Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Traces of Feminist Rage

April 18th, 2014 by Breanne Fahs

In the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting quite a lot about feminist rage, in part because I recently participated in a panel at New York University about feminist rage with philosopher Avital Ronell, American Studies scholar Lisa Duggan, and performance artist Karen Finley. In celebration of my new book, the first-ever biography of Valerie Solanas entitled Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) (Feminist Press, 2014), we came together to think deeply about feminist rage and how anger has a place within feminist thought, pedagogy, and practice. Avital Ronell lit up the room with an analysis of devastation versus destruction, drawing on Heidegger, Lacan, and Derrida, while Karen Finley performed feminist rage by imagining the interplay between a homeless woman on the subway and a punk hipster girl. The evening was topped off by an appearance by Valerie’s friend, Ben Morea, who slammed the university for its elitism and said that Valerie hated universities and wanted nothing to do with them—a rage-filled riotous evening indeed!

Valerie Solanas wrote a manifesto that has continued to perplex, inspire, and enrage its readers. She blatantly expressed rage toward both men and “Daddy’s girls” (and some argue that her rage was more directed toward the latter than the former); Valerie wrote in her 1967 SCUM Manifesto, “The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM—dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have freewheeled to the limits of this ‘society,’ and are ready to wheel on to something far behind what it has to offer—and nice, passive, accepting, ‘cultivated,’ polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls, who can’t cope with the unknown; who want to continue to wallow in the sewer that is at least familiar, who want to hang back with the apes; who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by, with a big strong man to lean on and with a fat-hairy face in the White House” (63-64). Not insignificantly, while simultaneously declaring SCUM a “state of mind” and the manifesto a “literary device”—raising questions about whether Valerie understood this work as absurd satire or whether she believed it completely—she strode into Andy Warhol’s Factory and shot Andy Warhol and two of his associates on June 3, 1968 largely because she felt assaulted as an artist and a writer. In a little known fact, she also left a paper bag on Andy Warhol’s desk before she fled the scene that contained another gun, an ice pick, her address book, and a Kotex pad.

That Valerie left a menstrual pad on Andy Warhol’s desk has stuck with me as a curious point for several years while working on this book. Did Valerie merely forget the paper bag accidentally (implying that she may have been currently menstruating and needed the pad in a practical sense)? Or, did this twinning of the gun and menstrual pad signify something larger about her particular brand of rage? Both objects connect deeply to the spilling/shedding of blood; maybe Valerie used the menstrual pad as a conscious imposition of, or symbol around, her feminist rage. Perhaps Valerie meant to remind her victims that women and guns remained bound together, that SCUM would corrode the world with their own menstrual blood.

In any case, the whole incident (and subsequent reactions people have had to the shooting and to Valerie’s anger) made me again reflect on how much distance women often try to put between themselves and their rage. Women generally shy away from their own anger, both as individuals and as a collective force, and this has serious consequences for the advancement of feminist politics. We live in a culture adept at blocking, disallowing, suppressing, and discouraging women’s anger and rage; women know this deeply and often only feel entitled to express rage during their menstrual cycles (a “socially-acceptable” alternative). Women’s respectability and “proper” femininity often hinges, in fact, on denying anger altogether. Perhaps our reactions to Valerie (both our celebratory impulses and our tendencies to reject and discard her) occur because Valerie represents the rage and anger women themselves sense but cannot express or accept within themselves. Ultimately, there must be a place for rage in the contemporary landscape of gender politics and feminism; whether our menstrual cycles serve as a “cover” for it, or whether we just let it rip (in the words of Ti-Grace Atkinson), rage serves a necessary role in challenging oppression and fighting back against the prevailing powers that be.

On (bull)shit and menstrual solidarity

October 18th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

As a point of contention and as a reaction to my previous claims that women should more often engage in “menstrual outing,” some critics have responded by saying that disclosing one’s menstrual status is similar to women disclosing that they have just urinated, defecated, or vomited. In my November 2012 column called “Menstrual outing, menstrual panics,” here are some of the responses I got when advocating that women openly discuss menstruation:

  • “to announce it to strangers to me, is intrusive toward them on my part, and just seems to lack social grace”
  • “But just as I don’t discuss bowel movements in public, or talk about the fight my parents had last night with my co-workers, I have no desire to shove the fact that I’m menstruating in anyone’s face. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s also just not interesting to anyone – why should they care? I don’t care to know when they’re sweating, or having urinary incontinence, or struggling with loose bowels, unless of course someone needs my help or sympathy.”
  • “Are we going to share bowel movements too?  I’m not ashamed of my bowel movements. Doesn’t mean I have to post it all over facebook”

