The opening frames of the MSNBC documentary, “Periodical”, reminded me of why I love being a sexual and reproductive health educator. The show begins with an adorable girl dressed in pink, appearing to be about 8 or 9 years old. She has been asked what she thinks of menstrual periods. A little on the young side to be experiencing them, she says, “Mmm…periods…mmm.” She cups her hand around her mouth, looking mortified and uncomfortable, and gives us an additional, “mmmm…”
The following frames feature young women of various ages–probably 13 to about 25 years old–who give additional input about periods, the difference being that they are likely already experiencing them. What’s priceless about the child in the opening scene, is that she clearly has no clue, yet it already embarrasses her.
“Periodical” progresses with women of all ages commenting on their feelings about menstruation and their experiences with it. Some love it, some hate it, but everyone seems to have an opinion on it. The graphics are great, with lots of comedic (and sometimes poignant) clips from shows like “Family Man” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and movies like “Grease,” “Ladybird,” and the ultimate “period” move, “Carrie.”
There is also wonderful social commentary from the likes of Amy Schumer, Gloria Steinem, Naomi Watts, the soccer star Megan Rapinoe, and many psychologists, journalists, historians, and OB/GYN practitioners. “Periodical” is a phenomenal piece that manages to both inform and entertain on an incredibly wide-ranging topic.
The most compelling featured personalities in the film are real-life young women who are out there working and advocating for what they call “Menstrual Justice.” Madeleine Morales is a graduate student in Public Policy who hopes to go to law school and work in Social Justice and “Period Activism.”
Anusha Singh is a medical student working tirelessly to fight state by state to eliminate the taxes imposed on feminine hygiene products, specifically called the “tampon tax.” As an undergrad at Ohio State, she started an organization called “Period”, which is now the largest youth-led not-for-profit in the country.
Their goal is to address “period poverty” by providing menstrual products free of charge to anyone who needs them. A larger goal is to empower women whose lack of ability to purchase such products causes them to miss out on school, work, or life in general. When one must choose between buying tampons at the grocery store or buying bread, there is, clearly; a problem. Listening to how passionate and dedicated they are to their cause is inspiring.
Later, the film delves into the history of stigmatism attached to menstruation, the familiar and never-ending tropes that liken women on their periods to crazy hysterics and characterize periods as disgusting and somehow dirty. There is a fair amount of good, solid, sexual and reproductive health education, not only included in the film, but as a showcase of programs around the country that are striving to provide new and improved versions of what used to be offered through health class, and generally not until high school.
Midway through, the little 8-year-old dressed in pink reappears. Confused, with lots of shoulder shrugging, she proceeds to talk about teenagers who get their periods, which means you can “get a baby when you’re 21…or 23…I guess that’s what it means to be a teenager. I guess…”
Another young girl–probably about 12 or 13 says, “It’s really weird because if you cut yourself and bleed there’s a reason for it but when you just start bleeding from your privates, there’s no reason for it.” Of course, there’s a reason for it! Menstruation is the shedding of the uterine lining that has built up throughout a cycle to nourish life itself! It’s not “weird.”
A young teen, probably about 14 or 15 says, “When I got my first period and it ended after five days, I thought, ok, I’m done.” Sadly, no one explained to her that her first period was just the beginning. She will likely ovulate and menstruate for another 30 years or so. “You’re most likely to get pregnant before you ovulate.” Technically not true.
You are most likely to get pregnant when you are ovulating. The trick is to understand and then monitor the distinct phases of the menstrual cycle, to know when each begins and ends. “I don’t know why it happens; I just know you get it every 28 days.” A dangerous myth and the principle behind why the “rhythm method” is flawed. Our bodies are not machines. Our cycles naturally vary from month to month in length. It is far safer to watch for the daily signs and symptoms that precede, accompany, and follow ovulation than to assume every cycle is automatically 28 days.
And my personal favorite: “I heard that if you make spaghetti and put period blood in your spaghetti and feed it to the man you like, he will fall in love with you.“
As stated by Dr. Jenny “It is typically not shared that you can get pregnant anytime in the month especially during your teens and twenties because the act of intercourse signals to the body you must want to reproduce“.
So many myths and misconceptions!
Not surprisingly, we learn that the United States is at the bottommost rung among developed countries, in terms of providing meaningful sexual health education in public schools. One gynecologist comments that by the time she sees patients in her office, they are unfortunately already sexually active, and yet woefully ignorant as to their menstrual physiology.
In my own experience, the best age to introduce puberty and reproductive health education is well before most young people start having sex. The closer to the onset of menses, the better. But that’s a hard sell in most public school environments. The series of classes I taught were to 5th graders, generally 11 to 12 years old– the sweet spot! Old enough to listen and grasp the information, and yet young enough to be open to what they still don’t know.
My only criticism of “Periodical” is that it seems to want to be all things to all viewers. By that, I mean it would flow better if broken up into parts. There is a lot of political commentary that focuses on outdated laws, the history of sexual inequality, and how science (traditionally controlled and powered by men) has always viewed the female body as somehow inferior.
The story of the development of period products alone, the advertising, the lack of safety testing, the stigma attached to menstruation in a male-dominated society – all of that could be one distinct episode. There is so much to dig into.
Another episode could focus on the educational aspects of the story. The graphics are fantastic, and they are interspersed with clips and snippets of real life and pop culture that make it enjoyable to watch. The film briefly touches on how the politics, physiology, and science surrounding menstruation affect the Trans community. I get so many questions about that. Spending a little more time there would be informative and instructive. There is a short segment about endometriosis, fibroids, and polycystic ovary syndrome that warrants more focus and space to describe and explain.
All in all, I recommend “Periodical” to anyone. It would be a great film to watch with your teen (whether male, female, or gender non-conforming), with your partner, or for use as a supplement to classroom education about puberty, sexual health, and menstrual physiology.
It was validating for me as both a viewer and an educator because it delves into facts about the menstrual cycle and the simple but detectable symptom-thermal signs and symptoms of ovulation that I have been teaching for 30 years. It is informative, thought-provoking, entertaining, and well worth a look. I give it 5 stars.
It case, you haven’t seen it. It can be watched on Hulu or Peacock.