The Global Period Taboo

While at first glance, it might seem like this post is only for women, but honestly I wrote this post for guys just as much as girls. There is a very large global misunderstanding about women’s periods and the issues women have to deal with around the world. Since many men make laws and voice their opinions on women’s bodies (birth control, the tampon tax) I figured it’s about time we have a conversation about menstruation that includes men.

No blood and gore here (I promise), just a conversation about how menstruation affects women globally, and steps we can take to help solve this “global period taboo” and empower women at home and abroad!

I’ll never forget the first night I spent in Xi’an with my Chinese roommate. As we got ready for bed, she took out a red, ornately designed piece of cloth and laid it on top of her her sheets, spreading it out carefully.

“What’s that?” I asked her.

Oh! It’s for my menstruation,” she responded in a casual tone.


Chinese period taboos

Hanging out with a different Chinese friend in Tianjin

I felt awkward. I was always awkward when the subject of periods came up. The matter-of-fact way she talked about her “female time” was a bit bizarre to me. The way she left her bloody pads in the bathroom trashcan without rolling them up and wrapping them in toilet paper grossed me out.

Seriously girl? Nobody wants to see that!

The longer I stay in China, the more I’ve begun to realize that Chinese women are much more vocal about their “time of the month,” even around guys!

China period superstitionA few weeks ago I had a long conversation over lunch with my co-workers about how you can’t find tampons with applicators in China. Having spent a lot of time in America, my Chinese coworker was aghast! She had no idea us foreigners had been bringing tampons over in bulk from America. After lunch she ran back to the office to purchase a box of tampons on Amazon, rush-delivery.

While this conversation was pretty standard, I definitely wasn’t expecting her to parade the box of tampons around the office when it arrived (in front of male students and coworkers * gasp *) She also told one of her male students who was procrastinating that he needed to give her a break because she was on her period and “couldn’t deal with him right now.”

Wait… what?! In what world is it okay to mention to your male students that you’re on your period? I was shocked! But you know what her student did? He laughed and offered to buy her some chocolate.

Obviously, China is doing something right. Why should I be ashamed of my period? Why do we need little nicknames like “aunt flow” and “monthly gift?” Half the population of this planet gets their period for a large majority of their life, so why are we so ashamed of talking about it?

Travel and Periods

Oh the shame!

Teenage Period Shame

I still remember the first time I got my period. I was about 12 years old, and on vacation in California. I was so embarrassed I tried to hide it from my family. I was the first one of my friends to get my period (and wear a bra… and go through puberty) and I didn’t really know what to do. I knew about pads and tampons, but I was too ashamed to tell my mom I needed them, so I just used some toilet paper for the rest of the week.

Obviously, I was an idiot twelve-year-old because my mom found out the second she did the laundry. She brought a package of pads to my room and I just about died. So embarrassing mom!!

This shame and confusion is really common with young girls, especially if you develop early. Thankfully I knew what a period was before I got mine, but a few of my friends have told me their parents and school never warned them. Some of my friends thought they were dying the day the got their period! Seriously.

Because of this teenage period shame, I’m a huge fan of Knixteen, a company that specializes in period underwear for teenage girls. Underwear from Knixteen is perfect for teens who are new to their period and aren’t ready for other more complicated products like the Diva Cup. They also have a whole section of their website dedicated to awkward and embarrassing period questions. If only this was available when I was younger!

Travel and tampons

Thank god for tampons!

Chinese Period Taboos

While I’m a huge fan of how open Chinese women are about their periods, China does have a few major period taboos I’ve noticed while living here. For example, many Chinese women will not drink alcohol while on their periods. Also, a lot of my Chinese friends refuse to eat or drink anything cold. While that might seem a bit strange, Chinese people also avoid cold things when they’re sick too.

As with most Chinese medicine practices, I’m not quite sure if any of this is rooted in fact, or if it’s just a long-held superstition.

Whatever it is, literally no one is talking about this. I googled “Chinese menstrual taboos” and “Chinese period taboos” and absolutely nothing came up besides a few academic journal articles. I can’t be the only person who has noticed these menstrual practices, but for some reason no one has deemed them interesting or worthy of discussion until now. Why is that? Why is no one interested in the fact that Chinese women will refuse ice cream or cold veggies on their period?

Travel and periodsPeriods and Travel

Getting your period on the road is an important element of female travel no one ever seems to talk about either. While it might not seem like a big deal, sometimes forgetting that certain “items” aren’t available can really inhibit your trip!