In response to some of these comments, Elizabeth Kissling rightly noted that the difference between menstruation and bowel movements often revolves around the level of shaming. Femcare ads routinely try to sell products based on the shameful qualities of menstruating, while toilet paper ads rarely employ such strategies. Endometriosis diagnoses lag because doctors do not believe women about their symptoms of pain, while problems with digestion and colon issues promptly receive medical attention (unless, of course, you’re poor). And, Kissling added, “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.”

Building off of this, I will admit that this discourse of “menstruation = shit” has started to bother me more and more. As Kissling argued, people do talk about using the restroom in graphic language all the time. We consider it adorable and normative for older people (and even some younger people) to talk about eating fiber, “cleaning their drains,” and feeling joyful when they can successfully poop. I could never imagine menstruating women routinely doing the same and discussing their periods in such (joyous, prideful) detail. Admitting that one is menstruating, or needing to take care of changing a tampon/pad or cleaning up after dribbling blood on the floor, is rarely an occurrence that people can or will discuss. As some of our critics noted, it “lacks social grace.” But why it lacks social grace is a far more interesting topic, as the routine construction of women’s bodies as always disgusting, always failing, always excessive, and always subpar deserves more attention.

In stark contrast, however, to these claims of similarity between menstrual blood and other bodily fluids and functions, I have become increasingly curious about the notion of menstrual synchrony and why so many women want to believe in menstrual synchrony despite controversies about its existence. For example, even though menstrual synchrony might not exist, women still want to feel in solidarity with other women via cycling together, a topic my research group and I have recently taken up in a research article. This notion that women want to say, “I menstruate together with my roommates/sister/mother/friends” also contradicts the notion that menstrual blood is just like other bodily fluids. Never do we hear women talking about being in solidarity with other women’s defecation and urination habits. The reason for this, I argue, is that women fundamentally understand the stigma surrounding menstruation; claims of menstrual synchrony might help them to fight back against this stigma and shame, using experiences of menstruation to enact practices of political solidarity, alliance, and resistance. This is something to celebrate indeed!

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.

Menstruation as a sensory and aesthetic experience

June 28th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

Public domain photo // Wikimedia Commons

I recently attended the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference in New York and left the conference with some rekindled inspiration about the importance of seeing menstruation as a shared experience of feminist embodiment. Moreover, after leaving the conference this point was repeatedly driven home by conversations with people who did not attend the conference. One of the most common reactions I have gotten when discussing the SMCR conference was, “Are there enough people studying that to warrant an entire conference?” Somehow the “unmentionable” aspects of menstruation translate for various audiences into surprise that a reasonably large group of people would want to study it. My response is that SMCR brings together people with disparate interests that collide around a solidly feminist understanding that embodiment matters. How we experience our bodies, and the shame and empowerment stories that surround them, informs not only self-understanding but our perceptions and knowledge of systems of oppression. Never have I participated in a more wholly and unapologetically feminist conference; even the National Women’s Studies Association, by comparison, often shies away from showing its feminist politics so blatantly or celebrating its feminist sisterhood so openly. The conference delivered an opportunity to think deeply about feminist embodiment, with the menstrual cycle as its primary target.

My partner and I left New York a few days after the conference to fly to Florida for a few days of swimming in the warm Caribbean waters along the coast of Ft Lauderdale and Miami. We had run around New York for a week by then, dashing from place to place in the chaotic and intense tumble of the city, our heads full of culture and our feet aching. By the time we arrived in the humid, balmy South Florida sun, we needed some repair, some sleep, some time to do a whole-lot-of-nothing. (The SMCR conference bag, doubling as a beach bag in Florida, got some long, long stares.) On our final day of the trip, we had an evening flight back home so we decided to spend the day in the ocean and head straight for the airport for what turned out to be an unusually terrible flight—completely full, broken air conditioning, no food or movie, and seated in the back row next to lines of antsy passengers waiting for the restroom. I remember standing in the smelly tiny box of the airplane bathroom (by then drizzled and perfumed with that familiar mix of urine, water, and toxic cleaner smell) reflecting on the importance of our sensory and aesthetic experiences. Shifting from New York to Florida had transitioned us from the provocative but grueling concrete StairMaster of New York (complete with peeling ceilings in the subway) to the soothing peacefulness of bath-water oceans. To then enter the nasty sensory assault of that airplane provided quite a jolt to the senses.

