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Connecticut College combating menstruation stigma with free tampons

New London — Last week, Emma Horst-Martz got her period unexpectedly.

Instead of panicking about not having a tampon or sanitary napkin in her purse, the 20-year-old Connecticut College student headed to the women’s bathroom in the student center, where feminine hygiene products are available free of charge from newly installed dispensers.

“It was very satisfying to know I was able to take advantage of the program,” Horst-Martz said Friday. “I’ve heard from a lot of other people who remembered the program and went to the student center to use the dispensers. It’s certainly satisfying to know it’s actually being used.”

This week, at a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the installation of three of the dispensers in the women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms in the student center, Horst-Martz said she’s looking forward to the installation of two more dispensers in the library, and more throughout campus after that. Tampons and sanitary napkins should be available for free, she said, just like soap and toilet paper.

“The goal is to have a dispenser in every bathroom on campus,” Horst-Martz said.

The move follows similar efforts elsewhere in the country, including New York City, which voted in June to supply free feminine hygiene products in restrooms in schools, prisons and homeless shelters.

The Conn College project was funded with a $1,000 contribution from the Student Government Association, Horst-Martz said, as well as support from the college administration.

“This allows people to go through their menstrual cycle with dignity,” said Virginia Gresham, vice president of the Student Government Association.

The project, Horst-Martz said, is about more than just making sure tampons and sanitary napkins are available whenever people need them. It’s also an effort to reduce the stigma women feel about having their periods.

“Menstruation has become something people are talking about more openly,” said Horst-Martz, a junior American Studies major from Philadelphia.

In some countries, women and girls are forced to miss school and work when they’re menstruating, and even in this country, “it’s seen as something we have to keep secret,” she said.

“I know students who’ve missed class and social engagements when they realized they were having their period and didn’t have any supplies with them,” she said. “This is something that those of us who menstruate have worried about, because we’re socialized to devalue women’s health. But this project has started the conversation.”

Last year, Horst-Martz approached Rich Madonna, Conn’s vice president of finance and administration, about making feminine hygiene supplies available for free. She suggested baskets of supplies in restrooms, but Madonna thought dispensers would be better, replacing the old-style coin-operated ones that were once in some campus bathrooms, but long ago fell into disrepair.

“I thought it sounded great,” Madonna said. “We crafted something that was sustainable.”

They decided to install the dispensers first in the student center, and will add more in the library and one or more academic buildings in the coming weeks, he said.

“It was important to put them in a central location,” he said. “Now, we’ll see what the cost and the usage is, and evaluate from there.”

Joan Chrisler, psychology professor at Conn, applauds Horst-Martz's initiative, though she isn't sure that dispensers alone will reduce stigma around menstruation. But talking about and working to reduce that stigma is a main issue among "menstrual activists" within the contemporary feminist community, she said.

"There's still a lot of stigma in almost every culture," said Chrisler, who is the past president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research and current editor of the journal "Women's Reproductive Health." 

"Maybe having supplies nearby is one way to manage that stigma," she said.

In her "Psychology of Women" class, she teaches students about the hormonal changes in women's bodies that lead to shedding of the uterine lining and menstrual bleeding, because a surprising number of both males and females don't understand it.

"They don't understand what it's for," she said. "I teach them about the beauty of this complex process. They usually find it fascinating, because they never hear anything about it." 

In American culture, she said the stigma manifests itself in women being made fun of for menstruating or being pre-menstrual.

"There's this mocking idea that women who are premenstrual are crazy," she said, "so women don't want to talk about having their periods. And if you look at the product advertising, it's all about avoiding leaks and stains and smells, that you can hide it. Just talking about it as a normal body process is a help."

j.benson@theday.com

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