When sophomore Nicolina Jackson first entered her Composition class with Professor of Writing Bryan Partridge last semester, she didn’t expect to end up standing in front of a room full of mostly still-maturing boys and talking about periods.
This wasn’t health class after all, and she had figured that as “adults” everyone knew what “that time of the month” meant–but it had come to her attention that perhaps the people of NEC didn’t know enough about what a girl goes through, or at least didn’t know enough to talk about it.
Since her freshman year, Jackson had noticed something off about the bathrooms on
campus–almost none of them, apart from the Science Building, had individual feminine hygiene receptacles, dorm buildings included. This was odd to her, and as time passed, she became more confused as to why no one had spoken up before.
“I don’t get why people would just sit around and deal with this,” she said.
When she moved into East, one of the newly renovated dorm buildings, she was surprised that these simple fixtures had not been included in the renovation plans, and wondered why–with a campus full of women–this would not have been an obvious addition.
Partridge’s class was the perfect outlet in which to air some of her frustrations. The class was talking about argumentative and persuasive writing, and the assignment was simple: write a letter about something you are passionate about and wish to change, and read it to the class. Jackson stood in front of the room and read her letter with confidence, albeit a little bit of anger.
“It was obvious that many of the people in the class had no idea that this was an issue,” Partridge said, “nor did they know that there were no baskets in the female bathrooms.”
While it is true that there were no individual feminine hygiene receptacles affixed to the inside of the stalls, except for select bathrooms in the Lyons Center and the aforementioned Science Building, there were trash cans outside the stalls, requiring females to bring their soiled products into the semi-public eye to be disposed.
After the class, Jackson went to Graziano DiCiaula, Area Coordinator, and voiced her concerns. The issue was not something that had ever really occurred to him, but he’d heard custodians talking about how it may be easier for women to have individual baskets. DiCiaula, who does weekly walk-throughs of all the dorm buildings with a facilities supervisor, had never noticed anything off, and had heard few complaints up until this year. He encouraged Jackson, however, to become an advocate and take action, and urged her to contact both the Environmental Action Committee and The NewEnglander.
DiCiaula mentioned that “the wastebaskets in the bathrooms are pretty small as it is,” and said that it would make more sense to have smaller, individualized baskets in each of the stalls. Mark Mitch, Professor of Environmental Science, is mostly concerned with the environmental impact not having baskets could cause, but also believes this situation to be a no-brainer: “This is a solved problem. It’s not like we’re facing something that has never been addressed in colleges or universities.”
While not having baskets may seem a simple inconvenience to many, to women it serves as a symbol that their bodily processes go unnoticed, unrecognized, and are often written off without respect. Maura MacNeil, a Professor of Writing that teaches multiple gender studies courses, was surprised that the college had not already installed wastebaskets some time ago, considering almost half of the NEC population are women.
To her, having feminine wastebaskets is a “systemized acknowledgement that this is a natural process for women and contributes respect to the bodily processes of women that are distinctly different from those that males experience.” For some female students, this oversight can be attributed to the fact that the people making the decisions of what sort of amenities go in the dorms and buildings on campus just don’t think about it.
A Woman’s Best Kept Secret
For many, coming to college is their first time being away from home. For many young women, coming to college may mean that this is the first time they have ever had to share a bathroom with a stranger in an intimate setting. All of the NEC dorm buildings are co-ed, and some, like East, have co-ed floors–which means that young men and women share a bathroom. When it’s time for a young woman to get her period, this poses an awkward situation, especially when she has two options for disposing her feminine waste products.
The first, which is extremely environmentally unfriendly, results in her hastily flushing her tampon or pad down the toilet, while the second involves possible anxiety and embarrassment. Imagine coming out of a stall, soiled tampon in hand, and locking eyes with an eighteen-year-old boy as color migrates to your cheeks and you stutter, trying to come up with an explanation of what you’re doing. Not that there needs to be an explanation, but you feel obligated to come up with some sort of excuse.
Alexa Lamantea, a third year who serves as a Residential Advisor in West, said that this is an all too often occurrence, and that while she has not gotten any complaints about the lack of feminine hygiene receptacles, she has been on the receiving end of many frustrations regarding the co-ed bathrooms.
