Losing your first tooth is a rite of passage for many children. But what if we never talked to them about this normal part of childhood? Imagine if they didn’t know what was happening, scared of the newfound gap in their mouth. Imagine if, instead of rewarding children with a dollar bill, our silence and stigma led them to hide this experience out of embarrassment. Imagine if we didn’t tell them how to take care of their new smiles.
This lack of knowledge, insufficient support, and feeling of shame are exactly what many people experience when it comes to periods. The Harris Poll and CVS Health recently found that 33% of individuals have felt ashamed about having a period.
Menstruation is part of holistic health; our periods reflect and affect the state of our broader well-being. Yet menstruation has historically been perceived by many as shameful, embarrassing, or something to hide and not discuss. Stigma makes it difficult for caregivers, clinicians, and educators to implement adequate menstrual health education. Caregivers often feel uncomfortable discussing menstruation with their children. In a 2023 YouGov survey, 37% of Americans said they were not taught enough about it in school.
As two women’s health professionals, we’ve seen that quality menstrual health education is not reaching many young girls (or anyone who menstruates) before their first periods. The average age of a girl’s first period has dropped to just under 12 years old, generally when they are in fifth grade. YouGov also found that 48% of adult women in the U.S. “were not very or not at all prepared” for their first periods. Faced with this lack of knowledge, some girls are left to manage on their own or to turn to peers and social media, which can compound misinformation. Girls deserve to feel prepared for their periods—not shocked or embarrassed about normal menstrual blood.
We need to reach girls before and around their first period if we want to give them a fair chance at holistic health.
Menstrual education affects our health
Understanding menstruation can help girls reach their healthiest potential. Knowing what to expect and how to navigate periods is empowering and helps prevent negative health outcomes or complications. Menstrual education can also help girls know what is normal and abnormal about their periods (e.g., pain levels, amount of bleeding, and frequency), which can help them and their doctors identify menstrual disorders earlier. It can take years for women to receive a diagnosis for conditions like endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). If people knew more about menstruation and the range of normal experiences, this could save time, medical costs, and years of physical pain, discomfort, and life disruptions.
Without menstrual health education, people may not know how to manage their symptoms or what they can and cannot do while menstruating, which can lead to negative social or emotional effects from…
- Disrupted school participation.
- Skipping activities or sports.
- Feeling anxious, embarrassed or other effects on psychosocial well-being.
Education can help improve menstrual health and young people’s comfort with and confidence about periods. One young girl shared how her mother’s messages about body changes made her anxious, but after learning more about periods from the educational book, A Girl’s Guide to Puberty & Periods, she felt less worried.
The future of menstrual education
Silence perpetuates shame and lack of understanding about periods. As two health professionals who have each worked in women’s health for over 20 years, we’ve seen increasing media coverage on menstruation. But this has yet to translate into better menstrual health education, which will take committed efforts from all of us.
Individuals can have discussions with their children, friends, or students. Though it can feel uncomfortable, it’s important not to shy away from this natural part of health. People who don’t menstruate can help reduce stigma by learning what menstruating people experience.
Policymakers can continue driving change to support affordable, accessible menstrual health care and enabling social and physical environments as an essential component of health.
The health care system can better equip clinicians to provide anticipatory guidance and education on menstrual health and menstrual disorders.
Companies who sell period products have a responsibility to make menstrual health education and products more accessible. For example, CVS Health has reduced the price of store-brand period products; worked with policy groups to help eliminate state taxes on menstrual products; covered this tax on behalf of customers in states where legally allowed; and expanded MinuteClinic menstrual services. All companies can reduce the stigma around periods by normalizing the experience and supporting women’s health needs.
On the first anniversary of CVS Health’s HERe—Healthier Happens Together initiative—the organization is also offering free period education online, launching First Period Kits to help girls navigate the onset of menstruation, and initiating a “Buy One, Donate Two” program during October with a goal to donate up to 1 million period products to people facing period poverty.
By coming together to improve menstrual health education, we can build a better future for the next generation of women.
Joanne Armstrong, MD, MPH, is vice president and chief medical officer, Women’s Health and Genomics at CVS Health, and Marni Sommer, DrPH, MSN, RN, is a professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and author of A Girl’s Guide to Puberty and Periods. CVS Health is a sponsor of Fortune WELL.
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