With menstruation on my mind, I wondered, then, if a major motivation for convincing people to use alternative menstrual products is simply that it creates a better sensory and aesthetic experience. Mainstream tampons and pads seem a lot like metaphorical airplanes—unintuitive, wasteful, uninspired, bland, and meant to leave us with no sense of individuality or humanity. For me, switching from years of using tampons to instead using funky, super comfortable, eco-friendly Lunapads created the opportunity for a better sensory experience—as they were physically more comfortable and created no unpleasant smells—and aesthetic experience—as they added a bit of individuality and uniqueness to the experience by having visual appeal. Reusable pads also eliminated the problem of worrying about clogging toilets with tampons, filling trash cans with ugly wrappers, and carrying a pile of products along on trips and vacations. For me, Lunapads created a bit of much-needed peace with my menstrual cycle.

At the SMCR conference, two students of mine—Stephanie Robinson-Cestaro and Jaqueline Gonzalez—presented a workshop there on how to “sell” a new menstrual narrative, that is, how to convince reluctant people to try alternative products and ditch mainstream FEMCARE products. (They created an organization called M.A.R.C.—the Menstrual Activist Research Collective—designed to help distribute alternative literature and encourage new coalitions of young activists.) We constantly strategize about how to talk about and recruit women to take the plunge and try “weird” products like sea sponges, DivaCups, and reusable pads. In addition to the important political and environmental dimensions of such a decision, I would add that alternative products typically create a more sensual and aesthetic experience. We should care about this. Our menstrual cycles deserve as much care and attention as do our other “private” rituals—bathing, sleeping, grooming, and so on. When we treat our bodies well, and stop managing our cycles with crappy, cheap, potentially harmful products, we connect better to ourselves and the world in general.

In Praise of Cycles

May 3rd, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

As a professor and therapist, I see many people come through the door who struggle with a variety of feelings they identify as problematic to their lives: depression, anxiety, mania, suicidal thoughts, panic, grief, anger (and so on). We are taught, as therapists, to see the cycles of mood as an inherent problem—something indicative of a “mood disorder,” something to keep high alert about, to monitor, to control, to consider medicating. While I do not deny the existence of some cyclic mood disorders—where people experience “episodes” of severe negative feelings or intense anxiety that cause notable distress—it does seem problematic, both within and outside of therapy, that people so often consider cycles detrimental.

 

Ad poster for Cycles Gladiator by Georges Massias, 1905
Public domain

Never is this disdain of cycles more evident than in people’s descriptions of women’s menstrual cycles as inherently troubling. Women feel more moody, less energetic, more bloated, angrier, less sexual, hungrier, more tender (and men, too often, quickly hurl these cyclic changes into women’s faces as an insult). This bothers women, they say, because they like to feel “normal” (that is, emulating men who supposedly lack emotional and physical cycles). But, isn’t the fundamental nature of things quite…cyclic? Nearly everything that comes in cycles has benefits, teaching us that the world is non-static, ever-changing, always in flux. The changing seasons (even here in Phoenix, where the seasons move from pleasantly warm to unbearably hot) signal the onset of new weather patterns, shorter or longer days, and necessary difference. Growing up in the West, I have heard East Coast and Midwest people lament the loss of changing seasons when they move to California or Arizona—they want the rhythms, pace, and visual scenery that accompanies the traditional four seasons existence.
We are creatures that crave cycles, I think. Academics rely on the ebbs and flows of the academic year to guide their work, pausing in the summer and over the holiday break for some much-needed rest before starting again each school year with full gusto. College professors’ job satisfaction is among the highest in all professions, alongside computer programmers, who overwhelmingly set their own hours, and physical therapists, who have more autonomy than most American workers. (Cross-culturally, European workers generally report more happiness as well, as Europe generally recognizes the cyclic nature of life by offering extended vacation time, paid maternity leave, and generous sick pay.) More and more American companies have started giving employees period “sabbaticals”, acknowledging that larger chunks of time to shift focus, relax, start a new project, or travel will earn company loyalty and will markedly increase job satisfaction. The monotony of the year-round 9-5 job with little vacation time and, more importantly, no cycles of work and play, creates the most havoc on people’s lives. Shift workers who disrupt the natural cycles of their bodies—staying up all night, sleeping all day—have poor life expectancies, substantially higher risk of at least six different kinds of cancer, more heart attacks, and far poorer health outcomes as a result. Even those who take anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication—perhaps to lift them out of their low moods or panicky states—often report feeling apathetic and robotic as a side effect, missing, it seems, the cycles of mood they once had.

