Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

“Menstrual Hygiene” Explored: Capturing the the Wider Context

December 9th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

This summer, I bought a new camera. I needed it to snap pictures during a research trip to India where I explored diverse approaches to what’s called in the development sector, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). I chose a sleek, high tech device with a powerful, intuitive zoom.

Photo by author

In Bangalore, I captured the sweet intimacy of two schoolgirls as they watched the menstrual health animated video “Mythri” at a government school. In Tamil Nadu, I used my zoom for close shots of skilled women tailors sewing brightly colored cloth menstrual pads for the social business, Eco Femme.

Photo by author

In South Delhi, I used my zoom to preserve the mounds of cloth painstakingly repurposed as low cost menstrual pads at NGO Goonj.

But here’s the problem. These close up shots may please the eye, but they leave out the context that surrounds and shapes each photo’s subject. And what exists outside the frame is at least as important as what is inside. That’s hardly a revelation, I realize, but when it comes to doing Menstrual Hygiene Management work, in an effort to find solutions, the “big picture”—both literally and figuratively—sometimes gets obscured.

Photo by author

For example, when I snapped the picture of the mound of menstrual pads pictured here, I focused on a product, a simple product, that could truly improve the quality of someone’s life. But when I trained my attention on the product, what did I miss?

In short, a wider angle lens reveals the context of menstrual product access—a complicated web of many intersecting issues: infrastructural deficits (safe, secure, and clean latrines and sites for disposal), access to resources (like soap and water), gender norms, and menstrual restrictions rooted in culture or religion.

Imagine that one of brightly colored packages of menstrual pads ends up in the hands of a 15 year old girl. I will call her Madhavi.

Madhavi is delighted to have a dedicated set of her very own clean rags to absorb her flow.

Goonj worker with pads ready for distribution and sale
Photo by author

But does she have access to clean water and soap to wash them?

Does she have family support to dry her rags on the clothesline, in direct sunlight, even though her brothers, uncles, and neighbors will be able to see them?

Does she have a safe, secure place at school to change her rags?

Does she have someone to turn to when she has a question about her menstrual cycle?

These questions are important because they point to what gets in the way of effective and sustainable MHM. My own review of the emerging empirical literature on MHM revealed that the top three impediments to school girls’ positive and healthy menstrual experiences are 1) inadequate facilities 2) inadequate knowledge and 3) fear of disclosure, especially to boys. I want to focus on this last one for a moment by widening the frame a bit more.

Menstrual Hygiene Management is part of a complex and enduring project of loosening the social control of women’s bodies, of working to move embodiment, more generally, from object to subject status—something absolutely foundational to taking on a host of other urgent issues; from human trafficking to eating disorders to sexual assault.

As we know throughout the West, menstrual taboos do not disappear as we upgrade our menstrual care. Without the heavy lifting of menstrual normalization, any menstrual care practice will make a minimal impact.

Thus, menstrual activism must always incorporate an analysis of how gender norms maintain the menstrual status quo. And it must engage the potential of men and boys as allies, not enemies. That’s a tall order that cuts to the very core of gender socialization. But if we don’t take this on, no product in the world will be enough.

Anyone with a camera knows that framing a picture is a choice. Am I suggesting that we should never use the zoom, that we should forgo the rich and textured details possible when we tighten the shot? Of course not, as focus is crucial to our understanding. But when we do aim our figurative cameras and shoot, let’s not forget what lies outside the visual frame. Let’s not forget what else must change for the pad to be a truly sustainable solution.

With this in mind, I turn back to Madhavi and her new pads. Inevitably, even with them, one day soon, someone will know she is menstruating.

Will she be shamed? Will she be supported?

The answer lies in how we frame the picture.

This blog post appears on Girls Globe as part of a series of invited posts organized by Irise Interational.

