He melted my heart when he asked if one day we could go to Disneyland so he could dress up as a Hello Cup and march in the parade with the Disney characters. He’d totally convert Minnie Mouse over to menstrual cups, I reckon, yet I suspect most of his friends wouldn’t know what a period is, let alone a menstrual cup.

When Meghan, Duchess of Sussex wrote about her firsthand experience with miscarriage recently, she was motivated to share her story because she was staggered to learn how frequently it happens, yet “the conversation remains taboo, riddled with (unwarranted) shame”. She said that when people start opening the door to their experiences, it gives the rest of us a license to do the same. She’s bang on.

Shame is something that should be felt when you’ve done something bad. Having a period is not shameful. Talking about periods shouldn’t be shunned by mainstream media. We need people in the media to lead the way, not perpetuate this ridiculous situation we find ourselves in. And when periods are talked about on the telly, let’s not flick it to the female presenter to handle every time.

Hey, John Campbell, Jesse Mulligan, Mike McRoberts, Simon Dallow, Duncan Garner – let’s talk periods!

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