I would argue that the disdain for cycles, the need to convince people that they should never feel too sad nor too happy, the loathing we seem to direct toward the menstruating body, the insistence that people work themselves to death without breaks or cyclic expenditures of energy, results from the dangerous fusion of patriarchy, capitalism, and the pharmaceutical industry. The dogged insistence that people must always be happy, must work until they drop without ever taking time to fully rest, must always “manage” the cycles of their bodies (for example, losing their “baby weight” right after pregnancy, controlling menstrual blood, forcing themselves to work following a death in the family, clocking in the same hours year round), reveals a deep-seated disavowal of cycles as fundamental to human life. Cycles matter—they reflect the truths women have always known, the necessity of change and movement, the power of the body to teach us about the world and, perhaps, to undermine the institutions that deplete and eradicate the natural cycles of human life in favor of sexism and profit.

Menstruation according to Apple

March 14th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

Screen shot from GP International LLC

The repetition of all-things-pink=all-things-related-to-women’s-health has started to seriously irritate me. First, we had pink containers for birth control pills, followed by the pink repackaging of Prozac (renamed Sarafem) to treat “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder” (PMDD).” Then we dealt with the reductive and ferociously popular pink ads, logos, banners, and yogurt containers of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation. Next came special dye that “restored” women’s so-called natural pink color to their labias (“My New Pink Button”), reminding women (especially women of color) that their brown and grey and flesh colored labia are not…pink enough? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the most popular menstruation apps for the iPhone and iPad—Period Tracker, iPeriod, Period Diary, and Monthly Cycle—have a similarly pink, flowery, and “girlie” vibe. Anything designed for women’s bodies apparently has infantilize women by looking like Strawberry Shortcake and Barbie, regardless of how adult we may get. But my issues with these apps do not end there.

Having used Period Tracker now for several years as a way to predict my period, I am most familiar with its particular brand of what it means to menstruate. Much like the messages featured in advertisements for pregnancy tests—which emphasize women’s longing for pregnancy and their sheer and utter joy when finding out the news of their pregnancy—Period Tracker also frames the purpose of the app as a sort of fertility monitoring tool even though reviews of the app suggest that most women use it to do what the title says: to track periods. The assumptions that women want to become pregnant extend into many features of the app: when a woman ovulates, flowers appear on the otherwise-barren tree, reminding her that she should get it on with a sperm provider; during menstruation, the app starts a “countdown,” allowing women to tick off the number of days they have “endured” their cycle; green dots appear for the days women can get pregnant; and, finally, the app features a tool where women can track “intimacy.” (Apparently, the word “sex” is too gauche for the world of period tracker apps, leaving “intimacy” as a code for sexual intercourse).
Further, Period Tracker has a variety of built-in ways to attach menstruation—and the menstrual cycle in general—to shame and negativity.

The app allows women to track a variety of symptoms throughout their cycle, but every single one of these has negative connotations of pain and misery. Acne. Backaches. Bloating. Bodyaches. Constipation. Cramps. Cravings (Salty). Cravings (Sweet). Dizziness. Spotting. Headaches. Indigestion. Insomnia. Joint Pains. Nausea. Neckaches. Tender Breasts. In the list of moods one can track, the first two listed are ANGRY and ANXIOUS. Period Tracker also alerts women to the start date of their period, but it does so by referring to it as, simply, “P” (implying that, if someone saw that we had a period start date alert on our phone, it would shame us). (Note that the app, iPeriod, has similar features, as they call sex a “love connection,” allow three options for mood—normal, sad, and irritable—and construct pregnancy as the ultimate goal of tracking the menstrual cycle.)

