Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menopausal Junk

February 28th, 2013 by Heather Dillaway

In response to my last blog entry about Helena Bonham Carter, Paula Derry commented that we treat menopause as a “junk category,” tossing in any symptom we can’t explain or don’t want to attribute to anything else. So true. In fact, Anne Fausto-Sterling said this long ago about menopause – that tons of symptoms were attributed to menopause when in fact only hot flashes really had a link to this life stage. BUT, we keep on attributing anything and everything to menopause.

    Photo by Flickr user Caterina // Creative Commons 2.0

  • Gaining weight at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Sad or angry at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Hairy at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Dry at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Blurry eyes at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Headaches at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Big boobs at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Constipated at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Have a symptom you can’t explain at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Turned 50? Must be menopause. (Yes, see, it’s ridiculous.)

And the list goes on. And on. And on.

Okay, so, yes, menopause is a junk category because symptoms (junk) are just thrown in and declared “menopausal” (“perimenopausal”) at every turn. Just like when women go to the doctor and are given pregnancy tests no matter what their symptoms (“must be pregnant”). Ah, the fun of the reproductive life course.

BUT, I would say that there is another kind of “junk” that I see at menopause. I’ve interviewed menopausal women for 12 years now, and one of the hardest things is separating out menopause from all the other things (junk) going on in women’s lives as they make this transition. It is so hard to figure out what menopause really is and what it really means for women because it is surrounded by so much other “junk” at midlife. When you ask women about how they feel about menopause, they tell you but they also contextualize how they feel by telling you about:

  • their kids (the kids that live with them and the ones that have left)
  • their partners (current ones, ex-partners, and ones they wish they had)
  • their jobs (the ones they hate and the ones they care about)
  • their friends (the ones who support them and the ones who don’t)
  • their aging parents (and how hard it is to take care of them)
  • their worries about future aging
  • their doctors (good and bad)
  • their youth
  • their aches and pains
  • their bodies (the parts they like and don’t like)
  • their history of menstruation and other reproductive experiences…

You get the picture.
You have to wade through all of this to understand menopause. Sometimes it feels like junk clogging up their lives and clogging up the path to figuring out what menopause is really like. At the end of the day menopause is such a narrow part of most middle-aged women’s lives, but it is tied in with so much other midlife stuff that it’s hard to separate out. When you ask women about menopause, it’s sort of like asking someone, “How are you?”, on one of their busiest days. The answer you get back is surrounded and dictated by the junk in their lives and, unless you understand that going in, it might seem like menopause itself is a junk-filled process. But maybe it’s not. Despite all the news articles that predict new symptoms and conditions at menopause, and despite all of the midlife contexts that surround menopause, maybe menopause itself is very simple if we can weed out everything that’s not really menopause… What do YOU think?

Early German Menstrual TV Advertising

February 26th, 2013 by David Linton

It is axiomatic that advertising commonly reflects and reinforces social values. At other times, by introducing new products or new perspectives on existing products, advertising serves as an agent of social change. Nowhere are these two phenomena more evident than in ads for menstrual products.

On one hand, when ads tell consumers that a particular device will guarantee secrecy or the avoidance of embarrassment, they perpetuate the shame factor that is deeply embedded in the social construction of menstruation. But on the other hand, when ads promise greater freedom of movement and social engagement, they make a contribution to undermining the notion that the period is a physically and socially debilitating event.

It is especially interesting to observe these processes at work in the context of varied social and historical settings. Though the menstrual cycle is a biological universal, its cultural significance is as mutable as any other human condition. For instance, consider the attached TV ad for Tampax, which is the first ad for a menstrual product to appear on German television.

Before we even know what the product is we learn that it has to do with some sort of perfection. Against a black screen the following words appear:

Stets Makellos. . . (Always Impeccable)
Freiheit in Sauberkeit (Freedom via Cleanliness)

Three brief vignettes follow set in countries that only a decade before were mortal enemies and are now depicted as role models for modern women. In the U.S. we see that modern women work in an office and that there’s a peculiar new word that has something to do with relieving work pressure: “Tampax.” Next, we visit a jazz club in Paris where sophisticated women also share the secret magical word that seems to make it possible for them to hang out in nightclubs. It’s some kind of password or incantation. Then we hit the beach in Italy, which was at the time this ad was created in the mid-1950s, was becoming a favorite destination for German tourists. Again the magic word, “Tampax,” has something to do with the fact that these attractive young women in their two-piece bathing suits can frolic in the surf.

