Illustration of hands holding a sanitary pad

No More Taboo: Menstruation Education Experiences in New York City

April 20, 2023

The following essay was written by MPH student Aminata Diarra, a member of the Columbia Mailman School Gender, Adolescent Transitions, and Environment (GATE) Program team:

Photo of Aminata Diarra

Aminata Diarra

Do you remember when you first learned about periods? Was it in a classroom, online, or from a family member? Maybe, if you get periods, you only learned about them after experiencing them first-hand. Everyone’s introduction to periods and menstruation is different.

During my years in elementary and middle school in Brooklyn, I don't recall ever having a lesson on menstruation. Friends who were also part of the New York City public school system experienced a similar timeline. As I was going through puberty and experiencing menstruation for the first time, I found that I was often left to figure things out as I went along. It also didn’t help that growing up, I was reluctant to talk about periods and ask questions, even at home, and would seek out answers to my questions on Google instead.  

My early high school health education class was the first time I could remember having a lesson dedicated solely to learning about periods. In this class, I had one of my first 'formal' period lessons (the other being biology courses where we discussed reproduction). We learned about menstruation, the reason behind it, and period management. For one assignment, the girls in the class were required to bring a pad to class. Once in class, the pads were taken and given to the boys, who had to open them and guess how they were used. A friend who also took the class with the same teacher in high school recalls the boys having to open up the pads and see what they were made of. This lesson was geared more towards the boys in the class as the girls most likely already had this knowledge. As expected, the class was full of giggles from boys and girls alike.

I wonder if having that lesson and interacting with the pad was a first experience with period education for the boys in my class and whether or not they received it as a positive experience. As for me, I know that how my teacher made periods seem simple and normal left me feeling good. Despite this, looking back, I am left wondering where the additional benefit was for the other girls in the class and me. We already knew about period management firsthand. How much more beneficial would this lesson have been for middle school me? I wonder how much smoother the learning curve would have been with a lesson like this back then.

In 2011, New York City mandated health education in all public middle and high schools. This was the year I entered my first year of high school. Despite this initiative, the city still continued over the years to report high levels of unintended pregnancies, HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and intimate partner violence. Following these findings, in 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill that instituted a Sexual Education Task Force to review the existing New York City Department of Education-recommended sex-ed curricula and implemented sex-ed for K-12 students.

But this initiative didn’t really address menstruation education. With curricula ultimately up to the educators as they follow these guidelines, there is no standardized way of ensuring that students are receiving comprehensive menstruation education. From my own experience, I have seen this result in gaps in knowledge and students being made to seek out this information for themselves. As mentioned before, if there is no desire to learn more or learn about periods, to begin with, where does that leave boys and students who do not get periods? What do we know about how boys are learning about periods today?

As a research assistant with the Gender, Adolescent, and Transitions (GATE) Program led by Dr. Marni Sommer, I have been working on a research study on young men and menstruation. The research is examining the perceptions, and sources of information that cis-gendered adolescent boys and young men in Washington Heights have about periods and menstruation. Undoubtedly, education about periods is more available than it was when I was in middle school. But is it everything it needs to be? Does it include period management? Does it address stigmas surrounding periods and how students can unlearn and address some of those stigmas that they themselves may hold? Most importantly, how are students absorbing the material? Our research will help answer those questions.

Aminata Diarra is a graduating MPH student in the Department of Population and Family Health, earning a Certificate in Global Health. She has supported research at the GATE Program since October 2022, primarily working on the Young Men and Menstruation study.