All this emphasis on pregnancy, menstrual negativity, and the “monstrous” symptoms of PMS obscures the fundamentally important (and feminist!) work of tracking one’s menstrual cycle for positive and decidedly non-fertility reasons: most obviously, to anticipate our period’s starting date, but less obviously, to understand and track the body’s rhythms, to actively avoid pregnancy, to know ourselves more deeply, to appreciate our cycles, to better predict menstruation and how it coordinates with our schedules, to accurately assess whether we have experienced a drastic change in our “normal,” to track a female partner’s cycles, to signal the start of menopause or irregular cycling, to keep an eye on heavy periods versus light periods, and to feel more in tune with our bodies (among others).

Why can’t a period tracker allow women to celebrate the menstrual cycle or see the arrival of menstruation as joyous or positive? Why can’t we track positive bodily changes like “Increased Libido,” “Elevated Mood,” and “Heightened Sensitivity”? I want a period tracker that dumps the hot pink color, the swirling flowers that only bloom during ovulation, the adamantly pro-pregnancy angle, the sex phobic language, the heterosexism, and the shaming of women’s menstrual cycles in favor of a radically reimagined, positive, celebratory mode of menstrual charting. Knowing what our bodies are up to has long roots in our feminist past—let’s find a way to have our technology reflect that!

Death to the Menstruators!…by Dragon!

January 17th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

During my more rugged travel experiences, I have often found myself confronted with the formidable task of facing the limitations and boundaries of my physical self. While in India, for example, I often had to contemplate the dilemmas of drinking water (and therefore needing to pee in places where “clean restrooms” did not exist) or becoming dehydrated. (This problem kills malnourished children in developing countries while it merely poses an embarrassing inconvenience for those with generally good health.) On another trip, I had become ill and had vomited violently for two days, leaving my body empty of calories and unable to climb up a sizeable hill to see a grand historical fort. Halfway up that hill, my normally spunky and determined self had a revelation about my newly reimagined relationship between food and energy.

photo taken by Breanne Fahs

On a trip to Indonesia, I had the opportunity to visit Komodo Island, home to the infamous Komodo dragons. My six-year-old nephew informed me (gleefully) that these creatures are extremely dangerous and kill people and animals by biting them, allowing multitudes of mouth bacteria to infect the body, and watching them slowly die. The dragons can then follow around the dying animal and consume their corpses them once their prey is left defenseless and paralyzed with bacterial infection. Before arriving on the island, our guide told us similar stories about the dangers of the Komodo dragon: There is no “anti-venom” equivalent for Komodo dragons and, as such, people die every year by accidentally trekking alone or mistaking Komodo for another Indonesian island. The death of unsuspecting tourists happened often enough that park rangers must now escort guests on the island as a mandatory safety measure. Precautions of every sort must be taken.

Just prior to arrival, excited for the chance to see Komodo dragons in their natural habitat, I received a notice in my room saying that menstruating women could not step foot on the island of Komodo and that only non-menstruating women could enter the island. The notice also informed visitors that people with wounds could not visit the island (though it did not specify the type and size of wound it was referring to), and visitors could not wear any red coloring on their clothing or backpacks. Komodo dragons have a particular combination of aggression, keen smell, bad eyesight, and bloodlust.

As a critical feminist, I initially refused to believe the reality of the caution against menstruating women, imagining that it must be yet another method of excluding women from “men’s” activities like trekking, hiking, and exploring the island. Did these cautions simply represent a repackaging of the “menstrual hut” idea? Would menstruating women actually inspire attacks? Did menstrual blood have a particular “scent” that differentiated it from other kinds of blood? What about women who lived on Komodo Island? How could resident Komodo women protect themselves? Was the ban yet another sexist maneuver to control women and their bodies? Inquiring about this “menstrual ban”, I learned that the dragons can smell blood for up to five miles, and, lacking the ability to discern their “dying” prey from menstruating women, could mistake menstruating women for dying animals and kill them. A series of attacks on menstruating women have been documented on the island, leading the rangers to warn menstruating women that they must not come near Komodo dragons under any circumstance.

My next thoughts focused on the actual disclosure of women’s menstrual status. Typically, few strangers in the U.S. feel entitled to ask women about menstrual status. Would the park rangers actually ask women about their menstrual status? Could a menstruating woman who lied about her status put the group at risk? When I started inquiring about this further, I found that discussions about Komodo Island presented one of the only contexts I can remember when menstrual status could be discussed across genders, ages, races, and cultures, as the notice of warning inspired the group to discuss menstruation openly in ways I had never personally witnessed before. Over dinner the night before our arrival in Komodo, the group I was traveling with discussed menstruation critically, frankly, and in unusual detail. Even though the discourse included (somewhat traditional) notions of “protecting women”, it also provoked the group to consider some of the questions I had asked about the cultural and gendered aspects of menstrual disclosure. Getting “comfortable” with the topic was not an option for women young enough to menstruate, as they had to openly disclose their status regardless of whether they would prefer to keep it secret. Never before had any of us confronted the idea of “security personnel” who would confirm whether we were currently menstruating (a subject that provoked more serious consideration of TSA intrusions on people’s personal lives as well).