Finally, we are told, “And now also in Germany,” accompanied by an image of a damaged Brandenburg Gate and two other German landmarks, and we get to see the product and find out what it is. By now the product is nearly a magic wand which, when waved while whispering the secret word “Tampax,” can result in an easier work day, fun evenings of dancing, and worry-free days at the beach. But while those are the characteristics of American, French, and Italian women’s lives due to Tampax, German women, if they adopt this “world brand, with applicator,” are promised “perfection of female hygiene.” And to drive the point home, a stern looking woman dressed in what looks like a nurse’s uniform, assures the women gathered around her and watching at home on television that if they use Tampax to manage their periods they will be, “Safe and Clean.”

There are many striking things about this ad, not the least of which is the stereotypical view of German concern for cleanliness which, in this case, takes precedence over the hedonism of those French and Italian women — although American women are depicted as hard workers (note the way the office worker assaults her typewriter). And note the specific reference to the fact that Tampax uses an applicator. The chief competition for Tampax in Germany was the o.b. tampon which was invented in 1947 and does not use an applicator. At the time the marketers of Tampax believed that German women would respond to the same appeal to fastidiousness that American women exhibited in their desire to avoid touching themselves too intimately. However, o.b. did become the German tampon of choice, far outselling the American competitor. Though the woman at the end of the ad is costumed like a nurse, the appeal to hygiene and hospital sterility did not tip the scale in favor of Tampax.

About thirty years later a reversal of this tampon competition occurred when the owners of the o.b. brand tried to take on the American market by promoting the superiority of using a tampon without an applicator. That campaign also failed, though its story reveals more nuances regarding the ever-evolving role of menstrual perspectives across cultures. A future post will delve into that chapter of menstrual history.

If Men Had Cramps, Memorable Menstrual Moments, and More Weekend Links

February 23rd, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Of Menstruators and Manhole Covers

February 20th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Feminists of a certain age may recall debates about changing sexist language, and the ways feminists were once mocked for insisting on replacing sex-specific terms such as policeman with police officer, fireman with firefighter, stewardess with flight attendant and the so-called generic pronouns he and him with he or she, him or her or they and their. When I tell you that students in my Cultural Studies class last fall asked why Althusser only wrote about men, it’s easy to think those battles have been won. But only about half of the 50 U.S. states have changed their official government documents to use gender-neutral language.

The fact that today’s young people do not understand the generic use of man is just one indicator of the power of language. It matters which words we use to name and describe our world; language both reflects and shapes the way we see the world and our place in it. As a feminist scholar of media and women’s health and sexuality issues, I’ve become increasingly mindful of how labels can be inclusive or exclusive. Anyone who cares about public health usually tries to use the most inclusive labels possible. That’s why blood banks ask if you’ve had sex with men who have sex with men, for example, instead of asking if you’re gay.

Much of my published research deals with media representations of menstruation, so it caught my eye last month when a prominent women’s studies professor posted the following remark on a very active women’s studies mailing list:

There is something a bit problematic going on in menstruation politics. It seems we are required, for sake of politeness to male-bodied transgenders, to pretend that men menstruate too.

She then quoted a paragraph from a book review that referred to radical menstruation and used the term menstruators rather than women or women who menstruate. (Full disclosure: I recognized immediately that the book had to be New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation by my good friend Chris Bobel, a brilliant ethnographic study of feminist activism around menstruation.)

I cite this example without naming the professor or the list because I am neither interested in calling out an individual nor shaming a group. I cite it because I want to talk about why it is important to write of menstruators, not merely a matter of politeness to transmen. (It should go without saying that politeness to transmen is also important.)

