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."
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.
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.
TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. How did menstrual periods, a natural, monthly occurrence for more than half of the population, become so taboo?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PERIODICAL")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Periods. Periods.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my palms are sweaty.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I feel awkward about it 'cause it's really weird. Like, there's a reason if you, like, cut yourself, then it starts bleeding. But I don't really think there's a reason if you just start bleeding from your private.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm kind of nervous speaking about periods, to be honest.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Well, I call my period my evil best friend because she always come on time, she give me a hard time and sometimes I'm happy to see her, if you know what I mean. So she's my evil best friend.
MOSLEY: That's a clip from the new documentary "Periodical" which chronicles the social and political movement now underway to change everything from unfair taxation of menstrual products to erasing the stigma and shame that has plagued women throughout history. Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte talked with educators, scientists, doctors, lawmakers and young activists who are traveling the country to advocate for equal access to menstrual hygiene products and the right to reproductive health education. "Periodical" is now on MSNBC and streaming on Peacock.
Lina Lyte Plioplyte, welcome to FRESH AIR.
LINA LYTE PLIOPLYTE: I am so excited to be here and to talk all about periods.
MOSLEY: Well, yes, periods are one of those occurrences that, I mean, it basically sort of blends into everyday life. What made you decide you wanted to do a documentary about it?
PLIOPLYTE: One day I was writing my diary - writing about this beautiful event that happens to half of the world's population and how we do a lot of things while we bleed. You know, we run marathons, we work and, you know, don't say a peep, even if we're in terrible pain. It's a beautiful cycle. It feels like, wow, some kind of mystery cycle. And then we're not supposed to talk about it.
PLIOPLYTE: And not only that, I feel like it's more than not supposed to talk about it. You really are not supposed to talk about it. And so I was curious about this. Like, it's not just, like, we just don't kind of, you know, do you want to go to the bathroom? Yeah. Fine. You know, it's not a taboo to go pee, but something about the tampon that becomes a taboo becomes, like, oh, she did not, you know? I wanted to poke at this taboo.
MOSLEY: Yes. Well, I mean, in the documentary, I think one of the folks that you talked with said that throughout history, on one hand, our fertility is seen as our greatest asset and power. At the same time, we devalue menstruation, and it is a topic that we are conditioned not to talk about. So much so, I'm just wondering, were you ever concerned that this would be a topic people wanted to watch a whole documentary about?
PLIOPLYTE: (Laughter) You know, it took me six years to make a documentary. And from those six years, four years were spent finding the right partners who would say, hell yes, let's talk about this. We must make this documentary. Because I knew pretty strongly that we have to take a look at this issue. Half of the world's population is directly experiencing it. The other half is indirectly very clearly experiencing it, as well, because there would be no child born if a woman wouldn't have her period. Let's face it, it's a sign of fertility. It's a...
PLIOPLYTE: ...Sign of womanhood. And so for me, it was more so knock knock, production company, you know, would you like to make this with me? No? OK. Fine. I'm moving on, finding different producers. And...
MOSLEY: Did you get...
PLIOPLYTE: ...Once I found...
MOSLEY: ...Rejected a lot?
PLIOPLYTE: Not quite rejected, more sometimes ghosted (laughter). But it was about finding the same kind of rock 'n' roll, let's make it fun. Taboo is here to be smashed. Let's look directly into the bloody abyss. I needed to find the same people who thought similarly to me. And once I found XDR, which is production company who made it, we were like, boom, let's go. Let's do it. Let's lean in to it, you know? And once we found MSNBC, it was like greenlight. Off we go. We literally made it in 13 moons - 13 months.
MOSLEY: Thirteen months.
PLIOPLYTE: So it was fast. Once we got the right people on the board, it was really fast.
MOSLEY: Well, this documentary, you use a lot of humor, by the way. It is deep. You talk about perceptions of periods throughout history, religious beliefs about it, research - or the lack thereof - about women's bodies and our social condition. One big issue you take on is period poverty, which we've actually heard about more and more over the last few years. What is period poverty?
PLIOPLYTE: Period poverty is - well, it's inability to buy period products because they're too expensive. That's kind of a blanket statement. And it's also, well, why do we need period products, right? To have perhaps - dignified, perhaps, an easy way to go to work, to go to school, something to absorb your monthly bleeding so you don't have to, you know, have a bunch of toilet paper rolled up between your legs, literally.
