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Meet Maria Carmen (She/Her)

February 27, 2024 . jessie

“Periods are political, they’re everyone’s business. We must break the menstruation taboo.” 

Meet Maria Carmen Punzi; researcher , educator,  activist, and self-proclaimed “biggest fan of the menstrual cycle you will ever meet.”  Through her work with universities, businesses, politicians, NGOs, and people online, she is breaking down menstrual health research and sharing it in ways that everyone can understand, whether you menstruate or not.  She also helps people to better understand their menstrual cycle by translating studies and data into accessible content via her Instagram @periodswithmariacarmen. Her passion is infectious and her mission is simple – put the power in people’s hands. 

What comes to mind when you hear the word period? 

When I hear the word period the first thing I think is: creation. None of us would be here without it. For me, it’s a monthly reset and something that connects me with others. Whenever I start talking about it, I can’t help but get excited. I love talking to people about it and listening to their experiences. It’s so much more than just biology; it’s a part of our society, how we work, and it’s about equality too. 

Let’s go back to the very beginning – do you remember your first period?  

Absolutely! Almost to the day. I had just turned 11 years old, but my mum had already explained periods to me as a kind of ‘cleaning’ that the womb does. Thanks to her, I was already carrying around pantyliners in my schoolbag before I even got my first period. From a young age I was quite the feminist and I remember arguing about gender equality with my high school peers. I don’t think that my younger self would be that surprised to see where I ended up. What might be a surprise is how I’ve taken something painful, or shameful, and made it into a tool for empowerment and connection with other people. Now, I look back at my teen diary and laugh – I was, just like many young girls, all over the place emotionally, unaware that my ‘inexplainable’ mood shifts were often linked to my cycle. I was documenting in my diary how one week I was feeling terrible and then two weeks later I was feeling amazing. If only I had known back then that those changes were completely normal!  I didn’t realise at the time, but through journaling I was already tracking how I felt during the different phases of my menstrual cycle. 

What made you want to work in the field of menstrual health? 

MC: My interest in menstrual health, and how it relates to gender equality, started when I was 20 and I had just moved to the Netherlands. I came across an article online about a menstrual practice in western Nepal called ‘Chhaupadi’, where women who are menstruating are not allowed to sleep in their household – and are often relegated to cowsheds for the night – nor prepare any food during their menstruation because they are considered impure. The practice was banned but still happens in some places. For the first time I could really see the connection between menstruation and gender discrimination. Seeing this inequality made me curious and I continued to research. In the same month, I came acrossa YouTube video explaining the four phases of the menstrual cycle and I couldn’t believe that I had never heard about this. I started to realise how little education I had received about menstruation.  

How does menstrual inclusivity relate to your work? 

There is no gender equality without menstrual health. Whenever we leave one group behind, we’re not really being inclusive. So I’ve been thinking about how to make the conversation around menstrual health inclusive for everyone. How can we include people with and without a cycle in the conversation? The truth is that everyone has a cycle, man, woman, human, nature, this is how it works. We live in a cyclical world, just think of the seasons of the year, the rhythm of the day and the cycle of life and death. At the same time, though, we live in a productivity-obsessed, patriarchal society that isn’t designed to incorporate the menstrual cycle, and which often disregards other cycles (for example, by producing much more than the Earth can sustain). When we disregard the cycle of menstruating bodies, and expect them to perform in a constant, linear manner, we are not being inclusive of everyone’s needs. A part of the work I do with companies, universities and organisations is to help them understand this and to bring menstrual health into consideration. I ask them: would someone with a menstrual cycle be comfortable here? Are there accessible products? Can they manage their menstruation and their symptoms adequately and in a safe environment?  

What needs to change in how we handle menstrual health? 

We need to break down barriers around discussing menstruation and challenge the stigma around it. It’s not just biology and it’s not just socialisation, it’s a combination of the two, because if you are being discriminated against because of the way that your body works then that is inequality.  There is a misconception that people who menstruate are weaker and less productive, and this scientifically is not true. If you are menstruating then you may feel less energetic on certain days, but later on in your cycle, when you ovulate, energy and productivity levels go way up. If we are being asked to perform at a rhythm that fundamentally doesn’t make sense with our biology, well of course we are going to have a disadvantage. People may say that periods are personal and shouldn’t be discussed. But I would argue that periods are political because people are being discriminated against because of them. When we give people the right information about menstruation and their bodies, then it becomes very difficult to take that power away.  

What do you think is needed for us to reach menstrual inclusivity? 

If we want to reach period inclusivity and gender equality then I think it needs to be simple. We need to start by asking people to have that conversation with the people around them. Bring the global to the personal. I want to see a world where menstrual health is part of everyday conversation, just like any health topic should be. I want everyone to have the information they need to make informed decisions about their health. I feel like my mission is to be a bridge between the research and people. I’m bringing it to the mainstream, to social media and into public discussion. If these topics are only being discussed among scholars in academic papers, then we’re not going to make menstruation inclusive. The research is important but the translation is even more important because everyone should have access to the information.  

You can keep up to date, and keep learning about menstrual health, by following Maria Carmen on LinkedIn and Instagram @periodswithmariacarmen. If you are a school, business, or other organisation, and are interested in working with Maria Carmen to facilitate a workshop on menstrual health then you can approach her directly via LinkedIn or Instagram.

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