Menstruation exists at the crossroads of sex and gender, 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 two important biological facts often overlooked in our cultural interpretations of menstruation:

  1. Not all women menstruate.
  2. Not only women menstruate.

Some women don’t menstruate because of diseases, cancers, surgeries, pregnancy (although they may still bleed) or menopause. Other women don’t menstruate because they don’t have functioning uteruses, fallopian tubes or vaginas; maybe they were born that way or maybe they are transwomen. And yes, there are some people who don’t identify as women who do menstruate. Some of them are transmen. Some of them are intersex. Some may have fully functioning uteruses, ovaries and vaginas but may identify as genderqueer, transgender, third gender or something else entirely. They are menstruators, but they are not women.

Calling them menstruators is just like changing other biased language. It helps us tell the truth about our lives, and challenge both gender essentialism and biological determinism. It reminds us that our bodies do not determine our identities, and that we are so much more than merely bodies. Some of us are people who happen to menstruate, some of the time. Using menstruators instead of women also helps make vital health information available to everyone who needs it—not just women.

In Washington, the state where I live, the legislature just unanimously approved a bill that is the fifth and final installment of a multi-year effort to replace male-dominated language from the state code with gender-neutral language. Under the new code, penmanship will become handwriting, freshmen will be first-year students and watchmen will become security guards.

But they still cannot find a gender-neutral term for manhole cover. In a world where we can find a gender-neutral name for men who menstruate, they’re just not trying hard enough.

Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine Blog, February 11, 2013

“My Daughter, My Advice”

February 18th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Strange ad copy for an actor without children. But it’s celebrity flashback Monday! Brenda Vaccaro is one of a small number of celebrities who appeared in femcare advertising after she was famous. (Others include tennis star Serena Williams and gymnast Cathy Rigby and Mary Lou Retton.) Cheryl Tiegs, Susan Dey, and Cybill Shepherd all appeared in print ads before they became famous models and actors.

Pubic Hair Grooming Injuries, Menstrual Hygiene and Human Rights, and More Weekend Links

February 16th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

It’s the only power that I possess: Ani DiFranco’s “Blood in the Boardroom”

February 14th, 2013 by David Linton

Guest Post by Saniya Ghanoui, New York University

Perhaps the most well-known song that addresses menstruation is Ani DiFranco’s “Blood in the Boardroom,” a nearly four-minute narrative about a woman getting her period while sitting in a male-dominated business meeting. The song is from DiFranco’s 1993 album, Puddle Dive, and contains lines identifying women who “bleed to renew life every time it’s cut down” and “right now it’s the only power that I possess.” As such, the song connects the period to an occurrence that bonds women from different classes/social standings; recognizes the period as a source of pride and, as bluntly stated in the song, power; points out the period’s use as a tool of protest; and states the union between life and bleeding. The song is a rich text (and I recommend following along with the lyrics if you’ve never heard the song before) with an even richer music video.

The video is a multi-dimensional piece that opens with a satirical address of typical tampon and pad commercials. A blonde wig-wearing DiFranco sits next to a window, sipping coffee, as she admires the beautiful sunny day. A voice-over starts by saying there are days when women need a “little extra protection,” and ends with a nod to products “introducing the ultimate in feminine protection.” As the last line is said, DiFranco turns to the camera, a small “cat caught the canary” smile on her face, and flicks open a switchblade knife. A play on the meaning of “protection,” the violent image of the knife is contrasted with the soft color palate of the frame and indicates that DiFranco is ultimately the one in power and is capable of her own protection.

The video then proceeds to jump between several quick shots of DiFranco in different locations before coming back to her, by the window, as she “stabs” the camera with the knife, and the song lyrics commence. The act of stabbing (and an aggressive one at that) indicates revulsion of the societal norms regarding the idea of protection from the period. Later in the video, DiFranco removes the wig illustrating the shedding of her faux exterior (an act of defiance) and thus the façade. The rest of the video consists of images of DiFranco performing onstage, shots of DiFranco outside skyscrapers (giving the impression that she is literally and metaphorically outside the male-dominated business world), DiFranco playing with an infant, and two sequences that are, in my opinion, the most distinguished visual sequences of the video: firstly, DiFranco wears a tight white dress and blood “spills” on her from the bottom up while in another image DiFranco rolls in blood on the ground, and, secondly, a collection of words that quickly flash on the screen at various points throughout the song.

