Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Widening the Cycle: A Menstrual Cycle & Reproductive Justice Art Show

March 31st, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

The Lost Ones (2014); Artist: Nichole Speciale

When I scroll through my library of menstruation-related media coverage, I’m truly impressed by the volume of articles and blogs being published. It’s amazing to see a human rights article about chaupadi practices in Nepal one day and a sexual wellness article about period sex the next. However, I am continually disappointed by the images that accompany these articles. I don’t know about you, but I’m completely over seeing women frolicking about in the world appearing completely unaffected by their menstrual cycle clad in white skirts and bikinis. I’m tired of red cartoon lines tying into knots to symbolize my menstrual cycle. I’m sick of the clear blue liquid and the complete omission of blood in menstrual product commercials. I’m tired of receiving Google Alerts about menstrual art only to be directed to articles that were too cowardly to post an accompanying image. What kind of mixed message are we sending with this increase in menstrual discussion but continued erasure of menstruation from the visual landscape?

For all of these reasons, I was compelled to curate an art exhibit that exclusively looks at the menstrual cycle and reproductive justice through the eyes of contemporary artists. Widening the Cycle is a social justice art show that threads together global voices to raise consciousness about menstruation and reproductive justice through feminist art. Its mission is to energize the public menstrual dialogue by making the menstrual cycle visible through thought-provoking visual imagery. A diverse collection of 40 artworks will be installed throughout the common areas and four pop-up galleries at the meeting of SMCR and the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at the Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA. Together, we aim to disrupt the status quo and make menstruation visible through this collection of painting, photography, mixed media, sculpture, fiber and video created by artists residing in 10 countries.

Join participating artists Diana Álvarez, Gabriella Boros, Ingrid Goldbloom Bloch, Lucy Madeline and Kyle Peterson for a lively discuss about the power of art on Friday, June 5th during the lunch session entitled Beyond “Menstruation Bathroom”: Stimulating Social Change Through Visualizations of Gendered Blood.

Additionally, there will be an opening reception, open to the public, on Thursday, June 4th from 5 PM – 7 PM. Widening the Cycle will also be open for general public viewing the evenings of June 4th, 5th and 6th.

State of Wonder–Part 3: Wondering about menstrual cycle misconceptions in a fictionalized theory for extended fertility

March 27th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In Parts 1 and 2, I wondered why author Ann Patchett chose not to include information about menstruation, femcare products and birth control that, logically, would have enhanced her novel’s inciting premise—lifelong menstruation and fertility—while retaining the literary integrity of State of Wonder. I believe just a few sentences could have accomplished this.

Now, I wonder about the menstrual cycle misconceptions that underpin Patchett’s proposed explanation for the extended fertility experienced by the Lakashi tribe.

The reader learns with Dr. Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, that the Lakashi women continue to menstruate, ovulate, conceive and give birth into their 70s because they regularly chew the bark of Martin trees found in the Brazilian rainforest. The bark is so effective there are no post-menopausal Lakashi.

The women chew the bark once every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant, because the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. The researchers, led by Dr. Annick Swenson who has been studying the Lakashi for decades, observe the women chewing the bark and collect cervical mucus swabs to monitor their estrogen levels. They dab the swabs on slides for “ferning.”

“No one does ferning anymore,” Marina said. It was the slightly arcane process of watching estrogen grow into intricate fern patterns on slides. No ferns, no fertility.

Dr. Saturn shrugged. “It’s very effective for the Lakashi. Their estrogen levels are quite sensitive to the intake of the bark.”

Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle: Used with permission from Geraldine Matus, Justisse Healthworks for Women

Patchett perpetuates the myth that fertility is all about estrogen. Actually, fertility is dependent upon the cyclic ebb and flow of estrogen and progesterone. As the graphic illustrates, estrogen rises in the pre-ovulatory phase, peaks, then drops dramatically just before ovulation occurs. Post ovulation, estrogen continues to be produced but its effect on cervical mucus is suppressed (no ferns) by the substantially higher level of progesterone which acts upon the endometrium in preparation for pregnancy.

It would make more sense for the Lakashi to chew the bark more often during the pre-ovulatory phase but be repulsed by it post-ovulation as progesterone rises. How neat would that have been? The researchers could have pinpointed ovulation in their study subjects. Oddly, ovulation is not even mentioned.

Furthermore, if intake of the bark raises estrogen levels, chewing the bark every five days would interfere with the post-ovulatory rise of progesterone, throwing the hormonal interplay of estrogen and progesterone required to achieve and support a pregnancy out of whack.

