Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

What’s In A Name?

March 27th, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

This month an important Sage research journal, Menopause International, “the flagship journal of the British Menopause Society (BMS),” changes its name to Post Reproductive Health. The Co-Editors of this journal are quoted in talking about this name change:

“Women’s healthcare has been changing dramatically over the past decade. No longer do we see menopause management only about the alleviation of menopausal symptomatology, we also deal with an enormous breadth of life-changing medical issues. As Editors of Menopause International, we felt that now is the time for the name and scope of the journal to change; thus moving firmly into a new, exciting and dynamic area. We wish to cover Post Reproductive Health in all its glory – we even hope to include some articles on ageing in men. Our name change is a reflection of this development in scope and focus.”

This name change may seem very insignificant to most people but, for me, a change in name signifies major steps in conceptual thinking, research practice, and (potentially) everyday health care. While I have some problems with the new name (I’ll get to those in a minute), the idea that menopause researchers and practitioners are beginning to see menopause as part of a broader life course transition is phenomenal. It signifies the willingness of many in the business of studying and treating menopause to think more broadly about reproductive aging. It also indicates that many now understand that menopause is not necessarily the “endpoint” of or “final frontier” in one’s reproductive health care needs. Perhaps it also means that we might acknowledge that perimenopausal symptoms are more than single, isolated, “fixable” events and that they may be related to larger, long-term bodily changes. The very idea that “post reproductive health” is important is one that I support and advocate, and I see this as evidence of the realization that there is life after menstruating and having babies. What’s more, the re-branded journal seeks to include research on men’s health too, perhaps signifying that researchers and practitioners acknowledge the sometimes non-gendered aspects of “reproductive” or “post-reproductive” health. Everyone needs health attention, no matter what their life course stage.

What I can still critique about the name change, though, is that the new name of this journal suggests that menopause and other midlife or aging stages are thought of as “post”-reproductive. In my opinion, it is really that we live on a reproductive continuum, that we are never really “post” anything, that prior life stages always continue to affect us and that there are not strict endpoints to the menopausal transition in the way that the word “post-reproductive” might suggest. Reproductive aging as a transition could take as much as 30 years or more, and women report still having signs and symptoms of “menopause” into their 60s and beyond. According to existing research our “late” reproductive years begin in our 30s and don’t end until….what? our 60s? our 70s? The word “post-reproductive” suggests an “end” that maybe doesn’t really exist ever. Here is a link to an article I wrote on this idea of the elusive “end” to menopause, and I think it is important to think about how the word “post” may not be the best way to describe how we live our midlife and older years. We may still have “reproductive” health needs way into our 70s, 80s, and beyond, so how can we think of ourselves as “post” anything?

With this said, however, I still am very happy to see the current name change of the journal, Post Reproductive Health, because I believe it signifies a very important change in the right direction, and I hope to see many more moves like this as we contemplate what midlife and aging health really is.

Breaking the Silence

February 3rd, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta

When I read Chris Bobel’s recent post about silent menstrual suffering, I was instantly drawn in. Although her experiences are independent of my own, this particular experience felt familiar, as though I was reading a story about my own life. I can close my eyes and instead picture myself in her place. I can hear my silence. I can feel my frustration mounting. It made me wonder why I, and many others, feel compelled to hide the menstrual suffering. After all, we rarely hesitate to utter complaints of a cold, a poor night’s sleep, a stomachache, a headache, an injury, a hangover.

I’m menstruating. I’m hurting. I’m late to a meeting. I’m not fully engaged in a conversation. I leave work a little early. I am not feeling at ease. I am exceptionally in tune with my emotional state. And people are noticing that something is off. Eager to make excuses, I open my mouth to displace the blame that has no doubt been cast upon my character. But reactions to my secret race through my head, so I choke down the words. I, like Chris, suffer in silence. Why?

This is a question I was asking myself for days after reading her piece. Why do I–why do we–remain silent?

Is it because of the jokes? The jokes about PMS, menstruation, emotional instability, and “that time of the month” that are so casually and readily fired off at the sound of a woman who speaks with confidence? Maybe I won’t be taken seriously if people know that I’m menstruating. Maybe the quality of my work will be questioned. Or maybe it will be my competence, intelligence, or character.

