As a woman—or rather a girl—there’s a point when your relationship with older females is more important than ever: when you start your period. The tone of the conversation that’s held between mother and daughter, or grandmother and granddaughter, or any older woman and teenage girl, can set the path for how you perceive your body and the natural cycles for the rest of your life. But even if you’re lucky enough to have an open dialogue about menstrual cycles and bodily changes that come with age, the world at large does not keep this conversation open—rather, it immediately puts undue shame and guilt on girls.

Every woman I know can remember being traumatized by bleeding through their clothes at school, asking that one friend for the sweatshirt to tie around your waist or learning how tampons work from a cool, older sister. The hush-hush nature of periods—even the names we give to it so we don’t have to speak it out loud: Aunt Flo, that time of the month, on the rag—echo the uncomfortableness that’s almost automatic. This doesn’t just apply to menstrual cycles, or to teenage girls, though. The stigma surrounding women’s bodies continues throughout their life cycle.

If we’re not talking about it with each other, then it’s even more unlikely we’re discussing with our physicians—which means the lack of medical research around how our cycles affect our everyday life are minimal, leading to culture largely shrugging off the symptoms and effects of the period. I believe it’s important that we work to understand not only how our bodies work, but to discuss this openly, and work with professionals to bring about systemic healthcare equality.

The first step is talking

We’ve come a long way from the 1976 movie Carrie —the first movie to graphically show period blood (of course a horror movie)—to Period. End of Sentence., winning an Academy-Award in 2020. Progress is being made, but schools across the world don’t adequately discuss menstrual cycles or provide sanitary products. In fact, what many call the “Pink Tax” includes a tax on tampons. According to data from Weiss-Wolf’s organization Period Equity, 36 states apply sales tax to these necessary menstrual items. But what items are tax exempt? Marshmallows in Florida, BBQ sunflower seeds in Indiana, even snowmobiles in Maine!

Women are forced to pay for products that one could argue are a necessity. Making products more accessible makes the conversation less awkward for women and girls. If sanitary products become as everyday as toilet paper, would we all be as nervous to discuss how our bodies function? I doubt it.

In this together

One of the harmful effects of not discussing women’s health issues is the lack of knowledge about what is “normal” or what is a cause for concern. Apple recently released a study of 10,000 participants through their Research app aimed at collecting information about period symptoms and experiences. The landmark study reported preliminary findings including the most frequently tracked symptoms being abdominal cramps, bloating, and tiredness—experienced by more than 60 percent of participants who logged symptoms. More than half of the participants reported experiencing acne and headaches, with some less widely recognized symptoms, like diarrhea and sleep changes, reported by 37 percent of participants.

A study of this kind goes a long way in destigmatizing the issues women deal with every day—shedding light on and normalizing symptoms that we’re all secretly wondering “Is it just me?” Society has a long way to go for setting the stage for an inclusive culture that doesn’t look with shame at women’s bodies, but we’re making progress. In The Michelle Obama podcast, the former first lady discusses with her OB/GYN friend, Dr. Sharon Malone, the lack of intergenerational conversation about menopause. The two discuss all the conversations that they wished the females in their families had had with them so they would know what they were in for. The stigma doesn’t end after puberty as shame and embarrassment stick around long after your monthly cycle ends.

Body equality

The stigmas related to women’s health can all be traced back to the way that society largely tries to admonish the female form. No sooner have periods begun, bodies take new shapes. And they keep taking new shapes—monthly, yearly, sometimes even daily. Yet, from underwear to jeans, clothing is made in ways that don’t accommodate these changes.

My time at Victoria’s Secret was filled with many focus groups, and the one woman that I’ll never forget was tasked with bringing in her favorite bra and panties. She brought in two pairs of each, each in different sizes. Body sizes fluctuate all the time, and we find ways to manage. Accepting and destigmatizing women’s health starts with being comfortable in our skin—and our clothing. I believe the rise of flexible sizes and comfortable clothing for every body will continue to make much needed progress in the fight for healthcare equity and body equality in all shapes and sizes.

It’s a long road ahead, but by having these conversations early and often, we can take small steps toward destigmatizing topics surrounding women’s health. Coming from a fashion background, it’s been my dream to create designs that empower the wearer and embrace a positive body image. Each woman I’ve met who has had the courage to speak up inspires me to bring these conversations to the forefront and pave the path for generations to come.