“You don’t want everything on display,” she claimed, alluding to the lack of respect and normalcy that many women feel about their periods.
Sophomore Jenna Bogan, who lives in East and–like Jackson–was surprised that the new renovations didn’t include updating the bathrooms, said “without a wastebasket in the stalls for us to dispose of hygiene products, [NEC is] forcing women to dispose of them in the public wastebasket, and in some cases you may have to do this when males are in the bathroom as well, which can bring a certain level of shame for the girl.”
DiCiaula voiced that “the co-ed bathrooms are a double edged sword,” and that while they can introduce new valuable experiences to the students who may have never had to share a bathroom, they can also introduce some “awkward opportunities.”
These awkward opportunities stem from a “huge stigma” that follows around menstruation, according to Jackson. She believes it is a basic human right to be able to dispose of feminine hygiene products properly, but that “we’re taught to not talk about it.”
“It’s a pretty crummy thing that women have to tolerate,” said DiCiaula, but admitted that he doesn’t necessarily see a stigma when it comes to menstruation. For many women, however, the stigma is clear and is illustrated at a young age that when you are on your period, you must not let others know.
Bogan explained that there is this “cloud of embarrassment for girls when they are having their periods,” and often results in “the desire to hide tampons and pads.”
“You rarely, if ever, see a woman walking towards a public bathroom with a tampon visible in her hand,” MacNeil said. “The tampon is hidden–up a sleeve, in a pocket, in the waistband of a skirt. It is kept out of sight.”
“It’s more socially acceptable to be sick than to be a woman on her period,” Senior Hannah Jackson said regarding the stigma. “We are told to take Advil, get over it–but when someone asks, tell them you have a headache.”
In America, this stigma may not seem as prevalent–especially in a small community like NEC–as it is in other countries, but women all over the world are still suffering as a result of something that naturally happens to their bodies. A 2015 UNICEF and World Health Organization report indicates that at least 500 million girls and women worldwide do not have access to sufficient facilities in order to manage their periods. According to Dirk Gilson, maker of the short film India’s Menstruation Man, one in five Indian girls drop out of school due to menstruation. While this is often due to poverty as well, and being unable to afford healthcare (let alone hygiene products), it is also due to the lack of conversation about menstruation.
MacNeil, who also studies social constructs in relation to myths and religion, said menstruation can move into “the area of taboo” and that women in other cultures are often deemed “infected” when going through their monthly cycles.
Laura Anderson, NEC’s Medical Director and Nurse Practitioner, doesn’t personally feel the stigma associated with menstruation, but she acknowledges that some women do feel it, and that it ultimately comes down to culture: “Some cultures consider menstruation to be dirty and actually restrict women during their menses from certain aspects of their normal, everyday lives. Others may not have been well educated about menstruation and the changes that are associated with puberty and their menstrual cycles.”
In an article written for AfricanFeminism by East Africa Acumen Fellow James Waruiru, he examines the stigma of menstruation in association with different cultures. “Some religions,” he wrote, “still consider women unclean while menstruating and therefore do not allow women to mingle with ‘clean’ people freely.” One such religion is Islam, but this separation can also be found in Catholicism.
When Waruiru asked an Imam–the person who leads prayers in a mosque–why women worship separate from men, the Imam answered that “women become unclean while menstruating;” when he asked a priest why sometimes women are separated from men in the pews, the priest began that it was to keep the focus on God by not allowing men to be so easily aroused by the presence of women…but then continued on to say “but primarily, women get unclean every month when menstruating.”
“Unfortunately,” MacNeil said, “it is perceived as a negative bodily and psychic process, so many females act accordingly and treat it as something to be kept hidden and secret.”
While religion may come into play, the stigma surrounding menstruation starts early, beginning with the words young girls hear regarding their natural bodily processes. In November 2015, Clue, a company that uses “science and data to provide insights into female health,” conducted a worldwide survey–including around 190 countries–about periods. They asked a range of questions about people’s’ comfort levels when it comes to talking about their periods, and over 90,000 responded.
On their website they show the results from the top twenty countries with the highest response rate. One of their questions was whether or not slang is used to describe periods–the Czec Republic came in at number one, with 96% of the response being “yes,” and France–#9 of the 10 most socially advanced countries in the world, according to Business Insider– came in a close second at 91%. They also asked different countries to send in those slang words, and a list of over 5,000 words emerged.