The use of blood in the video is notable thanks to DiFranco’s interaction with it: she rolls around on the floor in it, she rubs it on her body, and she is coated in it (while in a white dress). The latter shots turn DiFranco into a used tampon: her tight white dress becomes saturated in red, her white headband turn red, and her face and hair are streaked with the blood. In nearly all of the blood shots, DiFranco seems to enjoy her interaction with it (I would go so far as to argue that, in certain shots, she seems eroticized by it). As she rolls around in it or rubs it on her body, she takes such delight and joviality in the act that she is, thus, embracing part of her existence as a healthy woman.

Mixed with these images of blood are words that flash across the screen creating interesting connections between the lyrics of the song and the words shown. For example, when the word “tampon” is mentioned in the song the word “Plug” is shown on the screen—linking the slang phrase “plug it up” with the menstrual apparatus. In addition, when DiFranco sings about money, what she deems the “instruments of death,” the word “Instruments” flashes on the screen and then all the letters disappear save for the “men” in “Instruments.” She connects the negative notions associated with financial power to men and death and, on the opposite end, women’s ability to make life (the power of the period) should be celebrated.

The text that appears on screen occurs in the following order (all text is in white with a black background unless otherwise noted):

Bored, Bored, Curl, Corporate (turns to Corpse), BLEED (in red font), Love, Life, Period. (punctuation included), Woman, Plug, Menstruate, Puddle (on left side of the screen) turns to Dive (on right), Instruments turns into Men (the letters in Instruments disappear leaving the word men), Life (white background with black writing), Breath (white background with black writing), Board, Bored, Corporate (turns into Corpse), Blood (on the left) turns into Stain (on the right)

As you can see, DiFranco makes numerous hefty statements including the connection between the corporate world and death (Corporate to Corpse)—a sequence that is used twice in the video. Or the play on the homophone of board/bored that is, again, a jab at the corporate world.

The video contains such visually striking images that reaffirm DiFranco’s theme of power in life, and the end of the video is no exception. However, instead of blood or text she concludes in a simple manner: a young child joyfully plays with DiFranco’s guitar as she smiles in amusement.

How to Check Your Cervical Fluid When You Feel Like You Just Don’t Have Any

February 12th, 2013 by Kati Bicknell

In an older post I wrote, I talked about how to check your cervical fluid with a folded piece of toilet paper or your clean fingers.

BUT! What if you’re doing that and not finding anything? What if you, like many women I talk to, think that they don’t have any cervical fluid?

Well, you’re in luck, because I’m about to explain how to measure your cervical fluid, even if it seems like you don’t have any! Are you ready for this? You’re so ready.

Adapted from a photo by Lamerie // Creative Commons 2.0

Things you’ll need:

  • Hand mirror
  • Clean towel
  • Soap and water

So … it goes a little something like this — CRAM YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR VAGINA! Just kidding. Not really. Kind of. Kidding about the “cramming” thing, but not about the “in your vagina” thing.

First things first, wash your hands. You don’t want to introduce any foreign bacteria into the vagina — it’s got a whole host of its own friendly bacteria that keeps things running smoothly, and you don’t want to upset the balance.

Now that your hands are clean … wait a minute! Okay, a lot of you reading this are probably very familiar with your vagina, where it is, how it looks, and every little nook and cranny inside and out. But some of you may not be. For those of you in the second camp, there is an extra step.

Grab a hand mirror!

Okay, was that hand mirror very dirty? Did you take it out of the woodshed or something? Is it your husband’s shaving mirror? If any of the above are true, wash your hands again.

