By Olivia Iglesias
Let me set the scene - it’s 20-something degrees outside and you and the rest of your grade 5 class are being shuffled into the gym. Instead of sitting in a circle, as usual, your gym teacher directs your class over to a corner of the gym. There, he explains that for the next couple of classes, you will be learning about your health. How exciting! You’re looking forward to the presumably accurate and thorough education you are about to receive. You are told that because of a strange phenomenon called “puberty”, once a month, girls will go through menstruation. You’re confused… What does that even mean? A female teacher accompanies the class so she can be asked what she does during her period. The extent of her explanation is a rant about chocolate cravings. Your gym teacher then asks members of your class if their older sisters get cranky sometimes and explains that it is called “PMS”. The entire lesson lasts a total of 20 minutes and then your class returns to recess. That’s the extent of your education on menstruation-that's it.
This past year, I joined a menstrual justice organization called Bleed the North, focused on ending period poverty and stigma in Ontario. I am now the co-lead of our education team. Since joining the organization, I have been reflecting on my menstrual and sex education, or lack thereof. My education on periods would be non-existent if it wasn’t for Youtube’s “first-period horror stories” or Alice, who saved me and my white shorts with her huge stash of pads the first day I got my period. Without her, I would have been screwed. Even recently, my lack of menstrual education is concerning, though since joining Bleed the North I have been able to learn more about menstruation. Half the time I feel like an imposter, leading a team about menstrual education and not knowing the full extent of what my body does.
The school system failed to teach me numerous things about menstruation. I was never taught how to use tampons, how menstruation does not just affect my uterus, but all of my body, about the painful cramps and how expensive period products are. Another thing that the school system failed to teach me was that not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women, which is very important when understanding the menstrual justice realm or just menstruation in general.
During my Society Challenge and Change course, I wrote a research paper on period poverty. While researching, I found a troubling change made in Ontario's Health curriculum. When the health education curriculum was changed back in 2016-2017, the grade children learn about puberty was changed from grade 5 to grade 4 because children are starting to develop earlier. What they failed to do is change the grade in which children learn about menstruation. Ignoring the studies made by government-funded health resources (like one by Toronto Public Health, which stated that the process of menstruation is starting earlier) the grade has not changed. This completely baffled me to the point that I had wasted an hour of work, while I angrily opened tab after tab googling “Ontario menstrual curriculum”, “Ontario health education reform”, “Why is the government like this”.
Now enough about periods, because in all seriousness I can go on about them forever. Besides my lack of menstrual education, I started to reflect on my most recent health education in grade 9, only one unit of a painfully long mandatory gym class. The class was bearable—we did physical activity for most of the year, but when we were lucky, we got to stay out of the sweaty gym clothes and sit at desks and learn about health. We covered topics such as substance abuse, concussions, and basic sexual education. Pretty standard, however, by the end of the year, I knew more about how to treat 3 different types of concussions than how to properly use a condom. Reflecting on it and discussing it with friends, we realized how awful it was. Abstinence was the main priority in health class. It was exactly like the scene from Mean Girls- “You have sex, you get pregnant, you die” - that’s what it felt like.
My biggest issue is when it comes to the topic of teaching consent. My education on consent amounted to that when being pressured into sex the best course of action is to come up with an excuse and hope that you will be left alone. Come up with an EXCUSE?!?? AS IF MY SAYING “NO” IS NOT ENOUGH?!?! The basis of consent should be very simple, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, it’s a difficult concept for some people to grasp. I was taught to say things like “My mom will be back soon” or “I can’t today, I’m on my period”. I don’t know how to describe that in any other way than “F--ing ridiculous”. What angers me more than my lack of education in sex-ed is what my male classmates were learning in their classes. I remember, out of curiosity, asking some guys about what they were discussing in class. They said they learned about stuff like contraceptives, STDs, anatomies - but not a word of consent. And here is where I start to get anxious. I had to do team building skits, brainstorm circles, and learn ways, to put it bluntly: to avoid getting raped. All while my male peers did not learn the simple phrase “no means no''.
My anxiety towards my health education has been building up throughout the years, but I wasn’t aware of it until I became an advocate for proper health education. First, it was “what to do on my period”, then it was abstinence, and the last and most terrifying one was that not all students were being taught about consent. If my essay made you a little anxious about the current health education, I think that’s a good thing. Because now you see there is a problem—although sadly there is no quick fix for this issue, there is some hope. Not to plug my organization, but I am. Joining organizations that focus on solving these issues is a great way to see change. Currently, I am working on creating informative videos to teach kids about menstruation, period poverty, and stigma. I also have seen petitions to incorporate consent more into our health education. Advocating for your education and the education of the next generations is the best way to get our points across, so hopefully no one ever feels anxious about their health education again.