Almost half of British girls have witnessed bullying about periods, study finds

'There was this time boys managed to get hold of a used tampon - I don’t know how - but they were playing and throwing it around. It was quite gross,' teen tells The Independent

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Monday 24 September 2018 23:55 BST
Research finds 91 per cent of girls worry about going to school when on their period
Research finds 91 per cent of girls worry about going to school when on their period (Rex)

Almost half of British girls have witnessed their peers being bullied and shamed about their period, a study has found.

Polling company YouGov found nearly half (43 per cent) of girls said boys tease or joke about periods – with 40 per cent of this teasing taking place in lessons under the noses of teachers.

It also found 91 per cent of girls worried about going to school while on their period and 35,000 girls are missing school because they are on their period – the equivalent to 2.1 million hours of education.

The Fear Going to School Less report found that 27 per cent of girls said embarrassment and shame-related factors were the reason behind them missing out on school.

They cited worries around leaking, boys knowing, being teased and not being able to go to the toilet during classes.

The research – which saw more than 1,000 high school children surveyed – found period education for boys in schools is both failing to properly engage them or deliver the basic facts for many children and this is, in turn, is boosting stigma.

The report that was conducted with menstrual care brand Bodyform, found 94 per cent of boys admitted to not knowing a lot about periods.

In total, 137,000 admitted to teasing girls about periods in school and 45 per cent of these did it because it was awkward about the issue. Bodyform said it had extrapolated the figures from the Department for Education’s School Census.

Mollie, a 16-year-old from West Yorkshire, said she has witnessed bullying about periods in her school.

“There was this time boys managed to get hold of a used tampon – I don’t know how – but they were playing and throwing it around. It was quite gross,” she told The Independent. “I think they probably had an idea but I don’t think they fully understood where it had been. It would have been very embarrassing for girls to watch and might make them feel insecure.

“It plays into mocking of periods and ignorance around periods and not knowing what things are or how they are used.”

She added that although she had not personally experienced bullying, it was “surprising” that so many endured it – with jibes about boys saying “it must be that time of the month” commonplace.

“One of my friends is quite shy and she finds it a lot less pressure to not be at school when she is on her period,” she said. “Boys do seem to be very ignorant about periods and the opportunity to be bullied about your period is quite wide. It does knock your confidence if a boy says ‘is it that time of the month?’ or ‘is that a pad?’. It makes you shy away from school.”

The teenager added that the education she had received about periods was wholly insufficient and she had never been taught about the range of sanitary products available.

“I started at my period at age ten and I was only taught about them at 11 which was not very useful,” she said. “I was taught about periods in science lessons but it was not about periods as a whole. It is just the science of it. Nothing is taught about the products available to girls.

“I know a lot of girls of my age do not know the wide variety. Teachers just assume that girls just know these things. They assume that parents tell them but some people do not have that support at home.”

While teachers had briefly touched on periods during sex education, she had not learnt anything that had actually helped her, she said.

“When we are educating about periods, girls and boys are not really shown what a period is. They speak in euphemisms,” she said. “It is never shown as blood, it is shown as blackcurrant juice, it is spoken about around the topic rather than directly. They have nice flowers and feathers in everything. I do not think blunt pictures should be shown but I also do not think nice pretty cartoons should be shown because that is not what the period is.”

She added: “I think the idea that periods are taboo is ingrained in society and not just with students but with teachers. Periods should not be taboo. They are a natural process that have been happening since the dawn of mankind. In a way, it is good, it shows your body is working properly.”

The teen said it was sometimes nerve-wracking to approach teachers when she was on her period.

“It is quite embarrassing especially with male teachers because they are not going to understand your situation,” she said.

Mollie, who said she relied on confiding in her friends about her period due to a lack of support among teachers, said she thought boys and girls should be taught about periods and sex education together.

“Often boys and girls are taught separately about periods and sex education. This conditions girls to be embarrassed or to be secretive about their period. There will be separate rooms and separate teachers but we are all the same species. I also feel like it should be taught at a younger age – girls are starting them earlier and earlier now.”

The teen, who said much of her awareness about periods had come from having a mother who worked for the NHS, said she thought much of the taboo around periods in wider society came from the ignorance of men.

“Not just boys in my class but men, in general, are ignorant about periods,” she said. “They do not know anything about them which is so silly because half of the world’s population have periods. We have been conditioned not to talk about periods and talk around the subject.”

The research found 73 per cent of children reported a negative experience of lessons about periods and more than half of children believe that girls and boys should be taught about periods together.

It also found 72 per cent of boys have not had dedicated education on periods, with 66 per cent of male respondents saying they believed they need to learn about menstruation.

They thought this would both get rid of the stigma and aid them to talk to girls about periods.

Twenty per cent of boys were found not to know the basic facts such as whether it is safe to do exercise when you are on your period or whether you can hold periods in “like wee”.

Daniel, a 13-year-old from west Yorkshire, said he had could not recall being taught anything about periods in school.

He told The Independent: “I think I know the basics but only from what friends have talked about and my mum has mentioned some things.”

He said he had nevertheless witnessed bullying about periods, adding that it made the girl on the receiving end visibly upset.

“They did not go into detail I could tell it hurt the girl,” he said. ”She was a bit different throughout the day. She felt a bit upset. They were just joking around about it. They were being a bit too forward with it all and it just upset her.”

He said he had noticed teachers turning a blind eye to period-related bullying and argued that they should be less tolerant of teasing.

“Teachers just want to avoid it and get on with it but they need to be a bit more strict about it. Bullying can hurt girls a lot,” he said.

He also argued that more needed to be done to address the taboo which surrounds periods in schools and wider society.

“I think if it was more casually and openly talked about in and out of lessons then girls would feel less embarrassed,” he said. “I feel like there is a taboo right now but if it was more casually spoken about, that would take it away.”

He said it was common for young boys to feel awkward about broaching the subject of periods and called for schools to teach them about the “emotional side” of periods.

“From what I have seen when it is mentioned, it is one of those subjects that girls do not want to talk about but also want to talk about at the same. Girl students want to ask for help but they feel too embarrassed to.”

The research found just 17 per cent of boys find broader lessons that touch on periods useful, while 42 per cent find them awkward and 38 per cent embarrassing. Across high schools in Britain, 85 per cent of boys do not talk to girls about periods, with 26 per cent not wanting to say the wrong thing to them.

“Our research found that there is a lack of period education for boys which is resulting in a generation of boys not knowing basic facts about periods and sometimes joking and teasing,” Traci Baxter, marketing manager at Bodyform, told The Independent.

“It is a basic human response to use humour when we feel uncomfortable with a situation so it is easy to understand why boys do this, but unfortunately they don’t realise the impact this can have on the self-esteem and confidence of young girls, especially when they are getting to grips with their period.”

“Because of the stigma which exists generally in society, even adults and institutions such as schools, perpetuate the taboo probably without even realising or meaning to.”

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