Is it because of the media and its portrayal of women as objects meant for pleasure and servitude? As something to be controlled by men? Would the mention of menstruation hinder this oh-so-carefully crafted image? Perhaps my menstruating status would get in the way of my objectification. Surely I wouldn’t want that.

Is it because of a society’s past filled with male dominance and female domestication? Where the only true power is male power? Is it the legacy of female obedience and male ownership? Of female weakness and male strength? Maybe I only want to speak out about my suffering simply because I am too weak to suck it up. Have I been conditioned to feel weak?

Is it because of our unattainable standards of beauty? The expectations of wrinkle free and blemish-free skin, a super-model body, and perfectly-shaped breasts? Perhaps I’m not beautiful enough or perfect enough when I am menstruating.

Is it living in a society that undervalues, and often trivializes, the accomplishments and experiences of women? Is my menstrual pain not familiar enough? Is it not painful enough? Is it not real enough to be worth mentioning?

Yes, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why we give into the “silent suffering,” as Chris called it. As conscious and as critical as I am of our society’s flaws, I cannot fully escape the overwhelming force of the words, the images, the actions, and the inactions. We cannot escape them until we defeat them. I feel a great sadness for the younger generations of women. I feel as though I have failed them. If I, as an adult woman, fall victim to our social pitfalls, then what hope do they have? Where does that leave them? We must break the silence. Next time, I will not be silent.

Will you join me?

Symptoms are Demeaning….and Feminine?

January 31st, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

According to a recent piece in The Times, a reputable English newspaper, symptoms are demeaning AND feminine. More specifically, the article reports on the prostate cancer experiences of Sir Michael Parkinson, or “Parky,” a famous British talkshow host. Parkinson reveals his harrowing experience of getting prostate cancer treatment and its “grueling” side-effects. While the treatments worked, they apparently produced menopause-like symptoms (hot flushes and weight gain) that reminded him of “how women feel when they are going through menopause.” Parkinson is quoted directly as saying, “In a sense you become a woman. I’m getting fitted for a bra next week!” The reporter goes on to say “he’s joking but he’s also deadly serious.” The “menopausal” symptoms that Parkinson had during his prostate cancer treatments are also described as “demeaning” in the same paragraph.

Parkinson is a major public figure in the UK, with significant media influence. I’m certain that this article was read by many as a result, and it makes me wonder about the far-reaching impact of the negative characterizations made about both women and bodily symptoms in this article. When I read this article, I find the equation of symptoms and femininity problematic, for lots of health conditions that produce bodily changes and sensations are not only experienced by women. Experiencing a hot flush or hot flash, while often attributed to menopause, is not menopause-specific all of the time. You can have hot flushes from exercising hard, from the flu, from medications that treat a range of diseases, or when you’re embarrassed. You can have weight gain at midlife (or any time of life for that matter) for a variety of reasons unrelated to menopause. Both the equation of women with symptoms and the definitions of symptoms as negative and “demeaning” show exactly how little progress we have made in eradicating gendered ideologies that harm us. Women are equated with their bodies and seen as lesser than men because of this equation. Men are supposed to be able to rise above their bodily functions, signs, and symptoms and live the life of the mind. Thus, when men experience a symptom they must rid themselves of it because, oh, the horror, they might be “like women” if they have to pay attention to their bodies at all. Research studies show quite often that women are ignored by doctors when they report a long list of symptoms and are not given the treatments they need to ease those symptoms as much as men are, because doctors learn to assume that women are just overreacting. Symptoms are not real if reported by women, studies suggest. Yet, when men experience symptoms and report them they are treated for them more often, especially when they report things such as pain. I interviewed a woman once who told me that “symptoms are always negative” and I wonder if that is partially because of the equation of symptoms with femininity and women’s bodies.