Winning the Menstrual Battle in the Abortion War

October 15th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Last week, Loretta Ross, the pioneering women’s health activist, came to Boston for a public lecture.  Ross will keynote at our upcoming “Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice: Human Rights Across the Lifespan” (What? You didn’t hear?). Hearing her speak tripled my excitement for her keynote in June. I, a serious fangirl, listened intently as she narrated a personal history of the women’s health movement and offered a clear-eyed, no nonsense way forward. This lady knows some stuff! If you don’t know Ross, you should. For one, she was one of 12 women who developed the globetrotting concept of “Reproductive Justice”—which intersects social justice and reproductive rights, or as Ross, puts it, “brings Human Rights home by looking at the totality of women’s lives.”

Though I generally resist militarized language, I also know that the persistent assault on abortion rights is nothing short of a war against women. Many of us, caught up in our own fisticuffs on neighboring battlegrounds (for affordable better birth control, against pinkwashing, for comprehensive sexuality education, for transgender health care), may not realize how our struggles are, indeed, united. We are all fighting for bodily autonomy, after all. Ross’ remarks made clear to me how our battles are united and that we will NOT win any of them if we don’t manage to see these connections.

Let’s look at how the abortion issue and menstrual health are linked.

To begin, thinking about abortion in a REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE framework allows us to address what Ross calls the “Oh My God!” Reactions many women face when they think they might be pregnant:

1) OMG! I am in an abusive relationship. What do I tell my partner? Will I be safe?

2) OMG! I am 16. What will my family say?

3) OMG! I am a college student. Can I finish school?

4) OMG! I have no health insurance? How do I pay for this?

When we pay attention to the OMG reactions, we acknowledge the reality of women’s lives—and the complicated context that shapes reproductive decision making. And as we consider that context, we have to tune into the following:

• Safe abortion is not enough. It must ALSO be safe to TALK about abortion.

• We need ‘kitchen table conversations’ about women taking reproductive knowledge back into our own hands. (And my favorite line of the night: “Why are we ceding the responsibility of our bodies to a bunch of assholes. We built a women’s health movement. Let’s act like it.”)

• We absolutely must listen to Women of Color and the issues that matter to them (e.g voting rights, immigrant rights).

The menstrual connections are evident here. Do you see them, too? Improving menstrual health through menstrual literacy for health care workers and menstruators alike is fundamental to winning this war.

I submit the following:

FIRST: Breaking Silence. Yup. Challenging menstrual shame, silence and secrecy is JOB ONE for many of us. We know that our cultural allergy to making mensruation audible and visible (to quote filmmaker Giovanna Chesler) is at the root of menstrual ILLiteracy which leads to poor reproductive health. Imagine if menstruators felt supported to speak up when they had questions about their cycles—from pre menarche (what does a period feel like?) through menopause (is this heavy bleeding normal?).

SECOND: Taking our health care into our own hands. Do It Yourself. DIY has been foundational to the women’s health movement since its genesis. DIY vaginal exams. DIY menstrual extraction. Menstrual activists, at least since the 70s, have been promoting DIY menstrual care as a way to take control BACK from the body shaming FemCare industry while doing our part to protect the planet.

THIRD: Paying attention to Women of Color in everything we do. When it comes to ANY reproductive health issue, race matters. White supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy have had disastrous effects on women of color’s lives (sterilization abuse, higher mortality and morbidity for heart disease lung and breast cancers, and HIV/AIDS are just a few examples).

Using a critical race lens on menstrual and ovulatory health sharpens our focus and begs important questions, such as:

Why do African American girls reach puberty 6 months earlier than European-American girls?

How do norms of sexual respectability serve to discourage women of color from challenging the menstrual status quo?

Making menstruation matter fortifies the fight. When we situate menstrual health in a reproductive justice framework, we take our place fighting alongside others straining toward embodied autonomy. We fight for choices of all kinds when we fight together. As Ross asked at the end of her talk, “Can we be brave together and do this?”

Can we?

Call for Abstracts for SMCR 2015 in Boston

September 25th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

In Defense of Hating My Period

August 25th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

re-blogging re:Cycling

In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Chris Bobel originally appeared October 1, 2012.

