Schools have a period problem, and these Black and Latina Chicago teens aren’t having it

Annabel Rocha


Many menstruators are taught from an early age to keep their period under wraps, literally wrapping their products in toilet paper and burying it deep in the trash bin to prevent others from seeing it. Movies have documented these attitudes towards menstruation over the decades with films like Carrie and Superbad depicting teens period-shaming their peers.

This may become a thing of the past. The 2023 State of the Period survey, a study by period panty brand Thinx, Inc. and menstrual equity organization PERIOD., tracking the impact of period poverty on American students, shows that today’s teens don’t share this outdated attitude and are in fact more comfortable than their parents’ generation talking about periods. In Chicago, girls around the city have found avenues to push back against the status quo that historically wants them to remain quiet about their periods and are pushing for menstrual equity in their communities and schools.

Girls Inc. of Chicago is an organization serving girls primarily on Chicago’s South Side, who live in historically disinvested communities and are disproportionately impacted by health disparities. Their program raises awareness about the social issues facing their communities and empowering girls to advocate for themselves.

Johnnaya Brooks and Shartrell Bush, both 16, are two members of Girls Inc.’s Bold Girls Society (BGS), a program for high schoolers focused on advocacy and leadership. Anchored by the Girls Inc. Bill of Rights, the girls are taught a curriculum on resisting gender stereotypes, boosting confidence, and accepting their bodies – including menstrual equity.

Bush is a high school junior at Horizon Science Academy Southwest, though it is her first year at the school. She says period products are not stocked in the school’s restrooms – a recipe for disaster for menstruating students wearing the required khaki pants uniform.

“If you do have an accident, it is easy to tell,” she told Reckon.

While products are kept in the nurse’s office, there aren’t any trash bins in the restrooms, leaving students who need a pad or tampon to take a trek down the hallway to the main office, and those who need to dispose of a product, to bring it out of the restroom and into a bin in the hallway.

“You have to wrap it up in the little plastic it comes in and wrap it up in some tissue. And then like you’re in the hallway, there’s men and women there and there’s a bunch of kids going to class and people looking at you. So you have to sneak to throw it away,” said Bush.

The dilemma causes anxiety during class when she feels her period might start. She thinks, “please don’t let me spot. If I do, it’s gonna be there, it’s gonna show.”

Feeling confident from her BGS lessons, she and her classmates recently brought up to school administration the need for period products to be accessible in restrooms.

“We haven’t been heard.” she said, sharing that she thinks a reason the school might not follow through is because her high school is attached to a middle school. “But that’s not the point since middle schoolers be having their periods too, and it shouldn’t be a real problem.”

With a lack of urgency from her school, Bush and her National Honor Society friends have been toying with ideas to fix the problem on their own, like fundraising to stock products in the restrooms themselves, though she’s hoping the school will follow up instead. She said that without BGS she might have gained the confidence to make the request in a few years, but says the group has instilled in her the courage to speak up about menstrual equity now.

“The first time I came here I was kind of quiet,” said Bush. “Bold Girls Society taught me how to be stronger, and speak up for yourself. Because you know, my mom always said closed mouths don’t get fed.”

Chicago Public Schools Menstrual Hygiene Management policy states the products must be available for free in at least one school bathroom, but “schools are encouraged to make products available in all school bathrooms in schools serving students 4th through 12th grade.” On the contrary, Illinois state policy says that public schools should have products in all restrooms.

Brooks attends Sarah E. Goode Stem Academy in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood. At her school period product dispensers are only installed on one floor, but she says they’re always empty.

“You can’t really access them in the bathroom but more from teachers or the nurse, I don’t know why,” she said.

According to the girls, staff members often fill that gap.

“I will say that I think the history of accessibility for girls is getting those pads directly from the pockets of teachers and outside partners such as ourselves,” said Kiah Wilson, program manager of community engagement of Girls Inc. of Chicago.

2019 study found that two-thirds of low-income women in the U.S. were unable to afford menstrual products the year before. For 21% this was a monthly issue. Over 75% of Chicago Public Schools student population are considered low-income, per a demographics report by the district.

Aside from BGS, Girls Inc. also has classrooms in seven schools around the city. In 2020, they started a hygiene care initiative in response to families financially struggling during the pandemic. Students can now walk into these classrooms and take any menstrual products or other toiletries like shampoo, with no questions asked.

“We know that two out of three low-income women and girls don’t have the supplies that they need [and] are making a choice between food or clothing or just other things you need to literally live, and menstrual hygiene products, and we know that shouldn’t be,” Yani Mason, chief executive officer, said. “So we want to provide as easy access as possible… We don’t want them to be embarrassed.”

Young Latinas take on period stigma

While Girls Inc. empowers students in underserved communities, students in downtown Chicago look to leave a mark on how their peers view menstruation before graduating.

Leslie Arredondo, 17, and Anabelle Sanchez, 18, are seniors at Jones College Prepone of 11 selective enrollment schools for academically advanced students. This year they established PERIOD. at Jones, a local chapter of a national organization focused on empowering youth to learn about and fight for menstrual equity. Though there are five chapters in Illinois, this is the first in the city.

“It was just something that I wanted to be in because this is the first chapter in Chicago. And I felt that not only would we make a difference within our school, but also in the community,” said Sanchez.

As the co-presidents await college decisions, they’re working on teaching their peers about the local and global impacts of period poverty.

“We do intend on doing drives for menstrual products, packing them and then donating them, so it’s also more of that service component as well,” said Sanchez.

Arredondo says that accessing products at school isn’t an issue, but period stigma is evident among her peers.

“Even now when I give my friend a pad they hide it, and I’m like why are you doing that, nobody’s going to judge you for that,” she said, explaining how these small but telling interactions make her wish she could have an impact on her school.

Sanchez explained upbringing and culture can lead Latinos to feel uncomfortable with this normal bodily function.

“It lacks an education component as well. I think especially within the Latino community people tend to hide that [periods] and it’s just simply a part of growing up so it shouldn’t be that way,” said Sanchez.

Cultural stigma surrounding menstruation in the Latino community is rooted in machismo and marianismo, the traditional feminine gender role likening women to the Virgin Mary, characterized by submissiveness, selflessness, chastity and hyper-femininity. Sex is to not be openly discussed, often preventing important discussions about sex and reproductive health from happening within households.

Arredondo says that this wasn’t the case for her growing up, describing her mom as very “girl power,” and sharing that her mother celebrated her first period.

“She called my aunt and they congratulated me,” she said.

She recognizes that this isn’t the case for many of her friends.

“I grew up in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood and they weren’t as comfortable talking about it at sleepovers or hangouts, and to me I always felt like I wish they were.” she said. “I don’t know how to make somebody comfortable with something that’s so normal.”

As the co-presidents await college decisions, they’re hoping to grow the club, host events, and advocate for period products to be placed in their school locker rooms.

“I think this kind of falls into the public health category because it is a serious issue. If people don’t have what they need at the time, it’s definitely something that should be brought up and this is where the empowerment comes in to speak up because I know that is a very sensitive topic for many people and I think it’s more-so finding your voice to speak up,” said Sanchez.

Cover Photo: This International Women’s Day, meet the teens tired of hiding their periods. They’re taking on schools, cultural norms, and outdated policies to demand change. (Annabel Rocha/Michelle Zenarosa)

Publisher’s Notes: Schools have a period problem, and these Black and Latina Chicago teens aren’t having it was first published on Reckon.

Illinois Latino News and Reckon are partners in “sharing stories by, for, from, and about the full breadth of cultures, experiences, and perspectives across the nation.”

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