I am certain that it was difficult for Parkinson to undergo treatments for his prostate cancer. I also know that hot flushes and weight gain are never comfortable for people, especially when they seem uncontrollable. BUT, when we go on to support the characterization of symptoms as “what women feel” and then in the next breath say that those symptoms are “demeaning,” we head right into reifying gender ideologies that harm every single one of us. Men should be able to notice changes in their bodies without feeling “feminine.” We should recognize bodily symptoms as part of both health and illness that everyone experiences. And women should not have to be defined only by the fact that they go through certain reproductive transitions that include symptoms. I know Parkinson is perhaps from a generation that might still be holding tightly to gender ideologies that do not make much sense for the contemporary world, but I hold the reporter responsible for some of the characterizations made in this article, too. It is 2014, and aren’t we supposed to be more progressive than this? Because you experience a hot flush you should be fitted for a bra? In the YouTube video that appears along with this post, Parkinson himself admits “men are silly about their health.” I’ll say. But comments reported in the recent Times article go way past being silly.

Recursiveness

January 3rd, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

A few years ago, in response to an article of mine on menopause, an editor encouraged me to think of women’s reproductive lives as “recursive”. Little did he know how much his comment would affect my thinking about women’s lives and life in general. Recursiveness is a common sense concept, but something we don’t often think about. But, especially in light of the “new” year and the sense that we all hold that we are beginning 2014 as if we have a clean slate, I decided to blog here about recursiveness. This is very relevant for anyone thinking about menstruation and menopause, which is why I write about it here.

If you look up the word “recursive” in a dictionary, you find this as one of several definitions:
“of, relating to, or constituting a procedure that can repeat itself indefinitely…”
— re•cur•sive•ly adverb
— re•cur•sive•ness noun

If you think about reproductive events like menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, childbirth or anything else, we often think of them one at a time, almost in isolation. But, they’re not isolated at all and many of them have a tendency to repeat because of the cyclical nature of all life processes. In addition, reproductive events are tied to each other in meaning and we think of them only in relation to what comes before and they only mean things in relation to what other events meant to us in the past or what situations we are dealing with in the present. Thus, potentially when two menstrual periods or other reproductive events occur, we might tend to think of them similarly, approach them similarly, and/or compare them even when they could be very different, because the first experience colors the second and beyond. To think that we might approach each reproductive event as it comes as something new and unrelated to past events or experiences is almost silly, for the past always colors our perceptions of things even if it shouldn’t. Likewise, if we think of 2014 as a brand “new” chunk of time that represents a blank slate, we are also fooling ourselves (perhaps we do so knowingly though). We can make different decisions or act somewhat differently if we’d like, but we approach 2014 with our past in mind and potentially may repeat our attitudes and behaviors in the future automatically. Even if we live different experiences in the new year and very purposely separate ourselves from past attitudes and behaviors, we might think of our new attitudes and experiences in relation to other past experiences, making attitudes and behaviors recursive in meaning at least (even if our newer experiences are not the same as in the past).

I have written here about similar themes in the past, and I do really like thinking about the recursiveness of our experiences. My brother is a forester and farmer and always talks about nature’s cycles and tendency towards repetition, but I think we can think about recursiveness in much broader terms than that too. Recursiveness is a powerful idea and it makes a lot make sense in the world. It doesn’t mean we can’t experience things differently over time. Thinking about transitions like menopause makes us realize that things (like menstruation or fertility) are definitely not the same over time and maybe stop repeating and cycling. But, in our minds, we might expect things to repeat indefinitely (and therefore emotionally wrestle with the physiological changes we experience because we don’t expect change). Previous experiences might repeat in the identities we continue to hold dear or in the ways in which we think about reproductive transitions or any other changes in our lives, even when the experiences themselves change.
As we approach this new year, I propose we acknowledge recursiveness as a real thing.

Happy new year, everyone.

It Is Gross, but Why Is It Gross? Adventures in Grossland

October 28th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

For me, that’s always the question.

Gross is a decision. It is a judgment based on a set of values derived from a particular perspective. And because of this slipperiness, some things are more widely deemed GROSS that some other things.

Readers of this blog are well aware that bleeding lady parts often end up in Grossland. And they end up there more often than other body parts doing their body part thing. So why is this?

It’s been a busy few weeks in Grossland— dizzying days upon days of seeing the obvious contradictions embedded in what we, as a culture, deem gross and what we see as just- bodies- being- natural-bodies. Sometimes these bodily functions are FUNNY and other times only mildly yucky, but still okay to talk about.And sometimes, in the case of menstruating bodies, we are socialized to keep the whole thing quiet and hidden.