Now get naked from the waist down — think gynecologist’s office, but significantly less unpleasant. You can leave your socks on. No cold stirrups (hopefully). Now sit or squat on a clean towel on the floor, and hold the hand mirror between your legs so you can actually get a good look at your vulva (external genitalia). As women, our genitals are positioned in such a way that they are very hard to get a clear look at without the aid of a hand mirror, so unless you’ve done this before, you may be surprised at what you see. Look at how beautiful you are! So many little folds of soft delicate skin, so many different shades of color. Vulvas come in all shapes and sizes and colors, and each are perfect and beautiful and packed with nerve endings, so don’t you even dare consider labiaplasty, even if the vulva you see in the mirror doesn’t look like the ones you may have seen in certain adult movies (or Canadian strip clubs). Yours is perfect. I promise.

Have a look and a feel around! Gently spread your inner labia apart and take a peek at what’s in there. You’ll see your clitoris, vaginal opening, and, if you have keen eyesight, the urethral opening. Neat, huh? You may even see some cervical fluid at the vaginal opening.

Now see where your vaginal opening is? Gently slide one clean finger inside, see how that feels? Okay, now you know WHERE to stick your finger when checking your cervical fluid internally.

Crouch in a squatting position, and place one or two (if they fit) fingers in your vagina, until you feel something like the tip of a nose (if you are fertile it might be much softer). This is your cervix! The place from whence all cervical fluid hails! The motherland!

Now draw your finger(s) gently out of your vagina and have a look at them. They will be slightly damp, because the vagina is a mucus membrane, like the inside of your mouth, so wetness is a given. Other than that, is there any “substance” on them? Anything that looks like grade school paste, or hand lotion, or raw egg whites? If so … there is your cervical fluid!!!! You found it! Hooray!

If not, you may be a) on the pill, b) in the pre-ovulatory infertile phase of your cycle, before you’ve started to make cervical fluid, or c) in the post-ovulatory infertile phase of your cycle, after ovulation, and your body may have stopped making cervical fluid for the remainder of your cycle.

If you don’t notice any, check again later in the day, and several times tomorrow, and every day after that! Soon you’ll have something to record on your chart!  :-)

Now you can stand up, wash your hands (again), pull up your pants (this step is critical), and go about your day!

Wheeee!!! Any questions on that? Ask me in the comments.

Cross-posted at Kindara, February 5, 2013

New research on endometrial cancer, LARCs, and pelvic pain, & more Weekend Links

February 9th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Shameless, Part 2

February 7th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Chella Quint, Adventures in Menstruating

So I like the new Mooncup ad for lots and lots of period positive reasons.

Here it is again:

I watched it, I enjoyed it, I shared it, but I couldn’t ignore this other blog post title forming in my head after the first viewing:

“OMG! They’ve used an educational rap!” say several slam poets and rap battlers (including a statistically small number of female rap battlers) at once as they collectively facepalm.

Yeah, so, there’s that. A number of readers will know I perform regularly on the spoken word scene and I’m on my university’s slam team. Lately, there’s been a little more slam/battle crossover in the spoken word universe, so I thought I’d check in with a few pals for some peer review. They’ve each agreed to weigh in below on their impressions of the video’s effectiveness from a wordsmith’s perspective.

Sticking with the marketing point of view though, cultural appropriation of rap for commercial purposes is such an old trope that it’s more status quo than newsworthy. In fact, in this particular advert, I really think that the usual criticism is mostly offset by the genuine use of rap as protest against disposables.

Interesting as it might be to me, I know that the femcare industry and most consumers don’t need to read a peer review of the authenticity of the rap battle. I had a hunch that Mooncup’s choice to adhere to some of the conventions of the genre has actually helped them get the message across more effectively (and certainly more effectively than more typical #OMGRAP ads currently making the rounds).

I don’t think it’s a gratuitous use of rap. I think it’s a well observed and effective pastiche.

When I got in touch with Mooncup last week to get the stats for last Friday’s post, I also checked out the origin story for the rap battle. Kath Clements, their Campaigns and Marketing manager, was happy to share their process:

“It was a real collaborative effort between Mooncup and [the ad agency] St. Luke’s. We needed a device for positioning a debate and a conceptual framework – we put it in our natural habitat which is the toilet! We were aware we were appropriating a thing with cultural connotations, so we tried to do it with finesse.”