MOSLEY: This impacts millions of women or people who menstruate.
PLIOPLYTE: A lot of people. I mean, in the U.S., how many people live under poverty line? How much does a pack of hopefully organic tampons cost? And, you know, if you're a single mom raising four teenage daughters counting how much does it cost per month to just have a dignified period for five bleeding people in the house? Now that's where we start looking at OK, so if 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. Right. So that's what we look at the film.
MOSLEY: Yeah. You actually follow a group of young people trying to get bills passed to abolish the tax on menstrual products like pads and tampons. I want to play a clip of two activists from the documentary talking about their work to abolish the tampon tax, which is a sales tax anywhere from 4 to 7% on menstrual products. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PERIODICAL")
MADELEINE MORALES: So what would be, like, our dream vision for 2022 of the states that flip or that we think could budge a little?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Texas because we've been working on them so long and...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: ...Because we've won over the controller.
MORALES: Anything women's rights or social justice related in Texas, I think says a lot and could also be good momentum for anywhere in the South. Everything's bigger in Texas, so...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Well, and Texas collects the most money...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: ...Annually. I think about $25 million...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: ...From the tampon tax.
MOSLEY: You just heard a clip from the documentary "Periodical" about the menstrual period equity movement. And that was two activists, one of them Madeleine Morales, who's part of this cohort of young activists on the front lines of this movement. Now, they were able to help flip that. The Texas tampon tax was actually eliminated this past September, and you followed them as they repealed the tax in Michigan. Can you explain a little bit, though, the argument on why the tampon tax is actually unconstitutional?
PLIOPLYTE: Right. Tampon tax. What the hell is that? That's just extra tax that is right now in 22 states in the United States. It's a sales tax. So whether you're part of the state or not, you get taxed on it, and it is applied to deemed nonessential items. I'll give you an example. Toilet paper. Everybody must, you know, have toilet paper for dignified bathroom experience. Absolutely essential, thus, not taxed. Somehow menstrual products were deemed by the lawmakers nonessential. Nice to haves. Kind of like deodorant. You know, 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 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.
Like, why was this tax - 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, the one who you just heard in the clip, she started going around and talking with lawmakers - majority of them Republicans, probably 99% of them men - and she started collecting information. What's going on here? She found out that most men did not know how menstruation works, and thus it was kind of maybe thought, you know, 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.
MOSLEY: Wow. I mean, this is - it's sort of astounding, but also not surprising because you also found that sex education and reproductive health education is something that is not taught, and we do know that. And there's actually a battle in many Southern states to not teach it. One of the activist asked an interesting question, especially in advance of talking to legislators, because she wondered if lawmakers would conflate or connect conversations about menstrual equity with abortion rights, which is very valid. It's a valid question - 'cause we see in places like Florida with the Don't Say Period law. One lawmaker in the film actually said that he was dissuaded by other lawmakers to make - to take this on because it is seen as a liberal cause. I am wondering what you saw when you were following activists and watching them talk with these lawmakers. Once they understood how periods work, were they actually receptive to repealing attacks or thinking about other ways to support women who menstruate?
PLIOPLYTE: Right. Isn't it fascinating? We got to see kind of a spectrum of takes on both period tax and how it relates to abortions. Of course, abortions is such a hot issue and such a difficult issue, complex issue to converse about. But what we've started seeing, especially in Michigan that tend to be kind of a purple state - and it was a Democrat-led initiative to remove tampon tax that then became a Republican-led mission to take down the tampon tax. So we started seeing, oh, look, it's becoming bipartisan issue. Suddenly it becomes - once you know enough information, it becomes, oh, OK, this is actually nonsensical. This is - it's true that this tax is unconstitutional. Why is it unconstitutional? Because this - these products are necessary for half of the population, and you tax that half of the population where it should not be fair, by constitution, to tax only a specific gender.
MOSLEY: Access to birth control, though, is very much connected to this because it's about body autonomy.
PLIOPLYTE: Such a big conversation, and this is where conversation about periods turns revolutionary, because in majority of educational systems in the United States, you probably - first of all, boys are kicked out of the class once we talk about menstruation, which is so sad to me. And, you know, 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 - right? - to understand, oh, there's a different story going on there.
