Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

“Home Made Menstrual Period for Game-Playing With Doctors”

May 14th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

(photo by Holly Grigg-Spall)

In the past few weeks I have been meeting with women’s health activist Carol Downer to collaborate on a new book. She shared with me a work published in 1969 that was a catalyst for her development of the self-help movement and feminist women’s health clinics – ‘The Abortion Handbook’ by Patricia Maginnis and Lana Clark Phelan – which is extremely hard to get hold of these days (Carol found her current copy on Ebay for a significant sum). This book has a strikingly contemporary tone- snarky, conversational, with a lot of black humor. It is also conspiratorial with very much an “us” (women) against “them” (medical establishment) tone. It’s something like ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ by Helen Gurley Brown, but with a recipe for a “home made hemorrhage” instead of a “fabulous dinner.”  That is, the writers outline ways in which women could circumvent the restrictions on abortion access of the time in creative, guerrilla-style ways in order to have a legal abortion. One of these is getting an IUD inserted in the early stages of pregnancy.

In an chapter entitled ‘The Loop Can Be Your Little Friend’ the writers provide women who have missed a period with a plan for persuading a doctor to insert an IUD, when, at the time, it was required that this be done during a woman’s menstruation, in part, it is claimed here, to ensure that an abortion would not be the outcome. Firstly the woman makes the appointment as soon as possible, not waiting for a pregnancy test to confirm, as, they say, she can always pull the IUD out herself later if she doesn’t want it as a contraceptive. Then:

“Buy some raw, fresh beef liver…dip your well-scrubbed forefinger into the blood on the raw liver and rub this bloody finger into your vaginal tract. Go way up, beyond your cervix, not just the opening. Menstrual blood collects in the back of the vagina, so be sure and put some there to make it look more authentic…if you wear a tampon, use a bit more blood before you insert it so there will be discoloration on the tampon. Do not remove the tampon before you see the doctor or loop-installer…if you use an external sanitary napkin, smear a bit of beef blood down the center of the napkin just as your natural menstrual flow would be distributed…not side-to-side and end-to-end like butter on bread.

(Sorry if this makes you feel sick, but this whole business nauseates us. We’d like to get out of this whole trickery business, and we will, just as soon as doctors get out of the abortion business so all this planned deception can stop)

Be sure to smear your vaginal interior lightly also, as this napkin-evidence may be removed by a nurse, and it would be hard to explain you nice, bloodless vagina after that bloody napkin. For heaven’s sake, don’t douche before adding your bloody, dramatic “proof of period.” Keep yourself naturally revolting and smelly to get even for this humiliation.”

Once the IUD is installed the writers suggest the woman go about exercising vigorously, swimming, horse back riding, dancing, moving pianos and having sex in order to help the IUD act as a fertilized embryo remover. They conclude:

“This has worked many times for desperate women lacking money for proper medical care, and who hadn’t the stomach for self-surgery. It is certainly worth a trial. Except for your spiritual humiliation for being forced to deception, it is certainly harmless to you physically.”

Reading this I was reminded of how today we see menstrual activists stain white jeans with fake menstrual blood to confront the menstrual taboo in public or create accessories like the Stains by Chella Quint, that are an attachable fake period of sorts, in order to question the need to be secretive about this natural bodily function. On the television show ‘Nashville’ a main character used animal blood to fake a miscarriage for the observation of her husband in order that he remain married to her (it’s complicated, but a great show, you should check it out!). I was also reminded of the study from 2012 that claimed 38% of women have used having their period as a way to avoid an activity they did not want to do at the time. 20% said they have used their period as an excuse not to go into work. The study did not show how many women are actually having their period when they do this or how many are pretending to be having their period.

In Honor of (a Sampling of) our Brave Menstrual Champions!

November 26th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

The recent death of writer Doris Lessing led me to revisit her work a bit. *

Author of more than 50 books as well as an opera, Lessing was brave. She spanned genres, refused to tow a singular ideological line and used her Nobel Prize moment to remind us that privilege shapes greatness as much, even more perhaps, than talent.  And Lessing wrote about menstruation when few others dared.