Okay. Enough. I gotta say something.


Because I am committed to various efforts to reclaim the menstrual cycle as a vital sign and subvert the dominant narrative that menstruation is obsolete and/or a badge of shame, many people assume my periods are all drum circles, red jewelry and a week-long love affair with my Diva Cup.

More insidious still is the pervasive assumption that thinking differently about our cycles necessarily points to LOVING our cycles. As if there are ONLY two choices on the menstrual menu: I’ll have the Obsolete Shaming Nuisance or My Cycle is Womb-alicious. That doesn’t work for me as I suspect it does not work for others. There’s a whole lot of territory between refusing to see menstruation as meaningless OR as proof positive that my body is unruly, out of control, and a source of deep-seated shame AND embracing my menses as the Sine qua non of my gender identity or the gift that keeps on giving, about every 28 days.

I gotta ask: can’t I resist the shame and still find the monthly uterine shedding a royal pain in the vagina? Because, dear reader, that’s how I feel about MY menstruation. Most of the time, I really hate my period.

I am a heavy bleeder– a seven full days of gushing, clotting, and without fail, staining usually both my sheets and my underwear. My period is a week of carrying an extra pair of underwear with me in my backpack, sleeping on a towel (that always bunches up and makes me miserable as I try to find a comfortable sleeping position) and scrubbing stains out of my underwear.

I do not celebrate my flow during my menses. At the same time, I am grateful that my body is signaling All Operations Normal and Functioning. Yes. I AM appreciative of the reminder to practice self care, to slow down, to pause…. but  I rarely do, if I am honest.  Truth is, even in the context of all this gratitude for what my body is doing to keep me healthy, I groan when Aunt Flo comes a-calling.

But admitting that has not come easily because I am privy toan awful lot of menstrual talk (on this blog and in the wider world) and the two OPTIONS ONLY discourse is pervasive. You either hate it (shame on you for shaming on you) or you love it (Fool. Join the 21st century!). See?

My point is simple. Let’s not trade one dogma for another. Messages on either pole fail to listen to women and instead, PRESCRIBE how we should THINK about our embodied experiences. Some menstruators DO welcome their periods and find ways to celebrate them. Some menstruators spend Day 1 on the floor of the bathroom, clutching the rim of the toilet. Some menstruators are damn grateful to see bloody panties as a signal of Not Pregnant or Right on Schedule and then pretty quickly shift into dogged management mode. Some menstruators  _________________ (your experience here).

The different menstrual world I want is a bigger one, one shaped by a more  (not less) pluralistic menstrual discourse that makes the way for as many menstrual attitudes are they are menstrual experiences. This stuff is personal and individual and yet, because of FemCare ads, industry-sponsored menstrual education in schools and increasingly Big Pharma’s awkward melding of high tech body meddling so that women can menstruate like their Paleo ancestors, it is hard to hear our OWN voices over the din.

Here’s my voice: thanks for the free monthly wellness check but I wish it were not so much work. But I will be damned if I will whisper that I need to change my pad or be seduced by a slick ad campaign that enlists me as a paying research subject. I just need better pads (longer, anyone?) and maybe a terry cloth fitted sheet. And someone to do my laundry.

Save the Date! The Next Great Menstrual Health Con

June 16th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

May 28th is Menstrual Hygiene Day!

May 26th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

MHD fullcolor

Breaking the Bloody Taboo: The 28th of May is Menstrual Hygiene Day 
Let´s Start the Conversation About Menstruation!

On May 28th – the first global Menstrual Hygiene Day – more than 90 international and local organizations are coming together to break the silence around menstruation and raise awareness about the fundamental role that menstrual hygiene management (MHM) plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential. Bringing to light the ways menstrual hygiene impacts education, health, the economy, the environment and human rights, Menstrual Hygiene Day advocates for a world in which every woman and girl can manage her menstruation hygienically, in privacy, in safety and with dignity – where ever she is. Those present at SMCR’s biennial conference in NYC last June will remember the early buzz about this one of a kind event. And now…ta da!

