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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Given their first-hand awareness of the role it has played in their own lives, it is not surprising that women writers (and researchers) have included references to the menstrual cycle in their books. Even so, social taboos have probably tended to keep the subject from appearing as often as it might have otherwise and literary menstrual references have only come to the surface in the mid-twentieth century. The women appearing in the fiction of Bronte, Eliot, Alcott, du Maurier, and the other major women writers of the 19th century seem to be lacking a menstrual cycle regardless of how otherwise thoroughly detailed their lives were depicted.
Men too have been menstrual-averse. The cycle played no part though later male authors, notably William Faulkner, did include specific menstrual details if only to capture a male chart in the lives of the women in the novels of Hardy, Conrad, James, Dickens, Lawrence or Hawthorne, to name a representative few. Men seem to be “in avoidance,” if not “in denial” about the cycle’s presence. Even male writers such as Updike and Roth for all their frank depictions of sexual behavior have treated menstruation gingerly, in the case of Roth using it in two novels to express characters’ kinkiness.
The more permissive climate of the past 60 or 70 years not only saw the rise of a new generation of women writers, but a greater openness to the inclusion of menstrual material in their stories. Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Patchett, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few of the most noteworthy, have built entire scenes or even complete plot lines around menstrual tropes.
This is a subject rich in possibilities for a wide variety of investigations in literary studies, women’s and gender studies, communication and media, sociology, psychology, and even religious studies. With the exception of Dana Medoro’s path breaking book, The Bleeding of America, the subject is virtually untouched. Readers are urged to dig into this treasure trove of material.
So, the purpose of this blog post is to invite suggestions of literary sources that are fertile ground for cycle commentary. Help build the menstrual canon with mention of “sightings” that have come to your attention.
For those who have yet to see, the College Republican National Committee has a new advertisement out that is intended to reach women, particularly younger women, to lure their vote for several GOP governors. The advertisement is the same for several governor races, save for the name changes, and the one that is getting the most attention concerns the Florida race between Rick Scott (R) and Charlie Crist (D). The ad is a parody on the popular reality television show Say Yes to the Dress where women try on different wedding dresses and debate the merits of each until they find “the one.” In this case of “Say Yes to Rick Scott,” Brittany, an undecided voter, tries on the “Rick Scott dress” and immediately falls in love with his “new ideas that don’t break your budget.” But Brittany’s mother is not having any of that as she wants Brittany in the “Charlie Crist dress” that is “expensive and a little outdated.”
There are already several write-ups on the stereotypical nature of this advertisement—that it serves the same jaded discourse that all women care about weddings and dresses—and that there could have been a more intelligent way to reach Republican women. What is most interesting is Stephen Colbert’s response to this ad. In typical Colbert fashion, he hilariously rips apart the wedding dress metaphor and decides to contribute an ad of his own: Rick Scott versus Charlie Crist sanitary napkins.
Equating “that time of the month” with mid-term elections, one female in Colbert’s parody is supported by Rick Scott napkins in her “private sector” and is a happy and peppy woman while the other is still using Charlie Crist napkins. Take a look at the side-by-side comparison for the blue liquid that has come to serve as symbolic blood in many advertisements and the mockingly way it is poured on each candidate’s napkin.
What is so great about Colbert’s satire is that he is not only addressing the humor of the “Say Yes to Rick Scott” piece but he is also ridiculing the traditional napkin and tampon advertisements so prevalent on television. Are these the only ways to speak to women? Colbert thinks not and this segment is a testament to that.
Remember, vote for “The Best Candidate—Period!”
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:
Without endorsing the sites, readers of re:Cycling might be interested/amused by this item from Lauren Braun at BioWink that was received recently by a member of the blog team:
Women Break The Taboo Around Menstruation By Sharing Hilarious Period Reminders
Menstrual cycles are still a taboo subject, and this discomfort with talking about them results in both misinformation and lack of information about menstrual health.
