Most female Kansas State University students know there are metal vending contraptions placed in various women’s restrooms around campus, and menstruating students can put quarters in to receive an emergency pad or tampon.
However, in some restrooms, baskets of free feminine hygiene products have been popping up unannounced. The products are accompanied by a note that asks students to take what they need and contribute to the basket when they can. The notes are signed by the “Period Fairy.”
It’s a secret to most, but over the last three years, Andrea Law, instructor in the English language program for international students, has been the period fairy.
Law said she has baskets placed in women’s restrooms in Fairchild Hall, Anderson Hall, Calvin Hall and Kedzie Hall, and she regularly refills them. Kedzie, she said, is the newest basket she has added.
“A big reason I do this is because many people are unprepared,” Law said. “Also, students may be in ‘period poverty’ and unable to afford these products.”
Another concern for Law, she said, is the fact that some cultures have a prejudice against menstruating individuals and certain hygiene products such as tampons. She tries to supply plenty of pads for international students, just in case.
Across the campus, Monica Woods, senior instructor in accounting, provides the same system of free products in the women’s restrooms of the College of Business Administration Building. Woods said she began in February and provides baskets in all women’s and family bathrooms in the building.
“This is one of those things [where] people think the ‘starving college student’ is a right of passage, but it’s not,” Woods said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. The idea that we have students who are not able to take care of their biologic processes safely was something that really bothered me. I have a daughter. I would hate for her to be struggling and not know if she should buy food or feminine hygiene products.”
Woods added that women are at risk of damaging their health if they do not take care of themselves properly or leave tampons in for too long. That includes infections and toxic shock syndrome.
“The sign in the baskets says, ‘If you need something, take something and bring something back when you’re able,'” Woods said. “I have had whole boxes of tampons or pads emptied back into the basket. I know that people are putting back.”
Woods and her female colleagues all contribute to the baskets. However, it can be something that affects people who don’t use women’s restrooms, she said.
“I have not put anything in the male bathroom, mostly because it is hard for me to get in there,” Woods said. “That’s why we chose to put some in the family bathrooms. If anyone who identifies as male is menstruating, they at least know they can go in there.”
Food insecurity and student choices
Riley County has a large percentage of the student population affected by food insecurity, or an inability to pay for sufficient amounts of nutritious food — nearly 40 percent, according to some estimates. When it comes to choosing between food and feminine hygiene products, some students are left wondering which is more important.
A box of tampons costs about $7 on average. Always pads with wings, Law said, cost about $14.
Ashley Arnold, public relations chair of the Social Justice Alliance and junior in mass communications, said college students should not be expected to pay for feminine hygiene products every month.
“To our knowledge, college students, in general, are often financially unstable, so to expect those who need menstrual hygiene products to buy them each month is an unreasonable expectation,” Arnold said. “The period tax is unfair and puts a financial burden on those who need hygiene products to navigate everyday life.”
To combat this, the SJA hosted an event called the Period Project on March 26 and 27 with the objectives of raising awareness about the stigma surrounding periods and gathering donations for those in need. The group received 50 donations that were then given to the Cats’ Cupboard food pantry.
The “period tax,” also called the “pink tax,” is a common name for the notion that women pay more than men for the hygiene products they need. It can also refer to the need for people to buy feminine hygiene products each month for menstruating even though it is something they can’t control.
“Access to products related to menstruation is certainly shaped by one’s economic resources, or lack thereof,” said Christie Launius, associate professor and head of the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies. “Women experiencing homelessness and incarcerated women face particular hardships.”
Launius added that is important to look at this issue globally, not just inside the United States.
A 2015 article by the Huffington Post investigated how much a woman’s period will cost over a lifetime. The article estimated a woman will have a period for 38 years of her life, starting at age 13 — the average age when girls start their period — and ending at age 51 — the average age when women enter menopause.
The Huffington Post article calculated that, in total, an average woman will spend 6.25 cumulative years on her period in her lifetime, and between pain killers, tampons, pads, new underwear, sweets, birth control and acne medication, an average woman will spend over $18,000 in her lifetime on items related to menstruation.
“Personally, I know a couple of girls that choose to use the period cup because of the pink tax since it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly,” Arnold said.
An effort around campus
While there have been more baskets appearing in women’s restrooms around campus, Law said she has nothing to do with those.
“I didn’t coordinate with anyone,” Law said. “People saw it; it accidentally grew.”
Law said she refills the baskets whenever she notices that more products are needed. Sometimes she has to buy more tampons and pads herself — coupons are a big help, she said. However, over the last six months, Law said she has primarily refilled the baskets with the help of donations.
Erin Bishop, Cats’ Cupboard coordinator, said she also adds to the baskets located in Fairchild whenever she notices they are low.
While Law said there is a stigma surrounding periods and hygiene products, she doesn’t let people’s opinions bother her. She said she will walk around campus with boxes of tampons and pads on display, dutifully filling her baskets.
In the Business Building, Woods said she has had male colleagues ask what she carries to the bathrooms each week in large plastic tubs, then she explains to them what pads and tampons are, what they are for and the issues that menstruating students face. Some men walk away a little embarrassed, she said, but most seem to feel informed.
“We have had good conversations with them,” Woods said.
Both Law and Woods agreed that one way to make this less of a problem is to educate people on these issues.
“None of us would be here if women didn’t have periods,” Law said.