The derogatory terms, such as the crimson wave and bloody mary, shape the way young women view their bodies, and then cause them to be ashamed of themselves when it comes to their periods.
While the stigma is primarily a cultural construct, society plays a large role as well, particularly in the form of government taxation. In the United States, sales tax on feminine hygiene products can range anywhere between 4% to 9%, according to an article by Public Radio International, with only five states (not including New Hampshire) abstaining from the taxation. Taxing products that women need in order to properly function in society is a blatant showing of a deep lack of understanding regarding menses.
Even former President Barrack Obama doesn’t know or understand why these products are taxed. In January of 2016, Obama sat down with Ingrid Nilsen–a 27 year old Youtube star–for an interview; when she asked why tampons and pads are taxed as a “luxury item;” he responded: “I have to tell you, I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items. I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”
In an interview for a NewsWeek article about the stigma behind menstruation, Nilsen said, “Something that affects people every single day, the president didn’t even know about! And it’s because it’s one of those things that just gets buried. That’s a reflection of how women’s bodies are viewed, even today, by our government and society.”
Perpetuating a stigma is a two way street, however, and it is not only society’s lack of knowledge about the issue that’s the problem, it is also women’s unwillingness to broach the subject themselves. Nicolina Jackson thinks that “it’s even worse with women, because it’s super polarized and we’re taught not to talk about it.” By “polarized,” she means that there is either no talk about the subject except in lewd terms, or too much talk about the subject, and the fact that it is a natural, normal occurrence, gets lost.
DiCiaula believes that “maybe more exposure might be better” and perhaps forcing men to see and come to terms with this very natural process by seeing the disposed products in the trash with help lessen the stigma. “But at the same time,” he continued, “it may have the opposite effect.”
Although it should be talked about more, said Lamantea, “it’s still a private matter. Just because we should be able to talk about it, doesn’t mean I want to be like Hey guys, guess what week it is for me?”
Even if society doesn’t care about the underlying cultural issue, they should care about the fact that the ignorance surrounding menstruation can cause some pretty hefty environmental issues. By women feeling ostracized because of something they have no control over, and–as is in the case of NEC–sometimes having no place to properly dispose of their used products, women are forced to make a decision that eventually has a profound impact on the environment.
“When you’re in a busy bathroom and there’s no wastebasket in your stall,” said Hannah Jackson, “you’re faced with a decision between flushing your products, and no one knowing, or shuffling awkwardly behind people to the bin–exposing your bright yellow or purple wrapper and giving away women’s best kept secret: that you’re on your period.”
The Muffin Monster
When you flush a toilet in Henniker, the water is sent to the Henniker Wastewater Treatment Plant, where it is put through a machine called “The Muffin Monster,” before going into three different aeration tanks. The Muffin Monster has one job: tear and grind up products that aren’t supposed to be in the water–products like diapers, dental floss, condoms, and feminine hygiene products.
The plant is 40 years old, and isn’t designed to handle the influx of paper products that has
been slowly increasing over the past decades–not including toilet paper, of course, which is “the only type of paper that belongs in the toilet,” according to Ken Levesque, Superintendent at the Henniker Wastewater Treatment Plant. Every year, for over 25 years, the plant has been giving tours to NEC students in an effort to shine some light on just what happens after students flush the toilet.
Levesque doesn’t think the tours have much of an impact, though. “All they want to do is walk around here like this,” he said, pulling his shirt up over his nose and saying “eew, this stinks” in a high-pitched, feminine voice. “It’s a serious thing, and I don’t think they take it seriously.”
When Nicolina Jackson visited the plant last year with her Environmental Science class, she began to realize that–because not having feminine hygiene baskets on campus might be causing more women to flush their products–it was a bigger issue than she had originally thought.
“Since we are the largest population in Henniker, I feel like we should at least have some consideration,” she said.
When she was researching the impact during her attempt at writing a petition, she called the plant and spoke to one of the workers, who left her hanging with the question “would you want to do it every day?” Just what it is, not many people know, including the students at NEC.
“Everybody likes to be clean,” said Levesque, “and if you can buy a product, use it, and pull the trigger to make it go away, that’s awesome–except for guys like me.”