I asked her about how it was written, and she told me that St. Luke’s worked with a producer who battles in his free time, and liked the concept enough to help them out and write it pro bono. He also coached the actors who play Tampon (who has actually rapped before in her own right) and MCUK (I just got that joke), who appeared in Mooncup’s last viral ad campaign.

With that insight, it looked to me like I could analyse the battle in good conscience. See, I really like the wordplay, puns and syncopation of classic freestyling, and my twelve-year-old self delightedly and ignorantly partook in gentle games of The Dozens with my middle school pals. The casual sexism and homophobia that I’ve witnessed on the current battle scene puts me off, though. I valued this ad’s depiction of women in a rap battle scenario. So I wanted to check out my theory that the quality of the pastiche and the rhyme are part of the payoff for this ad.

The first bit of commentary comes from Harry Baker, who’s been on Don’t Flop but who also raps about maths and slams about dinosaurs, both of which are more my speed.

“I think it’s almost too obvious that it’s made up of key statistics made to rhyme, but I guess that is the point of the advert. Things like the ‘no strings attached’ line would get a reaction from a crowd probably. So first reaction is ‘eye roll’ + ‘rap to get down with the kids’ but the rhyme/hook is there. For me I’m fine with it being a rap battle between two women, and it makes sense as a way of A vs B advert information, but the rhymes themselves aren’t really good enough to get away with it, or do the genre justice – I guess it’s good they want to use the format in mainstream media (pastiche is a great word) but what I would watch for/do in a rap battle is the intricate word play and rhyme schemes which I feel this lacks!”

Does Depo-Provera work like a charm or a curse?

February 6th, 2013 by Laura Wershler
Author’s Update, February 14, 2013: As clarified by Bedsider.org in the comments section below, the Works Like A Charm Contest mentioned in this post is not current but ended in 2011. The contest website pages are now inactive.

If Bedsider.org sponsored a contest called Why I Hate My LARC, there would be no shortage of contest entrants. But I expect it will be a long time before the nay-sayers get as much attention as the yeah-sayers.

Composite illustration by Laura Wershler

Bedsider has jumped on the LARC bandwagon. The online birth control support network for women 18-29 has launched the Works Like a Charm contest encouraging “the awesome women and couples” who use long-acting reversible contraception to share why they love their LARCs for the chance to win up to $2000. This is a variation of the Why I Love my LARC video campaign sponsored by the California Family Health Council last November, only with prizes!

To quote my blog post about the earlier campaign: “Throughout the contraceptive realm, LARCs are being heralded as the best thing since Cinderella’s glass slipper with little acknowledgement that for many women LARCs are more like Snow White’s poisoned apple.”

One long-acting, not-so-reversible contraceptive in particular – Depo-Provera – is causing grief for many women. Yet “the shot” is front and center in the graphic on the contest website.

Considering the rah-rah tone of the Works-Like-a-Charm campaign messages, it seems that bedsider.org, a project of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is oblivious to the misery caused by this contraceptive. Often, Depo works like a curse.

I acknowledge that Bedsider is doing good work: The website provides youth-friendly, accessible information about the full range of birth control methods. But, in my opinion, any organization that promotes Depo-Provera as a contraceptive method should be totally transparent about the ill effects many women experience both while taking and after stopping the drug.

Depo-Provera, to put it bluntly, fucks with a woman’s endocrine system.

The long list of ill effects while on or after stopping this drug includes: continual bleeding (from spotting to heavy), mood disorders, severe anxiety, depression, digestive issues, loss of sex drive, extreme weight gain (often without change to exercise or eating habits), lingering post-shot amenorrhea, intensely sore breasts, nausea, and ongoing fear of pregnancy leading to repeated pregnancy tests. (Not to mention its documented negative effect on bone density.)

These effects are why the continuation rate of Depo-Provera is only 40-60% after one year of use, and why women are filling online comment pages with stories of their struggles coming off this drug.