I love the moment in the classroom in "Periodical" in which we show Chelsea VonChaz, period educator, going to different schools in underserved, mostly African American, schools in Los Angeles, and simply giving a workshop about menstruation and menstrual cycle, in which she talks about, how do you feel? Are you observing your cycle throughout the cycle, not just when you menstruate, but before and when you ovulate. And she drops the ovulation bomb. Now, why ovulation is somehow a strangely revolutionary thing to talk about?
Well, if you teach young menstruators about ovulation, you give them a weapon of agency - knowing your body and knowing when you actually can get pregnant. If we teach young girls to do that before they need to go to the abortion clinic, they are aware of their own bodies. This is a massive hack to empowerment because then I know when exactly I am fertile, and I can do something about it once I know, right? If I'm just taught that my vagina and my uterus are these dangerous places which can always be fertile and thus, you know, like, no sex before marriage or whatever, you know, and add church to it and make it sinful and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah - that's one story. Another story is, look, your body is turning on this beautiful cycle that will happen to you for the next 35, 40 years, and every week you're different. Let's learn to surf the cycle of this beautiful menstrual cycle.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte. We're talking about her new documentary "Periodical," which chronicles the social and political movements underway to end the taxation of menstrual products and erase the stigma and shame around a woman's menstrual cycle. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN LATIFAH SONG, "FLY GIRL")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte. We're talking about her new documentary "Periodical," which chronicles the social and political movements underway to end the taxation of menstrual products and erase the stigma and shame around a woman's menstrual cycle. Her feature-length directorial debut, "Advanced Style," about stylish women in their 70s, 80s and 90s, is currently streaming on Amazon, and "Periodical" is on MSNBC now and streaming on Peacock.
There are several myths that you take on in this documentary. First is that the time of the month makes us crazy and hysterical. And I want to play a clip from the documentary. It's about the word hysterical, which - the root word for hysterical is hysteria. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PERIODICAL")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The word hysteria comes from the word hystera, which is Greek for uterus, because people started to say that women were crazy because their uteruses were wandering all over their bodies. Hysteria was not taken out of official manuals until 1980, and it was just this catch-all term that doctors used to let themselves off the hook for diagnoses they were having trouble making.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: The first-ever encyclopedia, written by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD, had an entire chapter devoted to menstruation. He said that menstruation could drive a dog mad, that it could kill crops. If a man had period sex with a woman, he might die.
MOSLEY: That was a clip from the new MSNBC and Peacock documentary "Periodical." Lina, as you point out, we are socially conditioned to believe that women suffer from extreme emotion to the point that we can't be trusted to make decisions, in part, for so long, because medical research actually did not study the impact of hormones on the body. And we see that as a negative. We often say, oh, it's my time of the month, so - or I'm a little crazy because - or emotional because it's that time of the month. But what surprises did you learn about the benefit of those monthly hormonal swings?
PLIOPLYTE: To me, this is where the real juicy part of "Periodical" starts, is looking into taboo, understanding that at least 2,000 years have gone by with that - Pliny the Elder's, you know, when a women menstruates, the plants die and dogs howl. You know, we're kind of a deadly but also incapable creatures. And I feel like this movie we made with - now we just have just enough science and data - thank you for a lot of data collection through the apps and whatnot - to understand a little bit better what's going on in the body that menstruates.
What I find fascinating is we are starting to learn about hormones. We're starting to learn about, you know, collecting of millions and millions of points of data that we are cyclical beings, these bodies that bleed, that we used to just think, oh, we don't know them. They're hysterical. They're crazy. A woman is a mystery. Just leave them alone. And don't - you know, don't put them in the scientific research because they screw up the research because there's too many data points going on to - we don't know, and we don't understand. And thus - or here's the contraceptive pill, or you're just crazy. You know, eat some Tylenol and go to bed or whatever.
Now we have a little bit more research. We have a little bit more understanding. So all of a sudden we're like, oh, wow, 1 in 10 women have endometriosis. What is endometriosis? We've been looking at endo for 20 years. We still don't know the exact reason it happens...
PLIOPLYTE: ...For example, right? But we're starting to understand a bit more and more about the cycle. And so I propose learning to surf this red wave, which means we're different each week, right? We have estrogen and progesterone dancing in our bodies. And it does affect us - our moods, how we eat, how we perform, how we even think each week of a month. Now, if you just listen of very subtle cues of your body, you can learn to live with it instead of against it or just ignoring it.