In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf journals on the first day of her period—chronicling every thought and feeling her menses produced for her. In the passage below, Wulf’s disgust with her body is hardly a menstrual-positive standpoint (and isn’t something off with her cycle if she detects such an offensive smell?). But there is an honesty, here. A broken silence. Lessing brought to the fore the reality of the fraught and conflicted menstruating body in the early 1960s, and that was a bold move.

I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool … I roll tampons into my handbag, concealing them under a handkerchief … The fact that I am having my period is no more than an entrance into an emotional state, recurring regularly, that is of no particular importance … A man said he would be revolted by the description of a woman defecating. I resented this … but he right … For instance, when Molly said to me … I‘ve got the curse; I have instantly to suppress distaste, even though we are both women; and I begin to be conscious of the possibility of bad smells … and I begin to worry: Am I smelling? It is the only smell that I know of that I dislike. … But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent. It is a smell that I feel as strange even to me, an imposition from outside. Not from me. Yet for two days I have to deal with this thing from outside—a bad smell, emanating from me. … So I shut the thoughts of my period out of my mind; making, however, a mental note that as soon as I get to the office I must go to the washroom to make sure there is no smell (pp. 339-340).

Lessing is not alone among the brave who dare to Speak a Menstrual Language. In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I offer this shout out to a short list of  the courageous who inspire. Thank you menstrual champions.

Rachel Horn, of Sustainable Cycles, who cycled coast to coast this summer, promoting menstrual literacy and menstrual cup awareness.

Holly Grigg-Spall, who has put herself on the line with her new book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Grigg-Spall has been challenged, sometimes pretty nastily, for suggesting that one can use a feminist reproductive justice lens to be critical of the pill.

And how about radical feminist pioneer of queer cinema, Barbara Hammer. Her 1974 expeimental film Menses playfully interprets, though a group of women enacting their own individual fantasies, what menstruation means to them. 1974!

Menarchists Jaqueline J. Gonzalez and Stephanie Robinson, who founded the Menstrual Activist Research Collective (M.A.R.C) in 2011, and just released their line of menstrual gear (http://www.etsy.com/shop/menarchists) at cost so you can help them spread the good word, or as they put, leave your MARC! We bleed. It is okay. We bleed. 

Then there’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, the self described “school dropout” (and now the subject of a new documentary) who developed a table top machine that rural Indian women can use to produce and sell low cost single use menstrual pads. He wants to make life easier for Indian women (and he is not interested in getting rich). Yes, there are sustainability issues, here, but there’s also a widening of options for women.

Used with Permission

Every teenager who, on the way to the school toilet, ever dared to walk down the hall with femcare-product-of-choice in open view. 

Every menstruator who hangs cloth pads on the clothesline with the rest of the laundry.

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.

Portnoy’s (Menstrual) Complaint

January 1st, 2013 by David Linton

One way of telling how comfortable a man is with the biological facts of women’s lives is how he responds to calls for him to go shopping for menstrual products or to have physical contact with a woman’s menses.

Depictions of this challenge have occasionally been a subject of humor on TV shows such as in the episode of King of the Hill titled “Aisle # 8″ in which the bumbling Hank Hill has to enter the fearful menstrual aisle of a supermarket or, for contrast, in an episode of Californication when the father of a daughter who has just had her first period heroically fends off other customers to get her the last package of pads on the shelf.

An early literary description of a menstrual product shopping moment, one that was deeply traumatic for the character, is in Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Set in a psychoanalyst’s office during a single rambling session, Alex Portnoy relates a terrifying incident from his childhood when, at the age of eleven, his mother sent him out to buy a box of Kotex:

“It was years later that she called from the bathroom, Run to the drugstore! bring a box of Kotex! immediately! And the panic in her voice. Did I run! And then at home again, breathlessly handed the box to the white fingers that extended themselves at me through a narrow crack in the bathroom door. . . Though her menstrual troubles eventually had to be resolved by surgery, it is difficult nevertheless to forgive her for having sent me on that mission of mercy. Better she should have bled herself out on our cold bathroom floor, better that than to have sent an eleven-year-old boy in hot pursuit of sanitary napkins!” (43-44)