Another issue: Marina is told that by chewing the bark “her window for monthly fertility would be extended from three days to thirteen.” What does this really mean? According to the scientific principles underlying the fertility awareness method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy, the fertile phase starts when fertile-quality cervical mucus is first observed and ends when three dry days have passed. The bark would increase the fertile quality of the mucus and the number of days fertile mucus occurs pre-ovulation, thereby increasing the chances for conception. But sperm can only survive five days, kept viable by the mucus that locks it in the cervical crypts until an egg is released. And that egg will remain viable for only 24 hours. Timing of intercourse still matters. The extended fertility explanation in the novel does not suggest the Martin tree bark has any effect on these accepted reproductive factors.

Am I being too picky? Perhaps. State of Wonder is, after all, a work of fiction. But I expect a seasoned novelist to have researched basic menstrual cycle facts so as not to pose an explanation for extended fertility that doesn’t pass scrutiny. Had Patchett consulted with a menstrual cycle expert, perhaps an SMCR member, she might have imagined a much more plausible scenario. In the actual book I read, there were no acknowledgements to those she may have consulted on the subject.

I loved State of Wonder for all it’s literary complexity that goes far beyond the details related to the menstrual cycle that I have wondered about in this 3-part series. But it’s been fun to explore how one novelist wrote about a subject I am intimately familiar with and to suggest how she might have done it differently.

Ms. March—Menstruation Pin-Up

March 20th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. March: Bursting Through
Year: 2015
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

State of Wonder–Part 2: Wondering about missing femcare products and birth control references

March 6th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In State of Wonder–Part 1, I mused as to why, in a novel revolving around the extended menstruation and fertility of the Lakashi tribe, only the menstrual cycles of the Brazilian women being studied are made visible to the reader. Why does author Ann Patchett ignore the menstrual cycles of the novel’s protagonist, Marina Singh, or the other female research scientists? If they are eating the tree bark responsible for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, their menstrual responses should be of interest to the author.

Failure to mention the scientist’s cycles points to another puzzling omission. There is no reference to menstrual-care products the women would have required while living in the rainforest for years at a time. There was opportunity to do so because a few key scenes are set in the store where research leader Dr. Annick Swenson buys all the provisions for the camp.

Marina must visit the store immediately upon landing in Manaus because the airline has lost her luggage. She has no clothing, no toiletries, none of the necessities for daily living. Why does she not purchase, visibly to the reader, tampons or pads? If not on her first trip to the store, then on her second as she prepares to leave for the remote research camp with Dr. Swenson? She obviously will need such supplies as her weeks in Brazil progress, and the timing of her cycle, as deduced by this reader, suggests she needed them while in Manaus or shortly after arriving at the camp.

I think Patchett’s reason for leaving out this menstrual-related information was not literary, but rather socio-cultural in nature. She tastefully shares the intimate details of the Lakashi women’s menstrual cycles, but can’t find a way—with even a few sentences—to convey this aspect of other female character’s lives? (Exception: Dr. Swenson, whose experiences I avoid mentioning to prevent plot spoilers.) Did she try? Did she resist? If so, why? What a missed opportunity. Marina’s interior dialogue makes it clear she is a still-menstruating woman wondering if motherhood will be in her future. How easy it would have been to use Marina’s need for tampons as a segue to consideration of her fertility.

Which brings me to another menstrual-related omission in the book. There is no reference to the birth control methods used by Marina and one of the female scientists who lives in the research camp with her husband.

Drs. Nancy and Alan Saturn are part of the research team in Brazil. Nancy is eating the bark, enhancing her fertility. Pregnancy is not an objective for this couple; they must be using contraception. The pill would be contra-indicated—a double whammy of exogenous estrogen provided by the pill and the Martin tree bark could have negative consequences. Condoms would break down in the heat. A Mirena IUD might not be at odds with the estrogenic bark, which has another critical medicinal effect the researchers are eager to access. Maybe a copper IUD? A diaphragm? Abstinence? Does it matter? Perhaps not, but why not be daring and tell the reader anyway? Surely the author must have asked herself these questions.

And what about Marina’s choice of birth control? At 42 she is in an intimate relationship with a much older colleague, the man who sent her to Brazil. Contraceptive use is implied but the method is, yet again, invisible. One can assume it was non-hormonal and not an IUD because of what happens at the end of the novel. But why not write one or two sentences along the way to convey this information? Isn’t this what good writers do, litter clues as a novel progresses to set up what happens later?