MOSLEY: Well, the thing about listening to your body, the way that the medical profession often treats women's issues is through birth control. So it's really interesting to see how the medical industry and pharma seems to use birth control as a solution for any issues a woman might have, as if the way to deal with it is to erase it so you don't have a period. Is that a newer phenomenon?
PLIOPLYTE: It's very interesting, right? Because the pill really liberated us. You know, it gave us a lot of power to be sexually free. And I salute the pill for that reason. It's absolutely wonderful. However, I believe that nowadays we know more about our bodies, so we don't need to just put menstruators on the pill and be like, OK, there's something wrong with you. We're going to put you on the pill. It's going to remove your acne. It's going to remove your strange menstrual pains. Here you go.
PLIOPLYTE: I feel like we know more. We can do better than that. There are so many more factors now that we can look into instead of just turning off the period because we think period is kind of nuisance, and it makes your life easier not to have it, or you don't even know that you don't have it on contraceptives. Contraceptive makes your body think that you're pregnant constantly, so you don't have an ovulation cycle. Oh, maybe I don't need one. Well, what I'm arguing is it's kind of fun.
MOSLEY: That is a new way of thinking about it. Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte. We're talking about her new documentary "Periodical," which chronicles the social and political movements underway to end the taxation of menstrual products and erase the stigma and shame around a woman's menstrual cycle. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "OTIS WAS A POLAR BEAR")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today, we're talking to Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte about her new documentary "Periodical," which chronicles the social and political movement underway to lift the shame of a woman's menstrual cycle. Her feature-length directorial debut, "Advanced Style," about stylish women in the '70s, '80s and '90s, is currently streaming on Amazon. "Periodical" is now on MSNBC and streaming on Peacock.
A lot of us know about toxic shock syndrome, which can happen basically when you keep a tampon in too long. But in the early days of tampons in the 1970s, a significant number of women died using them. Why was that happening?
PLIOPLYTE: Yeah. I don't know if many people know this, but 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.
MOSLEY: So if you bleed, your entire cycle, you would just have one tampon inside of you.
PLIOPLYTE: Sounds amazing. Sounds so easy, especially when we're conditioned that the period is the most nuisance thing 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.
And so at first, they didn't know what was happening, but women started dying. And at first, Procter & Gamble did not take responsibility, said, oh, the users are not using it right. Scientific community figured out that it's toxic shock syndrome. It's a new disease that happens if you hold 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 in the community, you know, for everyone who bleeds, and also understanding that in order of serving convenience, serving this idea that period is nuisance and dirty and this thing that we wish wouldn't happen, women started dying.
MOSLEY: This is important to talk about today because while that is not happening, you explore the chemicals used to make pads and tampons more absorbent and fresh-smelling. There are chemicals used today in the products that we use. And there is really no regulation on what chemicals can be used?
PLIOPLYTE: Yeah. Fascinating, isn't it? I find it - in general, it's part of that same conversation of, periods are gross. Periods are weird. Periods are something to be hidden. And thus, can we make it smell like a rose bouquet? Or as comedians in the film say, it smells like a cheap candle. Does it actually cover the smell of menstruation?
MOSLEY: As you note in the documentary, the U.S. has never really offered comprehensive sex education. How does that compare to other countries? Is this a universal issue?
PLIOPLYTE: Oof, that's a very good question, and I wouldn't dare to make a worldwide statement about it. The whole point in the film was to focus solely on the United States. Why? Because it felt easy to be like, look in India. Women are not allowed to cook for their husbands when they're menstruating. Look; in Kenya, girls are missing school because they don't have supplies or running water to have menstrual products. And then we turned around and we saw that in New York City and Los Angeles, the same issues are true. And apparently, 1 in 5 girls has missed school because of her menstruation in the United States - in the United States. So I like not to exotifying the issue of period poverty, of, in general, issues with bleeding bodies and access to products around the world, but looking directly into the United States and to the metropolis, too, into literally Los Angeles and New York, where we think, you know, we've got everything figured out, and be like, oh, yeah, stigma is alive and well.
And also, stigma, once you shine a light on it, has a very short lifespan because if we all suddenly start talking about menstruation, guess what. Our daughters won't have the stigma attached to it. So it's very fast, very quick that we can nix this stigma. We just need a critical mass of talkers, celebrater-ers (ph) - I don't know if I can say that - people who celebrate their menstruation, people who are loud about their tampon needs or their cramps or their PMS or, for God's sake, the menopause.