Whew! Now there’s a Freudian field day, and from a time when Freudian technique was in full fashion. More than 30 years later, in The Dying Animal (2001 ), another Roth character seems to have made some progress, at least on the surface. Perhaps his analysis has succeeded. A senior professor, the 62-year-old David Kepesh, plays out an erotic fantasy with a 24-year-old graduate student, Consuela Castillo. Kepesh, a serial womanizer who considers himself an erotic master, is stunned when she tells him that a former boyfriend liked to watch her take out her tampon, realizing that he has never done anything like that. His sexual competitiveness requires that he immediately enact the same scene. However, the act throws him into a state of Portnoy-like humiliation:

“Then came the night that Consuela pulled out her tampon and stood there in my bathroom, with one knee dipping toward the other and, like Mantegna’ Saint Sebastian, bleeding in a trickle down her thighs while I watched. Was it thrilling? Was I delighted? Was I mesmerized? Sure, but again I felt like a boy. I had set out to demand the most from her, and when she shamelessly obliged, I wound up again intimidating myself. There seemed nothing to be done – if I wished not to be humbled completely by her exotic matter-of-factness – except to fall to my knees to lick her clean. Which she allowed to happen without comment. Making me into a still smaller boy.” (71-72)

Though there are more scenes in this book and others by Roth that employ menstrual details to capture character and advance plots, these two embody deep-seated male confusion and anxiety about how to deal with menstrual encounters. The candor Roth exhibits, as is often the case with his writing, is admirable for its openness to exploring taboos, but one also wishes he was able to provide more nuanced treatments of women’s experiences as well. Perhaps we should turn to Joyce Carol Oates in search of such treatments. Perhaps in a future post.

Making Menstruation Matter–a new award 40 years in the making

September 3rd, 2012 by Chris Bobel

In 1978, feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem penned a brilliant satire first appearing in Ms magazine and later in her collected essays  Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. In it, she blew the lid off how gender ideology (read: sexism) shapes how we “do” menstruation.

Nearly 40 years old, this piece STILL hums. Have you read it?

Where tongue meets cheek, Steinem was able to break the menstrual taboo of concealment in under 1000 words. Her bold thought experiment stimulated a conversation that we will keep having until something big shifts in the menstrual discourse.

Until then, Steinem wryly asks:

So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?


Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:


Men would brag about how long and how much.


Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.


To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.


Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.

Nearly 40 years out, this prose should be nothing more than a quaint artifact of how things USED TO BE. It should be as relevant today as powder blue leisure suits, wide belts and platform shoes. But the gendered root of the menstrual taboo endures.

Because “If Men Could Menstruate”, near and dear to menstrual cycle advocates old and new, and emblematic of Steinen’s long career of speaking up for women and girls, the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research is pleased to announce that Ms. Gloria Steinem has been chosen as the first recipient of the newly established Making Menstruation Matter award.  This award recognizes a journalist, activist, artist, public figure or organization that has meaningfully contributed to the public understanding of menstrual cycle-related issues. The intention of the award is to honor and encourage thoughtful dialogue about the menstrual cycle beyond the academy.

Timing is everything.

At the same time that “If Men Could Menstruate” was published, The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research was forming. Now more than 3 decades later, it seems most appropriate to honor the courage Gloria Steinem has shown throughout her career in articulating and calling attention to women’s realities and imagine something better. To quote Peggy Stubbs, SMCR president:

The intersection of her lifetime achievements and our Society’s interests, is no doubt, an example of how far-reaching Ms. Steinem’s work has extended. For our part, we want to let her know that her work has and continues to energize ours. And we know there are others who, like us, have been and are similarly inspired by Ms. Steinem to continue to work in their own ways to enhance the quality of girls’ and women’s lives.

SMCR will present the award to Steinem during the 20th biennial conference, to be held in NYC, June 6-8 2013. Details on attending the conference and the award ceremony are available here.

Join us to honor Gloria Steinem and hear her remarks about a piece that is timeless, but shouldn’t be.

Menstrual Considerations in Fifty Shades of Grey

July 25th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy are revealed in this post.

Second book in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

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”.

But James gets full marks for this: Christian Grey is not afraid of blood. While making love in a spacious hotel bathroom, he gently removes Ana’s tampon and tosses it in the toilet. Later, sitting on the bathroom floor, Ana remembers she has her period:

“I’m bleeding,” I murmur.