Photo by Scott Ellis // Creative Commons NC-SA 2.0

Once on the island, walking among the trees and dusty landscape behind our ranger who carried only a large stick with a forked end, my childlike glee at the Indiana Jones-like qualities of the adventure superseded my fear of Komodo dragon attack. When we finally found the dragons, lazing about in clusters near a spot in the late afternoon shade, I felt a twinge of gratitude that my body had decided not to bleed that day. In my “normal” life, battling the stereotypes and secrecy that surround menstruation, confronting the shame and silence women face about their menstrual cycles, this newfound idea of menstruation as a kind of animal communication felt like a welcome diversion. Menstruation as danger, as physical threat, as something that could put oneself or one’s travel mates in jeopardy seemed unusually exotic, bizarre, and informative. Even more interestingly, the ability to discuss menstruation so openly with such a unique mix of people, under such strange circumstances, provided the opportunity to attach menstrual status to adventure and to remind myself that the narratives we as Americans have about menstruation do not yet reach around the globe.

Menstrual “Outing,” Menstrual Panics

November 16th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

Last fall, as a women and gender studies professor, I taught a course called “Psychology of Gender” where I decided to include an experiential activist assignment that asked students to form groups and engage in some sort of menstrual activism. The instructions asked students to choose some aspect of cultural attitudes toward menstruation that they wanted to improve (e.g., pharmaceutical labeling of “PMS” and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, men’s negativity toward menstruation, shame and silence around menstruation, problems with conventional menstrual products, and so on) and design a simple intervention that could enact change either on campus or in the community. As I had never assigned this before, and I had no idea what would happen, I had no clear expectations for how this would turn out, though I had a hunch that students would encounter some resistance and pushback for this work.

Photo used with permission

My students created a series of innovative projects and set out in earnest to challenge negative attitudes about menstruation. One group designed labels with accurate information about menstruation, and they then put these on a variety of menstrual products that they distributed on campus. Another group made fliers and signs that warned passersby about the dangers of conventional tampons; they also handed out information about Lunapads, Gladrags, Divacups, and other do-it-yourself products. A third group made buttons that read, simply, “Real Men Buy Tampons”, and handed these out to men on campus, while a fourth group went into gas stations and created makeshift “need a tampon, take a tampon” boxes near the cash registers. A fifth group challenged negativity about menstrual sex by holding signs near the streets bordering campus that read, “Honk if you love menstrual sex,” and a final group dressed a woman in white pants (with a notable red stain on her pants) and filmed her as she walked through a local mall.

The results of this “experiment” yielded some fascinating clues about the culture of menstruation today, ones that have far-reaching implications for those of us who may think menstruation is, well, “out of the box.”  While students certainly encountered many positive reactions (e.g., men who eagerly and proudly wore their buttons; women who appreciated the “free stuff”; people who praised the students for their bravery), they also dealt with a surprising amount of negative backlash. Students faced verbal harassment and “police presence” on campus while handing out tampons. Signs were removed from the cafeteria by administrators because they would “disrupt” student appetites. The woman walking through the mall faced stares and snickers (and, on one occasion, a group of teenage boys called her names and told her she was “disgusting”), though few people notified her of her “accident.” Most interestingly, however, the group that held signs about menstrual sex actually triggered a reaction from a local state representative, who started a full-blown menstrual panic by calling the office of the President at the university and demanding to know why students would engage in this sort of “obscenity” (humorously, she mixed up “menstruation” with “masturbation” in her description).