My most recent trip to Grossland began with the uproar over the newly-released (and nearly sold out) American Apparel masturbation-period-vulva T shirt flap. The flap just barely died down when Kristen Schaal’s brilliant satire (on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) delivered a bit on the proliferation of sexy Halloween costumes for women. In it, Schaal suggested that women “take it to the next level … get everyone thinking about sex (by) dressing up as the place where sex happens!” (and in walks a 6 foot high vulva! With Stewart-as-straight-man remarking “I don’t know if we can show that….” )I love what she did there, but the piece is not ONLY funny for its feminist take down of the hypersexualization of women’s bodies. The costume is outrageous because it  is gross, right? “Sexy Vagina” (vulva, of course, more accurately, but this is not the time for anatomical correctness)  is funny because who-in-their-right-mind-would dress-up-like-that?  That’s disgusting. Welcome to Grossland.

Petra Collins, the 20-year-old artist commissioned to produce the t-shirt image for no-friend-to-women retailer American Apparel gets this (even if her check was written by a corporate entity who could care less about the social message she has in mind). Collins speaks compellingly about the objectification and containment of women’s bodies that her work endeavors to challenge. And she reports that the controversy swirling around a line drawing of a hand stroking a menstruating (and hairy!!!) vulva was “awesome” because

“it totally proves my point…. that we’re so shocked and appalled at something that’s such a natural state—and its funny that out of all the images everywhere, all of the sexually violent images, or disgustingly derogatory images, this is something that’s so, so shocking apparently.”

And appalled we are! One commenter on a TIME article about the t shirt controversy remarked: I….would equate her imagery with a straining rectum expelling a painful, post-digestion steak dinner.” And there it is. We can’t seem to have a menstrual moment without someone rushing in to equate menstruation with defecation. Liz Kissling has taken it on. Breanne Fahs has, too, more recently, but we still haven’t gained much traction in showing that

1) menstruating and pooping are not the same thing, and even if they were,

2) menstruating IS  more shamed than pooping

Menstruation is gross (throw in masturbation and pubes to make it really beyond the pale) because we say it is. And those that hasten  to compare uterine-lining shining with expelling feces are missing the fact that while the processes do overlap in some ways, we are NOT, culturally speaking, as hellbent on silencing the poop (or the farts and certainly not the piss) as we are the menses.  and why is that? Perhaps it it matters who is doing the business.  I assert that it ain’t no coincidence that  bleeding LADY parts are the Grossest of Them All.

To wit, I submit the following:

A colleague put the new film Movie 43, a blend of edgy and puerile vignettes acted by a star studded ensemble cast, on my radar. The film includes the segment: “Middleschool Date” (written by Elizabeth Shapiro. Elizabeth: If you are out there, will you be my friend?).

Powerful Red

October 10th, 2013 by Heather Dillaway

Photo Courtesy of Heather Dillaway

Red is my favorite color by far. Autumn is my favorite season. Autumn brings out the true essence of red. As I watch the leaves start to turn it’s hard not to think about the true power of the color.

 

It symbolizes transitions and cycles, regardless of whether we are talking about seasons or menstruation or anything else. It is a marker of change in that way.

It is warm and inviting but also dangerous sometimes.

It incites action (as in making bulls charge).

It can make people stop (as in red lights and stop signs).

It can instill caution (as in, “Caution, HOT!” or “Please use this product as directed” or “Do Not Enter”).

It can mark mistakes (as in grading incorrect responses) or stand in for punishment (as in the Scarlett Letter).

It can be representative of leaks (as in menstrual accidents) and first sexual activity (as in spotting because of the breaking of a hymen).

It is emotion (as in anger, embarrassment).

It is exertion (as in flushed, sweaty skin after a workout).

It is representative of symptoms (as in rashes or infected spots).

It signifies ideal feminine beauty (as in red lipstick or red nail polish), even sexiness and/or sexual desire (as in red high heels).

It symbolizes fertility (as in the Handmaid’s tale).

It can mean exclusion and celebration simultaneously (as in the red tent).

It symbolizes vulnerability (as in Red Riding Hood).

It can mean death (as in bloodshed).

It can represent life (as there is nothing more vital than blood itself).

