Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menstruation — It’s Not Like Anything Else

December 26th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

I got a bit snippy with a new reader in our comments recently. I didn’t mean to, and I sure hope I didn’t drive anyone away from re:Cycling.

But after 20 years of studying, writing, talking, and reading menstruation research, I’ve grown weary of certain predictable responses when people learn the subject of my work. Chris Bobel sometimes talks about the “You study WHAT?!?” reaction, but that’s not the one that triggers my snark response.

Photo by K Connors

What grates my cheese is when someone listens respectfully for a moment or two to the elevator speech version of my latest article or talk, and then says something like, “Well, why should people talk more about menstruation? It’s not like I go around talking about my bowel movements all the time. It’s a natural function, too, it’s just private, yadda yadda, end of discussion. Period.”

No. Not end of discussion.

I’m so, so tired of this comparison. It’s not about ‘they’re both natural and they’re both private’. Menstruation is shamed and vilified because women do it. I turn, once again, to Simone de Beauvoir: “the blood, indeed, does not make woman impure; it is rather a sign of her impurity” (p. 169). That is to say, menstruation does not make woman the Other; it is because she is Other that menstruation is a curse.

Just as the penis derives its privileged evaluation from the social context, so it is the social context that makes menstruation a curse. The one symbolizes manhood, the other femininity; and it is because femininity signifies alterity and inferiority that its manifestation is met with shame. (1952, p. 354)

 

One only need take a quick look around to see differential treatment of body functions. Are manufacturers of toilet paper trying to sell you TP based on how shameful it is to poop? Consider those dirty-ass bears in Charmin ads telling you to “enjoy the go”– a marked contrast from femcare ads.

Is the average time from onset of pain in bowel diseases to diagnosis eleven years because people think pain with bowel movements is normal or because physicians and/or family members think you’re exaggerating how much it hurts? Compare documented endometriosis research.

Plus, people do talk about bowel movements. All the time. They talk about how particular foods affect their digestion. They excuse themselves from meetings and social gatherings to use the bathroom, sometimes saying why in euphemistic terms, sometimes in coarse and graphic language. The older they get, the more they do it.

This is not merely about what’s ‘natural’ or ‘private’. It’s about women, and about who counts and what matters. Women count, and menstruation matters.

  

8 Responses to “Menstruation — It’s Not Like Anything Else”

  1. Tomi-Ann says:

    Nice, Liz! The key here is: because women do it. Women are vilified for menstruation because we do it and men don’t. We’re also vilified for using our breasts for anything other than a Victoria’s Secret bra that men like to look at. And WE are uniquely vilified for having the gall to poop or fart or burp too. Because we are Other. I would add that sexual objectification accomplishes that Othering, and disallows for our bodies to do anything other than what is heterosexually appealing, without disgust and shame.

  2. Chris Bobel says:

    Thank you Liz Kissling, for saying it and saying it so well. Amen!

  3. David Linton says:

    Liz, What an articulate, concise summary of the whole deal. This should be required reading for ??? – well, for everyone!

  4. HeatherD says:

    It’s funny, if you said you studied pregnancy or childbirth you wouldn’t get the same reaction, even if people weren’t that interested. You would get a somewhat equivalent (grossed out, fed up) reaction if you said you were studying breastfeeding however. Seems to me if women’s bodies are leaking and having a baby is not the result then that leak is bad news and unimportant. BUT, if a woman’s body is going through the process of leaking a baby (and if you are studying a process out of which we get that baby) then it’s seen as a somewhat important topic to study. Talk about a pronatalist world. So, women are only vilified for their female processes if those processes don’t result in an actual baby (not that women get longstanding praise or freedoms for participating in pregnancy and childbirth but at least those processes are thought of as important). Of course, pregnancy and childbirth are also proof that men are virile and that they are successful in their sexual endeavors, and breastfeeding and menstruation don’t prove that, so Tomi-Ann is also right in pointing out the heterosexual aspects of all of this….

  5. Laura Wershler says:

    Loved this, Liz. You laid waste to the argument that people don’t talk about bowel movements so why should we talk about menstruation. Silence around both kills and hurts people, as you noted.

    I’m sick of being looked at askance or ignored outright by pro-choice feminists who just don’t want to hear, or acknowledge, that they are failing to serve women who reject hormonal contraception, women who would rather experience healthy menstrual cycles. They really don’t want me talking about menstruation in positive ways.

  6. [...] as Chris wrote in New Blood. It is a biological function, but like every other biological function its meanings are cultural, and the biology cannot be separated from the culture. The activists Chris interviewed emphasized [...]

  7. Jennifer says:

    Great post! I love talking about poop! I got all my family and friends to talk about poop too. I’ve recently became open about my menstruation too. I’m slowing getting everyone on board also. People are oddly so against talking about menstruation. It is frustrating.

  8. [...] seem to have a menstrual moment without someone rushing in to equate menstruation with defecation. Liz Kissling has taken it on. Breanne Fahs has, too, more recently, but we still haven’t gained much traction in showing [...]

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