“People want convenience these days,” he continued. “I don’t think they care about anything else.”
On a problem scale of one to ten, the amount of non-dissolvable waste the plant receives is about a five, but they’ve made it a three by their consistent dedication and hard work. They check the pump stations every day, in both the wet-wells (where the water and sewage separate) are underground, and use a swimming pool net to skim the top to get whatever the Muffin Monster missed. In two weeks’ time, they fill up a thirty gallon bucket with grease, paper, strings, hygiene products, and condoms.
“The toilet is not a trashcan,” said Levesque, but many people treat it like one.
For big cities, this backup of non-flushable products can be detrimental due to their large population–if the first pump station gets clogged, the sewage levels can rise up to the manholes, and eventually cascade onto the streets where it would be a biohazard. According to Think Before You Flush, a website that specializes in educating the public about waste, sewage related litter is “the third largest category of beach litter.” While wastewater management plants do their best to clear out the sludge, the sludge has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is in landfills, where it inevitably gets released into the ocean.
It takes tampons roughly six months to biodegrade, and the plastic applicators nearly 25 years, states an article from The Chic Ecologist entitled “The Environmental Impact of Everyday Things.” And in that amount of time, the applicator can break up into hundreds of pieces that fish inevitably ingest, oftentimes causing blockages in their digestive tract, and sometimes even death. Even small wastewater treatment plants like the one in Henniker contribute to this type of pollution; about every two years, or once the plant gets enough to fill a roll-off container, the Henniker Treatment Plant ships the waste to a landfill in Rochester, NH.
Although the population in Henniker is much smaller than big cities, “what makes [the paper] a big impact here, is the college.”
“If only 10% of [the college population] are using these products, that’s enough to screw up our system,” said Levesque.
It’s not like NEC has just one woman, expressed Mitch. “You’re talking about hundreds.” Mitch advises the Environmental Action Committee and shows a great interest in the impact NEC has on the environment.
There are 377 women on campus to be exact, according to NEC Institutional Researcher Frank Hall. This is not including the number of female administrators, faculty, and staff on campus. This number makes up roughly 46% of NEC’s student population. In an article on Groundswell.org, it is stated that women use about 20 tampons per cycle–multiply that by 377 and you get about 7,540, multiply that again by the amount of months in a semester (around 4) and you get 30,160. That’s 30,160 tampons that could possibly be making their way to the wastewater treatment plant each semester, causing a lot of headache for the workers in charge of managing our water, and a whole lot of waste.
“Something like this is making us take ten steps backwards,” said Levesque, shaking his
Improper disposal of feminine hygiene products does not only lead to environmental concerns, but also health concerns. Nicolina Jackson advocates that it is a “sanitary issue” as well, one that everyone, not just women, should be concerned about.
As a Nurse Practitioner at NEC, Anderson has spoken to many women regarding their menstrual cycles and has heard complaints regarding the sanitary practices in campus bathrooms. It is Anderson’s understanding that used feminine hygiene products are sometimes being left on the floor despite the fact that there is at least one trash can in every bathroom on campus.
“It’s just gross,” she said, and continued on to say that when products are left on the floor, improperly disposed, it can lead to odor and an “increased rise of exposure to potentially infectious material.”
Although feminine hygiene products are deemed “sanitary”–it says it on all their packaging and some are even called “sanitary napkins”–once used, they become an easy home for pathogens. Doug Calvert, president of global restroom hygiene service company Cannon Hygiene Inc., told a writer for Cleaning and Maintenance Management (CMM) that “Although they are sanitary when first used, because the napkin is usually in use for a period of time, they become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria or germs when it comes time to dispose of them.”
Since female students have been required to throw away their used products in a shared trash can, this could have led to a potential spreading of germs and dangerous diseases–especially if other students had to look through the trash for some reason, perhaps to retrieve something they dropped by accident.
“It affects everyone,” Jackson said, and went on to list some of the diseases that should be taken into consideration, namely Hepatitis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that over 1 million Americans are infected with Hepatitis B, many of whom may not even know it. This is problematic considering the virus can survive for up to seven days outside the body and is transmitted through bodily fluids–such as the blood and tissue present on used feminine sanitary products. The Hepatitis Foundation International recommends disposing of soiled feminine hygiene products in a plastic bag to avoid any contact with those in charge of cleaning trash cans and receptacles.