Ann Patchett chose not to mention the femcare products and birth control methods her characters used in her novel State of Wonder. I can’t help wondering: why?

Continued in State of Wonder—Part 3: Wondering about menstrual cycle misconceptions in postulating a theory of extended fertility

Ms. February—Menstruation Pin-Up

February 20th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents:
Ms. February: Let It Flow #1
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Depo-Provera and Fifty Shades of Grey—The Movie

February 13th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

Dear Readers: The following post first appeared on July 25, 2012, during the media think-piece flurry over the soaring popularity of E.L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. With the movie opening on Valentine’s Day, 2015, I can’t wait to find out if or how Depo-Provera is referenced as the contraceptive choice made for heroine Anastasia Steele by ob-gyn Dr. Greene, a character I have confirmed via IMDb is in the movie. I argued in the post that Depo-Provera as Ana’s birth control method was an unrealistic plot device. Commentary on Fifty Shades has again started to snowball, but I doubt anyone besides myself will have the slightest interest in this facet of the story. I invite readers who get to the theater before I do to report back in the comments section.

Menstrual Considerations in Fifty Shades of Grey

Fine literary fiction it is not, but the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James can certainly claim to be libido-boosting storytelling. Deirdre Donahue at USA Today summarized the books’ appeal in 10 reasons ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has shackled readers. She pretty much nailed it. And she’s read the books, which is more than can be said for other writers, including this one who implied that heroine Anastasia (Ana) Steele signs a contract to become hero Christian Grey’s submissive in a BDSM relationship. She doesn’t.

Until he meets Ana, Christian’s sexual history has included only BDSM relationships, those involving bondage, discipline, dominance, submission and sadomasochism. BDSM plays a role in their love story, but the most sadistic thing that Ana submits to is a shot of Depo-Provera. re:Cycling readers know what I think of this contraceptive: I. Am. Not. A. Fan.

As a menstrual cycle advocate, I pay attention to menstrual mentions wherever they appear. It was impossible for me NOT to hone in on how James handles menstruation and birth control.

Christian quickly ascertains that Ana, a virgin when he meets her, is not using birth control. (His unflinching communication about sexuality is one of the books’ most appealing aspects.) As their sexual affair begins, he uses condoms. Within a week or so he asks when her period is due and says, “You need to sort out some contraception”. But our hero is a rich control freak, so he arranges for “the best ob-gyn in Seattle” to come to his home on a Sunday afternoon. Ana, the narrator:

“After a thorough examination and lengthy discussion, Dr. Greene and I decide on the mini pill. She writes me a prepaid prescription and instructs me to pick the pills up tomorrow. I love her no-nonsense attitude — she has lectured me until she’s as blue as her dress about taking it at the same time every day.”

Alas, Anastasia, just 21, is the perfect example for why researchers with the Contraceptive CHOICE Project are recommending that women under 21 use long-acting reversible contraceptive methods. She forgets to keep taking her pills when she and Christian briefly break up. It’s back to condoms for this couple, until Dr. Greene reappears, confirms Ana is not pregnant, and, after Depo-Provera’s side effects are dismissed as irrelevant because “the side effects of a child are far-reaching and go on for years,” gives her the shot. I almost had to stop reading.

I get it that James uses Depo-Provera as a plot device, as becomes apparent. But the author’s decision to give Ana Depo-Provera is not in keeping with either Dr. Greene’s or Christian’s characters. I don’t believe for one minute that the best ob-gyn in Seattle would give Depo-Provera to any patient; she’d recommend a Mirena IUD. As for control-freak Christian, he is adamantly committed to Anastasia’s safety, evidenced in many ways. He would never consent to her taking a drug with these potential side effects: weight gain, digestive problems, depression, loss of bone density, vaginal dryness, and — especially — loss of sexual sensitivity and desire. Never! And he’s too smart not to know this.

Christian’s occasionally expressed distaste for condoms also seems to be a plot device considering he uses them so skillfully, and without obvious diminishment to either his or Ana’s pleasure, through 986 pages of the 1594-page trilogy. The tearing of foil condom packets is a leitmotif that in no way hinders this man’s exceptional “sexing skills.”

Use Your Period To Help You Pole Dance

February 2nd, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Dana Michelle Gillespie

Editor’s Note: This blog cross-posted from Pole World News.