MOSLEY: The menopause, which we'll get to, for sure. You actually visited members of the Lakota tribe. What did you learn about how they perceive a woman's cycle?
PLIOPLYTE: Oh, my. Visiting Native Americans and sharing their story was one of the most important and my favorite scenes in the whole film. Why? I've always known that Lakota has a Isnati ceremony, which is a four-day ceremony when a girl gets her first period. And I thought, imagine that in the United States, where majority of us live in this kind of a shame of menstruation and, you know, not talk about it and hide your tampon in a sleeve as you go to the bathroom or, (whispering) do you have a tampon, whispering in the, you know, corridor with your colleagues.
Here, there was people today that were not only recognizing the moon cycle, but also saying that a woman is closer to the creator, to God when she menstruates to the point of - Medina Matonis in the film speaks about the ceremony, how they're bringing back this beautiful ceremony, and how they are aware of their moon cycles. And you, when you menstruate, you should be careful what you're talking about because every word out of your mouth goes directly into the god's ear. Now, what a flip of understanding about the cycle. I really wanted to showcase that - that there is ways to celebrate menstruation and the menstruating body, and it's happening today in the United States of America.
MOSLEY: I want to go back a little bit to some of the myths that you encountered because I want to know if you learned anything that you were just really surprised by - because you laid out so many of them, one being that period blood attracts bears, another one that menstruating women shouldn't go swimming in the ocean because they might attract sharks. Was there a myth that you encountered that you were surprised that people still believed?
PLIOPLYTE: My friend shared that in Spain, her grandmother wouldn't let her make mayonnaise when she bleeds because mayonnaise wouldn't curl or whatever mayonnaise needs to do. Grandmother was convinced that menstruation affects your ability of making mayonnaise. That was fascinating. In Ecuador, I learned that women are not allowed to make sombreros because sombreros - the hats, the straw hats...
PLIOPLYTE: ...Take a long time to make. And apparently women weave their menstrual ups and downs within the tightness or looseness of how they knit the sombreros. And thus there was a prevailing idea that women are not good hat makers.
MOSLEY: Our guest today is Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte. We're talking about her new documentary, "Periodical." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "SHIMMER")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today we're talking to Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Lina Lyte Plioplyte about her new documentary "Periodical," which chronicles the social and political movement underway to lift the shame of a woman's menstrual cycle. Her feature-length debut, "Advanced Style," about stylish women in their 70s, 80s and 90s, is currently streaming on Amazon. "Periodical" is now on MSNBC and streaming on Peacock.
Now, Lina, you also delve into the use of period apps to help track our cycles, which have been very helpful for women to connect to themselves and understand their bodies, as you mentioned earlier. But that information can be and is often sold to third parties. Why aren't they protected under HIPAA laws if we're basically inputting our private medical information into these apps?
PLIOPLYTE: That's a great question. Right. So HIPAA is only for your doctors and for your nurses. I think apps just don't fall under such act, such a protection. So any app in the United States does not have any rules or regulations about how they deal with your data.
PLIOPLYTE: And so what I've been telling everyone - and there's so much - so many questions about this. It's - I find that tracking your period, tracking your moods and your sexual drive and your tiredness and the amount of your blood and amount of your discharge is crucial to get to know your body and to start surfing the menstrual wave, if you will. How to do this? Surely there are a lot of apps. That's the easiest way to do it is to start tracking it. But here's the conundrum - that any American-based, United States-based apps, well, they just come out from Silicon Valley. You know, they are part of, you know, free marketplace. And so they can say, yes, we love your data. We would never, ever dare to show it to anyone else. And yet there is nothing out there to actually prevent them to do so.
MOSLEY: Right. And this is more than just about selling ads and your information, though, because there is this real fear, especially in states where abortion is banned, that this information can be used against you.
PLIOPLYTE: Right, and that sucks. And thus we can say, you know what? Thank you apps, but no thanks. And so please use European Union-based tracking devices and apps like - I've been telling everyone to use Clue - C-L-U-E - which is based in European Union and thus protected by European Union privacy laws. So you're good. So you're not - you don't need to stress about that. I feel like even if you're in super blue state in which you can get abortion, you probably still wouldn't want to, you know, get your Instagram app about some brownies or baby shoes because you marked yourself not bleeding for a few months. You know, it just doesn't make one feel safe.