“Doesn’t bother me,” he breathes.

Fog Warning Ahead

March 29th, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

As I embark on my 40th year I look ahead to menopause. I guess there is a good chance I’m approaching some foggy years. Brain fog, that is.

In the past week a flurry of online news articles review new research findings on the “brain fog” that many perimenopausal women experience. The brain fog is more easily understood as a slight memory problem, if you take the time to read through the various news stories. A new study analyzed how 75 individual women, aged 40 to 60, rated their memory performance based on factors like how often they forgot details and how serious their forgetfulness was. Researchers also gathered information about the women’s overall health, mood and hormone levels, as well as other menopausal symptoms, and tried to figure out the extent to which this “brain fog” exists. According to news reports, about 41 percent of the women in the study reported having forgetfulness that was “serious,” and those who felt that their memory problems were serious were more likely to score poorly on tests of working memory and attention. Some women who rated their memory problems as serious also reported some depression and other symptoms like hot flashes and sleeping problems. Other researchers suggest that the memory problems women experience are related to changing levels of estrogen in a woman’s body at menopause, but interestingly this new study did not find links to changing hormone levels.

The whole notion of “brain fog” is interesting, and I am suspicious of it as a strictly menopausal symptom. What about the brain fog we all experience when we’re tired or sick or just way too busy? Defining brain fog as a “menopausal” (really, perimenopausal) symptom further defines middle-aged women as somehow less than functional and set them up to be taken less seriously.

Putting this issue aside, though, what I actually find most interesting about all of the news coverage of this study is just how different each report of the study is. I am reminded that we should all be careful of which report we read about a study. For example, the first article I read on this study was placed in the Los Angeles Times and focused on the possible connections between menopausal brain fog, depression, and dementia. I was left feeling like the author of the article inferred that all menopausal women might have depression or dementia and that they should seek treatment. After reading this article I was angry because I felt as if I had been warned that midlife brain fog was the beginning of an inevitable decline for all women. Then I read a WedMD piece that simply described the study and did not concentrate on depression, dementia, or the need for treatment, and I wasn’t really sure what to make of the research study. Finally I read an article by a HealthDay reporter which quoted one of our own, SMCR member Nancy Wood, who reminds readers that “a number of other stressors in life, from work to taking care of children and parents, that pile up around the same time as menopause can hinder memory and ability to concentrate.” In addition, this article’s author states that “memory problems are not necessarily an early sign of dementia” and cognitive ability is regained after other perimenopausal symptoms subside. This third article concluded that the research study is helpful because findings suggest that brain fog is real – that women aren’t crazy – but that it is normal and not that detrimental to women’s long-term cognitive abilities.

Of course, nothing is a substitute for reading the original article published by Miriam Weber and her co-authors this March in the journal, Menopause. But if you need a quick synopsis of what a research study finds just make sure you know its source and think about whether the coverage of the details makes sense! I for one like the tone of the HealthDay news article – that, if brain fog exists, it is temporary and normal and could be caused by lots of things. It is not necessarily an indicator of depression or dementia or even a permanent memory problem.

Misogyny, Medicine, or Menstrual Madness?

February 29th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Lydia Aponte — Marymount Manhattan College

In Professor David Linton’s Social Construction and Images of Menstruation course, our class watched two documentaries involving menstruation and menstrual suppression. Both Period: The End of Menstruation? and Red Moon addressed what is becoming an increasingly concerning topic: now that menstrual suppression in the form of birth control is becoming more and more readily available – and is even being promoted to specifically stop or slow the menstrual cycle – is menstruation necessary?

Many women, including myself, have asked themselves this very question – some because of the monthly cramps that have reduced us to a fetal position, some because of the awkward situations that menstrual stigma has put us in. Yet, many women still do not question it because menstruation is believed to be a natural occurrence that must happen because, well, that’s just life. What happens, on the other hand, when a man questions the necessity of menstruation? Or even further, does something about it? Meet Dr. Elsimar Coutinho.