Photo used with permission

Without going into too many details of what followed after (we have a book coming out soon called The Moral Panics of Sexuality that includes a chapter about this “menstrual panic”), this entire project made me reflect on a few aspects of activism we too often forget: first, it takes very little to incite panic about menstruation; second, students can make a big impact in small ways, which makes menstruation an ideal site for pedagogical discussion and activism; and third, even the mere mention of menstruation is itself a radical act. This latter point has gotten me thinking about issues of disclosure and visibility about menstruation, particularly among our more like-minded feminist allies. What if we simply started to violate the silent stigma around menstruation by disclosing that we were menstruating today? I have a group of students (Jax Gonzalez, Stephanie Robinson, and Marisa Loiacono) who presented this idea last weekend at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Oakland, California. Their claim? That simply saying I am menstruating today can radically upset discourses of silence and shame about menstruation, while also holding us accountable for how we put our bodies on the line in feminist activism.

I am menstruating today. A simple statement that has the potential to undermine and upset the most basic assumptions about menstruation: that it will remain invisible, silent, secret, “managed,” “maintained,” and certainly undisclosed in public. With this in mind, and in honor of these fantastic students, I encourage you to try this. “Out” yourself as menstruating, not just to your family/partner/loved ones, but in a public sense. See what happens. It is, after all, the simple rebellions that create the most panic.

“Feminine Hygiene” and the Ultimate Double Standard

September 19th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

Most women have had the unfortunate experience of realizing that they have started their periods at an inconvenient time or place, without proper “backup,” having to rely on (clunky and sporadically available) tampon dispensers in public restrooms.  When driving across the country last month, I stopped near Albuquerque at a small gas station and entered the unisex restroom frantically searching for a tampon machine.  Instead, I found a large, brightly-colored condom machine fastened prominently on the wall that featured four options: “ribbed for her pleasure” condoms, extra-large condoms, packages of lube, and a “grab bag” of “sexual surprises.”  A nearby wall above the toilet seat featured a prominent sign: DO NOT FLUSH FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS DOWN THE TOILET OR IT WILL CLOG OUR SYSTEM.  Feeling unusually irked by this duality—the cheery availability of (men’s) safer sex products and the utter disdain for women’s menstrual products—I reflected on the bigger problem of this gendered bathroom dilemma: Women’s bodies—leaky and troublesome—are too often constructed with the context of disease, contamination, and unhygienic fixations.  Men, on the other hand, receive props for their “leakages” as humorous, fun, playful, and sexy.  (I recently realized how rarely menstruation is treated with humor or fun when I felt an uncommon joy at bleeding into my black and blue skull-and-crossbones reusable Lunapads).

I loathe the term feminine hygiene for a host of reasons.  At its most benign, the term gives vague descriptors for what women use to manage their menstrual cycles, giving additional cultural momentum behind the general refusal to deal with nuance and specifics of a menstruating vagina (or vaginas at all, frankly).  When stores, advertisements, and signs evoke feminine hygiene, they suggest, linguistically, that the words tampon, pad, or cup seem scary.  The phrase feminine hygiene implies “products to keep the unkempt, unruly, unhygienic, dirty, unsanitary, bloody vagina in check,” rather than simply stating the actual terms for what women use.  (It also needlessly genders the already-gendered process of menstruation).  Why not use a less pejorative phrase like menstrual products?  The bizarre throwback to the 1950s represented by the continued use of feminine hygiene has serious trickle down effects on people’s attitudes about menstruation, as Elizabeth Kissling’s 2006 book, Capitalizing the Curse, showed that people still feel palpable anxiety about purchasing menstrual products in the store or discussing menstruation openly.  Many people do not even know the term menstrual or menstruation as commonly understood words.  I blame feminine hygiene for this.

Second, by framing menstrual products as products devoted to cleanliness and management of otherwise “vile” bodily fluids, feminine hygiene products get placed near products of excrement like diapers and incontinence merchandise in the store.  A typical sign will read: “Feminine Hygiene, Diapers, Personal Care” in these aisles of the grocery store.  Years ago, a student of mind visited over 25 grocery stores and pharmacies and found that nearly every single store placed tampons and pads directly beside diapers.  The use of hygiene here links menstrual blood with feces, urine, and products that infantilize women and their bodies.  It also implicitly links the feminine (another bizarre word that is rarely attached commercially to anything besides menstrual products) with women needing to clean their own and others’ messy bodies.

