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Chella Quint has an alter-ego.
Meet Over Flo, her female superhero on a mission to spare the world from menstrual miseducation. By day, Chella is a mild-mannered education researcher; by night she becomes a taboo-tackling comedian and reproductive rights defender.
Up against world domination and alien invasion, Over Flo’s campaign against menstrual taboos might not seem the most pressing of the issues being tackled by global superheroes.
But Chella’s passion, excitement and urgency to share her knowledge will quickly convince you to reconsider that statement.
Having coined the term #periodpositive in 2006 while touring her comedy show and workshops while teaching PSHE, and developing the hashtag campaign since 2012, Chella’s experience with young people and young adults has defined her work.
As she talks, she keeps coming back to her concerns over how young people are taught about periods in school.
Just last week, the government announced changes to primary and secondary education to incorporate sex ed as a compulsory part of the curriculum for the first time – a bill that Chella says experts have been lobbying for for years. We’re behind the times and playing a game of catch up.
Corporate interests in the curriculum
And the problem doesn’t just lie with the government’s input into school education – but also with the health industry, who for years have been dictating how girls and other menstruators understand their own bodies.
A major concern for Chella is the increasing domination of talk about periods by large health companies promoting their own products, with a vested interest in increasing their profits.
“Sessions in schools and adverts for pads are all too often weirdly mashed together in some sort of education corporation smorgasbord, with major multinational corporations combining education with sales,” she explains.
“What happens is most teachers haven’t got any training, and many rely on how they themselves learned about periods, usually from somebody from a company coming into school to visit.
“They may find resources on the internet, or more worryingly, use those delivered straight to the school unsolicited, with free samples.
“They may breathe a sigh of relief and teach from them, but they are unwittingly endorsing messages from specific brands or companies.
“Kids become familiar with the logos, the colour scheme, the tagline, the fonts, and when they see echoes of their lesson resources in the shops, their eyes and their wallets naturally gravitate toward them.
“I can’t think of any other school subjects that are taught this way.”
It’s been almost 90 years since menstrual product advertising became big. But the message they are selling isn’t of period positivity. It’s of outdated ideas of shame, discretion and fear.
They’re still relying on the tired clichés of hiding your period. Whether it’s through fear of leaking, creating packaging that opens quietly or isn’t recognisable as a menstrual product, health companies are still promoting the message that periods should neither be heard about nor seen.
“Periods are big business. Even now, market projection reports advise that to keep customers loyal from 2015 to 2020, getting their brands in schools is crucial,” Chella explained.
“But here’s what’s crucial for young people who need to learn stuff about their bodies – the companies that advertise in schools don’t always say the most ethical things.
“Internalising that message makes teaching sex-ed difficult, and many young women have reported being afraid to use words for body parts at their doctors.
“In a society where conversations about consent and pleasure have been highlighted as more difficult to negotiate than they should be, I believe that earlier, better, more fact-based period talk would help.”
Menstrual Dream World
But you’d think the UK is doing pretty well on the international stage, right? After all, periods are talked about, there are sessions in schools and there are adverts for pads. Shouldn’t that be enough?
“That’s an incredibly low bar!” said Chella, quick to shut down any idea that the UK doesn’t have room for progress.
“In the UK we are among the least bad of a bad bunch. But here’s the positive bit: there’s no shame in where we are right now. It happened. The good news is, it is really really easy to start to address, so that we can do even better than we think we’re doing already.”
So what does Chella’s Menstrual Dream World look like?
Well, it begins with better education on reusable menstrual products – in true Chella fashion through an interpretive dance known as the ‘Menstrual Product Mambo‘, which outlines the four types of products available (inside and outside your body, reusable and disposable).
Next, people should be empowered to be as public or private about their periods as they like. Oh, and those without periods should have to learn more about them before even touching any laws to do with reproductive health.
Then finally myths about menstruation would be busted, research would be funded and everyone would be encouraged to join the debate – particularly trans and non-binary members. All common sense, really.
So now what?
But what next steps can you take to create a world in which Over Flo doesn’t need to exist? Here’s seven steps from Chella to help you and others around you be #periodpositive:
1. Talk about periods. Don’t feel afraid of talking about it if you want to. Ask questions confidently, and let your friends know they can ask you things if you’re a bit of a period expert yourself! Share your resources, like by uploading them to the cloth pad pattern wiki.
2. Demand excellent menstrual education. Ask your teachers for more information and not just branded resources, help top-up younger students’ education (including boys) where it is lacking, and don’t stand for being taught to feel ashamed. Teachers – there’s more advice available on Period Positive.
3. Learn about other menstrual products. Don’t feel obliged to stick with the brands and products you were told about in school. Seek out reusable menstrual products like cups and cloth pads, which are better for the planet and your purse, and tell others about them too.
4. Challenge negative messages. Look out for harmful information in the media and advertising, challenge them in your head or out loud. When you read ‘whisper’, ‘secret’ or ‘discreet’, those are big clues they’re using shame, but there are more subtle messages to look out for.
5. Be inclusive. Give boys a chance to learn and talk about menstruation and don’t assume all girls menstruate. Some do, some don’t and that’s ok.
6. Wear a STAINS™ stain. Chella created these removable symbols to show there’s no shame in periods. These help break down stain fear and show you to be a super fashion-forward menstrual advocate. She calls them ‘leak chic’. Be a brand ambassador by taking a selfie and using the hashtag #periodpositive.
Chella Quint is a comedian, artist, designer, menstruation education researcher, a former head of PSHE, and founder of #periodpositive. Chella Quint performs ‘Adventures in Menstruating’ on Saturday 11 March at Southbank Centre’s WOW – Women of the World Festival, supported by Bloomberg. STAINS™ is featured in the In Plain Sight exhibition as part of SheFest Sheffield now until 15 March.
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