Taboos suck. And for women, there’s thousands of them. They’re the things we’re not meant to talk about – maybe it’s something that’s a bit controversial, or perhaps it makes people feel uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, it means that there’s a whole bunch of issues that are systematically ignored, and, unfortunately, they’re often the things that we could really do with getting out into the open.
We grow up in a world where hairless female bodies are the norm. When puberty comes knocking and hair starts growing in places it hadn’t before, we react with disgust to our own bodies, whipping out the razor and getting to work. For teenage girls, shaving is a rite of passage, marking a transition into womanhood.
Apparently, eleven-year-old me didn’t get the memo at the start. She didn’t think about it too much, wasn’t all that bothered by body hair. But her peers were. Humiliated by a group of boys in a playpark, rejected by the girls in P.E. class, she shaved for the first time. To be accepted, she didn’t see that there was any other option.
I didn’t see women with body hair in public – even the women in the razor adverts were shaving already smooth legs. So there was nobody to tell me that it was okay. The stigma around female body hair is an example of the control that society has over women’s bodies. And because we don’t talk about it enough, the perception that it is ‘disgusting’ and ‘unnatural’ goes silently unchallenged.
The first step is representation. On an individual level, just seeing other women who didn’t remove their body hair was hugely empowering for me. But organisations can play a big role, too; shaving company Billie is known for its adverts featuring women with body hair, sending the message that it does exist, that it is natural, and that we can remove it – but only if we want to. We are not worth any less if we don’t.
The period taboo has been around for centuries, and continues to be a global issue. Almost everywhere in the world, we struggle to talk about it.
Not talking about it has meant that some girls feel shame about menstruation, and this embarrassment can be a barrier to accessing sanitary products.
Not talking about it has meant that there haven’t been any major innovations in sanitary care in about 70 years, when the first menstrual cup was made commercially available.
Not talking about it has meant that many menstruating people are not educated about the alternatives to single-use menstrual products (like reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups). Over their lifetime, the average menstruator will use around 11,000 single-use pads and tampons, with all of this going straight to landfill, some of it making its way to the sea.
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[Continued] In a tremendous step forward, following the Scottish Government, the UK government recently launched a scheme providing educational institutions with free menstrual products – and, incredibly, that includes menstrual cups and cloth pads! In addition, they recognise that menstruation is not just a women’s issue – non-binary and transgender people experience it too – and put an emphasis on making the scheme accessible for them, too.
Talking about it is the only way that we’ll normalise discussion around periods. Like body hair, it is a natural thing. Organisations can help by providing free pads and tampons for their employees, and, even better, by providing reusable pads and menstrual cups, a long-term and sustainable investment.
There are over 137,000 women and girls affected by Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM) in England and Wales. This tends to come as a shock to most people. FGM just isn’t talked about enough as a problem in the UK. But this practice, a breach of human rights and basic bodily autonomy, is real and present in this country. It is this lack of awarness and taboo that means despite FGM being illegal since 1985, there has only ever been one successful prosecution.
The key to tackling this taboo, like with many others, lies with education. Teachers and frontline professionals have to be educated on how to spot the signs and what their legal responsibilities are. Likewise, young people need to be aware of these issues. We need to know our rights and how to protect ourselves. Learning about issues like FGM not only protect girls at risk, but also teach everyone about key concepts such as consent and bodily autonomy. In research conducted by Youth For Change UK, we found that 90% of young people said learning about FGM (and child and early forced marriage) would ‘protect and empower them and thier peers’.
Excitingly, we are seeing change in this area. Recently, the goverment has announced that FGM will be included as part of the new mandatory Sex and Relationships Education curriculum. This is a huge step forward. Only once we begin talking about these difficult issues will we be able to eradicate them and make the world a safer place for all women and girls.
Women speaking out
This is perhaps the taboo that encompasses all the ones we have mentioned already. For centuries, women (especially young women), have been discouraged from speaking out and using their voices. It was only just over 100 years ago that the first women were even able to vote! We’ve been conditioned for years and from a young age into being polite, meek, obedient, and not causing too much fuss. So many young women and girls hold back on speaking out for fear of being labelled ‘bossy’ or a ‘feminazi’.
However, I have faith that this taboo is the one this generation will smash once and for all. Young women all across the globe are using their voice, and so loudly that the world has no choice but to sit up and listen. From Greta Thunberg to Malala to Amika George there is no shortage of examples of young women creating change. With the rise of movements such as #MeToo, young women and girls are being given the space and opportunity to campaign, organise and influence.
Of course, there is still some way to go. Women face torrents of abuse online that can put them off sharing their opinions for fear of their safety, and stereotypes about how we should act still persist in society. But the amazing young women and girls I have met through activism and social action fill me with nothing but confidence for the future. We are speaking out, We are using our voices. And we won’t be silent.