Our very own SMCR is one of these 90 organizations and our contribution to Menstrual HeMenstrual Hygiene Day is supporting the Robin Danielson Act–an essential piece of national legislation calling for research on toxic shock syndrome and the risks attached to synthetic fibers and other additives in menstrual management products. See David Linton’ re:Cycling blog post for more information about this initiative!

Initiated by WASH United, Menstrual Hygiene Day will be celebrated in Berlin, Nairobi, Delhi, Kathmandu and many other locations around the world with exhibitions, film screenings, workshops and gatherings, all aimed at breaking the deafening silence around menstruation. Visit here to learn more about local events. Check out all there is to know about MH Day here including this Rockin’ infographic. 

What are YOU doing to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day? 

Are There Limits to Empathy?

March 17th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Readers—I need your help!

Next month, I will participate in a friendly debate at the Museum of Modern Art about Sputniko!’s provocative piece “Menstrutation Machine.” We’ve written about Menstruation Machine on re:Cycling before. In short, the metal device is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, thus replicating the pain and bleeding of a five-day menstrual period.

Here’s the video that the artist created to simulate what it was like for one fictional boy (Takashi) when he wore the device while socializing with a friend in the streets of Tokyo.

The debate is part of a series Design and Violence-an “ongoing online curatorial experiment that explores the manifestations of violence in contemporary society by pairing critical thinkers with examples of challenging design work.”

The exact debate resolution is still being worked out, but it will revolve around this question of EMPATHY.

That is, what is the potential of “Menstruation Machine,” specifically, or any other object, to engender empathy in another?

Need more examples? Think Empathy Belly (thanks to sister blogger Chris Hitchcock who conjured that connection).

But we can extend the concept to ANY experience designed to expressly help an individual see inside someone else’s reality. Think “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”, the International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault & Gender Violence, “a playful opportunity for men to raise awareness in their community about the serious causes, effects and remediations to men’s sexualized violence against women”; The Blind Café; or the TV show 30 Days, “An unscripted, documentary-style program where an individual is inserted into a lifestyle that is completely different from his or her upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession for 30 days.”

So, dear readers, I am hungry for you to share your thoughts as I prepare for the debate.

What do YOU think?

Can design help us be more empathic?

Can a non-menstruator ever really know what it is like to menstruate?

Can a temporary simulated experience, like this or any other, build a bridge?

Are there limits to what we can know of another’s lived experience, even if we can, for a short while, FEEL the pain?

A Letter to My Mom: I am Sorry I Was A Brat

February 17th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Photo courtesy

Dear Mom,

I owe you an apology.

Remember when you were perimenopausal (or as we called it, “going through menopause”)? Remember when you experienced hot flashes? And remember when you did, how we, your loving family, either 1) ignored 2) trivialized or 3) mocked you? Your hot flashes were a constant source of humor around our house and I recall you joining the fun.

But I am betting that while you were yukking it up, you felt lonely and misunderstood. I think you were just ‘being a good sport’ because what choice did you have?

You deserved better.

I admit that until recently, until I began hotflashing myself, I forgot about your transition and how we responded to it. But now that I am living with my own body thermostat on the fritz, I get it.

Now that I am consumed by cycles of heat and chill with no warning, I am having a major A HA ! moment. Now that I find myself waking in the night, my pillow wet, my face wetter, my sleep disrupted, I am time traveling to our sunny kitchen on 2nd Street—you: flapping your blouse, face flushed. Me: rolling my eyes.

I feel badly that I did not appreciate that this process is HARD. I feel badly that I made fun of you, thinking you just a silly old woman whining about something meaningless.

In short, I was a total brat.

Sure. I did not have models for compassionate support. It seems that the discourse of peri/menopausel has two nodes 1) joking  2) patholgizing—another distorted binary that fails to capture the complexity of human experience.

I know that today, struggling through my own perimenopause, I need some simple understanding. I am normal. This is normal. AND this normal reproductive transition can suck to high heaven.

