If it’s been a while since you last thought about your period—we get it. It’s easy to go on autopilot after your first cycle. However, the conversation has evolved in the past few years. “Talking about your period is no longer taboo thanks to a new guard of experts,” says Charis Chambers, M.D., an ob-gyn based in Columbus, Georgia, who goes by the handle @ThePeriodDoctor. Social media has played a key role, as a result of ob-gyns becoming Instagram influencers and an influx of #PeriodTok videos. Talking openly about menstruation is the mission of the growing period positivity movement, which aims to make sure that everyone (including men) is literate about this basic function. Speaking up about our bodies isn’t just moving the cultural needle, it’s potentially life-saving. “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has begun to speak about the period being the fifth vital sign,” says Alyssa Dweck, M.D., an ob-gyn in Mount Kisco, New York, who partners with Midol. “Often it’s the first sign of something being awry. It’s that important.”
PERIODS NOW OPTIONAL
When it comes to periods, many who menstruate (including women and non-binary and transgender people) don’t realize there’s now an element of choice. “Science has caught up to people’s lifestyles—hormonal birth control is the perfect period regulator,” says Sherry Ross, M.D., a Santa Monica ob-gyn. “If you have bad cramps, hormonal migraines, irregular periods, or heavy, long periods, starting a low-dose pill pack every three weeks and skipping the placebo week can knock out the bleeding phase and side effects,” Ross adds. “We don’t have to suffer.” (She notes that it’s not normal to miss a period without the assistance of birth control.) But isn’t there a benefit to the bleed week? “Not at all,” says Ross. Though some people feel psychologically better seeing blood, “the uterine lining never builds up, so it’s not a health issue.” Natalie Crawford, M.D., an Austin ob-gyn, also supports patients who want to manage their periods this way. “Using birth control pills, even long-term, does not hurt your fertility,” she says. So why don’t more people adopt this strategy? “They’re not given the education.” (Always consult with your doctor before starting a new birth control regimen.)
WHAT’S NOT NORMAL?
“It’s important to make the distinction between what’s common and ‘your normal,’” says Lisa Hendrickson-Jack, a holistic reproductive health practitioner and author of The Fifth Vital Sign. For example, while it’s common for people to endure moderate to severe period pain, you don’t have to accept it as your normal. “That could be a sign of anything from inflammation to endometriosis,” she says. Symptoms of PMS are uncomfortable, but they don’t need to disrupt your daily life. “I’ve heard people normalize things like, ‘I miss school for two days every period.’ That’s not normal,” says Chambers. Neither is not being able to eat or vomiting during your cycle. If you notice any unusual new disruptions—including periods that have gone missing for more than three months—get in touch with a gyno ASAP. While many doctors are empathetic, “The medical community has a long-standing history of not taking women’s pain seriously,” says Crawford. This is particularly pronounced for Black women, who are more prone to fibroids (noncancerous but sometimes painful tumors in or on the uterus). Also, research shows that Black and Latinx women with endometriosis, a painful disorder in which endometrial tissue grows outside of the uterus, are more likely to be misdiagnosed. The culture is slowly changing. Adds Crawford, “If you’re not being heard, go somewhere else.”
DOES THE VACCINE MESS UP YOUR PERIOD?
You may have heard that anecdotally some women reported heavier periods after getting vaccinated for Covid-19. Kate Clancy, head of the Clancy Lab at the University of Illinois—and host of Period Podcast—took to social media to crowdsource responses for a research study about post-vaccine periods. While it’s too early to claim causation, we may be overlooking one major culprit: stress. “We’ve seen depression and anxiety spike during Covid, and that can have a real effect on your cycle,” Ross says.
THE PERIOD POVERTY MOVEMENT
“If someone is struggling to afford basic expenses, you can assume period products are a part of that,” says Nadya Okamoto, founder of Period, a nonprofit organization that distributes menstrual hygiene products to people in need. She’s also one of the foremost voices on period poverty. “A 2019 study found that 46 percent of low-income women in St. Louis have had to choose between a meal and menstrual products,” she says, adding that young people suffer lost educational opportunities too. According to a Harris poll from the same year, 25 percent of teens have missed class because of lack of access to period products. How you can help: Donate these supplies to schools, shelters, and supporting organizations as often as you can.
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US