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'Periodical' filmmaker wants to talk about PMS, menopause and the tampon tax

Lina Lyte Plioplyte is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker.
Carrie Lynn Schreck
Lina Lyte Plioplyte is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker.

The first-ever scientific encyclopedia, written by Pliny the Elder in 77 C.E., devoted an entire chapter to menstruation. According to the entry, menstruating women could kill crops and drive dogs mad.

Filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte says Pliny the Elder's misconceptions have persisted throughout history: "[The] majority of the world's religions deem periods 'dirty,'" she says. "I'm like, why? Let's take a look under the carpet."

Plioplyte sees menstruation as a "beautiful cycle" that happens to half of the world's population — one that "we're not supposed to talk about it." Her new documentary, Periodical chronicles the social and political movement now underway to erase the shame that has plagued women throughout history.

Plioplyte also wants to challenge the so-called "tampon tax," on menstrual products, which currently exists in 21 states. The tax is a sales tax on products that are designated as "non-essential," but, as Plioplyte argues, "This tax is unconstitutional ... because these products are necessary for half of the population."

At the cornerstone of Plioplyte's film and advocacy is a desire for more open conversations about periods.

"If we all suddenly start talking about menstruation, guess what? Our daughters won't have the stigma attached to it," she says. "We just need a critical mass of talkers, celebrators ... people who are loud about their tampon needs or their cramps or their PMS or, for God's sake, the menopause."

Interview highlights

On period poverty

It's [the] inability to buy period products because they're too expensive. That's kind of a blanket statement. And it's also: Why do we need period products? To have perhaps ... an easy way to go to work, to go to school, something to absorb your monthly bleeding so you don't have to have a bunch of toilet paper rolled up between your legs.

If you are a single mom raising four teenage daughters, how much does it cost per month to just have a dignified period for five bleeding people in the house? That's where we start looking at, OK, so if a pack of tampons is $6.99, and I need three of them if I have a heavy flow in the cycle, plus there is this tampon tax on it, oh interesting!

On the "tampon tax" on menstrual products

I'll give you an example: toilet paper. Everybody must have toilet paper for a dignified bathroom experience, absolutely essential — thus not taxed. Some how menstrual products were deemed by the lawmakers "non-essential" — nice to have, kind of like deodorant — if you have it, wonderful; if you don't, well, it's not the end of the world. So in a lot of these states, that's what happened, this sales tax got applied to menstrual products, and, well, as [the] majority of those who bleed would tell you, it's quite essential. It's not "a nice to have," which is really interesting to me.

Why did this tax happen in the first place for menstrual products? Well, it turns out Laura Strausfeld, who is a wonderful activist and lawyer with period law ... started going around and talking with the lawmakers. ... She found out that most men did not know how menstruation works. ... [They thought] menstruation is kind of like when you want to go to pee, it's you kind of hold it in there. Then you go to the bathroom and you release it all.

On the problem with kids' health class being divided by gender

In the majority of educational systems in the United States, boys are kicked out of the class once we talk about menstruation, which is so sad to me, the health class segregation. I wish simply boys would learn about what's happening with the girls, and girls would learn what happens with the boys. We would have so much more empathy, so much more compassion simply by understanding what's happening in the other body, which I don't inhabit.

On toxic shock syndrome

In the 1970s, Procter & Gamble created a super tampon and they thought, wow, wouldn't that be convenient? Imagine putting a tampon in once for all of your cycle. ... Sounds so easy, especially when we're conditioned that this period is the [biggest] nuisance ever. So why not stick something in there that absorbs all of your blood for all of those days? Turns out it's a horrible idea. Turns out that it's like a bacteria-breeding and toxic-shock-causing idea. At first they didn't know what was happening, but women started dying. Then the scientific community figured out that it's toxic shock syndrome. It's a new disease that happens if you hold a tampon — or, this super tampon — inside of your body for too long, and it's extremely deadly and it's very fast. So it was a huge red flag ... for everyone who bleeds. ... [By perpetuating] this idea that [a] period is a nuisance and dirty and this thing that we wish wouldn't happen, women started dying.

On scented chemicals being added to period products, without regulation

In general, it's part of that same conversation [that] periods are gross, periods are weird, periods are something to be hidden. And thus, can we make it smell like roses ... or, as comedians in the film say, ... like a cheap candle? Does it actually cover the smell of menstruation? What is this shame? What is this need to cover it up in every possible way and to pretend that [the] period doesn't exist? And how would it look like if we would take that shame away? Then we would not need to insert all kinds of chemicals inside of this wonderful membrane, which is so absorbent, the vagina. ... It goes directly into your bloodstream, whatever you insert there.

On perimenopause

Perimenopause ... is kind of like puberty in reverse. It's those last years of your period. If you remember when you entered your period, the first few years were kind of funky and zits and anger and crying and random periods, that sort of thing. Well, they say that it can also happen on the other bookend of your cycle, and thus it is normal, and thus 200 symptoms, sometimes including hot flashes or night sweats or forgetfulness or rage. ... Literally, everyone going through perimenopause and menopause finds themselves a little lost, scared and [feeling like there's] nobody to talk to — which is thankfully changing rapidly because these women are speaking out. How freaking cool! Like we are literally living the revolution of menopause.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Carmel Wroth adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: December 5, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
In the audio version of this story, Lina Lyte Plioplyte says that 22 states currently have a "tampon tax." In fact, 21 states have the tax.
Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.