While, we don’t need to stop the clocks or call the midwife, I would like some acknowledgement (minus the sexist aging jokes, please) that doesn’t make me  (or my body) the butt of a joke.

You deserved better when it was your time, Mom, and I am so sorry you didn’t get it.

Love, Chrisi

Making Room for Menstrual Shame

January 20th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

This fall, our family TV indulgence was Master Chef Junior. My 10 year old, a master of scrambled eggs, pancakes and experimental smoothies, was into it, her enthusiasm contagious. So once a week, we sat on the couch– Mom, Dad, and Kid—and watched a dwindling number of freakishly talented miniature chefs slice, dice and sauté their way into our hearts.

Photo credit: Stuart Miles

I enjoyed this respite and low-output family time,  but, there was a price.

The commercials. Oh! Damn those commercials. Because we watched the show online (we don’t have TV), the commercial breaks typically repeated a small set of ads. Over and over again.

In a single episode, we screened some combination of ads for these products a dozen times. According to my crude math, by the time the Master Chef Junior (Alexander, in case you are a fan) was handed his trophy, we watched around 100 different glossy messages that pointed out just how inadequate we are, or would be, soon enough.

I began calling our ritual of watching Master Chef Junior “Self-Consciousness Hour.”

Here is a short list of what’s wrong with me:

My eyelashes are stumpy, thus, my eyes are ugly. 

My teeth are yellow. Yellow teeth are gross. Why bother to dress nice when my teeth are so unsightly? 

My skin is flawed and if I fix it, I will have more friends and a happier life. 

My deodorant is embarrassing me. I might have my disgusting animal smell under control but white powder under my arms can make me the laughing stock of the nightclub. 

Obviously these messages unnerved me (I am not immune to feeling inadequate in spite of my fierce feminism, let’s be honest).

But I really worried about was my daughter. I watched her watch those commercials, her brain processing how she measured up to the standards.

Of course we offered our own critical voice overs at every turn (e.g., You know, human teeth naturally yellow with age. Teeth are not supposed to be pearly white.). We mocked the commercials, trying to expose their absurdity. We initiated more serious discussions of the industry and its nefarious methods, and she engaged these critiques, to some degree. We did what we could (excepting refusing to watch the show, which we could have done, I know). But in spite of our efforts, we doubted our power to counter the power of marketing to manufacture “problems” and sweep in with “lifesaving solutions” all in one (minty fresh) breath.

When all was said and done, between lessons on how to perfectly boil an egg or debone a chicken, my impressionable kid was fed heaping spoonfuls of body shame.

And here’s the menstrual link.

This body shame is the context for her menstrual experiences-to-be. The menstrual taboo, the Grandmother of Body Shame, will slink into her life soon enough, directing her to hide, deny, and likely, detest a natural (and healthy body process). And thanks to  noisy, flashy persistent messages like these, the door is swung open, the lights on, and the pillows fluffed. Come on in, Menstrual Shame! We have been waiting for You! Puleeeze…make yourself at home! Have you met ‘Fat Shame’ sitting here with a throw pillow in her lap? 

I know it is impossible to censor everything my kid sees, hears, reads. I have some experience with this. She is our 3rd kid; we’ve been down this road before and we’ve learned. We tried to do somethings differently this time. Namely, we send her to a crunchy school with an explicit low tech policy (which we observe, on good days). But then the other day, I overheard one of her classmates look down at her feet and exclaim, with horror: “Ewww…My feet look fat in these shoes!” I remind you; she is 10.

Recognizing the ubiquitousness of media messages, our  aim is to teach our kid to responsibly consume what surrounds her. If we equip her with good media literacy skills, she can see commercials through a critical lens. And maybe when her friend complains her feet are fat, she will not take the bait. This is the best we can do, I think.

But “Self Consciousness Hour” really discouraged me. We are outnumbered by the barrage of highly polished and market tested images of “you are not good enough the way you are.” And I fear that Miss Menstrual Shame is already on her way, bags in hand, ready to move in and make herself comfortable.