It can mean fun (as in the Red Hat Society).

It stands in for love (as in hearts and roses for Valentine’s Day).

It can mean something is ripe or mature (as in a red apple or red strawberry).

It can stand in for communism or particular countries (as in China, for example).

It can mean drug prevention (as in the Red Ribbon campaign).

The list could go on and on….what am I missing?

As I live in my favorite season with my favorite color all around me, it is hard to miss the true power of red.

The Menstrual Masquerade

June 18th, 2013 by David Linton

Just out from Temple University Press is a new book edited by Jeffrey Bruen and Daniel Wilson titled Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity. I am honored to have a chapter in it about how menstruation has been socially constructed as a disabling condition and thereby has required acts of denial and pretense similar to those imposed on individuals with either physical of cognitive impairments.

Perhaps the best way to get the gist of the approach taken in the chapter is simply to reproduce the opening paragraphs:

“The social menstrual ecology is a most peculiar environment, full of contradictions, ambiguities, and layers of cultural construction.  Over half the population of the globe is presumed to be a future menstruator, a periodic menstruator or a former menstruator, and yet at the same time all of the members of the menstrual class are expected, even required at the risk of shame, embarrassment and ostracism, to deny their membership.

The importance of passing as a non-menstruator – we might call it “menstrual denial” – is taught in the home and school, strenuously reinforced by social custom, and promoted through the marketing of a variety of products that are guaranteed to help one pass as having a uterus that does not occasionally shed its lining.  The menstrual market place, traditionally dominated by pad and tampon manufacturers, now sees the arrival of a new generation of drugs that promise to eliminate, or at least sharply curtail, the menstrual cycle, thereby altering the landscape.  However, the expectation that one is to hide the physical evidence of one’s cycle remains as strong as ever.  This essay explores the nuances and history of the menstrual masquerade.”

The editors’ introduction [pdf] can be read on the book’s page at Temple University Press site.

Reclaiming “The Change”

May 31st, 2013 by Ashley Ross

The Change.

Stormy skies above Bagnor (UK)
Photo by Andrew Smith // Creative Commons 2.0

This name for peri/menopause has appeared in many cultures and has been passed down through the eons, generation to generation. I, myself, really like calling it The Change, as it describes the awe and magnitude of peri/menopause. The Change honors the call to attention, the rupture from the known, the reflective incubation, the life choices and the leap of faith that a conscious, mindful passage through peri/menopause requires. The Change encapsulates the seismic shifts, the unexpected turns, the disturbing reorientations, the annoying distractions, the unsummoned losses, and the depth of self-discovery that is available to every woman willing to answer the call and step into the initiatory potential of this passage to Eldership.

As I prepare my workshop (The Chrysalis and the Crone: A Conscious Menopause) to bring to the SMCR Conference next week, I find myself deeper and deeper in the reality of our contemporary, global culture and the crisis of the absence of rites and initiations. Specifically, how does it affect each and every one of us, that our experience is being defined only by our ‘symptoms’? What does it mean for us and our planet if we pay attention to the attempts of the psyche to guide us out of our work-a-day-lives and into discovering what else might be possible? What if we choose not to be thwarted by the unimaginative beliefs that the soul’s needs are unquantifiable and thus unimportant?

Marion Woodman describes this vacuum:

“The doors that were once opened through initiation rites are still crucial thresholds in the human psyche, and when those doors do not open, or when they are not recognized for what they are, life shrinks into a series of rejections. Torschlusspanik [a German word connoting the terror of disconnection] is now part of our culture because there are so few rites to which individuals will submit in order to transcend their own selfish drives. Without the broader perspective, they see no meaning in rejection. The door thuds, leaving them bitter or resigned. If, instead, they could temper themselves to a point of total concentration, a bursting point where they could either pass over or fall back as in a rite of passage, then they could test who they are.  Their passion would be spent in an all-out positive effort, instead of deteriorating into disillusionment and despair“. (from Richard A. Heckler’s Crossing: Everyday People, Unexpected Events and Life Affirming Change, p. 134)

If this is true, then instead of suffering ‘symptoms’ and struggling, each of us, to suppress or get rid of these symptoms, we might consider peri/menopause as a collective imperative to initiate and embody change – in ourselves and our society. Peri/menopause might be the catalyst to shake us awake from our collective trance, to step away from our habituated notions of who we are and how our world is supposed to work.