For example, over the summer I was in the Philippines and I forgot to pack pads and tampons. While I could find pads at the grocery store, I couldn’t find tampons anywhere. Apparently Filipino women don’t really use them, especially outside of the large cities. I was heading to Siargao for a week of surfing, swimming and snorkeling. What was I going to do?!

Thankfully, one of my fellow travelers gave me a few tampons to use, but I felt so guilty I offered to pay her for them. Tampons are like gold when you’re traveling in Asia. They’re either nonexistent or expensive, so girls tend to hoard them. Thankfully this girl was only traveling for a few weeks and had some tampons to spare. She was literally my life-saver!

Menstruation is a big worry for girls, especially on the road, but we’re all too ashamed to talk about it, lest we offend the male population. While I think this is ridiculous, I always find myself buying into the idea that periods are some mysterious wonder that need to be talked about in hushed voices away from men. I remember I was embarrassed to include “tampons” on a China packing list for my study abroad company. But you know what? Girls need to know this stuff!

Thankfully, I’m not the only travel blogger talking about this. Adventurous Kate published a post a while back about her menstrual cup and how it has become her constant travel companion.

This day made possible by: tampax

This day made possible by: Tampax

The “Women’s Tax”

I’m going to get a little political here, but I think this lack of male understanding about menstruation really impacts women in a huge way. Women spend waaay too much money on menstruation products which are an extremely important aspect of our basic personal hygiene. Guys, I suggest you talk a walk down the “lady isle” one of these days and just look at the prices of pads and tampons. We spend a fortune on this stuff!

To make matters worse, many countries count sanitary items as “luxuries” and tax them as such. You might have seen the huge petition to ban the “tampon tax” in the UK. Over 270,000 people have signed this petition and counting. Two women even “free bled” in white pants in London to show just how much of a “luxury” tampons and pads are.

Can you believe that the British government used to charge a 17.5% tax on feminine hygiene products?! While this has been lowered to 5% in 2001, it’s still way too high for women to be paying every month for necessary “luxuries.”

travel and menstruation

This day wouldn’t have happened without tampons

This “tampon tax” isn’t just a British thing, it also exists in the USA too. Because tampons and pads are not considered a “necessity” by most state governments, they fall under the normal sales tax. Only five states: Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania, have changed their laws to include feminine hygiene products under the list of non-taxed items.

Also, American food stamps don’t cover expensive pads and tampons, forcing some women to sell their food stamps for money to cover their monthly menstruation. That’s right: these women are forced to choose between food and hygiene.

Read Next: If you can’t afford tampons, what do you do?

In 1986 Gloria Steinem wrote that if men got periods, they “would brag about how long and how much”: that boys would talk about their menstruation as the beginning of their manhood, that there would be “gifts, religious ceremonies” and sanitary supplies would be “federally funded and free”. Women might “faint at the sight of blood” and could not participate in the “holy ritual of purging impurities.”

Honestly, I wonder how different things would be if men had periods too.

Let’s Stop Being Weird About Periods

I recently watched this awesome video by THINX (period panties) about removing the shame of menstruation. If you have 13 minutes to spare, be sure to check it out!

Feminine Hygiene and the Developing World

To be honest, before I saw this video I never really thought my ability to purchase pads and tampons was a privilege. In comparing myself to men, who never have to worry about these sorts of things, I forgot to recognize the immense privilege I have over other women who can’t afford them.

I never thought about how access to pads and tampons (or lack of) affects my education. While I knew other cultures had “menstrual huts” and refused to let women partake in daily life during their periods, I had no idea how much menstruation can really affect a woman’s future.

Many women in the developing world (and poor women in the USA!) can’t afford access to things like pads and tampons, and resort to using newspaper, toilet paper, cloth and leaves. Because these things shift around while you walk, the fear of leaking or worse, having your bloody cloth fall out, shames girls into staying home from school for a week every month!

Because of this, girls fall behind, fail tests, and often drop out of school. This can majorly affect a country’s development, economy, and GDP. When half your society isn’t educated and can’t make money to support the family, that’s a lot of missed potential.

Thankfully, this video discusses a new solution, AFRIpads, which are washable, reusable pads that women can use to save money and avoid the period shame that keeps young women home from school.

The Big Takeaway

We need to stop being ashamed of women’s periods. Girls, stop talking about your period in hushed tones, trading tampons like cigarettes in a prison! Don’t be ashamed of your hygiene products, using the self-checkout out of embarrassment. We as a society need to also better educate men on what a period is and why we have one. Honestly, periods aren’t actually that gross, especially if you use a tampon.

