When the Internet first took notice of Jose Angel Garcia’s #realmensupportwomen photo, it exploded.
The photo Garcia posted to Instagram showed the 15-year-old high school sophomore holding up several menstrual pads, paired with a caption calling his male followers to action. He urged them to carry menstrual supplies with them if their female friends ever found themselves without. It was met with overwhelmingly positive praise from both men and women, and currently has 40,000 likes on Instagram.
The fact that this simple, kind act has gained so much attention is heartening. But why does a young man’s openness about a woman’s biological functions elicit such a surprised response from the world? The easy answer is that a taboo surrounds the discussion of women’s health in our society. Social precedent deems menstruation an inappropriate subject of conversation, especially when men are involved. Perhaps because of this cultural climate, there is also an assumption that men are ignorant about women’s health.
In an effort to test this assumption, Kindara surveyed 500 men about their knowledge of basic women’s health facts. The participant pool included men ages 18-65 that came from various educational, relationship, career, and ethnic backgrounds. The men who performed best on the survey were Millennials ages 18-34.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that many men performed well. Men’s knowledge of menstruation in particular was significantly higher than we assumed, considering the topic suffers a higher level of stigma than other aspects of women’s health. The majority of men were able to identify the correct responses to topics such as the average age a woman gets her period (12), a woman’s chances of conceiving on her period (almost none), and the actual physiological process that occurs during menstruation (the uterine lining is shed).
The data we collected paints a pretty clear picture. Men have a better understanding of women’s complex reproductive health cycles than we thought, but that in itself is telling. They aren’t ignorant, they just don’t like to talk about it. The question is, why?
According to Garcia, the negative connotation surrounding the menstrual cycle is imposed by social norms.
“Because society treats periods as if they are taboo, we grow up understanding that it’s something that shouldn’t be talked about,” said Garcia.There is evidence supporting the claim that menstruating women are perceived as being in a more degraded state. A cultural review published in the Springer Sex Roles Journal argued that menstruation is commonly stigmatized. Unfavorable attitudes toward menstruation are depicted in many aspects of our culture, from advertisements of women experiencing violent hormone-induced mood swings and the emphasis of words like “discreet” and “hidden” scrawled across period supply packaging. The impact of this messaging can be observed in social reactions to indiscretion. In one study, the reactions of male and female college students were measured in response to a woman dropping one of two “feminine” items, either a tampon or hair clip, from her bag. Researchers found the woman who dropped the tampon was perceived by both men and women as less competent and less likeable than the woman dropped the less offensive hair clip.
Men and women alike are affected by the consistently unfavorable messaging about periods. In a study published by the Psychology of Women Quarterly, researchers found that both male and female college freshmen viewed menstruating women in a more negative light than “the average woman.” While the women surveyed were a bit more sympathetic, the men described menstruating women as more annoying, unreasonable and less nurturing. It’s also worth noting that men identified women on their periods as being less “clean and fresh” than non-menstruating women, indicating the idea that periods make a woman “dirty” persists.
For whatever reason, this mindset seems to manifest itself in men’s reactions to women’s periods. The negative behavior Garcia noticed in his male friends was one factor behind his decision to bring attention to the issue.
“Boys tease girls about it,” said Garcia. “Because they are ignorant or disgusted, they make fun of the girls.
“[In a perfect world,] it would just be an ordinary thing,” said Garcia. “People would talk about periods without disgust or ignorance around the subject. Boys would be a bit more understanding of what girls experience every month.”Open discussion about women and men’s natural reproductive functions can only benefit both parties. In acknowledging the normalcy of our bodies’ sexual functions, we can build mutual understanding and break down the stigma.
A more open climate of communication is emerging. The young men and women of today have a deeper knowledge of women’s health and more willingness to discuss it openly.
“With the amount of support that I received around my statement,” said Garcia. “I actually believe that my kids’ generation will be open to discussing menstruation and it will be considered a normal topic.”
1) Ingrid, J., & Joan, C. (2013). The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma. Sex Roles, 68(1), 9-18.
2) Roberts, T., Goldenberg, J. L., Power, C., & Pyszczynski, T. (2002). “Feminine Protection”: The Effects of Menstruation on Attitudes Towards Women. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 26(2), 131.
3) Forbes, G., Adams–Curtis, L., White, K., & Holmgren, K. (2003). The Role of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism in Women’s and Men’s Perceptions of the Menstruating Woman. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 27(1), 58-63.