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Sharks, bears, and periods: We’re bustin’ menstrual myths!

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Sharks, bears, and periods: We’re bustin’ menstrual myths! Photo

by Mia Abrahams | 07/26/2017

Since the dawn of time, people have relied on myths, legends, and stories to explain what frightens them or things they don’t understand. And of course, one of the most frightening and unexplainable things is those damned bleedin’ women! I am joking, of course, but many of the myths surrounding menstruation today reflect the ongoing taboo and stigma that society has placed on menstruation. Menstruation myths usually center around the idea that women shouldn’t be in certain places, doing certain things, because of their menstrual period — the ocean, the great outdoors, space… the presidency? The list goes on.

To celebrate Shark Week (which we totes celebrate every month, but this week is just an excuse to give you guys some cute free stuff), we’re busting some serious period myths. (And rewatching the 1998 movie Urban Legends for inspiration — honestly worth it for Tara Reid’s iconic performance, Joshua Jackson’s peroxide blonde hair, and a young, pre-Joker Jared Leto).

Period Myth #1: Swimming in the ocean on your period attracts sharks

This is a biggie. We’ve all heard the “fact” that sharks can smell a drop of blood from a mile away or in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Well, sharks do have a great sense of smell, but biologists from Florida Atlantic University found that sharks weren’t that much better at detecting smells in the water than your average fish, and that they can probably only smell a drop of period blood in a volume of water about the size of a backyard pool. (Plus, Nat Geo says the great white shark can probably detect a drop of blood in about 100 liters of water, which is about 1/25,000th the amount of water in an Olympic pool.) Anyway, don’t go swimming in your backyard pool if there is a shark in there, I guess.

But, does swimming on your period in the ocean put you at risk of a shark attack? According to Chris Lowe, a shark researcher at Cal State University, menstruation does not produce enough blood to draw in sharks. Speaking to HuffPo, he noted, “the amount of blood loss during menstruation is probably less than an average scrape or cut that a kid or surfer may get while playing in the water,” he added “it takes a lot more than just a little blood to get a shark’s attention.” So what, you’re saying is my new one-piece isn’t attention-grabbing enough? Marie Levine, the founder of the Shark Research Institute, told Mother Jones: “I’ve been diving for decades and even got my period while underwater with a school of hammerheads—the sharks were not interested and I had to fin like crazy to get close to them.” Basically, having your period should *not* stop you from getting in the water this summer, and just remember, you’re more likely to be killed by a champagne cork from popping some bubbly on the beach than by a shark attack.

Getting ready to ride that crimson wave? (Sorry, had to)

Period Myth #2: Is having my period on a camping trip going to attract bear attacks?

Dreading an upcoming camping trip? Unfortunately, “periods and bears” is no longer a valid excuse (sorry, you could try an allergy to nature?). According to a paper by the National Park Service, menstrual blood “odors” do not attract bears. Where did this rumor even begin? Well, in 1967, two women were attacked and killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, and rumors began swirling that periods might have had something to do with it. As time went on, the fear persisted. Lucky for us more naturally-inclined folk, researcher Kerry A. Gunther found: “There is no evidence that grizzly and black bears are overly attracted to menstrual odors more than any other odor.”

One study Gunther cited recorded the responses of 26 black bears to used tampons from 26 women and the responses of 20 black bears to menstruating women at different days of their flow. Menstrual odors were essentially ignored by black bears. (Which is like, SO rude). Another study found no links between grizzly bear attacks and menstruating women riding that crimson wave.

But, just in case you are planning a trip to the Arctic Circle, the results were not as clear with polar bears—as a 1983 study found that four captive polar bears were kinda into used tampons (would have LOVED to watch these scientists put this together, btw).

Despite a lack of evidence, this menstruation myth persists. Why? Well, as pointed out by Bitch Magazine, the myth reinforces the stereotype that having a menstrual cycle can impact women’s  “ability to thrive and survive in the wilderness without addressing real issues of safety for women in the parks.” Where, they asked, is the study on the risks of sexual assaults for solo hikers or campers? The NPS study still recommends you take precautions like packing your used menstrual supplies like tampons and pads in a double plastic bag, but on your next visit to America’s magnificent National Park System, just remember to “watch out for patriarchy as well as bears.” Can I get that on a bumper sticker, ASAP?

Don't forget to watch out for Mountain Lions and trouble-making twins too.

Period Myth #3: When a group of menstruating humans are in the same space, their cycles sync up.

This one I am actually kind of disappointed to bust, because there’s something nice about believing in the magical powers of our collective uteruses, syncing up our periods so you and your housemates can watch Friends and eat too many Oreos at the same time. Unfortch, Clue, the period tracking app, found that the data just doesn’t back it up. To date, no research has proven the existence of cycle syncing. Why does it feel like it’s totally happened to us all, then? Well, basically, because it’s an easy target for confirmation bias (which is a science-y way of saying, we interpret things we see happening as a confirmation of our existing beliefs.) In a group of women with 28-day cycles, the statistical chances are high that some women’s cycles will overlap. Clue conducted a study that found that not only did living together not increase the likelihood of syncing, but cycles are more likely to diverge (get further apart) than syncing over time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t join your housemates Oreo binge any time of the month you like.

Spending quality time with your BFF like...

Period Myth 4: Going into space can affect your period

The history of women in space is complicated, and, surprise, surprise, gender equality and women’s menstrual health were an early argument for why women shouldn’t become astronauts. (Some even argued that plane crashes were more likely for menstruating pilots.) When Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, the engineers planning her trip recommended sending her with 100 tampons. She was going into space for a week.

So, in a male-dominated field, there was a lot of discussion about how astronauts would deal with their periods in space. Rumors abounded, the craziest being, that period blood would flow backward due to the lack of gravity and cause health problems.

Turns out, getting your period in space is pretty much the same as getting it on Earth. A potential pain in the butt, but certainly no reason to stop you from doing anything you want to do. As astronauts embark on longer missions (eg. to Mars), there have been ongoing discussions about how to deal with periods and menstrual hygiene long-term. Many women going to space choose to use oral contraceptives to skip their periods (I mean, if we skip our periods in anticipation of an upcoming vacation… seems like it would make sense to do the same if you were LEAVING THE PLANET). Another popular option for preventing menstrual flow (for both Earth and space-bound women) is the IUD. Anyway, in the past three decades of female space flight, there have been no menstrual problems in microgravity. So, neither menstrual blood nor period stigma will be the thing holding you back from living out your George Clooney/Gravity fantasy.

I'm only going to space if I can bring George Clooney and a hip flask.

Tell me, what other period myths would you like to see busted? Any rumors you’re dying to put to bed?

by Mia Abrahams

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