A few weeks back I did an interview with Leslie Botha regarding the distribution of Depo Provera to women in developing countries. Recently Leslie shared with me an email she received from someone working in a family planning clinic in Karnataka, India. He described how he was providing the Depo Provera injection to women and finding that, after they stopped using it, they were not experiencing menstruation for up to nine months. He asked for advice – “what is the procedure to give them normal monthly menses….is there any medicine?”
I have written previously about one potential problem of providing women with Depo Provera – the possibility of continuous spotting and bleeding that would not only be distressing with no warning that this might happen and no medical support, but could also be difficult to navigate in a place with poor sanitation or with strong menstrual taboos. As women in developed countries are so very rarely counseled on side effects of hormonal methods of contraception, it seems unlikely women in developing countries receive such information. As we know, some women will instead experience their periods stopping entirely during use of the shot and, as we see from this email and from the comments on other posts written for this blog, long after use.
In this context I find it interesting that the Gates Foundation’s programs for contraception access have a very public focus on Depo Provera. The method was mentioned again by Melinda Gates in a recent TED interview and when she was interviewed as ‘Glamor magazine Woman of the Year’ the shot was front-and-center of the discussion of her work. Yet the Foundation also funds programs that provide support for menstrual management and sanitation. Continuous bleeding from the shot, or cessation of bleeding altogether, would seem to be an important connecting factor between these two campaigns.
Much has been written on the menstrual taboo in India and how this holds women back. In the US we have come to embrace menstrual suppression as great for our health and our progress as women. We see menstruation as holding women back in a variety of ways. However, in India could lack of menstruation also be seen as a positive outcome? Instead of dealing with the menstrual taboo with expensive programs that provide sanitary products and education, might suppressing menstruation entirely be seen as a far more cost-effective solution? It may seem like a stretch, but I am surprised this has not been brought up during debates about the need for contraceptive access in developing countries. Yet of course, the menstrual taboo may well extend to absence of menstruation – a woman who does not experience her period might also be treated suspiciously or poorly.
When Melinda Gates says women “prefer” and “request” Depo Provera I always wonder whether that’s after they’ve been told how it works (perhaps described as a six-month invisible contraception) or after they’ve had their first shot or after they’ve been on it for two years and then, via FDA guidelines, must find an alternative? How much follow up is there? As the self-injectable version is released widely how will women be counseled? Gates argues that the invisibility of the method is part of the draw as women do not have to tell their partners they are using contraception, but what happens when they bleed continuously or stop entirely?
It seems to me like there might be a real lack of communication – both between medical practitioners and their patients, drug providers and the practitioners, and those who fund these programs with everyone involved. It is often argued that the risks of pregnancy and childbirth in developing countries justify almost any means to prevent pregnancy – including the use of birth control methods that cause health issues. How much feedback are groups like the Gates Foundation getting on women’s preferences if they seem to be so unaware of the potential problems, even those that would greatly impact their wider work?
For those living in or around New York City, the New York Public Library currently has an exhibition called “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” As the title suggests, the exhibit looks at popular children’s stories—consisting of The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins to Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking) and Goodnight Moon—from a historical perspective and examines the cultural impact of books and stories on society.
When I visited the exhibit one section caught my attention: books that have been censored. There were the usual “culprits” including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so censored because of its use of racial epithets and stereotypes. Also represented was The Diary of a Young Girl in which Anne Frank describes her own genitalia. The library highlighted that portion of the diary so visitors could read Anne’s description:
Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you’re standing, so you can’t see what’s inside. They separate when you sit down, and they’re very red and quite fleshy on the inside. In the upper part, between the outer labia, there’s a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That’s the clitoris.
Anne’s narrative of her own body is an honest picture of the female body and I was pleasantly surprised that the New York Public Library decided to enlarge the text and bring such attention to it.
Another book mentioned is an obvious classic in the menstrual world, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume. As a menstrual scholar I was waiting to read how the discussion of puberty and menstruation was deemed too much and the book was censored for such depictions. However, the enlarged book page that accompanied the exhibit was from the section where Margaret laments her lack of breasts and eventually asks her mother for her first bra:
All through supper I thought about how I was going to tell my mother I wanted to wear a bra. I wondered why she hadn’t ever asked me if I wanted one, since she knew so much about being a girl.
When she came in to kiss me goodnight I said it. “I want to wear a bra.” Just like that—no beating around the bush.
I was a bit surprised that the library chose this portion of the book to use as an example. The seemingly tame thoughts about wanting a bra counter the more graphic description of the female body that Anne Frank mentions in her diary. Furthermore, menstruation was never mentioned as for the reasons why Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. was censored (the word “puberty” was mentioned, though).
David Linton and Saniya Lee Ghanoui
Since its publication in 1974, Steven King’s story of a young girl whose telekinetic powers are activated by a humiliating menstrual experience has fascinated readers, movie goers, and theater audiences ever since. Now, with the release of a new film (recently out on DVD) treatment of the story by the director Kimberly Peirce (director of another film with powerful menstrual moments, Boys Don’t Cry) the saga is on the popular radar once again. This is at least the seventh rendering the novel has received, beginning with Brian De Palma’s film in 1976 followed by a 1988 Broadway musical, a sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2) in 1999, a made-for-TV version in 2002, an off-Broadway revival in 2012 (previously reviewed on re:Cycling), and, along the way at least two camp parodies in which Carrie is played by a male actor in drag. What makes the story so enduring? Or, in show-biz language, what gives it such strong legs?