It’s just blood guys!

Global period taboos, and the struggles women face to mange their period worldwide... (and while your travel)

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If you’re interested in supporting AFRIpads, the new solution to menstruation in the developing world, be sure to purchase a pair of THINX period panties. With every purchase, a year’s worth of AFRIpads will be given to a girl in need to help keep women in school.

Get $10 off your first purchase of THINX!! 

In case any of you were wondering, I wasn’t paid to promote THINX panties or video. This is just a cause I really believe in, and I wanted to share it with you all. Personally, I’ll be purchasing a pair of THINX when I go home this winter, and if you’re curious, I’ll let you all know how they work out on my travels!

Do any of you girls have an embarrassing travel period story? Do you have issues taking care of your “lady business” abroad? 



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

46 comments on “The Global Period Taboo

  1. My Taiwanese friend told me about her mom prohibiting her from eating or drinking cold things while on her period! I thought it was just her, but yeah, that is really odd. Man, I learned so much from this post! I have loads of conversations with my girl friends about periods, so they’ll definitely gobble this post up!

  2. Haha, this is an interesting topic and many people talk about it! Just yesterday I commented on a blog also writing about periods in China. I have also written about it before, but in Spanish xD

    I was so surprised one day in my previous job, we were having lunch and one of the girls didn’t want to eat watermelon. I asked why and the other girls told me: 大姨妈! The watermelon wasn’t even cold, it was room temperature. I told them in Spain we even ate ice cream and swam during our periods and they gave me the usual excuse of “Western women are stronger”.

    I don’t know if talking about your period is a special taboo or it is just like talking about pee and poo… we wouldn’t announce that “I am going to take a shit”! I also don’t like when having your period is used as an excuse for your bad mood (especially at work).

    RE the sanitary products, can you believe that until 2012, in Spain pads and tampons were taxed 21%? Like luxury products!! Because, of course, having your period is a luxury!! Now they are 10% but they should be 4%, because they are a basic necessity!

    And, finally, aren’t you amazed at the amount of different brands they have in China for pads? In Spain we have 3 or 4 brands, here they have a whole aisle, haha. Have you tried the mentholated ones? It is a refreshing and weird sensation at the same time!!

    I am really curious about the Thinx panties, please write a review if you try them! :D

    • I think when Chinese people refer to “cold foods” it doesn’t necessarily mean the temperature is cold. It’s just that watermelon is in the “cold” category. Foods are either hot or cold, regardless of temperature. At least, that’s how I understand it but I am far from an expert on that haha! :)

  3. Haha yeah, I used to tease my Chinese friends sometimes. They’d say “you western people are more open than us” and I’d say “yeah but you talk about your periods way more than us!” And they also avoided all the cold stuff as well. The cultural differences like that are very interesting. Like you say- you don’t really hear about it. You just learn about it from getting to know local people. The same with all the Chinese traditions for after birth (staying in bed, not showering etc)- I never knew about any of that stuff before I moved there.

    • oh wow that’s good to know! Some of the rules for Chinese women are very interesting. For example, pregnant women have tons of rules about what they’re allowed to eat, but one of my Chinese friends was TRYING to get pregnant and they refused to let her eat seafood or anything “cold” so when we were together she would always buy ice cream and seafood because they wouldn’t let her have it at home.

  4. We live in Mersin, Turkey and my 13 year old goes to school here. At school they are doing Personal Development right now. Men grow moustache’s and their voices get deeper. Girls get breasts and get fat! Yes that’s right. Period’s are non-existent.

    Incidentally finding tampons here are harder than a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

  5. hahah this made me laugh. Not going to lie I heard getting tampons in Asia was a bitch so I talked to my doctor and have just been routinely taking my pill to avoid it. Also re tampon tax: Canada just got rid of theirs this summer: wahoo!

  6. This summer we sold everything and left the states for good to travel the world. I wasn’t even going to mess with trying to find tampons and pads in other countries, I bought a menstrual cup before we left so I’d always know what I’m dealing with. I think this is a more viable option, and more environmentally friendly than the disposable products. Washable cloth pads are good too, but as far as I know there aren’t washable tampons.
    If you’re going to travel girls I really recommend getting a menstrual cup, learning to use it over a few periods before you leave (there is a learning curve, it takes a few tries to get the hang of it!) I’d love to see these donated in developing countries as well.

