Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

A matter of semantics

August 23rd, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

“Not Tonight. Aunt Flo Is Visiting.” // T-shirts from Zazzle

Language has an uncanny ability to contain the trappings of power. I have recently become increasingly irritated by the way that the phrase “bullying” has come to overshadow the politicized, identity-based nature of homophobia. Somehow, CNN, Glee, and other major networks can cover topics like “bullying” in full force—with news report specials, lots of glittery advertising, bunches of white kids posing on playgrounds, and even a new documentary about the subject—without actually having to say that the “bullying” behavior mostly targets gay, lesbian, bi, and queer teenagers. These teens are “bullied” as a form of identity-based harassment and persecution, yet no one wants to talk about homophobia (or racism, or sexism, or classism). Instead, “bullying” becomes the rallying-cry that everyone can rally around, stand firmly against, and decry as a problem, all while forgetting that the characteristics of the victims are eerily similar. The show So You Think You Can Dance recently staged a dance number about bullying and never once mentioned that bullying typically targets gay teens. (The show also rarely addresses how many of the male dancers must remain closeted in order to gain approval and “votes.”)  If the (depoliticized) term “bullying” can stand in for “homophobia,” it makes me wonder what else we erase through the project of simple semantics.

The cultural lexicon surrounding menstruation also seems particularly prone to erase many aspects of the menstrual experience. “Aunt Flo” and “that time of the month” stand in for “menstrual” and “period.” The words “menstrual cycle” rarely appear in any popular media, including television, magazines, and movies. Women themselves, in locker rooms, workplaces, schools, and within the home, often refer to their periods as mysterious occurrences, referring to their menstrual cycles in obscure terms (“I don’t feel well today” or “I have woman problems”). What does this obscurity do, politically, I wonder?

It reminds me of so many female experiences of the body—masturbation, fatness, and even teachings about the vagina. Girls learn from an early age to call their vaginas silly names (“ya ya,” “hoo hoo,” “down there”), just as grown women have no shared language to talk about masturbation. Compared to men, for example, women’s masturbation has a mere handful of shared slang terms, while men have a nearly inexhaustible list of phrases that commonly signal their masturbatory habits (“choking the chicken,” “jerking off,” and so on). Women also learn to hide real discussions of fatness, thinness, and bodies. The phrase “I feel fat” stands in for “I feel bad/ugly” while a self-referential expression of “I am fat” elicits reactions that suggest that the woman is self-deprecating. Mere descriptors become engendered with negative connotations. Women’s bodies are erased, rewritten, and obscured by language.

I think there is much power in considering the language we use to describe our menstrual cycles. How can we infuse the descriptors around menstruation with language of empowerment and self-love? How can we imagine menstruation differently, expanding the circle of who menstruates and what it means? And, most importantly, how can we see the erasure of menstruation as a sibling of many other erasures around women and their bodies? I have seen countless adults—men and women—stumble over their usage of menstrual language. Let’s throw out words and phrases like “bullying” and “that time of the month” and instead go for the jugular. Bullies are most often HOMOPHOBIC. Women BLEED. MENSTRUATION matters.

  

2 Responses to “A matter of semantics”

  1. Elizabeth Kissling says:

    Great essay, Breanne. I agree whole-heartedly.

    I was recently asked about bullying in a public presentation at a local community college about communication and improving relationships, and my response was very similar. I told the audience that most of what is labeled bullying today is harassment based on gender expression and sexual identity, or weight. Audience members looked briefly startled and began to nod in agreement.

    Now that we’ve labeled it, what’s the next step?

  2. Breanne Fahs says:

    I think our best shot is to do exactly what you did– call out when people use language that hides the actual content of what they’re saying. Bullying is typically about homophobia and misogyny, so let’s use those words instead!

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