Period Poverty Is Real. How Do I Know? Because I Still Feel Dirty Decades Later

If £5 a month doesn't sound like much, just remember families in poverty don’t work in pounds, they work in pence, writer Sorrel Kinton says.
period poverty
period poverty

Finally, the government has announced proposals that would allow schools the option to offer free menstrual products to pupils who menstruate. But despite this objectively positive news, social media was awash with people desperate to do the menstrual maths and exclaiming that products just aren’t that expensive.

The calculations go something like this: if we assume three to four pads a day for a three-day cycle, that’s one pack of pads at around £1 per pack, therefore periods only cost around £12 per year and period poverty doesn’t exist. As many, many people pointed out, most menstrual periods are significantly longer and heavier and one pack of pads is laughably underprepared.

So here’s my menstrual maths: My period lasts seven days. Five of those are heavy. I average five pads a day on heavy days and usually need a nighttime pad and a tampon at night. Let’s call that 35 pads to account for changing for exercise etc. That’s three packs of pads and a box of tampons and let’s say I get them at Poundland, that’s about £4 per period. When you add in painkillers, that’s an average of about £5 per month. Still low, but it’s probably a representative average.

If £5 a month doesn’t sound like much, I’m genuinely pleased for you. Really. Everyone should grow up in a world where £5 is an inconsequential amount of money. I did not. Families in poverty don’t work in pounds, they work in pence. Growing up, my mum knew the exact price of a slice of bread, half an apple or a packet of supermarket own brand crisps. If you want 7p noodle recipes, I’m your girl. You can be sure my mum knew the price of individual pads and tampons. When I came home from school in tears because bullies had followed me home and had opened my bag and thrown my sanitary towels in the road, she made me go back to look for them. We didn’t have the money to buy more. If I didn’t find them, I wouldn’t have them that month.

Teenagers going through puberty already feel horribly self conscious. Not having proper menstrual products is humiliating and degrading. I remember getting changed for PE and having to pretend to be ill because I didn’t have a pad and I was scared the toilet paper I had wadded up in my knickers would disintegrate and slip out of the bottom of my gym shorts. I didn’t have to do any acting – the anxiety made my nausea completely real.

“Of all the traumatic experiences in my life, living in poverty is the most significant.”

Improvised menstrual products or menstrual products worn for too long come with significant discomfort and risk of infection. Sanitary towels look lovely in commercials – all delicate lacy miracle materials that “lock in!” that delicate trickle of blue fluid for “all day dryness!” but the reality is that you’ve got wet cotton wool in you underwear. If you change it when it’s full, it’s fine. If you can’t, there’s a good chance you’ll get a nasty rash from the moisture and chafing.

When I put an abridged version of my experience on Twitter, lots of people got in touch to tell me that they used newspaper, cotton wool balls and toilet paper backed with sellotape to improvise pads when they were too broke to buy them. All these options carry the risk of injury and infection.

The core of this debate isn’t the practical side of period poverty – it’s the refusal by a section of society to entertain the idea that people in poverty might deserve more than just survival. “But cheap pads are available!” is from the same ideological bag of tricks that makes people tell food bank users that “porridge is very cheap you know!”. It sounds like sincere advice from someone who just wants to help, but in reality it’s a denial that true poverty exists in this country.

I grew up in the 1990s/2000s when our welfare state was actually pretty good. I was raised by a single mother who budgeted every penny. It was hard. Of all the traumatic experiences in my life, living in poverty is the most significant. I’m now very comfortably off financially, but the stain never leaves you. Last year, I went to a very grand dinner at Trinity College in Cambridge in a fancy dress. But when I walked through the door, I was still the scared, humiliated teenager searching in the gutter for sanitary towels. I felt dirty.

The situation is now much worse. We have more people experiencing more extreme poverty for much longer periods of time. On a practical level, free sanitary products will improve school attendance and attainment. On a human level, it grants pupils who menstruate dignity and respect.

Sorrel Kinton is a writer and science communicator living in London.


What's Hot