MOSLEY: Can you talk more about how the data from those tracking apps can be used against women?
PLIOPLYTE: The data could be used in different ways if you are not protected by the privacy laws. The data could be used simply by it being sold to third parties, it being sold to, you know, your Instagram ads and whatnot. But it also could leak to governmental bodies. You've put in, I missed my period. I missed my period again, kind of a thing. So the app knew that you were pregnant because...
MOSLEY: Well, there was actually a case out of Mississippi with a woman - Latice Fisher is her name. She was charged with second-degree murder after she lost her pregnancy at 36 weeks. And prosecutors used her online search history, which included a search on how to buy abortion pills online. That's not an app, but it is using technology to find out information. That information is tracked.
PLIOPLYTE: Yes, and it's heartbreaking and outright scary.
MOSLEY: Let's talk about menopause for a minute.
PLIOPLYTE: Oh, love it (laughter).
MOSLEY: Women experience shame and stigma for periods during their fertile years, and then they're all but forgotten when they get to their menopausal years. Why don't doctors seem to be universally proactive in giving menopausal women options and relief? I mean, we learned from a doctor in your documentary that menopausal women can have up to 200 symptoms.
PLIOPLYTE: Most fascinating, isn't it? Well, menopause means you are one year since your last menstrual cycle.
PLIOPLYTE: And it has to be consecutive one year, consecutive 12 months since your last menstrual cycle, which means you won't get your menstrual cycle again, which means welcome to the new you. Welcome to the matriarchy years is what I like to call it. But before we go to that amazing boom, you know, marker in time, entering the next stage of your life, there is this thing called perimenopause, which majority of menstruators don't even know what the hell does that mean. Perimenopause is how we beautifully explained, through the experts in the film, is kind of like puberty in reverse. It's those last years of your period. If you remember when you entered your period, 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 book end of your cycle, and thus it is normal and thus 200 symptoms - sometimes including, you know, hot flashes or night sweats or forgetfulness or rage. Naomi Watts shares her wild perimenopause story in the film.
MOSLEY: Yeah. We're going to get to - OK, so we're going to get to Naomi Watts' story. She shares that she experienced menopausal symptoms in her 30s. The average age to start menopause is around 51, 52. Let's listen to her explain.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PERIODICAL")
NAOMI WATTS: My cycle - it came late and it ended early. But 36 seemed super early. And there were all these women having babies in their late 40s. So - but I did go to the doctor and he said, yeah, it looks like you're getting close to menopause. Now, there was no mention of perimenopause. There was no - I don't even think that word existed. You know, there was nothing said to me about it and - in the doctor's office, certainly no friends were using that word. I would crack jokes about having estrogen dips to sort of see if how - oh, I'm having that too, you know? Let's just see if that sparks up the conversation. And it was sort of met with crickets - nothing. My friends were clearly either not there in that phase of their life or they weren't willing to talk about it.
MOSLEY: That's actress Naomi Watts talking about her experience with menopause for the documentary "Periodical." Lina, there's a lot at stake, as you mentioned earlier, for women to speak about this because there is so much expectation put on being youthful, especially in Hollywood. I think it's really interesting that you're doing this reframing because you're basically saying, OK, once all of those hormones are gone, a lot of women are reevaluating their lives, a lot of time for the better. What did people tell you about that time of life in this reframing?
PLIOPLYTE: Yes. First of all, I adore Naomi Watts and the fact that she started speaking out loud about her perimenopause and menopause experience, which aligned so well with our timing to have her in our film, and just to hear really human story - that even the celebrity of the caliber of Naomi Watts still didn't have the answers she wanted, which proves to you that this issue is very real, and it's not just about specific parts of the population. Literally everyone going through perimenopause and menopause find themselves a little lost, scared and nobody to talk to, which is thankfully changing rapidly because of these women are speaking out. How freaking cool. Like, we are literally living the revolution of menopause.
MOSLEY: Lina, thank you so much for this conversation.
PLIOPLYTE: Thank you so much, Tonya. This was really, really, really fun.
MOSLEY: Lina Lyte Plioplyte's new documentary is called "Periodical." It's now streaming on Peacock. Coming up - book critic Maureen Corrigan shares her list of the 10 best books of 2023. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.