Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, we meet Alice Smith, who launched a campaign to ensure menstrual health is taught in schools after being diagnosed with endometriosis as a teenager.
Alice Smith only remembers menstrual health being mentioned once when she was in secondary school. “The school nurse put a tampon in a glass of water and it expanded,” she recalls, laughing. “And then we all crossed our legs. That was it.”
This meagre level of education about periods, tampons and cycle regularity – or irregularity, for that matter – is “just not good enough,” Smith says. She believes that menstrual health should be taught on the curriculum in every school across the UK to both boys and girls, and she’s launched a change.org petition to bolster her campaign.
Almost 16,000 people have signed the petition so far, which calls on the government to update its guidelines on sex education to include an in-depth section on menstrual wellbeing. The Department for Education recently published draft guidelines for a new sex and relationships curriculum, set to be introduced in 2020, but there was little mention of menstrual health.
This is a deeply personal crusade for Smith. After enduring years of crippling pelvic and menstrual pain, she was diagnosed with endometriosis at 14. (The disorder, which causes the tissue that normally lines the uterus to grow outside of the womb, affects one in 10 women of reproductive age in the UK.) Today, she is a trustee and Young Ambassador for Endometriosis UK.
“For me, [endometriosis] is excruciating,” she says. “It feels like someone has put a knife inside me and is trying to claw my organs out.” She has now been hospitalised 20 times because of endometriosis. While she is generally able to manage her pain, she says she can’t remember the last time she didn’t take painkillers every day.
Smith, 23, grew up in a supportive family, with a mother who encouraged her to talk openly and without shame about her period pain. “I was very, very lucky,” she says. “But if I hadn’t had my mother there it would have been a very different story for me.”
She believes that education is the only way to end the isolation that many young women can feel when it comes to their menstrual wellbeing.
“We can’t assume that everyone has brilliant parents or older siblings who tell them everything they need to know. There’s a massive gap in our education system,” she says. “It’s a big hole, and we need to start informing boys and girls about what is normal so that they know what is not normal.”
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With greater education will come more dialogue around menstrual health, Smith says, which in turn will break down the taboos that prevent women from speaking openly about their periods.
“It’s about liberating the topic so it’s OK to speak about it,” Smith says. “Period isn’t a dirty word anymore. We’re not in the Victorian ages.”
She uses her pharmacist grandfather, who would often ask her how her periods were, as an example. “When people hear that they think ‘Oh God,’ but actually when you think about it, if I had really bad headaches over time, my grandfather would ask me at the dinner table ‘How are your headaches?’” It doesn’t make any sense, she says, that people won’t do the same about periods or menstrual irregularities.
Smith’s change.org campaign is just one of the many things that make up her impressive CV. While working fulltime in recruitment, she’s also the founder of a free-range egg business, appeared on Young Apprentice and was voted the most powerful student at Manchester University in 2017.
“My endometriosis holds me back in some ways,” she says. “But it also pushes me forward in others. I was diagnosed so young, and I felt the effects so young, that it is woven into my identity and everything that I do, for good, bad or ugly.
“There have been times when it stopped me from going to school, or going on trips, but I think that just motivates me more, and make me want to shout a little louder about it. I don’t want to let it hold me back. If anything, I want to go above and beyond it.”
Images: Courtesy of Alice Smith