The negative aspect of feminine hygiene receptacles is the fact that they too can be
covered in bacteria, especially if not properly cleaned. This poses a threat not only to the custodial workers who have to clean out the contents of the baskets, but also to the students who have to lift the lid of the basket in order to dispose of their products. Because there is no sink to wash your hands within the stalls, students must lift the lid using their contaminated fingers–this transfers bacteria from the used product to the lip of the container’s lid. Either way, bacteria is spread. Unfortunately, according to an article posted on CMM, “there is no known manufactured chemical or natural ingredient treatment that has proven to effectively reduce or inhibit the growth of bacteria in the napkins for a prolonged period of time,” thus limiting the degree of sterility one can achieve even by cleaning the receptacles.
That being said, between flushing the products down the toilet, disposing of them in a shared trash can, or using individual receptacles, most would agree that the receptacles have the greater positive impact both environmentally and socially. In the end, though, it all boils back to the stigma, according to Hannah Jackson.
“I think that if we didn’t have a stigma surrounding periods,” she said, “and we could actually have a conversation and spark a change in the way we handle periods altogether, we could find a more eco-friendly solution to our once-a-month, landfilling monster.”
On a small campus, news tends to travel fast, and that’s just what happened when administrators got wind of some students’ feelings about the lack of receptacles in the ladies’ rooms. At the end of March, Daniel Gearan, Assistant Vice President of Capital and Facilities Management, was cc’d on an email reply from Doreen Long, Director of Residential Life and Housing, to Lai-Monte Hunter regarding the bathroom situation.
Hunter, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion, teamed up with Anderson in the beginning of March to present “This Is My Body: Women’s Health Awareness.” Since March is Women’s History Month, they wanted to hold a forum in which women would feel open to talking about their bodies and bodily functions. Hunter did not expect the conversation to turn to feminine hygiene receptacles, or lack thereof, but was glad it did because it was the first time he heard anything about it.
“As a male, I would have no idea,” he said.
After listening to some of the attendees of the program, Hunter promised he would pass the information forward and emailed an inquiry to Long about how this could be remedied. Long was unavailable for an interview due to the busy nature of Residential Life & Housing in the spring, but Hunter felt that the forum was “cool” because, without it, he believes they may not have ever known that this was an issue.
Long responded to Hunter’s email by Cc-ing Gearan. One of the projects Gearan will be working on this summer are renovations to the bathrooms in the Colby dorm, so it was natural that he be involved in any discussion about adding receptacles to the bathrooms on campus. He then involved Facilities, namely Matthew Sevingy, Director of Campus Facilities.
Facilities went through all the bathrooms on campus, and inventoried which bathrooms required these receptacles and which did not. Since some bathrooms on campus are single stalls with single trash cans, it was deemed unnecessary to adorn the extra trash container in these places. Before the order was completed, Gearan saw a handwritten copy of the building by building inventory where over 100 stalls were found to be lacking receptacles.
Sevingy ended up putting an order in for 104 containers, which were installed as soon as they arrived, a couple weeks before finals. The plan is that the Facilities Custodial Department will empty them once a day throughout the working week, and busier buildings–such as the Simon Center–will be emptied seven days a week.
It was while this was happening that Nicolina Jackson was beginning her petition. She planned to get at least a 100 signatures online–enough to show the college that the student body (particularly the female students) cared enough to voice their opinion on the matter. Because everything moved so quickly, Jackson was not even aware that the order had been placed, and that she perhaps played a part in bringing the receptacles to campus. She didn’t realize it would be so easy, and wished she had known this before, because she would have just asked someone to do something about it.
DiCiaula said that perhaps the reason why no one had noticed that receptacles might be needed was because “this might not have been as urgent an issue as maybe some other things in college students’ lives.” A college has a multitude of expenses and issues to deal with on a daily basis, and because not many students voiced complaints, it probably went unnoticed.
Now that they have been installed, Jackson feels glad that students can have some sort of impact as long as they voice their opinions. Partridge advocates for students to contact administrators if they have any issues on campus, because he’s “seen so many occasions where NEC hears a concern from a students and works to address it immediately.”
