Maria Tomlinson reflects on menstrual activism, research as impact and surprising conversations in focus groups with teenagers
When, as academics, we are meticulously planning our research methods and interview questions, our focus is usually on what we could learn from our participants rather than what they might gain from taking part in our research. This was certainly my viewpoint back in early 2020 when I started to formulate questions for my current research project. To give you some background, my research is about menstrual activism and its impact. Menstrual activism addresses issues including menstrual stigma, menstrual inequalities (such as “period poverty”), and menstrual health (Bobel and Fahs, 2020). To examine the impact of this activism, I am conducting research in schools with male and female 16-18-year-olds. The focus groups involve a set of questions to ascertain the pupils’ awareness of the menstrual movement alongside some focus materials that include examples of mediatised menstrual activism.
Upon arriving at the very first school that agreed to take part in my research, I had no idea what to expect. I was concerned that the focus groups might be permeated with awkward silences and that students would give very short answers. This opinion was based on my having read previous research, such as a book by Victoria Newton (2016), which recounts that young female participants view menstruation as a sensitive topic and thus struggle to address it directly. As for the boys in Newton’s study, they primarily saw periods as a topic they could use to mock their female classmates. As Newton’s research was conducted before 2015, a year in which the media started to pay significantly more attention towards menstrual activists and their aims to destigmatise menstruation, I was hopeful that the young people’s attitudes would be different from those Newton encountered.
What I had not anticipated, however, was that the pupils would see their role as anything other than merely answering questions. Not only did my participants take this opportunity to ask me some questions, but also, and perhaps more importantly, they used the small group setting to share their experiences with each other. Students asked me questions such as ‘what is a menstrual cup?’, ‘what symptoms do girls experience during their periods?’ and ‘can you explain how some men have periods?’. The focus materials, in particular, sparked a multitude of questions. For instance, male pupils were confused by a meme about the Mean Girls’ character, Regina George, that made a humorous remark about bloating. The majority of boys were unaware that bloating was a possible menstrual symptom and this revelation led to their asking follow-up questions about menstrual health. The information sheets for the project also seemed to offer a learning opportunity to the students, many of whom articulated during the focus groups that they had not realised that period poverty was so prevalent in the UK. At the end of the sessions, I happily answered questions that were within my area of expertise and was pleased that, by doing so, I was, in a way, taking part in menstrual activism.
What I was most interested by, however, was the desire of my participants to learn from each other. When they realised that each of their experiences were quite different, the girls started to think about menstruation in a much more intersectional manner. For example, some spoke about having endometriosis and others said that they’d rarely experiences any symptoms. During the mixed sessions, (comprised of one male and two female participants), it became clear that there had been a communication gap between the male and female pupils. The female participants articulated that male classmates had previously mocked them about menstruation, whereas the male participants expressed a fear that they might accidentally offend girls if they joined in with conversations about menstruation. To give you a typical example of how these conversations unfolded, below is an extract from one of my focus groups.
F1: (Looks at F2) I feel normal talking to you about periods. With boys… I know it is us feeling awkward too… But there is a change in atmosphere when they come over and you’re talking about periods…
F2: (Looks at M1) You don’t want to say all men because obviously it’s not…
F1: Because of past experiences, you already have it in your head that boys will say something bad…
F2: I haven’t had many conversations with boys about periods.
M1: I want to learn more but I don’t know how to talk about it. In the past, I’ve asked questions about things like this and sometimes girls immediately assume that you’re taking the mick, even if you try to sound earnest. Presumably because they’ve had people take the mick out of them so much in the past. I always get a hostile response…
F2: I hadn’t thought of it that way before
F1: Me neither
M1: I want to support my female friends, but I can’t really just go up to them and ask them about their periods…
As you can see from this example, the focus groups were eye-opening for the students. They provided a space for the pupils to acknowledge and begin to understand each other’s perspectives. Once they had realised the nature of this gendered communication gap, they started to communicate with each other with increased confidence and enthusiasm. The girls were eager to educate the boys, whilst the boys listened attentively. Girls were keen to teach the boys about the lived realities of menstruating, especially in light of the fact that menstruation was only ever presented in the context of biology lessons. One participant explained: “A lot of boys in our classes won’t know a thing about what it’s like to have a period… if they’re heterosexual and they get a girlfriend, if they learn about periods in school, it puts less pressure on that girl to have to explain what’s going on or have to hide what’s happening.”
From the perspective of the male participants, these conversations offered a great opportunity to show kindness towards their female classmates. In turn, this compassion was well received by the female participants. For instance, one male student listened attentively to a participant who recounted missing school because of severe menstrual cramps. He stated, “That is stressful that you have to catch up. I know girls take days off sometimes and I didn’t realise until now that it might be due to their periods.” He offered to share his notes in future if this were to occur again. Much to the approval of the women in the room, he also expressed a desire to use his newfound knowledge to become a better ally to women.
Of course, as my findings offer an insight into how young people perceive menstruation, they are significant to the field of critical menstruation studies. However, I believe that they also have broader implications that are of relevance to scholars across a variety of disciplines, including the medical humanities. Traditionally, I have envisaged impact in strict steps: undertaking the research, analysing the results, publishing the findings, and then reformulating them in order to educate the public or change their attitudes.
Since beginning my research in schools, I have started to think more about how my research itself could have a positive impact. Certainly, the small and unintimidating nature of the focus groups facilitated a frank discussion between pupils that they would, otherwise, not have had. Once the participants understood why they had previously been unable to communicate effectively about periods, they started to chat more openly, smile, and laugh in a good-natured manner. It seemed to be a moment of catharsis for them. I would even go as far to argue that the focus groups could have a lasting positive impact on the wellbeing of these pupils. As many activists believe, the more we talk openly about menstruation, the less stigmatised it will become, and this has a positive impact on the wellbeing on women and people who menstruate (Bobel and Fahs, 2020). One of the teachers told me that she had been delighted to hear the discussions during the focus group, particularly as many girls in the school felt too embarrassed to ask for menstrual products. She hoped that the girls who had taken part would continue to talk about periods with their friends and this would help to decrease the stigma around it.
I hope this article inspires you to think about how we, as researchers, can have a positive impact during our fieldwork itself. I would like to encourage you to think about the impact that we can have on our stakeholders before we embark on the more formal process of transforming our findings into an impactful public engagement activity.
 To preserve the pupils’ anonymity, I refer to the male participant as M1 and the two female participants as F1 and F2.
Dr. Maria Tomlinson is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Sheffield. She is leading her own research project entitled: “Menstruation and the Media: Reducing Stigma and Tackling Inequalities”. Her monograph, From Menstruation to the Menopause: The Female Fertility Cycle in Contemporary Women’s Writing in French has been published by Liverpool University Press. She is also the co-editor of Queer(y)ing Bodily Norms in Francophone Culture (Peter Lang). Website: mariatomlinson.co.uk Twitter: @MariaKTomlinson
Bobel Chris, and Fahs, Breanne. 2020. The Messy Politics of Menstrual Activism. In C. Bobel et al. (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, (pp. 1001-18). Singapore: Palgrave.
Newton, Victoria Louise. 2016. Everyday Discourses of Menstruation: Cultural and Social Perspectives, UK: Palgrave.