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Confronting period poverty and taboos in Philadelphia

September 4, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
Lynette Medley, 51, received a call one day. On the phone was someone asking for pads and tampons for a Black-led organization. Medley, the founder and CEO of No More Secrets Mind Body Spirit, Inc., has spent years dropping off period care packages to organizations, schools and at doorsteps.

The caller told Medley about his mother’s struggle to get period products and wanted to make sure the young girls his organization helped had access. They both agreed, and the caller proposed the donation be made to the group’s Black women leadership.

“Absolutely disgusting,” one of the other leaders told Medley in reaction to the donation.

Another time, a Black church told her that she had to give out the free pads and tampons in the back, hidden away from the main area for giveaways.

Philadelphia struggles with period poverty, which is defined by the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) as an “inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education.” A 2019 study done in St. Louis found that more than two-thirds of the low-income women survey could not afford to buy things like tampons and liners; nearly half could not afford to buy both food and menstrual hygiene products.

For Black menstruators, lack of access is city-wide in Philadelphia. For activists like Medley, the fight is not only to offer access to period products, but also to break through the Black community’s taboo about talking about periods.

Medley started the #BlackGirlsBleed movement to be intentional about creating a space for open dialogue about Black women’s period health. “It bothered me that Black women don’t talk about this because our Black girls are suffering,” Medley said.

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The movement asks followers to share their period stories. The questions tackle the “generational silence” of periods in the Black community. Stories include not being able to get products and the period poverty in their neighborhoods.

According to a 2007 study on communication between low-income Black women about menstruation, the discussion of periods was low. The women said their families avoided the topic or heard about periods negatively.

Kelsie Canty, 24, a teacher in West Philadelphia, says that conversations around changing the “unclean” stigma need to include more than Black women.

“I see it a lot with men and their younger family members,” Canty said. “I really think the key is educating the men.”

Medley, who is also a sexual health educator, says that Black women are not in mainstream conversations about menstruation education.

“I start [educating] at the basics. What is the menstrual cycle?” Medley said.

The first step to having these talks, according to Medley, is breaking down medical terms so that anyone can understand. Fibroids are intimidating, but describing fibroids as small round balls in the womb is not. Black women experience high rates of conditions like endometriosis, infertility, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

McGlone and Medley. (Courtesy)

A study done to test Black women’s knowledge about heavy menstrual bleeding (HMB), showed more than four-fifths of participants answered fewer than 8 out of the 15 questions asked about HMB.

Canty says that her mother taught her how to use a pad early on, but they didn’t talk on the topic after her first period at 12.

“My mom would buy some [period products] if I asked … I think I just looked up stuff [about periods] on my own,” Canty said.

National organizations like PERIOD and Period Equity have fought for “period pride,” but Medley says that the measures continue to isolate Black women from the period justice space.

One of those is the free bleeding movement. Free bleeding is bleeding during a period without the use of anything to collect the flow.

Many of those involved in the movement choose not to use feminine hygiene products as a way to “normalize periods in society,” and that it “is often about revolting against the need for specific menstrual products,” according to the Healthline website.

Medley points out that free bleeding by choice can be a sign of privilege. For low-income menstruators the experience is more stark —the women surveyed in the St. Louis study made do “with cloth, rags, tissues, or toilet paper; some even use children’s diapers or paper towels taken from public bathrooms.”

“I’ve had young people whose skin became raw from using socks,” Medley said.

No More Secrets Mind Body Spirit, Inc. Executive Director Nya McGlone delivers period products to members of the community. (Courtesy photo)

With the onset of COVID-19, the need for products is higher. Americans around the country have filed for unemployment. Of those unemployed, 16 percent are Black. “We do a door to door service, and our requests have tripled, “Medley said. “We do 200 to 210 deliveries a week.”

The CARES Act of 2020 considers period products a medical expense and allows menstruators to use their Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) to buy products. But Black people still have some of the highest uninsured rates in the city, which means that many do not have access to an FSA to purchase products.

In addition, the city half of those living at or below the poverty rate are Black. For those who do not have consistent running water because of poverty, reusable menstrual options like a Diva Cup are not feasible since the wearer must regularly wash the cup.

Canty went to an all-girls school where period products were available in the hallways. She thinks this system should exist in other schools.

More conversations about periods in the Black community need to happen, according to Medley, To combat period poverty, the problem needs to be public.

The Black community can’t continue to address progress without talking about the health of all Black menstruators. Change has to happen, even one pad at a time.

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