From São Paulo, Brazil, Dr. Coutinho appeared briefly in Red Moon avidly disputing the necessity of menstruation. He believes that it is not necessary, because “what is the use of an ovulation if it does not result in a pregnancy?” I was initially stunned by his intensity when it came to the subject, not only because of his stance against menstruation, but because of the role he seemed to be playing. It seemed as if Dr. Coutinho were playing the “mad scientist,” distributing birth control to women and spreading the word that menstruation was “unnecessary” and “unnatural.” So I decided to look up this “character,” and came upon Dr. Coutinho’s biography page. Of course, the first paragraph of his bio was nothing but praise: “Dr. Elsimar Coutinho is, unquestionably, a man born to make history. For more than 50 years, his research and discoveries in the fields of human health and reproduction have broken paradigms and brought down millenary concepts.” (For a man who made history, I had never heard his name before Red Moon.)

Yet, I was more taken aback by how he had been quoted regarding menstruation. “My greatest contribution to humanity was to realize that menstruation was unnecessary, a disposable phenomena.” (Coutinho, E.M.) Not only is a doctor refuting the biological necessity of menstruation, which alone is jarring, but a man is refuting the necessity of a cycle highly regarded by many women, including myself, as a symbol of womanhood and deeming it “disposable.” Not only is Dr. Coutinho refuting it, he is actively taking measures to suppress menstruation through his research and practices.

If menstruation equals womanhood to so many, and Dr. Coutinho believes that menstruation is unnecessary, what is he saying about the beliefs and values that many people hold in regards to femininity? According to his philosophy, those,too, would be disposable. Dr. Coutinho’s suggestions — although questionable — have caused me to ask these questions: has something I regarded a natural part of my female biology been unnecessary this entire time? Is the human body wrong, and is Coutinho seeking to correct it with medicine? Or is misogyny still a key player in the menstrual realm?

Margaret Atwood’s Menstrual Dystopia

February 27th, 2012 by David Linton

The menstrual cycle has been of interest to novelists from time to time and some of their work has received critical attention by scholars, most notably in Dana Medoro’s Bleeding in America, a seminal study that assesses the menstrual elements in the novels of Faulkner, Pynchon, and Morrison (previously reviewed here).  But perhaps the novel that is devoted most completely to the social, political, religious, cultural and economic impact of disruptions in the healthy functioning of the menstrual cycle is Margaret Atwood’s 1985 depiction of a menstrual dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Now, 27 years after its publication, the novel resonates with relevance to the current circumstances of our lives.  As such, it deserves recognition along with those other prescient novels of a dysfunctional future, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984.

Atwood envisions a world in which, due to a combination of environmental disasters, most women have become incapable of conceiving, leading to the creation of a cadre of “handmaids” who still have normal menstrual cycles and who are assigned to the leaders (“Commanders”) of the nation to bear them children who are immediately turned over to their infertile wives.  They enact a weird form of surrogacy patterned after the story in Genesis of Rachel’s handmaid having sex with Jacob so that Rachel can have a child.  The handmaids (who do not have names of their own but instead are referred to as possessions of their Commanders with the prefix “of,” as in OfFred) have sex by lying between the legs of the Commander’s wife so as to pretend that the congress is “normal.”  The fiction is continued when a birth occurs with the wife simulating labor surrounded by other wives while the handmaid delivers the child elsewhere.

The novel is prescient on many levels.  Our own concerns with the potential effects of environmental contamination on reproduction are strikingly anticipated:

“The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. . . . Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers.  Not to mention the exploding atomic power plants. . . and the mutant strain of syphilis no mold could touch.” (143-144)

As a result, the birth rate plummets far below replacement level, schools are closed for lack of children and fertility becomes a rare commodity that is carefully controlled as women still capable of conceiving are doled out as special benefits to the rulers of the state.  All of this occurs in the context of a culture of religious fanaticism with a full complement of hypocrisy and brutality common to extremes of any stripe.

Key scenes are built around gynecological exams, menstrual anxiety, failed attempts at impregnation: all aspects of cycle management.  Every moment of the narrator’s life centers on her identity as a potential producer: “Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.” (95)

As we experience today’s resurgence of efforts to control or limit women’s reproductive options and the tangled skein of regulations, insurance restrictions, religious assertions, and political posturing, The Handmaid’s Tale makes for timely reading.

