The history of women being discriminated against for having a menstrual cycle is, unfortunately, long and varied one, going far back into antiquity as demonstrated by prohibitions spelled out in the biblical book of Leviticus. Sometimes the prejudices or fears underlying both formal and informal practices spring from misunderstandings of biological functions; sometimes they are simply vestiges of patriarchal systems designed to maintain male dominance; sometimes they are indications of cultural lag, behaviors kept alive despite the fact that the individuals really “know better” but are stuck in their traditions. Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery,” captures such a phenomenon brilliantly.
The bad news is that there are still a lot of cultural practices in place whose meaning or usefulness has long ago been found to be worthless. The good news is that every once in a while enough noise is made or enough light is shed on a bad idea that it is abandoned, even if reluctantly.
The recent story about how women job applicants have been asked intrusive and pointless questions about their menstrual cycles and how the interview questions were dropped from the protocol gives us cause to sigh in dismay that such things continue to happen but also gives us reason to smile with pleasure that public exposure brought about change.
Readers are encouraged to respond with posts citing other similar stories.
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.
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/
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.
Always™ and its corporate owner, Procter & Gamble, have been receiving a lot of praise around the interwebs these days for their #LikeAGirl campaign, launched June 26, 2014, with a video produced by Lauren Greenfield. The video has been viewed 37 million times and counting. Last week, HuffPo actually called it “a game changer in feminist movement”, which I suppose reveals how little Huffington Post knows about feminist movements, more than anything else.
But before you applaud the efforts of Always to raise girls’ self-esteem, remember that they’re also the people who bring you these ads. Because that stench of girl never goes away, and you can’t spend all day in the shower, use Always.
Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta
There seems to be a growing disconnect in recent years between physicians and their patients, and women are especially susceptible to this given our reliance on doctors for information about contraception. When compared to the questions many of us ask our doctors, the information we receive isn’t always up to snuff.
Patient autonomy, as defined by medical dictionaries, is “the right of patients to make decisions about their medical care without their healthcare provider trying to influence the decision.” Based on many conversations with other women, in addition to my own personal experiences, patient autonomy often does not exist for women seeking information about contraception. And this is a huge problem. Deadly (and rare) birth control side effects have become a hot-topic in the news as of late – which is likely contributing to this physician–patient disconnect – but the growing patient interest in control and autonomy means that this cannot simply be dismissed as a side effect of the media.
A recent study, published in the Journal of Contraception, asked both women and healthcare providers to rank the importance of 34 questions relating to contraceptive options. They found that the things that are most important to women are often not as important to their healthcare providers. For example, knowing exactly how a method works to prevent pregnancy was ranked by women as the most important piece of information, whereas how to use a method correctly topped the list for providers. Effectiveness, while still important, was ranked fifth by women, which is a stark inconsistency if you consider just how central a method’s effectiveness is in ads and in the media. The study also found that questions regarding potential side effects ranked in the top three for 26% of women, but only 16% of providers.
These stats may seem inconsequential – after all, physicians should be educating patients about proper use of contraceptive methods. But here’s the problem: the methods suggested by physicians don’t always align with a woman’s stated preferences. I’m certain I’m not the only woman who has been pressured to use a hormonal method (despite my voiced concerns) simply because these methods are considered to be easy and effective. While it seems like a logical solution for physicians to advocate for hormonal methods over methods with higher typical-use failure rates, this approach is ultimately a detriment to women.
A growing number of women seem to be turning to withdrawal, and while this isn’t inherently bad, it becomes bad when a patient isn’t educated on how to properly use it simply because her physician is hesitant to discuss “unreliable” methods. This means that women are turning to potentially unreliable internet sources (or, worse, misinformed friends) for this information. The same can be said for diaphragms, cervical caps, and fertility awareness-based methods. If we want to continue to drive down unintended pregnancy rates, dismissing patient concerns and eliminating patient autonomy isn’t the route we should take. Contraceptive methods aren’t one-size-fits-all, which should be obvious by the huge differences in side effects experienced from person to person. So why do so many contraceptive consultations continue to be carried out in this one-size-fits-all fashion?
Empowering women through family planning is more complex than simply prescribing the most effective methods. It must be coupled with engagement in an open dialogue, including acknowledgement of patient concerns and a respect for patient autonomy. Patients are increasingly demanding autonomy, and if healthcare providers wish to remain a respected part of a woman’s health, it’s time to set aside contraceptive biases and listen.
As I’m sure you’re well aware, today is Menstrual Hygiene Day and there are activities all across the globe to commemorate this day.
The SMCR is excited to announce that it contributed to the day by endorsing the Robin Danielson Act of 2014, a legislation that would require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research whether menstrual hygiene products contain synthetic additives that pose health risks (including risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome). What’s more, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced an updated version of this Act today, on Menstrual Hygiene Day! According to Maloney’s office, she first introduced legislation regarding tampon safety in 1997 with the Tampon Safety and Research Act; subsequent versions of this bill were introduced in 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2011.
Now it’s time to take more action: turning this introduced legislation into law. Stay tuned for more information regarding petitions of support and other forms of activism and assistance. In the meantime, step one is to write your local congressperson and voice your support for the Robin Danielson Act of 2014. You may find a list of Representatives (and search for your local Rep.) on the House of Representatives website and you may read more about Maloney’s bill (in which SMCR member and President-elect Chris Bobel is eloquently quoted) on her site.
Happy Menstrual Hygiene Day!