Chelsea Clinton knows how awkward it can be to talk about topics like menstruation or breastfeeding — after all, she was a teenager once, embarrassed to carry tampons into the bathroom stall with her and dragging her whole backpack with her instead.
“Remember how awkward you felt in school each time you carried a tampon or pad to the bathroom?” Clinton writes in a new essay for Well+Good on removing the stigma surrounding women’s bodies.
“Far too many girls and boys alike are socialized to think these are shameful topics — only to be discussed with our family and doctors, and we’re certainly not supposed to let anyone else see us dealing with them,” she writes.
Clinton, the famous first daughter of former US President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, is an ardent advocate for gender equality. She says that a key component to girls’ success around the globe is removing the cultural stigma around topics like menstruation and breastfeeding.
In many parts of the world, she said, girls can’t disappear into bathroom stalls — even with their backpacks — when they are menstruating because there are no clean bathroom stalls where they are, and often no pads or tampons either. For girls that are too embarrassed to deal with menstruation publicly, or don’t have a clean way to do so, they often miss school for days every single month. The piece notes that one out of every 10 girls in Africa misses school when she’s menstruating, according to UNICEF.
“Menstruation shouldn’t stop education — and with access to safe period products and clean water, girls would have one less barrier to gender equality,” she writes.
Even girls in the US face a barrier when it comes to menstruation: pads and tampons aren’t covered by government food vouchers, which means that girls may struggle to pay for the supplies they need to attend to school. Even worse, these supplies are subjected to sales tax in many US states.
Clinton’s also familiar with the discomfort and stigma that can come with breastfeeding. As a mom of two, she’s had to pump milk and breastfeed in airport bathrooms and hidden by buildings outdoors when there was nowhere else to find privacy.
“Sometimes I mistimed feeding or pumping and I could feel the milk leak out and soak the pads in my bra—and yes, I was lucky because I could afford disposable pads so I could at least know the leakage wouldn’t be visible as I was standing on a stage,” she wrote. “Do you feel awkward reading this? I hope not—and if you do, I hope you’ll think about why.”
Clinton was breastfeeding as she campaigned on behalf of her mom last year during the presidential campaign, she wrote, and was happy she didn’t have any embarrassing leaks while doing so. But women who cannot afford pads or breast pumps aren’t so lucky, and don’t have private places at work or flexible schedules to accommodate their breastfeeding and pumping needs.
So long as women and girls are missing work and school because their bodies are merely functioning as they’re meant to, gender equality cannot be achieved, Clinton writes.
Laws around the world, including the US, need to account for these topics that are tough to talk about: women should be given access to privacy and flexibility for breastfeeding at work and in public, and menstrual supplies should be treated as necessity items and not taxed as luxuries.
Global Citizen and CHIME FOR CHANGE campaign for countries around the world to change their laws to give women equal treatment; you can support the #LevelTheLaw campaign by lending your voice to the cause.
“We need to change the conversation, the practices, and the policies that too often punish women for being women—and prevent mothers from being the moms they want to be for their kids,” Clinton said in her essay.
“We shouldn’t be embarrassed by breastfeeding or menstruation, but we should be ashamed that women are suffering in silence because too many people refuse to speak out.”