Menstrual Moments in Modelland

January 25th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Jaime Hough

 

Tyra Banks wrote a young adult fantsy novel. And it’s a NYT bestseller. The book, titled Modelland, is about the journey of one awkward-looking girl who is whisked away to a magical boarding school which trains girls to become supermodels with superpowers, known as Intoxibellas. It’s kind of like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter revolved around modeling and was a battle between conventional and unconventional beauty rather than good and evil.

But I’m probably making it sound bad and it’s not, really. Modelland is the story of Tookie de la Crème,1 a girl unnoticed by her classmates and mostly ignored by her family, whose life is turned upside down when she is recruited for Modelland. The reader follows Tookie to and through her first year at Modelland as she, along dozens of other girls, trains for the chance to become one of seven Intoxibellas, supermodels with superpowers, in her graduating class. At Modelland Tookie makes her first real friends while becoming embroiled in a mystery involving the school’s headmistress, known as the BellaDonna, and the world’s mysteriously missing foremost supermodel, Ci~L.2

I read Modelland because I was curious and because I have long been fascinated by the public persona of Tyra Banks. What can I say? We all have our guilty pleasures. Most of Modelland is, for the most part, what you would expect, especially if you’re familiar with Tyra’s moneymaker, America’s Next Top Model. However, I was completely surprised by the fact that Banks chose to use menstruation as a key plot device to develop Tookie’s character. Below are excerpts from the book dealing with menstruation and my brief analysis of how these menstrual moments [MMs] function in the novel and could potentially function for the intended reader.

 

MM1: Not Yet A Woman

Menstrual Moment One comes near the beginning of the book when Tookie has just come home from her day at school and the readers are being introduced to her dysfunctional family. In particular, we’ve just met Tookie’s younger, dumb blonde little sister, Myrracle.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Myrracle said, frustrated. “I’m on my periodical right now! It makes me forgetful!”

“It’s period, not periodical!” Tookie growled.

Myrracle smirked. “How do you know? You haven’t even gotten yours yet!”

Tookie turned away, her face flooded with heat. Myrracle never resisted the urge to reminder her that she had gotten her period already, even though she was two years younger.3

 

MM2: Menarche

In Menstrual Moment Two Tookie has just spent her first night at Modelland and is about to start her first day of classes. We follow her as she prepares for class.

 

Disoriented, Tookie stumbled into the large, sterile-looking community bathroom. As she did, a dull pain shot through her legs, hips, and stomach. She doubled over, feeling as though she was about to vomit. Perfect, she though. I’m sick on the first day of school. . .All at once , every single girl in the bathroom doubled over in pain, gripping her stomach and back just as Tookie had. . .Tookie shut her eyes, wincing again with another pain. “Piper, my back and tummy are killing me!” she whispered.

Piper shrugged. “Join the club, Tookie. Every new Bella started menstruating at the exact same time this morning.”

“Wait. What?

“You’ve never heard of menstrual synchrony, or the dormitory effect?” Piper asked. “Menstrual synchrony is a theory that suggest that the menstruation cycles of women who cohabitate-think army barracks, female penitentiaries, convents, and university dormitories—synchronize over time. It usually takes months for the alignment to occur but her at Modelland, it seems to have happened in twenty-four hours.”

“But I’ve never gotten my period before this,” Tookie whispered.

“Well, Tookie, looks like you’re a woman now,” Piper said.

Tookie was about to protest—there was no way she was any more womanly today than she had been the day before—but all of a sudden, she felt that perhaps something in her had changed. Those abdominal pains made so much sense, after all. And that certainly made them more bearable—for once, she felt normal, like everyone else.4

Literary Menstruphobia – Part II

September 13th, 2011 by David Linton

Speculation about the private lives of historic figures is always a dicey thing. The task is made more difficult depending on how long ago the individual lived, how well known they were in the first place, whether they or their acquaintances wrote about them, whether there is an epistolary trail of letters to and from others that have not been destroyed or lost, etc. Furthermore, the more intimate the aspect of the life under investigation, the more likely it is that there is little evidence to lead to reliable conclusions. Hence, when it comes to sexual practices, preferences, and prejudices, conclusions are often highly speculative.

(How different our present personal historical records are with their endless streams of Facebook revelations and confessions, YouTube postings, uninvited tagging, cell phone and email hackings, endless streams of digital photographs and videos.)