If you see her, can you tell her we moved?

Silent Suffering: In 3 Scenes

December 23rd, 2013 by Chris Bobel

In PMS jokes the punchline is often a bitchy, out of control woman //

Scene 1 10: 45 am:

A quiet Sunday morning, sunny and bright. Brunch on the patio.  I sat with my daughter, my partner, and my niece. Over pastries and coffee, I experienced waves of menstrual contractions, coming steadily every 15 minutes. And I winced, swallowing my moans.

While my niece spoke of her back pain, and my partner lamented his brief but powerful bout of the flu, I offered no comment about the vice grip around my uterus, the attention-grabbing cramping that hit me again and again. Through these cramping spells, I coached myself to  “tough it out” though I noticed that when I was alone, I audibly groaned. I hurt, but I said nothing.

And interestingly, later, while chatting with my stepson and his boyfriend, I kept the cramps entirely to myself. I chose to suffer in silence.


I hurt and yet, it seemed, my menstrual pain was not worth mentioning. It was mundane, even nearly universal. It was not the type of thing you sit around and whine about. I was aware, at some level, that an occasional mention of my pain would garner some sympathy, but beyond that, let the eye rolling begin. And in some company, it might be too-much-information, too private, too gross, even, to mention.

Scene 2  4:30 pm: Returning home after a 10-day road trip. The house, showing the wear of a place overrun by two cats with little human intervention, needed to be restored to order. Piles of mail. Bags to unpack.

But the very first thing I did when I walked through the door was take a shower and then do laundry. I had leaked badly during the last leg of the trip and I was a mess. My partner and daughter, alternatively, immediately settled on the (cat hair-encrusted) couch and reconnected to their wired worlds. While I, 21st century pioneer wife, scrubbed blood stains out of my clothes and hung another pair of “ruined” panties on the clothesline.

I walked past my family several times during my emergency clean up operation. With each glance, I felt envy rise up, and if i am honest,  resentment, too. But I did not complain. My body, my period, my mess. My problem.

But is it? Should it?

During menstrual moments like these,  (and now I will generalize) we often experience an acute embodied awareness that arrests our attention. At times, the experiences are painful or messy or both. Sometimes these ‘invasions’ are significant ,and we could benefit from some company. And yet, it is the rare menstruator who is NOT  socialized to  ‘buck up’ and ‘just deal with it.’ There is a persistent voice in our heads:  ‘No body wants to hear about your period…. Cramps are boring. And stain stories? Nobody wants to hear about THAT!”

I’ve argued this point before;  it seems the only acceptable menstrual discourse is PMS jokes (in which the punchline is a bitchy, out of control woman [see image above].

When it comes to expressing the reality of our menstrual lives—wherever our experiences fall on the continuum from menstrual joy to menstrual misery—we do so in a veritable sound chamber that CAN hurt us. For many of us, our menstrual experiences are uneventful, at least most of the time. But for the rest, they can be catastrophic. Or they may be normal, ho-hum, TODAY until they are NOT, a day later. Things change. Needs change. But the silence persists.

My concern is this: if we don’t open spaces for menstrual discourse, how can we find the support to discern the normal from the NOT normal? How can we get the info and support we need when we need it?

Scene: 3 3:24 am. I slowly came to consciousness and as I did, I instinctively reached between my legs. Yes. I was wet. Yes. My pad had shifted. And yes, so had the “insurance towel” I placed beneath me to protect the sheets. Damn. I didn’t want to get up and change my pad and underwear, but if I did not, I would have an even bigger stain on my sheet, maybe one that would  soak through the mattress pad and onto my mattress. Ugh.

So I laid there, trying to will myself out of bed to do this necessary chore, one that would ruin my precious, already too-little rest. The house was silent except for the sounds of my  partner’s staccato snoring. I heard nothing in the next room and assumed that my daughter slept peacefully, too. I began to rise, taking care not to disturb anyone. And as I did, I felt envious of their peace, their seamless sleep.

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.