Here’s the rub: change is pain. We are, for the most part, creatures of comfort. We like, for the most part, to be lulled. But our souls long for more, and at peri/menopause we can no longer ignore the small whisper, deep in our psyches, asking: “Is this it?  Is this all there is?”

Change is afoot …

Celebrating Period Poetry in New York City

May 21st, 2013 by David Linton

The World’s First Menstrual Poetry Slam, The Red Moon Howl, will occur the closing night of the SMCR conference, June 7, at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.  Featuring the works of noted poets such as Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, and Ntozake Shange as well as new works by emerging poets such as Coriel O’Shea and Maria Billini, the evening event will offer a variety of artistic perspectives on the menstrual cycle.

 

Given the history of menstrual lore and the way knowledge of the cycle has been shared by women over the span of human history, it is particularly appropriate that the topic of menstruation find an outlet in the form of poetry, the original form of oral creative expression.  The event will literally “give voice” to a commonly hidden, taboo topic.  In keeping with the conference theme, “Making Menstruation Matter,” the poets and performers will offer yet another contribution in the ongoing effort to bring the period out of the closet.

 

The evening will not be limited to just those who are on the performance roster.  Everyone planning to attend the conference is encouraged to prepare a piece for the open mic portion of the evening which will open the event.

 

Some questions have been raised about the nature of poetry slams.  Frequently such events have a competitive element as participants vie with one another for the favor of audience or judges.  That’s not the case this time.  Instead, the organizers are emphasizing the fact that the main difference between slam poetry and the more traditional, familiar variety is that poems presented in the slam setting are meant to be “performed,” that is, read or recited out loud so that the fundamental elements of the human voice engaged with the nature of spoken words can be savored by those in attendance.  In this regard, the poetry slam is a reinvigoration of the original sources of the poetic impulse.

 

Following the conference, video samples of the performances will be available on line.  Stay tuned for more information.

Five Things You Should Know About the Three Vs

April 9th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest post by Kati Bicknell, Kindara

Now I know in the title of this post I say “Five things you probably don’t know about your vagina,” but really it’s about more than your vagina. The V Book, by Elizabeth Gunther Stewart and Paula Spencer, is basically the owner’s manual for all people who have any of the following V’s — vagina, vulva, and vestibule. Don’t know what a vestibule is? Read on, my good friend!

I am a bonafide vagina nerd myself, and when I read this book I learned a BUNCH of things that I did not know. Here are my top five:

  1. So we all know (now) about cervical fluid, but did you know that it’s not the only substance produced by your lady bits to keep things running smoothly? Your vulva actually produces a thin waxy substance, called sebum that lubricates the folds of your labia! It’s a blend of oils, fats, waxes, and cholesterol. If it didn’t, your labia and everything else would be all friction-y and chafe when you walked, had sex, moved, did anything really. That blew my mind. Thanks, body!
  2. Have you ever wondered how the vagina is simultaneously quite small, (i.e., sometimes even putting in a tampon might be uncomfortable and “stretchy”) and also somehow stretches to accommodate a baby passing through it? I definitely have. Well, it’s all thanks to your rugae! Rugae are small pleats that allow the vagina to be both very small and compact, and then to expand to many times its original size when necessary. Rugae is kind of like ruching! You know, the process of using tons of fabric and then scrunching it so it becomes a smaller form. I’m wearing a ruched jacket at this very moment, actually. It makes you think, if you wore this dress to the prom, are you subliminally broadcasting “HEY! THIS IS WHAT THE INSIDE OF MY VAGINA LOOKS LIKE”?
  3. Vestibule! (I told you we’d get here.) Okay! So the vestibule is important enough to be included in the three V’s of the V book, and yet I was like, “where the heck is my vestibule?” Well, it’s the place in between your inner labia. Here it is on Wikipedia, with an image that is ***not safe for work,*** unless you work in the field of sexual health, in which case, click away!
  4. Labia (as in the labia majora and labia minora). This word is actually plural. If you are referring to only one lip it’s called a labium.
  5. Only in rare instances is a human female born with the hymen completely covering the vaginal opening. Most hymens are a little circle of very thin skin that partially covers the vaginal opening, but still leaves space for menstrual blood and cervical fluid to come out. Here is a hilarious and educational video explaining more about this. [Editor's note: Many sex educators today call it the vaginal corona, not the hymen.]

