I think few people would consider menstruation per se a disability, with exceptions for menorrhagia and unusually painful periods. But I’ve been reading a bit in the field of disability studies lately, for both professional and personal interest, and starting to think about disability differently. I’m currently reading Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body and finding it especially powerful and provocative.*
She writes of disability as social construction; that is, disability cannot be defined solely in biomedical terms but must be considered in terms of a person’s social, physical, and cultural environment. A person is disabled when they live in a society that is “physically constructed and socially organized with the unacknowledged assumption that everyone is healthy, non-disabled, young but adult, shaped according to cultural ideals, and, often, male” (p. 39).
A feminist philosopher by training, Wendell points out that feminists have long sustained criticisms that the world has been designed for the convenience of men and male bodies.
In many industrialized countries, including Canada and the United States, life and work have been structured as though no one of any importance in the public world, and certainly no one who works outside the home for wages, has to breast-feed a baby or look after a sick child. Common colds can be acknowledged publicly, and allowances are made for them, but menstruation cannot be be acknowledged and allowances are not made for it. Much of the public world is also structured as though everyone were physically strong, as though all bodies were shaped the same, as though everyone could walk, hear, and see well, as though everyone could work and play at a pace that is not compatible with any kind of illness or pain, as though no one were ever dizzy or incontinent or simply needed to sit or lie down. [p. 39, emphasis added]
It is this physical structure and social organization that causes much of the disability in our society. Similarly, it is the physical structures and social organization of my culture that make menstruation a problem and a secret. I’ve written about some of this before (and SMCR members probably also see Emily Martin’s work echoing here), but was reminded of this issue in a recent conversation with a reporter about attitudes toward menstruation.
The journalist wanted to know if perhaps menstruation was kept hidden just because it’s private, rather than shameful. I asked her to think about the ways our society structures work that compel us to keep it private and secret. For instance, how easily can you find menstrual products in your school or workplace when you need them? (There’s a tampon dispenser in the women’s room in my campus building, but the sign has read EMTY for the all the years I’ve worked there.) I also spoke with her about a terrific study by Tomi-Ann Roberts and her colleagues about attitudes toward menstruation, in which a research confederate dropped a hair clip in one scenario and a tampon in another. Dropping the tampon led the research participants to offer lower evaluations of the confederate’s competence and decreased liking for her; they even displayed a mild tendency to avoid sitting close to her. This suggests that women conceal menstruation for good reason – to avoid appearing disabled.
Prejudice against menstruators is similar to prejudice against people with disabilities, particularly in judgments about competence, intelligence, and strength. Many disabled people do their damnedest to pass as non-disabled to avoid these same judgments. And in most of North America, people who menstruate do their damnedest to conceal their menstruation, because our physical and social structures are configured in ways that make it disadvantageous to menstruate.
Is menstruation a disability? No, but it surely is perceived as one.
*I also recommend FWD/Feminists with Disabilities blog for trenchant analysis of disability and intersectionality and Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity as a good introduction to disability studies.