Pole dancing has quickly become one of the most internationally sought after fitness, sports, and art forms in the world. The pole movement craze is a rapidly growing industry where whole multi-million dollar enterprises and careers have successfully been built. Pole dancing is no stranger to media attention either. The 2010 IPDFA Championship Competition was covered by more than 4000 media outlets in over 120 countries. And it’s celebrity following is similar to that of a female Golden Globes party: Oprah, Marisa Tomei, Cindy Crawford, Heidi Klum, Teri Hatcher, Carmen Electrica, Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey, and Britney Spears — just to name a few.

The love and lure to this beautiful and physically demanding activity can not only bring some bruises and strains to the body but can also be challenging on an emotional and mental level as well. Ask most any pole dancer and you’ll hear an almost addiction type response to their love and enthusiasm of pole dancing. As a female pole dancer — knowing your body is not only an asset but a necessity. And knowing what phase of your female hormonal cycle you’re on can greatly increase your capacity to move and perform at your best, at all times. In the past — the female hormonal cycle was commonly associated with “I’m pms-ing” and maybe “I’m on my time of the month.” Quite often, females felt these two phases on some level with regret and frustration as to the supposed limits they imparted. As women continued to soar in not just the pole community, but the world at large — having every available asset to help us soar with grace and ease — was and is essential. The demand on the female body to perform and feel the same way every day is not only quite limiting, harmful, and invalidating — it’s actually a male thought-form and not conducive to our female well-being; especially when you want to live in balance with your own body and allow it to function at it’s highest potential. Expecting it to feel the same way every day is similar to demanding the earth to have only one season, like winter — every day — all year round. If we didn’t have all the seasons to till and prepare the soil perfectly, healthy food would be very challenging, if not unlikely to grow at all, and survival next to impossible. Females have exclusive access to this amazing ever-changing energy cycle that allows us to effortlessly create and give birth naturally. Birth to babies, businesses, dance performances, better relationships — there is no limit to what a female can give birth to.

It just helps knowing and using your own bodies cycles to create it with more effortless ease. As females both individually and collectively are tapping back into their own body cycle’s inherit smartness, now more than ever, women everywhere are beginning to see their female cycle as giving them access to the different, almost ‘super powers,’ throughout the month. Knowing your phases and what phase you’re on cannot only give you a richer, more loving and fulfilling relationship with yourself, it can also give you your best advantage in life. There are 4 phases of the female hormonal cycle. In medical terms they are recognized as: Menstrual Phase, Follicular Phase, Ovulatory Phase, and Luteal Phase. Commonly they are referred to as: Menstruation/Sage Phase, Pre-Ovulation/Maiden Phase, Ovulation/Mother Phase, and Pre-Menstrual/Enchantress Phase. Once you recognize the strengths and abilities of each phase for yourself — it can propel your life forward. There’s no limit to what you can create and enjoy in your life.

Pre-ovulation/Maiden Phase is a time of physical body lightness and dynamic activity. This phase begins when bleeding ends. The mind is ready for creativity and going out into the world and the body is ready for physical stamina. The chemicals and flow of energy in the body have set up this time to be the best time to organize, plan, create, and be sociable, yet get things done. It’s a great time to plan your dance routines, travels, business endeavors, and test new challenging pole tricks and routines. You’re light and outgoing during this phase, like a maiden, and you like to get s*#t done! A Wonder Women cape would be easily acceptable during this phase.

State of Wonder–Part 1: Wondering about missing menstrual mentions in literature

January 22nd, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In her novel State of Wonder Ann Patchett explores, among many broad themes, the question: What if there were a drug women could take to extend menstruation and fertility into their seventies? Not evident on the dust jacket, this storyline grabbed the attention of this menstrual cycle advocate.

Set mainly in the jungle of Brazil, the novel revolves around the decades-long research of Dr. Annick Swenson who has kept the location and progression of her research secret from the drug company funding her work with the fictional Lakashi tribe. When a male scientist sent by the drug company to find Dr. Swenson and deliver a message is reported dead, Dr. Marina Singh, a research pharmacologist, becomes the second emissary charged with finding Dr. Swenson and assessing her progress towards the promised drug.

Finding Dr. Swenson is a formidable task, but when she does Marina eventually learns the complex botanical explanation for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, as well as the justifiable reasons why the research location has been so scrupulously protected.

This literary novel, a satisfying read, powerfully renders the mystique of the Amazon jungle, conveying both the wonder and trauma Marina experiences there. For an insightful review of State of Wonder I’d recommend Lydia Millet’s. This series of posts is not a review, but rather commentary on the niggling details related to the extended fertility storyline. Spoiler Alert: Some plot points will be revealed.