My third concern about feminine hygiene is that we don’t fully understand the history of the (d)evolving phrase.  As Andrea Tone found, feminine hygiene once referred to birth control rather than menstrual products.  A 1933 advertisement in McCalls for Lysol’s feminine hygiene products read:

The most frequent eternal triangle:

A HUSBAND…A WIFE…and her FEARS

Fewer marriages would flounder around in a maze of misunderstanding and unhappiness if more wives knew and practiced regular marriage hygiene.  Without it, some minor physical irregularity plants in a woman’s mind the fear of a major crisis.  Let so devastating a fear recur again and again, and the most gracious wife turns into a nerve-ridden, irritable travesty of herself.

Collateral damage: Throwing menstruation out of the museum narrative

July 27th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

Last year, the media focused much attention on the Smithsonian’s decision to pull the David Wojnarowicz video, “A Fire in My Belly,” from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., entitled, “Hide/Seek”.  The museum apologized for the piece’s contents after a group of Republican representatives and the Catholic League demanded the removal of the video.  Part of “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture”, the piece depicted the suffering of an HIV positive man along with ants crawling on a crucifix.  Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia called it “in your face perversion paid for by tax dollars”.

'Menstruation' art and photo by Pauliina Seppälä // CC 2.0

This scenario is far from unique, as the issue of censoring sex (alongside feminism and women artists in general) in museums has a long and contentious history both in the United States and abroad.  In the late 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) engaged fierce battles about whether to fund so-called obscene shows, often equating obscenity with explicitly gay and lesbian content (e.g., Robert Maplethorpe’s photography). Museums like the Chicago Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have both battled over the morality and ethics of censoring sex in the museum (John E. Semonche, Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media). Greek vases and objects depicting explicit sexual acts have been deemed unfit for children’s viewing and have been removed from major museums throughout the world.  The National Museum of Erotica in Canberry, Australia shut down over controversies surrounding its explicit portrayal of sexual artifacts.

So how might this relate to the menstruating body? This week, I visited one of my favorite museums in the world—the Heard Museum of American Indian Art and History in Phoenix, Arizona. They had several exhibits revolving around family life, ritual, and celebrations of “coming of age” among indigenous cultures in the Southwest. One exhibit featured paintings of ceremonies practiced among Native American communities of the Southwest. Another exhibit on Apache life featured several cases of clothing and text dedicated to women’s initiation into womanhood following the onset of puberty. Notably, the word menstruation or any depiction of women’s menstrual blood were entirely absent from both of these exhibits. Discussions of preparation of food, flowers, and clothing by elderly members of the girls’ communities were featured prominently, along with the significance of women learning how to transition to womanhood. Almost certainly, this ritualized process revolved around the onset of women’s menstrual cycles, yet no mention of women’s menarche occurred.  I wondered: Has the menstruating body suffered from collateral damage of censoring sex?  Do we associate all aspects of the (leaky, “disgusting”, abject) female body with the “sinful” and “harmful-to-children” rhetoric of sexually-explicit museum materials?  When men’s “powerful” ejaculations (Jackson Pollack!!) and phallic powers are celebrated in full force, why do women’s cycling bodies hold such a taboo place in museum culture?  What would it mean if menstruation held a more prominent place in museums in general?

Taboos surrounding the entrance of menstruation into museums continue in full force.  Though a few radical feminist performance artists have featured work on menstruation (see Linder Sterling’s menstrual jewelry, or Mako Idemitsu’s 1973 piece, What a Woman Made featuring photos of tampons), the normally edgy and forward-thinking art world has yet to fully recognize menstruation as a valid subject of interest.  The backlash against the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (MUM), once located in Carrollton, Maryland and now featured only online, reveals just how much difficulty the public has accepting menstruation as a valid subject of analysis.  In a 2007 article discussing the “10 Most Bizarre Museums”, MUM is listed alongside the Toilet Museum, the Voodoo Museum, the Museum of the Penis, and the Burger Museum.  In another article on “The Seven Most Horrifying Museums on Earth”, MUM takes company with museums on child mummies, psychiatric patients, ventriloquism, fetuses in jars, and ancient phalluses. Harry Finley, the founder and curator of MUM, said in a 2010 interview, “[Menstruation] is not a polite thing to talk about in casual society. I’ve gotten so used to this now that it’s no big deal for me. But it is for other people. Especially coming from some guy. I really get, sometimes, a horrified reaction. I can tell by the stares and the silence. Even from liberal people. When I started the museum, I thought, ‘Oh boy, this would not bother them.’ But it still bothers basically everybody. Almost every reaction is negative. . . . I think a lot of it is the association of a male doing this. Like, what is his interest in this?”

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.