By Ruth Cooper
Aunt Flo is visiting. It's Shark Week. Carrie at the prom. Flying the Japanese flag. The redcoats are coming. Surfing the crimson wave. These are all colorful ways of talking about menstruation, of talking about periods. Now, I might have made you all uncomfortable by mentioning that time of the month, but IT COMES ONCE A MONTH for most women. ONCE A MONTH. This is a normal thing, and a natural thing, and a common thing, and it should be able to be discussed as such. Without this everyday frank discussion, women's health issues will continue to be swept under the rug because everyone feels too awkward to talk about them. So, I'm going to begin this speech by giving a quick review about what exactly a period is, as a lot of people, mostly boys, aren't really aware of what happens to women once a month. Now, this might make you uncomfortable, but it really shouldn't. Approximately 50% of the world gets their period every month. Your mom has had her period. Your sister has had her period. Your girlfriend has had her period. And, I, like clockwork, get my period every 28 days. I even have an app that tells me when my period is about to start, which, let me tell you, saves me some of my favorite underwear. So, listen up while I give you a quick review about what I, and most women, experience every month.
Every 28 days, my body sheds the lining of my uterus. This is also known as the sloughing of the uterine lining. I saw a cute cartoon once about a period, of a uterus that was super excited because it thought it was pregnant. It decorated itself with balloons and streamers and had a super cute cake. But, it found out that it actually wasn't pregnant and basically said "Shut it down". It ripped all the decorations off the wall and popped all of the balloons and threw everything down the trash shoot. Now, that's a cute way of thinking about it. It's not actually that cute. That "trash shoot" is the cervix, and once a month, assuming you're not pregnant, menstrual blood flows from the uterus through a small opening in the cervix and passes out of the body through the vagina. Some additional symptoms of menstruation, because having your uterine lining sloth out of your vagina once a month isn't enough, include abdominal cramping, lower back pain, bloating, food cravings, and mood swings.
In the United States, the average age that a girl gets her first period is 12 years old. It can also be as early as 8 years old. And, they continue to have their period until they reach menopause, around age 51. That is an average of 37 years of menstruating once a month, including two full-term pregnancies where we "get a break." If this happens to almost every woman, and for 37 years of her life, then why is this still so weird to talk about? Why is there still a stigma of disgust or shame attached to this natural and common bodily function? Why do I hide my tampon in my sleeve when I go to the bathroom? Why do I feel awkward buying tampons from the Huddle? And what are the implications of this stigma of disgust? Of this uneasiness to discuss periods?
One effect of this stigma, of this awkwardness when it comes to talking about periods, is the lack of advocacy when it comes to feminine hygiene products. Yes, I'm talking about pads and tampons. When a girl gets her period, she needs a way to collect and dispose of her menstrual blood, of her uterine lining, in a hygienic way. This is done through the use of pads, tampons, panty liners, or menstrual cups. When using a tampon, a woman needs to change it every 4-8 hours. That means that a woman uses approximately 20 tampons for any given period. The average woman uses 11,400 tampons in her lifetime. That is a lot of tampons. These feminine hygiene products allow a woman to go through her day without bleeding all over the place.
Unfortunately, due to the general awkwardness and lack of understanding surrounding menstruation, these necessary feminine hygiene products, these products that allow a woman to work, or to go to school, or to simply not bleed into her clothing while she's eating lunch, are taxed in the United States as a luxury good, instead of a necessity. A luxury. Now, when I think of luxury, I think of an expensive perfume, or a vacation, or a Lily Pulitzer dress; basically, I think of something that I choose to buy, or choose to have. But, I do not choose to have my uterine lining fall out of my vagina every 28 days.