But earlier this week a tweet went viral when @pamwishbow customized her Clue period reminders, a new feature we launched last month. As of today, she had 348 retweets and 458 favorites.
We were so inspired by how Pam confidently owned her period in this public way that we decided to encourage other Clue users to share how they made the period reminders their own through customization. The uniqueness of the reminders seems to represent the uniqueness of each person’s cycle.
Sharing something that’s so personal helps break the stigma and open the door to more honest conversation. We’re proud to be part of this growing trend of empowering women with knowledge about their bodies, so that they can make the most informed decisions about their reproductive health. We’re asking women to #OwnYourCycle.
Here is our website: http://www.helloclue.com/
Guest Post by Jen Lewis
From inception to the present, my art project Beauty in Blood has been a positivity-fueled whirlwind. In the very early stages I shared my concept with just two people, my husband and one of my dearest feminist friends. The positive and open way in which they received the message behind my concept helped me flesh out my thoughts and forge ahead with the execution without concern for any potential nay-sayers. Based on my preliminary research into menstrual art, I expected to face hateful trolls every time I introduced a new person to my work but that hasn’t been the experience at all. In the real world, when I tell people about Beauty in Blood their faces typically brighten in response to the casual mention of such a taboo topic. In fact, at social gatherings it can actually take over an entire conversation; I’ve watched women have micro feminist revelations in front of my eyes when discussing the secrecy and silence around menstruation. If that’s not a testament to the power of art, I don’t know what is.
Don’t get me wrong, detractors cross my path but they are few, far between and significantly politer than the hateful trolls in the comments sections of online articles. Typical detractors suggest I alter my art in order to follow the “sanitary” path laid out by menstrual product manufacturers, i.e. “It would look better if the blood was blue; the red is so offensive and difficult to digest.” Or “You’d probably sell a lot more if the prints were black and white.” Or “The message is great but people don’t want to talk about this stuff; they’re not ready even if you are.” Overall, the latter does not represent my experience in the least. Men and women alike have expressed curiosity, support and encouragement to continue developing and growing the scope of Beauty in Blood.
As Jenny Lapekas discussed last month on re:Cycling, there are many, many menstrual art haters online with vile things to say about women and our bodies. However, there are also many women who will not be silenced or, is more likely the case, who will not hear the trolls. Just about any student who took a 20th Century American Art survey course can tell you that menstrual fluid, along with a wide variety of biological substances, are nothing new in modern art. Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” and Judy Chicago’s “Red Flag” are often referenced in basic art survey texts as examples from the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. However, what I discovered when I started digging around the internet in search of “menstrual art” was that there are many women artists both from the past and presently working with menstrual fluid. Their visual art spans thematically from addressing political issues that pertain to women’s bodies to linking women’s bodies to natural earth cycles to simply creating something positive from an occurrence that is usually negative. Artist Vanessa Tiegs even coined a term for this art, Menstrala. The number of young women taking to livejournal.com and Tumblr to share their menstrual creations or DIY tips is as surprising as it is inspiring. Regardless of the haters and trolls, contemporary art made with and/or addressing the menstrual cycle are popping up across the globe. In Sweden, SMCR’s own Josefin Persdotter curated Period Pieces, a wildly successful travelling exhibit that features the work of 13 artists including Arvida Bystrom, Chloe Wise, and Petra Collins. In 2013, the Sunday Times Magazine introduced us to British artist Sarah Maple and her incredible oil painting “Menstruate with Pride”. In Australia, Casey Jenkins made headlines with her 28-day performance, “Casting Off My Womb,” where she knits one skein of wool that unravels from her vagina daily to mark a full menstrual cycle. Most recently, Egyptian feminist artist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy (photo NSFW) shocked the world by using her nude body and biological substances, her menses and excrement, to make an extreme political statement about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Trolls and haters be damned! Women have some things to say and there will be blood, lots of menstrual blood.