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Speaker Spotlight: Ronja Griep

Ronja Griep is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge who is doing a PhD in Philosophy focusing on menstrual shame. She will be talking about her work in Cambridge Imagines on 10th April 2-3pm online. Cambridge Imagines is a series of short films with researchers at Cambridge who are imagining the future.

Cambridge Festival: How widespread a phenomenon is menstrual shame?

RG: Many women and girls experience shame about their menstruation, which can come in many forms: they may be constantly worried whether they left a stain, whether others can smell that they’re on their period or they may decide against certain activities. But, of course, some women may view their menstruation positively or in a neutral way. 

Cambridge Festival: What contributes to it?

RG: Menstrual shame is a result of so many parts of our culture, upbringing and social norms. To give just a couple of examples: We don’t see advertisements showing the messiness of menstruation or showing blood outside a clinically clean environment. Or when women are forthright or speak up, they are told that they ‘must be on their period’. Doctors may dismiss women’s period pain. All of this helps to reinforce menstrual shame in everyday interactions. 

Cambridge Festival: What aspects of menstrual shame is your PhD on?

RG: The PhD tackles three parts of menstrual shaming: gender, justice and empowerment through technology. I argue that menstrual shame does not just afflict women because of their biology, but because of negative gendered norms. Second, I argue that this is an injustice because it perpetuates women’s subordination in society and undermines their self-confidence. And lastly, I look at menstrual tracking apps which promise to alleviate the stigma of menstruation: can technology actually achieve empowerment?

Cambridge Festival: What made you decide to focus on this?

RG: I read about the US Women’s Football Team, who won the World Cup in 2019, and they attributed their success partly to tracking their menstrual cycle and feeling empowered to talk about their needs during menstruation. This made me look into just how widespread the use of tracking apps for menstruation is, how many women use them and how they are increasingly advertised as a form of empowerment.

Cambridge Festival: How does the stigma around menstruation affect women and girls' health?

RG: There is not a lot of research into women’s health which means that, for many very common problems, there is not enough knowledge about it or treatment available. Period pain is often dismissed out of hand when, really, it should be treated. There are also more indirect ways: many girls do not meet their daily activity goals and one reason is that their menstruation keeps them from exercising - be it because of pain or shame. 

Cambridge Festival: How does it affect women's confidence?

RG: That, of course, differs from person to person, but especially for many girls in school anxiety around their menstruation can put them off sports, off going out or putting themselves in highly visible situations. All of these are open to most boys (though this is not to say that boys cannot experience body shame). Suggestions by others that, for example, speaking up for oneself is a sign of menstrual moodiness may also diminish girls’ confidence. 

Cambridge Festival: You have also been involved in creating a podcast series around women's bodies. How important do you think it is for academic research to be discussed in a wider forum?

RG: The podcast was a fantastic experience because we explored topics which were taken right out of the experience of women and girls today. My experience was that discussing these problems with a wider audience made them feel heard and understood, and for me (and my interviewees) it showed us that our research matters and which problems are the most pressing for women and girls.