Several days ago, I was having a conversation with my friends about the worst bathrooms we have seen so far at U of T, and while some of the characteristics that came up were expected — such as laughably-bad lighting, poor design, and lack of hygiene — a recurring theme also emerged: most of the bathrooms mentioned were not designed with menstruation in mind.
Whether it is dim lighting or cramped space, these spaces are already frustrating on a regular day, but when it comes time to deal with all of your period blood, the ridiculousness of the situation becomes even more evident. Since these unpleasant and tough situations only come about once a month, it seems much easier to just forget about those problems entirely.
This perspective is often shared by those who don’t see the value in investing in better bathrooms or creating better policies. In high school, my friends and I would have issues keeping up with school events and exams while dealing with our periods, but we were advised to “just deal with it,” since the ‘issue’ would go away in a few days and then we could forget about the problems until next month. But the real systemic issues never go away: somebody is always going to be menstruating, and members of the community will continue experiencing the same problems day by day unless the problems are addressed.
Although the taboo surrounding menstruation has lessened quite a bit over the last few decades and conversations surrounding it have become quite normalized, important changes have yet to be made with how the topic is handled. One would expect U of T to be better at this than other institutions, given its work on inclusion and its position as a global leader, and yet it still fails to have the most important conversations surrounding menstruation and provide appropriate avenues for support.
On a small scale, it’s generally much easier to have conversations about menstruation face to face, but even that approach has its own difficulties. How comfortable can it be to approach an old, male professor to talk about your bodily functions? In any case, these face-to-face conversations are nearly impossible at U of T, where classes are being taught to over 90,000 students every semester, making staff members even harder to communicate with and access.
But why are we even having these conversations? Why can’t we “just deal with it” and move on with our lives? Shouldn’t we be used to it by now? Can’t we just go to the doctor and get our problems permanently fixed? Why is menstruation such a big deal?
Well, periods can range from merely irritating to debilitating, and they don’t stay the same from month to month, much less throughout one’s lifetime. Along with a loss of blood, accompanying symptoms include headaches, exhaustion, cramps, nausea, light-headedness, and even fainting. There are several options to deal with these effects, such as birth control pills or painkillers, but the fact of the matter is that for many people, menstruation is difficult to endure, and no matter how many times they experience it, there’s still no guarantee that they’ll be prepared.
What are the systemic challenges that can be expected for someone getting their period at U of T? Let’s say that you go to the bathroom half an hour before the beginning of a midterm, and you’ve been feeling a bit off all day. You realize that you’ve gotten your period early and you’re completely unprepared: you don’t have anything to stop the flow and you’re freaking out in your stall. While U of T bathrooms have sanitary waste disposals for period products, some bathrooms don’t have operable pad and tampon dispensers, with some appearing to have been around since the dawn of time.
So, instead, you can ask a friend, or even a stranger, if they happen to be carrying a tampon or a pad. But this isn’t high school; your friends might be in a class on the opposite side of campus or there might not be anyone around. If you want to buy period products, you’ll likely have to go to the nearest drugstore, since they’re not nearly as easy to get on campus as free condoms and lube. As a last resort, you may be left relying on paper-thin toilet paper, an option that is used far too often, even in today’s day and age.
Now that you’ve successfully staunched the flow, you start feeling those dreaded cramps, and nausea on top of that too. What can you do? Perhaps you can buy some painkillers and ginger tea, but your midterm is now in 15 minutes and you know that it might take up to an hour for those cramps to go away, even with the painkillers. If you take the midterm, there’s a chance you’ll screw something up because of the pain, but there’s also no guarantee that you’ll be able to take a makeup test.
It’s generally more likely that you’ll be allowed to reschedule the test last-minute if the class is a small one, but for larger classes, you might run into trouble; some courses require valid documentation to be sent within 24 hours of a missed test. This documentation should either be the equivalent of a doctor’s note or a note from your college registrar, and missed labs require a doctor’s note. It’s easy to see why this system is flawed: doctor’s notes can be bought and faked; some doctors give notes too easily, while others never give them; and ultimately, pain is difficult to prove in any circumstance.
It’s challenging to figure out how the rules should be fixed, since a balance should be maintained between not encouraging people to lie about their pain, while also helping those who really are experiencing it. In terms of solving these bathroom problems, all bathrooms on campus should meet certain standards. All stalls should contain proper sanitary waste disposal, and functioning pad and tampon dispensers. For such a necessary part of daily life, menstruation products are quite hard to find, and U of T certainly isn’t making it any easier to get them where they’re most needed.
How should we start addressing these concerns? First, we should acknowledge the problems and ask students and staff what changes they want to see across campus. Then, the bathrooms on campus should be improved, starting with those in colleges and buildings with higher foot traffic. Course and testing policies concerning sudden illness should be updated, and U of T should explicitly outline what measures should be taken when conflicts arise between schooling and personal health issues, such as those brought about by menstruation.
It’s important to realize that most of the people dealing with these issues are female, and failing to address them would mean giving half the students at U of T, around 45,000, a systemic disadvantage. The issues aren’t going to go away by themselves, and it’s incredibly easy to forget about them unless it happens to you. Once you start noticing flaws in U of T’s system, though, it’s impossible to stop, and every time you count yourself lucky for not being stuck bleeding in that dark, cramped bathroom in the basement, you’re neglecting to realize that your inaction only means that someone else will experience it instead.