Which brings us to the intriguing case of John Ruskin, a botched honeymoon, and the unconsummated marriage.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was perhaps the preeminent English art critic and social commentator of the 19th Century. His collected writings run to 26 volumes of well over 400 pages each, and there have been numerous biographies, dissertations, and scholarly treatises about him and his work covering at least five shelves of even a modest college library. His diaries, letters and journals have also been published. It seems he believed that every thought that crossed his mind was worth preserving and scholars seem to think it’s all worth reading.

The most intriguing personal detail centers on his relationship with his wife. At the age of 29 Ruskin married Effie Gray, a woman 9 years his junior. According to letters and documents separately written by both of them they did not consummate the marriage on their honeymoon. And, by the time Effie sued for an annulment six years later, they still hadn’t.

In a letter to her father following her separation from Ruskin, Effie explained what went wrong, “Finally this last year he told me his true reason, . . . that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife is that he was disgusted with my person the first evening.” But the question remains, exactly what was it about Effie’s body that repulsed her new husband? Biographers have speculated that her pubic hair turned him off because his notion of female beauty was formed by the hairless bodies of classical statuary and paintings; or perhaps she had a strong body odor.

Now that the mention of menstruation has become increasingly acceptable in all realms of society, it is thought that Effie’s period may have been the culprit. This is the line taken in a new book titled, Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. Of course, we will never know for sure what John Ruskin’s real hang-ups were. However, the fact that male menstrual ignorance was so thorough at the time makes it reasonable to suggest menstruphobia as a likely explanation for his lost libido. Furthermore, the fact that scholars entertain and write about the possibility and that the detail is included in a male-authored review of the scholarship in The New York Times constitutes yet another sign of shifts in the menstrual ecology. (For a full review of Effie in The New York Times, see Charles McGrath, “Victorian goddess, a Real Wife and a Sour Marriage,” June 22, 2011, pg. C-4.)

To make matters even more interesting, there is currently in production a new film titled “Effie” co-authored by Emma Thomson and her husband Greg Wise, with Dakota Fanning cast in the role of the frustrated Mrs. Ruskin. It will be fascinating to see if menstruation plays a role in the plight of the relationship. Stay tuned for future developments.

Literary Menstruphobia, Part I

September 1st, 2011 by David Linton

The taboos against menstrual sex are ancient and deep-seated.  Despite the well established fact that sexual intercourse during the period is not medically counter-indicated nor somehow debilitating to women and, furthermore, that some women find the experience more pleasurable than the non-menstrual variety, the prejudice lingers on.  What’s more intriguing is the ways and places that menstrual sexual phobias are made manifest.

According to several literary and cinematic biographies, two of the most revered figures in the English language critical and literary cannon may have been so traumatized by menstrual encounters on their honeymoons that they swore off sex for evermore.

In 1994 a British biopic named “Tom & Viv” offered up the sad story – we might call it an anti-romance – of the poet T.S. Eliot and his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood (played by Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson) who eloped in 1915.  According to the IMDB summary, the film depicts how “her longstanding gynecological and emotional problems disrupt their planned honeymoon.”  In fact, what the scene shows is that Eliot is so appalled by his wife’s menstrual condition – the sheets are awash in the results of her heavy flow – that he nearly goes into shock.  His repulsion is so great that he has to leave her for a walk on the beach where he wades fully clothed in the waves to cleanse himself.

The entire film consists of little more that a series of scenes in which Viv causes one embarrassing emotional fracas after another in desperate attempts to gain the affection of her increasingly alienated, cold and aloof husband.  There is little doubt that hormonal imbalances are the cause of her instability as early in the film a close mother-daughter conversation conveys the fact that she is perpetually on the brink of yet another menstrual misstep.

Eventually, Eliot has his wife committed to a mental institution where she spends the rest of her life, even after she enters menopause and, we are told and shown, she has become calm and serene.

The YouTube clip that is posted from the film does not include the crucial honeymoon bloody sheets scene but, at over eleven minutes in length, it does display quite a few of the scenes demonstrating Viv’s hormonal flare ups.  Though the film might deserve a subtitle like “Beware the Menstrual Monster,” it does give Miranda Richardson an opportunity to chew up every piece of available scenery.

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.