At Our Bodies, Ourselves, the blog post Questions About Side Effects of Stopping Contraceptive Injections has been attracting comments since November 3, 2009, with no end in sight.

On my April 4, 2012 re:Cycling post – Coming off Depo-Provera can be a woman’s worst nightmare - there are over 130 comments. All but six were posted since mid-November when the post caught fire. Not more than a day or two goes by before another women shares her story of distress, confusion or frustration. I read each one and respond occasionally. Rarely, a positive experience appears; one criticized other commenters for complaining.

It’s one thing to read or hear about potential ill effects while trying to decide whether or not to use Depo-Provera. It’s quite another to experience some or many of them for months on end without acknowledgement or health-care support from those who promote or provide this drug.

The Works Like a Charm contest website says about LARCS:

Reversible = not permanent. If and when you’re ready to get pregnant, simply part ways with your LARC and off you go.

“Off you go?” Tell that to the thousands of women who are waiting, months post-Depo, to get their bodies and their menstrual cycles back to normal. Most of them still aren’t ready to get pregnant.

Periods: A Human Oddity

February 4th, 2013 by Paula Derry

What does it mean to have menstrual periods? This is an intensely personal question, but it is also a scientific and a cultural one.

The menstrual cycle can, of course, be described in terms of a woman’s personal experience of menstrual flow. It can also be described by the complex physiology of hormones climbing, pulsating, falling. However, what are some other things we know about periods?

We know that they are an oddity in nature. Most animals, aside from monkeys, apes, and us, thicken the wall inside the uterus only after an egg has been fertilized. We have periods because we routinely build a thicker wall inside the uterus, just in case it’s needed, which must be eliminated if we don’t become pregnant. According to Ann Voda, much of this wall is absorbed back into our bodies (the same way that if you smash your finger and get a clot under the skin, that blood is absorbed into the body then eliminated). Some of it is released to the outside world in an organized manner in what we call our period.

We know that the menstrual cycle is only one part of a larger whole.  I’ve always liked the description of adolescent development in Barry Bogin’s textbook Patterns of Human Growth.

public domain image from the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration

To summarize the content of his book: A part of the brain called the hypothalamus changes. Then a growth spurt begins (we all remember growing taller quickly): this is unique to humans, nonhuman primates and other animals don’t have a growth spurt. Then a girl begins developing secondary sexual characteristics, breast buds (the beginning of breasts) and the beginning of pubic hair. Then estrogen levels begin to rise, which leads to a particular female shape due to fat in the hips, buttocks, and thighs. The first menstrual cycle occurs some years after these other changes begin. We’re not done yet. Menstrual cycles are at first irregular and girls rarely ovulate, it is a few years before girls ovulate as regularly as does an adult. In addition, the bones of the pelvis don’t grow quickly during the growth spurt, and it is many years after menarche, when a girl is in her late teens, that the pelvis has finished growing.

To continue the summary: Reproductive maturity requires biological, social, and psychological maturation. It means being an adult.  In Bogin’s words, “[b]ecoming pregnant is only a part of the business of reproduction.  Maintaining the pregnancy to term and raising offspring to adulthood are equally important (p.212).” In cross-cultural research, behavioral and social events typically co-occur with adolescent physical changes. As girls visibly physically mature, and as they begin menstruating, they are invited into the world of adult women. They develop adult modes of thinking (for example with regard to Piagetian stage), interacting with men and women, sexuality. They refine practical skills needed for the tasks and occupations of a competent adult. Age of having a first child is often years after menarche, often around nineteen years of age among women from many diverse cultures. When compared with animals, this complex transitional stage of life from adolescence through adulthood is a human oddity.

Nobody knows biologically for sure why women menstruate, but cultures, including ours, typically assign meaning to menstruation. Personally, I’d say that getting your period isn’t a transition in the sense of flipping a switch on. However, in most cultures, menstruation is an important marker or component with multi-layered meaning for a larger, rich life stage.

References

Barry Bogin, Patterns of Human Growth, 1999, Cambridge University Press.

Ann Voda, Menopause, Me and You, 1997, Haworth Press: Binghamton, NY.

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