And there is a LOT more info in that book. Tons. Go pick it up today and learn more than you ever thought possible about vaginas, vulvas, and vestibules!

Cross-posted at Kindara.com March 29, 2013.

A Week of Vaginas

April 3rd, 2013 by Mindy Erchull

The Cast of the 2013 UMW Production of The Vagina Monologues || photo used with permission from JB Bridgeman and the cast

A surprising amount of my time last week was spent thinking about vaginas.  In part, this was because I had plans to attend  the Friday night show of The Vagina Monologues on my campus.  It’s always a great show, and this year, one of my students was directing it.  During the course of the week, however, a former student of mine also posted a news story about the use of the word vagina on my Facebook wall.  All of this led to me reflecting a lot of people’s comfort and discomfort with this word.

The Vagina Monologues does address people’s comfort, or lack there of, with vaginas (or vulvas – although the way the two terms are conflated is a topic for another post) and women’s sexuality.  My focus was a bit different.  I was thinking about the word vagina itself….

In the late 1990s, when I was a senior in college, I had the wonderful opportunity to see Eve Ensler perform The Vagina Monologues as a one woman show on my campus as part of the dedication celebration for the newly funded Women’s Studies chair which would allow for the formal creation of a Women’s Studies major.  Since I was one of the students most involved with the program, I was given one of the few tickets for students.

Since so few students attended the show, Sunday brunch conversation the next day largely consisted of a discussion of The Vagina Monologues over dining hall french toast sticks. One of my friends was very uncomfortable with the conversation because I was consistently using the word vagina “in mixed company”.  I try to be respectful of others’ limits, but I couldn’t wrap my head around how to talk about this show without using the word vagina. Plus, it’s not a slang or pejorative term – it’s a formal anatomical name for a body part.

Given that The Vagina Monologues were part of my plans for the week, this experience immediately came to mind when my former students shared a Jezebel.com post about a tenth grade science teacher facing investigation and possible disciplinary action for using the word vagina in an anatomy lesson. Seriously? Once again, this is a formal biological term for a body part.  Yes, it’s a body part associated with sex and reproduction, but we need to be able to use these words.

photo taken by Mindy Erchull

When I teach Psychology of Women and get to development, reproduction, and women’s health, I typically have to spend a few minutes just saying vagina repeatedly until the giggles stop, the discomfort dies down, and we can actually move on with the content of the class. Yes, words have power – but we don’t get like this about the words knee or forehead. People run around in “Save the Ta-Tas”  t-shirts. Why can’t we say vagina?

One of the fundraisers the students staging The Vagina Monologues did this year was to sell buttons that say “I ♥ My Vagina”. Yes, we should love our vaginas and the vaginas of our consensual sexual partners. I also think we should love the word vagina. Let’s stop being scared of this one.  Don’t shush people if they say it in public. Don’t try to come up with covert ways of referring to vaginas without using this word. Just say vagina.

Vagina. Vagina, vagina, vagina. Va-gin-a.

Give me a V, give me an A, give me a G, give me an I, give me an N, give me an A.  What’s that spell?  VAGINA!

Come on – say it with me: Vagina!

Be loud. Be proud. Love and respect vaginas, but also embrace the word.  Some words need to be normalized. It astounds and saddens me that this has not yet happened with vagina. Let’s change that starting today.

Little Girls! Just Say Yes to Your Dreams!

March 18th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

Seen this one yet? (or the (eerily) related “Birth Control on the Bottom“?)

We posted “Sassy Girlz Candy Birth Control Pills” (written by Carissa Leone in 2011) in our regular installment Weekend Links on Feb 2. I had a mixed reaction. And when a couple re:Cycling readers described the video as “nasty,” I knew we needed to dig in a bit.

Let’s discuss.

There’s something very absurdly funny about eating birth control, even if the women are still tweens and the birth control is merely mulit- colored jelly beans intended to get young girls in the pill-popping groove before they are saddled with a baby and an half-finished high school education.