    • Yeah aside from hassle, I love the positive environmental impact of these products. Tampons and pads produce so much waste! I’d love to try out the cup and the THINX underwear

  7. Oh I love this post Richelle! Sometimes I think about how girls in developing worlds must have such a hard time with their periods without the pads and tampons we have, and how lucky we are to have those. Or even how lucky we are now, compared to like a few decades ago, when my mom said they just used rags. I love the idea of the THINX period panties and how it helps a girl in a developing country!

    And btw… since I’m Chinese, I think I did grow up with my mom telling me that I can’t eat anything cold when on my period, LOL!

    • Haha yeah they’re very strict about it! I definitely think we’re so lucky to have those items. I just saw another video saying THINX is making boxer briefs for trans men, which I think is so great. I never really think about this stuff from outside the perspective of a woman in a developed country who can afford this stuff.

  8. I use the menstrual cup like Kate is and it’s a real lifesaver! Also for the planet, think of how many waste all these tampons and pads produce every month/year/lifetime! Especially for travelling it’s so convenient because you’re right about the tampons being like gold in Asia, can’t find them anywhere! So definately would be a good idea (for travellers) to make it easy for themselves AND save money by investing in a menstrual cup (mine was only 15 euros by the way, ha!)!

    • Yeah I’m thinking about getting the Lilly cup because it seems less intimidating and the silicon looks really nice. I definitely want to try it out and maybe write a post on using it for travel. I cringe when I think of all the wasted pads and tampons I’ve used over the years and I’d love to do something more environmentally friendly.

  9. I founds this post very interesting and real — it IS rather difficult to find tampons in Asia. I live in Manila, PH and even have difficulty finding it in major department stores and groceries, so I do hoard whenever possible. I’ll look into that menstrual cup thing you mentioned. Thanks for writing this post :)

    • No problem Kira! Yeah I realized while I was in Surigao that I had miscounted my weeks and needed tampons and of course I couldn’t find anything! I think I’m definitely going to try out the cup too and see how it works. I did some research and the lilly cup looks great.

  10. ooh the joys of the time of the month…I was only 11 when I got mine and ooh I can remember like it was yesterday. worst story was having my period on a 33 hour trip from the Philippines to nyc…not my finest moment when all I wanted was a hot shower, my bed and chocolate. lol.

  11. Nice post! I remember seeing the topic discussed on Kate’s blog. It’s shocking that we don’t discuss it more!
    I don’t really have a travel period story as I was one of the last ones to get started at 14. Yeah, I was always a late bloomer. I also still looked like a boy until I got married and had my son and that was after university and everything lol! Also, I don’t feel a thing when I have my period so I have to put it on my calendar. Now I use these special iud coils that last for 5 years and I insisted that I wanted the ones where I still bleed lol! I know!

    • Hahaha yeah a few of my friends have gotten the IUD and they all have good things to say about it. The only problem is that I read some of them actually make your cramps WORSE… so if they had one that fixed cramps I would be all over it.

  12. It’s not just that side of the world, here in Costa Rica it is pretty tough to find tampons! You will only find them in pharmacies or big supermarkets, if you go to a non-chain supermarket or small one, you will never find tampons. I ended up bringing my favorite ones from the US because the selection down here is super limited and they usually only have the Tampax (one with cardboard ugh). I had no idea tampons were considered luxury and were taxed in the US, no wonder they’re so dang expensive! How ridiculous.

    • Yeah I had no idea either! I honestly can’t believe tampons are a “luxury.” Does the government think we’re supposed to run around with diaper pads all day? I think I’m going to invest in a Lilly Cup when I go home so I avoid all these problems.

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  15. I hardly did any research about periods before we left on our trip around the world. Brecht did tell me he noticed a lot of female travel bloggers used a DivaCup and loved it. I was a bit grossed out by the idea and kept postponing to buy one. Eventually we left and I just packed a tampon or four to get me started. I figured there are women having their period everywhere, so I should be able to buy tampons everywhere. I was stunned to find out I couldn’t be more wrong. In certain Southeast Asian countries I couldn’t find a tampon ANYWHERE. Annoying!

    I really liked your post and the story about the red crow in the video. Had no idea about periods in Africa, horrible!

    • Yeah, I knew about it before moving to China thank god, but I can’t tell you how many girls have freaked out when they realized tampons are almost non-existant. I just switched to the Diva Cup and it’s LIFE CHANGING. No more bringing around giant bags full of tampons. I just stick the little pouch in my toiletry bag and I’m good to go. I’m never going back.