Now, for those not versed in taxes, most states tax all "tangible personal property", but make exceptions for select "necessities," or "non-luxury items." Things that are considered "necessities" under these guidelines could include groceries, food stamp purchases, medical purchases (including over the counter drugs), clothes in some states, as well as agriculture supplies. Under these guidelines, there are a few questionable items that fall under this necessity label. For example, there's a tax exemption for treating erectile dysfunction with Viagra in Wisconsin, but the same can't be said for feminine hygiene products. Viagra. In other states, birth control and medicated condoms are exempt because they are considered drugs, and therefore a necessity. Condoms. Chapstick, newspapers, and even donuts are not taxed because they are "necessities." But tampons? They're still taxed as a luxury item! I'm sorry, but how can we say Viagra and glazed donuts are necessities of life, but tampons are a luxurious good?!
In January of this year, President Obama was asked about this so-called "tampon tax". His response was as follows: "I confess I was not aware of it until you brought up to my attention… I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items. I suspect it's because men were making the laws when these were passed." Because men were making the laws when these were passed. Fine, I can accept why, perhaps, they were originally taxed as luxury items, due to the lack of understanding about periods by these men… though there is the argument that tampons were originally used in World War 1 to absorb blood from gunshot wounds on the battlefield, so they were clearly a medical supply then. But now? Excuse me; it is 2016, we know better. These are not luxuries. These are a necessity.
Not only are feminine hygiene products clearly not a luxury, this tax is unfair on women. On average, women in California pay about $7 per month for 40 years of tampons and sanitary napkins. Statewide, with this tax, it adds up to over 20 million dollars annually in taxes. 20 million dollars, annually! Not only is this a sexist tax that unfairly affects only women, but it also singles out low-income women especially. Low-income women often can't afford tampons because food stamps don't cover feminine hygiene products. And when they buy tampons with what little extra money they have, they are taxed for it as a luxury good. This is unacceptable.
Low-income women who can't afford the proper feminine hygiene products may have to resort to whatever is around— like socks and dirty rags— to absorb their flow and keep the rest of their clothes from getting soiled. Or they will use the tampons and pads they have for prolonged periods of time, which increases the risk of infection and puts them at risk for toxic shock syndrome. The risk of vaginal and reproductive tract infections may increase during menstruation, which is why feminine hygiene products are so important and necessary for a women's health and well-being.
Fortunately, I am not the only one to be outraged by this. Last June, Canada became the first country to exempt women's sanitary products from its sales tax. Its Parliament voted unanimously to eliminate a national tax on menstrual products. And now, it seems the United Kingdom is following suit. Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced that the country will be abolishing its 5 percent tax on menstrual hygiene products. The government, he said, had "heard people's anger over paying the tampon tax loud and clear." Previously, in the United Kingdom, tampons were taxed at a whopping 17.5 percent. Osborne's announcement comes on the heels of a European Union vote to allow member states to choose whether they want to tax menstrual hygiene products.
Many petitions are up in the United States at this given moment, as well as various state laws. Last week, even, New York voted to abolish the sales tax on feminine hygiene products. In the U.S., several state legislatures, including those in Wisconsin, Utah, Ohio, Michigan, Connecticut, and California, are still considering proposals to classify sanitary pads and tampons as tax-exempt medical necessities. Unfortunately, at the moment, only six U.S. states — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey, and now New York — currently have tax exemptions for menstrual hygiene products. Last week, Chicago's city council voted unanimously to scrap their tampon tax as well. So, there is a progress. But, every other state in the United States still classifies tampons as luxuries and taxes them at the same rate as an iPhone. This progress is not enough until every state abolishes this asinine luxury tax on feminine hygiene products.
In the end, if you feel persuaded by this issue, I'd recommend you to sign one of the various petitions online to abolish of the "tampon tax" in the United States, or to contact your state legislative body showing your support. If not, I'd just ask you to consider the undue burden that this tax is on women, especially low-income women, and consider if we, as a country, should label feminine hygiene products as a luxury, and to consider the effects of this "luxury label" on the stigma of menstruation. Also, let's make it more common to talk about menstruation and periods and tampons. Half the world has periods. I should be able to buy tampons from the Huddle without being embarrassed. And they shouldn't be taxed as a luxury item when I do buy them. Thank you.