First of all, women CAN eat their birth control, donchaknow… Warner Chilcott brought to market their chewable, spearmint flavor oral contraceptive, Femcon Fe, for women who have difficulty swallowing pills and apparently, find stopping for 30 seconds to swallow water.

But I digress (I guess I just want to be clear that we are ALREADY munching our pills).

It is hard not to love how this sketch takes down the pandering to the girl tween market. Oh lordy. There’s so much potential there! (one estimate figures that kids aged 8-12 years are spending $30 billion OF THEIR OWN MONEY and nagging their parents to spend another $150 billion annually!) Little girls quickly move from Disney to diets, from fingerpaint to fake eyelashes, from tutus to belly shirts…..I have seen it with my own girls and it feels, frankly, like an inexorable force.

Viral sketch writer Carissa Leone graciously replied to my questions regarding the piece. When I asked her what inspired her, she channeled her Women’s Studies training (go team!) and supplied her two main reasons:

(1) “I saw a little girl on the subway,holding a baby doll in one of those pretend baby slings…and I thought, “If only she really knew what motherhood was like. I wonder if anyone has explained the authentic experience. I wish she were carrying a briefcase and reading a teeny issue of Ms. magazine instead… “

AND

(2) “The idea that women can/should have it all, in terms of relationships and families and career still seems to be put forth as a tangible (and”correct”) goal in Western culture. It’s a pressure I and many other peers feel, and one that I don’t think is truly possible, or necessarily awesome.”

And Big Pharma takes a hit, too, per the spot’s director, Brian Goetz, who offered this when I asked him about what led to the sketch:

“I wanted to do the video because the script spoke so well to the branding of pharmaceutical commercials, where no matter what the product, as long as you say there’s a problem and that you have the solution, throw some happy people and fun b-roll in it, you’ve got a successful campaign. On top of that, it’s always fun to legitimize terrible ideas in sketch comedy. And if that means having multi-colored jelly bean birth control pills, all the better.”

But I think there’s more to it that that.

Why do I find myself laughing and crying at the same time? Well, I just finished my advance copy of Holly Grigg-Spall’s forthcoming Sweetening the Pill  or How We Became Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control (out this Spring with Zero Books). In it (and here as well, on this blog), Grigg-Spall makes the case the hormonal contraceptives have become so normative that we, as consumers, permit an imperfect (at best) product to flourish even while other options may be more appropriate. The one-pill-fits-all mindset is so pervasive and bores in so deep, so young, Grigg-Spall argues, that when someone says, ‘hey! I don’t want to be on the pill,’ these—what she calls “pill refugees” — are hastily branded as irresponsible, antifeminist, or just plain dumb. That is, the pill gets constructed as our savior, our liberator, our saving grace, even when its not.

And that’s where this spoof enters….since the pill IS all these things, let’s get those girlies on board NOW! Why wait? Good habits start young, after all. And product loyalty is not just for toothpaste and laundry detergent….

And so, “Sassy Girlz Candy Birth Control Pills” is super smart feminist critique. It calls out the enduring wrongheadnessness of romanticizing motherhood and co-opting what I would call a tragically hollowed-out pseudo feminism harnessed to push product:

  • Little girls playing Mommy is cute, and kinda bullshit!
  • Its never too early to teach little girls about options!
  • She’ll know that birth control means winning a college scholarship

Yup. There’s lots of problems with that. Thanks to the feminist satirists to help us see.

But I have to say one more thing.

Leone and I discussed (what I consider) the unfortunate below-the-belt invocation of gender dysphoria to as she put it, “most absurd, heightening beat” in the sketch (here’s another, more recent example of same, on SNL). I don’t think trans or gender queer or otherwise gender variant people should ever serve as punchlines, as I told Leone so in our email exchange. When I inquired about this moment in an otherwise spot-on sketch, she said that is was never intended it as a negative perception of transgendered kids. But still  it is, and I think it points with a big fat finger at how much work we still need to do to move trans issues from margin to center.

Let’s push forward without leaving anyone behind. Let’s laugh at feminist satire that avoids (even unintended) transphobia. Let’s keep our targets clear and our allies clearer. Let’s say YES to that dream, for real.

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.