After a few weeks in the jungle—the timeline is fuzzy—Marina is invited by two other female researchers to the grove of Martin trees where she observes Lakashi women of all ages scraping tree bark with their teeth, a practices she is told that begins at menarche and is the key to their lifelong fertility.

Marina learns the women chew the bark every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant; the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. She is told also that although the women don’t all come to the grove on the same five-day cycle, they’re menstrual periods are “pretty much” synchronous so the researchers “get a few days off every month.” That is, days off from observing them in the grove while taking pin-prick blood samples and collecting cervical mucus swabs to monitor estrogen levels that Dr. Swenson has taught the Lakashi to do themselves with Q-tips. Dr. Swenson’s research team charts and studies every cycle of every menstruating girl and woman.

The researchers tell Marina they also chew the bark and invite her to try it. Here is where, in a story that speaks intimately about the tribal women’s menstrual cycles, I wondered why Patchett did not include even one sentence to acknowledge when Marina had her last period. (At 42 she has thought about her fertility and her prospect of having a child someday.) Because she scrapes the bark one assumes she isn’t menstruating, and she’s been in Brazil long enough–weeks spent in Manaus before getting to the jungle–to have had at least one period. Where is she in her cycle? This matters because of what happens later in the story. So, since menstruation is integral to the novel, why not mention it? And why don’t the other female researchers mention whether their cycles, too, have synchronized with the Lakashi’s?

In most novels, probably too many, the menstrual cycles of female characters are invisible unless they figure prominently in the plot. It made no sense to me that Patchett chose to make Marina’s cycle invisible. Even if readers can deduce this missing information, surely this is the wrong novel in which to require us to do so. Again, I ask, “Why?”

Continued in State of Wonder—Part 2: Wondering about missing menstrual femcare products and birth control references

 

Ms. January—Menstruation Pin-Up

January 16th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents:
Ms. January: The Crimson Wave
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Ms. December—Menstruation Pin-Up

December 19th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. December: Landscape
Cycle: January 2013, Cycle 2
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Menstrual Marking

November 18th, 2014 by David Linton

The idea that animals (male animals, that is) mark territories with urine streams is well established, particularly in the case of dogs, wolves, and other similar breeds. It seems that men too (notably adolescent boys) engage in some sort of marking practices when it comes to failure to flush urinals or toilets in public (and sometimes domestic) facilities.

A story by Haruki Murakami in a recent New Yorker magazine (Oct. 13, 2014; pg. 100+) depicts a teenage girl who uses a menstrual product as a way of marking territory as well. Murakami’s character is a middle-aged woman in a story titled “Scheherazade” who, in the course of a string of post-coital sharing moments, confides to the narrator a time in her adolescence when she was obsessed with a boy in her high school. Too shy to approach him personally, she would occasionally sneak into his home and peruse the contents of his bedroom. Eventually she stole several of his personal objects – a pencil, soccer insignia, sweaty tee shirt – and leaves something of her own hidden in the back of a drawer or under some old notebooks. In addition to a few strands of her hair, she hides the most personal object she can think of:

“Finally, I decided to leave a tampon behind. An unused one, of course, still in its plastic wrapper. . . . I hid it at the very back of the bottom drawer, where it would be difficult to find. That really turned me on. The fact that a tampon of mine was stashed away in his desk drawer. Maybe it was because I was so turned on that my period started almost immediately after that.”

When she returns to the house on several later trips she always checks to see that the tampon is still in place and delights that it has remained in the boy’s drawer. The tampon comes to be described as “a token” that represents her unrequited crush on the boy who is barely aware of her existence. Eventually she comes to associate her erotic attraction with her menstrual cycle, even thinking about the boy’s masturbation as being compared to her period, “All those sperm had to go somewhere, just as girls had to have periods.” Finally, the boy’s parents discover that someone has been invading their home and change the locks so that her trespasses are ended. But the story’s exploration of the erotic associations of menstrual details is fascinating and fairly rare.

Furthermore, the fact that this is a male author’s take on the topic probably makes it somewhat unreliable even though it claims to be told through the words of a woman’s reminiscences. Readers are invited to respond with mention of other stories that explore both the erotic and territorial marking potential of menstrual products and blood.

Ms. November—Menstruation Pin-Up

November 14th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

In honor of our 2 year anniversary, Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. November: Floral #1
Cycle: November 2012 
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis
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.