how festivals can be better for people with periods
Getting your period at a festival shouldn't have to ruin the fun
image Carrie, 1976, United Artists
words Sophie Lou Wilson
Here are a few facts about festivals; the toilets are dirty, the toilet queues are long, you probably won’t shower and you’ll likely feel sick, bloated and achy at least once. These experiences are uncomfortable for everyone, menstruating or not, but being on your period can magnify them. Given these factors, getting your period at a festival is never going to be ideal, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare scenario. Surely, there’s a better way.
Last summer, I was at a day festival, cold pint of cider in hand, soaking up the sun, enjoying the ‘80s band that was playing. It was perfect, until I went to the toilet and noticed my period had arrived five days early. Now, I pride myself in being prepared in situations like these, but my period is never early, except on the most inconvenient occasions, it would seem. When the classic toilet paper trick didn’t work, I decided to head over to the welfare tent hoping they might have some kind of menstrual products in their first aid kit.
I walked shyly onto the ambulance and recounted my dilemma to the two paramedics. When they started looking through the drawers, I was hopeful, but they soon explained that, no, they didn’t have any menstrual products. Why? Because a man had packed up the ambulance that morning. They told me that if a woman had done it, then she would’ve thought about bringing pads and tampons. Then they got out some bandages and I stood there with a baffled, slightly horrified expression on my face as they cut them into the size of a pad.
I walked away feeling humiliated and angry. The whole experience was embarrassing – it shouldn’t be, because periods are nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, but I could imagine reading about it in the ‘cringe’ page of a ‘00s tween magazine. I was disappointed, but not surprised to find out there was no system in place for considering that people at the festival might get their period unexpectedly, or lose their menstrual products and that their access to a decent time all came down to whether the person packing up the ambulance that day had personal experience of menstruating or not. I was so glad I was at a day festival and not camping all weekend.
Well, this year I’m going to Glastonbury for the first time and, of course, in a cruel trick of fate, my period is due to arrive on the Saturday. Not to sound dramatic, but the idea of being on my period at such a large camping festival is completely intolerable to me, so I ordered some medication through an online pharmacy to delay my period while I’m there (progesterone-only pills can do this) According to Dr Claudia Pastides, Director of Medical Accuracy at period and ovulation tracker app Flo Health, side effects can include, “Breast pain, nausea, headache, changes to mood and sex drive and irregularity of the menstrual cycle.”
While I chose to delay my period, Glastonbury have taken a few steps to make their festival more accommodating for women and people who menstruate. There are WaterAid toilets around the site with specially designed private cubicles that have bins for disposing of menstrual products, water for washing reusable menstrual cups and a shelf, hook and extra space. There are also plenty of places to buy menstrual products on site. A potential problem with having dedicated period-friendly toilets is that it would be hard to stop people who are not on their period from using them. Everyone is always on the lookout for the shortest toilet queue and you can’t exactly get people to prove that they’re on their period.
One organisation specialising in making festivals more period-friendly is Red Sea Travel Agency. Born at Shambala festival in 2018, they’re dedicated to creating a future where festivals can be more accommodating of people with periods. They provide dedicated toilets with lighting bins and sinks for washing reusable menstrual products as well as a comfy space where you can get a herbal tea and hot water bottle to ease cramps.
They’re not just about helping people who are currently on their period either. Their mission is to educate everyone about periods and destigmatise menstruation as they believe this will lead to spaces becoming more considerate. “The first step towards making festivals more accessible and inclusive to people who are menstruating is to be more aware,” says Bex, a team member from Red Sea Travel Agency. “Bleeding at a festival is not easy, from dark, cramped loos with no bins, no sinks to wash your hands or menstrual cup, and limited places to find a bit of peace and comfort if other period symptoms take over.”
The organisation provides workshops and talks as well as craft sessions, merging fun festival activities with informative period education. They currently only operate at Shambala, but have been in talks with other festivals and hope to offer consulting services for event organisers looking to improve their period-friendly strategy. “The main limitations are lack of awareness and consequently a lack of provisions and funding,” says Bex. “The subject of menstruation is still shrouded in shame and secrecy, despite around half of all humans experiencing it at some point in their lives. It’s an issue that is still being overlooked.”
It doesn’t help that festivals have traditionally been male dominated spaces. Headliners are still predominantly men, even if the crowds themselves have more even gender representation – in 2016, 60% of festival goers were women. Earlier this year, Glastonbury were criticised for announcing a lineup of all male headliners and across 104 festivals this summer, only 20% of headline acts are fronted by women, compared to 78% men and 2% non-binary people. As long as festivals are viewed as being for men and by men then providing better facilities for people who menstruate is unlikely to get the support and funding that it needs.
Information provided by festivals online continues to be sparse. It would make sense for there to be a ‘menstrual facilities’ subheading under FAQs so people can prepare ahead of time and know what to expect. Dr Claudia Pastides says she’d love to see initiatives like those set up by Red Sea Travel Agency spread to more festivals. “I’d love to see ‘Menstruation Stations’ with pain killers, heating pads and period products available,” she says. “For those who are camping on site, it would be great to have the ability to wash and sterilise their period cups or wash small items of clothing like period pants.”
As long as organisers keep skirting around the issue of periods at festivals, progress will be slow. We need to start having more conversations about the reality of getting your period at a festival, whether it’s leaking through your clothes, running out of pads or worrying you’ve kept your tampon in for too long. Festivals are dirty and uncomfortable so it’s easy to shrug and tell people to, “Just deal with it”, but small changes can make a big difference. We’re not asking for a luxury experience, just some basic add ons like clean running water to prevent the risk of infections and accessible, affordable menstrual products for anyone who needs them.
If cis men got periods too then there would have been pads and tampons on the ambulance when I went to the welfare tent last summer. If cis men got periods then male organisers would probably take that into consideration when planning a festival. If we lived in that world, then how different might festivals look? We should harness the open minded, creative energy of festivals to think of better solutions. “Festivals are incredible places,” says Bex. “They are the perfect environments for spreading awareness and encouraging empathy and inclusivity. Breaking down boundaries and taboos is possible. Let’s start in the field, and make everyone’s life easier.”
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