  16. Just discovered your blog through Justine’s Travel Lush. I’m in Beijing, too, and have been since August 2012!

    So glad that you wrote about periods, especially from a global/traveller standpoint. I find Chinese customs surrounding things like periods, pregnancy, etc. to be so fascinating. I remember when I first started dating a Chinese man (now my husband), I said something about getting an ice cream and he was shocked, “But you’re on your period!” I laughed and reminded him that I’m Canadian… I’ll eat cold foods and drink beer no matter what time of the month it is, thank you very much!

    And Diva Cups! Hooray for them! Switched to one last summer and can’t believe I hadn’t sooner! I actually have so many tampons leftover from when I brought a bunch back with me from Canada. Thinking I’ll give them to a co-worker; they’re so expensive, I don’t want to waste them!

    • Wow thanks so much for reading my posts! Yeah I finally switched to the Diva Cup and I’m NEVER going back. I have a whole big bag too, and I think I’ll have to give them away too. I must have a co-worker or friend who wants them or something.

      • This may be the strangest question ever, but I feel this is the best place to put it out into the universe… I’m going to be spending a year in Southeast Asia including a trek to Everest Base Camp. I know squat toilets are fairly common in some areas but saw it specifically mentioned in the Everest tour info. I’m pretty sure I’ll get my period while I’m there, so my question is… have you ever found it difficult to clean you Diva cup on the road? I bought a blossom cup and did not have success with it at first. I’m gunna give it another go, but is it practical with shared bathrooms, squat toilets, public restrooms, etc? The idea of it doesn’t gross me out, but going to a sink to clean it out in a public bathroom is pushing my comfort zone and I don’t want to gross other people out hahaha. by the way, thank you for such an open post!

        • No problem! You can definitely clean it with bottled water, which is what I would do. You can bring a bottle of water with you into the bathroom and rinse it out over the toilet. I was lucky that the last place I traveled where this might be an issue was the Philippines and they had a spicket in the bathroom. A bottle of water should totally work through!

  17. I missed this post when you published it last year, just came across it today. Love that you write about this topic, it really is such a taboo in Western countries. Many boyfriends and husbands are even afraid to buy a box of tampons or pads for their female s.o.! I also love that in China it’s so normal to talk about your period – especially with other female coworkers or even my mother-in-law. Not eating cold while on your period is supposed to help you have less pain while you’re on it. Eating warming foods, on the other hand, (just like, you know, putting a hot water bag on your stomach) is supposed to help with the pain. I also realised that while in the West (or at least where I’m from) we completely hide our tampons or pads when going to the toilet, here people just use a little bag when they go to the restrooms. Everyone knows they are on their period if they do so, but no-one cares or leaves bad comments, or at least I haven’t heard anyone do so yet (not sure about boys who are in puberty, though).

    • Yeah I completely agree that the openness towards periods in China is really refreshing. I’ve also heard that alcohol is supposed to make cramps worse, which might actually be true, since I drank last night and my cramps were horrible today!

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  19. Hi Richelle,
    I like you posts! You got so many interesting views in China, which I don’t easily see it. Maybe I am Chinese. The openness towards periods in China is a new thing that back to 10 years ago it doesn’t happen at all. Right now, there is a trend in China we call the sweetheart type boyfriend “暖男”, when you translated it directly, it means caring boyfriend. So during the menstruation, the sweetheart boyfriend suppose to buy their girlfriend pads and give their girlfriend a cup of hot water. Thanks for of trend about sweetheart boyfriend, it opens up the menstruation topic in the public. Also a lot of Chinese women experience serious cramps, maybe it’s also the reason why we could talk about it in China. It’s a daily life problem. Another about what consider “cold” thing, this is a huge catalog about the cold thing from the Chinese traditional medicine side. Seafood, watermelon, pear, grapes, and etc. are all considered as cold…
    : p I bet this is new culture to you.

    • Hi Chiang, thanks so much for shedding some light on Chinese culture! That’s great to know about the “sweetheart boyfriends”- I could use one of those! I think the severe cramps are a worldwide problem. I actually started taking the birth control pill in high school due to my cramps!

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  23. I’m Chinese! Hahaha I thought everyone didn’t eat ‘cold’ things on their periods because it causes cramps! And I want to try tampons but everyone around me is freaked out (and somewhat disgusted?) by the idea of shoving cotton up there. There isn’t anyone I know personally who has ever tried tampons :/

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