When she got her very first period as a teen, Olivia Culpo recalls feeling so ashamed and embarrassed about the totally normal bodily function that she didn’t tell anyone what she was going through. And it didn’t help that she didn’t have the language or tools to bring it up with her family if she felt comfortable enough to do so, she tells Shape. “Some people are raised in families where it’s completely normal and celebrated to talk about periods, but for me, we didn’t talk about periods with my mom,” says Culpo. “It wasn’t because my mom didn’t care or my dad didn’t care – it was because they grew up in an environment where they were uncomfortable to talk about that.”
Even as an adult, Culpo says this shame drove her to minimize her period symptoms and even apologize for “bothering” others with them. And these symptoms can be exacerbated by conditions like endometriosis, a painful disorder in which endometrial-like tissue grows outside the uterus – which Culpo has. “Especially with my endometriosis, I would be in debilitating pain when I would be on set,” she says. “You either feel like you’re going to throw up or cry. You’re just in so much pain that you just curl up in a ball, and at that point, I of course apologized because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t function.”
Unsurprisingly, Culpo’s situation isn’t unique, even among those without reproductive health concerns. A recent Midol survey of 1,000 menstruators showed that 70 percent of Gen Z respondents have felt period shame, and nearly half of all respondents have apologized for their period or symptoms. The most common reasons for saying sorry? Being moody, getting emotional, and not feeling great physically, according to the survey. Even without difficult symptoms, chances are, most menstruators feel period shame in other ways – for example, feeling compelled to slip a tampon up a sleeve or stuff a pad into a back pocket while walking to the restroom to ensure no one knows it’s that time of month.
This embarrassment surrounding periods, which keeps conversations about them behind closed doors, has far-reaching impacts. For starters, the stigma associating menstruation with uncleanliness and disgust plays a role in perpetuating period poverty – being unable to afford pads, tampons, liners, and other menstrual hygiene products – as it stifles discussions about access to products and the tampon tax, according to the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Feeling uncomfortable with talking openly about your monthly cycle can also lead to repercussions for your health, adds Culpo. “For example, if you’re someone like me who has endometriosis, if you’re not comfortable exploring your symptoms and advocating for your health – it’s a very difficult diagnosis – you could end up unfortunately [like] a very large number of women who wait too long, push off their symptoms, and they have to get their ovaries removed, and their fertility is completely damaged,” says Culpo.
But Culpo is dead-set on changing how society thinks about periods, and the shift all starts with openly discussing menstruation, says the actress, who partnered with Midol for its No Apologies. Period. campaign. “I definitely think the more we talk about it, the more we make a difference,” she adds. “It’s crazy to think that even the word ‘period’ is still [grimaces] – it should just be another word and a word that we actually hold very dearly because it’s an amazing part of the bodily function.”
On social media, Culpo is keeping candid about her own experience with endometriosis, from posting intimate photos after undergoing surgery, to sharing her go-to pain management methods. In doing so, she says she’s helping others feel less alone with their own menstrual health issues and become more comfortable discussing them. More importantly, she’s setting an example by holding her head up high – not feeling ashamed – when she is experiencing those excruciating period symptoms. “Honestly, I think about it as a responsibility at this point to continue to have those open conversations and to catch myself when I’m apologizing and to own it,” says Culpo. “I’ll not only make myself better, but I’ll help others in that process because I think it’s just a knee-jerk instinct to apologize or practice this minimizing behavior as a woman.”
Of course, old habits die hard, and getting yourself to stop telling people you’re sorry for complaining about your cramps or wanting to nap on the couch all day isn’t a quick and easy process. So if you do notice your friend, sibling, partner apologizing for their period – or doing so yourself – don’t automatically give them flak about it, says Culpo. “I think at the end of the day, when someone struggles with being open and honest about something like this, it really does come from a place of hurt,” she explains. “I don’t necessarily believe that the right approach with that is making somebody feel more shame and guilt about their shame and guilt.”
Instead, Culpo believes in creating a safe space with your fellow menstruators, having open and honest conversations about periods and beyond, and getting “comfortable with the uncomfortable” while still respecting what details they are or aren’t willing to share, she says. “I think part of having grace for yourself and empathy is what’s going to get somebody to the confident place to speak out and really, really advocate for themselves.”