Despite the fact that the receptacles have been ordered and installed, Jackson might go through with her petition anyway, “just to see what would happen.” While she may have been frustrated that the topic was never thought of by administrators before, the experience of advocating for herself and her fellow students was “a lot of fun.”
An Opportunity for Growth
It may seem like society is taking a few steps back in a multitude of areas, including women’s health and reproductive rights and the importance of protecting our environment. In April, President Trump signed a bill allowing states to cease funding for organizations that provide abortions–organizations like Planned Parenthood, which according to their website has 10 million activists, supporters, and donors working to protect women’s reproductive rights and advocate for their health and wellness. When it comes to the environment, Trump has revoked, reviewed, and overturned a slew of laws and bills meant to protect our environment. Compared to these dramatic changes and setbacks, the problems faced at NEC seem inconsequential–but in reality they offer an amazing opportunity to educate the future leaders of this world.
The process to get feminine hygiene receptacles at NEC was swift and very behind the scenes–the execution happened over a series of emails and inquiries, and now shiny metal waste baskets can be found affixed to the stall walls in the women’s restrooms. Although it may seem like a small accomplishment, to many young women this will make the difference between an easy transition into college life, or an embarrassing one.
“I think the concept of making women more comfortable with their bodies starts with these smaller steps,” said Bogan, “showing we accept that women have periods, and we want to help make them be more comfortable.”
In addition to installing the receptacles, NEC has also sponsored recent events geared toward women and making them feel more comfortable about themselves. One such event was “Body Image Awareness,” hosted in the Pub by the Health Science Club, in which students could openly discuss any concerns they had about body image, and how body image is perceived in society. Another was “Pretty Women: I am Enough,” hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. It was an event geared toward letting women explore both their inner and outer beauty, and creating a sense of community among the women at NEC.
While some issues are being addressed, there is always room to improve, said Bogan. One way she thinks NEC could help make women more comfortable, not only on campus but with their bodies as well, is installing more feminine hygiene product dispensers, that way if a girl is away from her dorm and in need of one, they are readily available. As for making students more aware of their environmental impacts, she believes NEC should hang posters in the bathroom stalls, illustrating what you can and cannot flush.
Faculty also believes there is more that can be done as a result of this issue.
“NEC can be a wonderfully inventive and innovative place,” said MacNeil. “It would be great to use the physical space of women’s bathrooms to educate–not just about environmental issues associated with flushing certain things down the toilet–but about other issues that are female specific.”
Nicolina Jackson thinks that more students should take a stance and want to make changes on campus to better the lives of everyone. She believes one of the best ways to do this is to keep an open dialogue, and partly credits her assignment in Partridge’s class as inspiration to advocate for herself and her fellow women on campus.
Many people like to complain but not actually be productive about a situation, and Partridge is a strong believer in taking the next step to actually do something about a situation students may not like. In his class, he asks students what they are doing to change things, and if they aren’t doing anything, what they can do. And then he asks if what they are doing is working. “If it’s not working,” he said, “what might some other options be to get what they want? Once they get there, then they can start to articulate what it is they would like to have happen.”
This approach can allow a lot of individual growth, and propel students into the proper mindset they need to take on this world that is constantly in flux. But this approach can also provide a great way for the college to grow.
“If we are being the community we want to be,” he continued, “we would certainly pride ourselves on helping educate each other on the issues affecting the greater community.”
In order to help educate the students at NEC, in addition to the faculty, administration, and staff, Hunter and Anderson, on behalf of the Wellness Center and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, plan to host more events in the future regarding body health and body image.
“I think an open dialogue, such as the one that the group of women had with Lai-Monte and myself is so valuable,” said Anderson. “It is important for young women to know that menstruation is a natural process and there should be no taboos surrounding menstruation. We all need to work together to dispel some of the cultural beliefs that may be out there.”
Moving forward, the effort to educate the student body needs to come from all fronts. Acquiring the feminine hygiene receptacles is just one example of how open dialogue in a small group can have a big impact. If this lesson is applied to larger topics, be it the environment, women’s health and rights, or even something completely unrelated, the students of NEC can be assured their voices will be heard, and change will ensue.