The Last Taboo: Menstruation and Body Literacy

Can I talk to you about my period?

Posted Aug 03, 2010

Many moons ago, Gloria Steinem wrote and article "If Men Could Menstruate," which I excerpt here:

"So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event... Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ('men-struation') as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat ("You have to give blood to take blood"), occupy high political office ("Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?")... Lesbians would be said to fear blood and therefore life itself, though all they needed was a good menstruating man."

Gloria, you got to love her. She knows how to transform people and perspectives. Switching gender roles shows us how we create fictions around the subject of a bleeding uterus. What we take as objective or value-free (menstruation- shh, just clean it up!) is really man-made meaning. The riff above gives us a glimpse into how sexual difference is socially constructed. In other words, it shows the show.

I've enjoyed reading Regina Barreca's lively rejoinder to Satoshi Kanazawa's "Why modern feminism is illogical, unnecessary, and evil." Yet clearly the evil among us is menstruation. Or rather, how we think about it.

Contrary to what Kanazawa says, feminism (a multi-vocal movement) does not claim "men and women are on the whole identical." Feminism does, however, strive to illuminate how social and historical conditions make men and women seem more different than they are. For instance, Third Wave feminists of today detach menstruation from the gendered body. They reach out to trans people (some do and some do not menstruate) and acknowledge that not all women have periods (post-menopausal females do not). Of late, these plucky feminists have also been toying with menstrual taboos.

Social taboos against women's monthly have been common throughout history. Pagan Greek and Roman cultures believed that contact with women during menses withered crops, soured wine, dimmed the sheen of mirrors and dulled blades of steel. Leviticus, from the Old Testament, warns that during flow women are not only ritually "unclean," but in danger of contaminating others. Some theologians claim that the Christian perpetuation of these beliefs has fueled the case against women as priests in the Catholic Church.

Cultures often construct fantasies of danger and power around the body's orifices. These vulnerable, penetrating spots reveal our interiority. They are the places where we take things in (food, air) and put things out (words, blood, children, excrement). These are sites of terror and pleasure -- and intense myth making.

Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, authors of the book Flow (2009), argue menstruation is "hidden in a figurative box (scented, of course), stuffed deep inside the great medicine cabinet of American culture: out of sight and unmentioned." They claim this kind of silence is a matter of deep-rooted shame regarding the female body rather than an act of modesty or conversational etiquette. Secrecy is a familiar trope in the advertising for sanitary products. Pad and tampon ads avoid direct allusion to blood by pouring blue liquid on a hygienic napkin to demonstrate how it absorbs.   

If men could menstruate, newspapers, TV, and online sources would treat the subject more openly. We have only to recall the media coverage of Uta Pippig's 1996 Boston Marathon victory to see our difficulty in dealing directly with the subject. Pippig spent most of 26.2 miles plagued by menstrual blood, cramps, and a live camera feed. While the German runner, who finished first in the women's division, stopped several times to clean menstrual blood off her legs, commentators stumbled over their well-versed tongues: many halted at the euphemistic "physical problems" or "stomach pain." Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara sparked further controversy by remarking on the media's failure to address the incident straight-forwardly.

There is even more mystery shrouding flow for low-income minorities. A 2007 study "Nobody told me nothin'," interviews seventeen African American women from a public housing project to find they had few reliable sources for learning about menstruation among their schools, their mothers, and female friends. According to the data, avoidance of the subject led to confusion and negative attitudes toward all menstrual-related events throughout a women's life. This is of special note, the study adds, since minority women in the U.S. face more menstrual problems than white women (e.g. uterine fibroids).

Women's periods are an astounding problem in developing nations, too, where annually girls miss on average 50 days of school and work due to fear of disgrace. According to children's rights activists Marc and Craig Kielburger:

"Three days a month, Annalita is too embarrassed to go to school. The Rwandan teen, like millions of her peers worldwide, is menstruating. Her family can't afford sanitary pads, so Annalita makes do with what few materials she can find including rags, bark and mud. But these makeshift pads are usually ineffective. Rather than focusing on her studies, Annalita spends her day anxious about a potential accident in front of her classmates."

It's this kind of message - the ominous threat of leakage - that multinational companies like Tampax bank on in some of their ads. Here's one from Seventeen (2004) that lays in on thick.  It bodes of a shark attack with the caption "A Leak Can Attract Unwanted Attention."  

Stigma surrounding menstruation tells women there is something wrong with their bodies. It fosters self-loathing and a bad self-image. Many women internalize this attitude, learning to hate their bodies. In the West, they often spend extravagant time and money trying to "improve" them, medicate them, aromatize them. You may even see ads for these kinds of products in the margins of this page.

In her book, "New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation" (2010), Chris Bobel argues that when women can't talk openly about "leaky, messy, authentic bodies" they become vulnerable to pharmaceutical companies like the makers of Lybrel -- the first extended-cycle oral contraceptive that eliminates menstruation altogether. Bobel claims these corporations exploit women's discomfort through the cleverly packaged idea of freedom from the body. As she puts it, these pills "promote liberation (get it? Lybrel/Liberty?) from our unruly, messy, uncooperative bodies that get in the way." Instead, Bobel encourages "body literacy" with regard to women's cycling. That means "you decide how you feel about your period - not tampon manufacturers, not your 5th grade health teacher, not your Mom, not pharmaceutical companies - you."

In Rwanda, inadequate information and hygiene has spawned a new market-based program that generates support for affordable, eco-friendly sanitary products. In conjunction with MIT, Sustainable Health Enterprises creates a sanitary pad made of banana fibers -- a material abundant in the landlocked African country. The product can be sold at 30% less cost than international brands and made locally by Rwandan women with microfinance loans.

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