There’s something about the mysterious nature of menstruation that compels both awe and fear, particularly in men and others who have internalized the prevailing menstrual phobias. Steven King has claimed that the inspiration for the story occurred while he was working as a janitor’s assistant in a high school and, while they were cleaning the girls’ locker room, asked what the dispenser machine on the wall was for. The man replied, “They’re pussy plugs.” Thus, the girls chant at the panicked Carrie while they pelt her with tampons and pads from a broken machine, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
In DePalma’s Carrie this “plug it up” scene is a catalyst for Carrie’s telekinetic powers, but that is where the direct menstrual references end. Not so in Peirce’s version. What is most striking about this latest remake is the way Peirce uses technology and social media to further publicize the menstrual horror that Carrie experiences. Chris, the antagonist, uses her smartphone to film Carrie cowering on the shower floor as the girls scream “plug it up.” The clip is later uploaded to YouTube and becomes central to the way the director stages the horrendous prom scene in which Carrie is drenched in pig blood. Peirce frames Carrie between two large projection screens onstage. As Carrie accepts her crown, and the pig blood falls on her, the YouTube clip from the shower appears on the screens having been programmed by Chris as part of her plot to humiliate her.
Why is this so important? In DePalma’s version menstruation is shown only as the facilitator for Carrie’s first use of her powers. In Peirce’s version it is shown not only in the opening shower scene, but in the climactic prom scene where the wrath of Carrie’s powers is truly leashed. Here, Carrie’s first period is meant to serve as a point of embarrassment for her in front of the entire student body, thanks to Chris’s YouTube video. Those who exposed Carrie’s menstrual embarrassment in such a viral way are punished for their actions.
The new version is the first by a woman director, though in a New York Times article she says she had conversations with De Palma about his vision of the story. It remains to be seen if future directors will find new ways to get even more mileage out of this endlessly fascinating story of menstrual mystery.
This fall, our family TV indulgence was Master Chef Junior. My 10 year old, a master of scrambled eggs, pancakes and experimental smoothies, was into it, her enthusiasm contagious. So once a week, we sat on the couch– Mom, Dad, and Kid—and watched a dwindling number of freakishly talented miniature chefs slice, dice and sauté their way into our hearts.
I enjoyed this respite and low-output family time, but, there was a price.
The commercials. Oh! Damn those commercials. Because we watched the show online (we don’t have TV), the commercial breaks typically repeated a small set of ads. Over and over again.
In a single episode, we screened some combination of ads for these products a dozen times. According to my crude math, by the time the Master Chef Junior (Alexander, in case you are a fan) was handed his trophy, we watched around 100 different glossy messages that pointed out just how inadequate we are, or would be, soon enough.
I began calling our ritual of watching Master Chef Junior “Self-Consciousness Hour.”
Here is a short list of what’s wrong with me:
Obviously these messages unnerved me (I am not immune to feeling inadequate in spite of my fierce feminism, let’s be honest).
But I really worried about was my daughter. I watched her watch those commercials, her brain processing how she measured up to the standards.
Of course we offered our own critical voice overs at every turn (e.g., You know, human teeth naturally yellow with age. Teeth are not supposed to be pearly white.). We mocked the commercials, trying to expose their absurdity. We initiated more serious discussions of the industry and its nefarious methods, and she engaged these critiques, to some degree. We did what we could (excepting refusing to watch the show, which we could have done, I know). But in spite of our efforts, we doubted our power to counter the power of marketing to manufacture “problems” and sweep in with “lifesaving solutions” all in one (minty fresh) breath.
When all was said and done, between lessons on how to perfectly boil an egg or debone a chicken, my impressionable kid was fed heaping spoonfuls of body shame.
And here’s the menstrual link.
This body shame is the context for her menstrual experiences-to-be. The menstrual taboo, the Grandmother of Body Shame, will slink into her life soon enough, directing her to hide, deny, and likely, detest a natural (and healthy body process). And thanks to noisy, flashy persistent messages like these, the door is swung open, the lights on, and the pillows fluffed. Come on in, Menstrual Shame! We have been waiting for You! Puleeeze…make yourself at home! Have you met ‘Fat Shame’ sitting here with a throw pillow in her lap?
I know it is impossible to censor everything my kid sees, hears, reads. I have some experience with this. She is our 3rd kid; we’ve been down this road before and we’ve learned. We tried to do somethings differently this time. Namely, we send her to a crunchy school with an explicit low tech policy (which we observe, on good days). But then the other day, I overheard one of her classmates look down at her feet and exclaim, with horror: “Ewww…My feet look fat in these shoes!” I remind you; she is 10.
Recognizing the ubiquitousness of media messages, our aim is to teach our kid to responsibly consume what surrounds her. If we equip her with good media literacy skills, she can see commercials through a critical lens. And maybe when her friend complains her feet are fat, she will not take the bait. This is the best we can do, I think.
Nicholas D. Kristof has for some years been a regular contributor to the op-ed page of The New York Times where he frequently writes about sex trafficking, child abuse, and the lives of women around the world.
In 2009 Kristof and his wife and writing partner, Sheryl WuDunn, published a volume that examined a wide variety of the ways women are oppressed around the world titled, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book moves from Congo to China to South Africa to Cameroon to Afghanistan and many places in between. And though their focus is on the more dramatic and life threatening problems such as maternal mortality, prostitution, rape, AIDS, and economic discrimination, to their credit they also include the role that attitudes and practices surrounding the menstrual cycle play in determining the fate of women. In effect, they have added their own voices to the ongoing project of the SMCR: MAKING MENSTRUATION MATTER.
Half the Sky (the title is an allusion to the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.”) is not reluctant to address ancient, deep-seated cultural traditions, including the vicious practice in Deuteronomy calling for stoning to death of girls suspected of having had premarital sex, and in a chapter titled “Is Islam Misogynistic?” they confront some of the darker portions of that faith’s history. For instance, they cite the writings of a “ninth-century scholar, Al-Timmidhi,” who “recounted that houri [the heavenly virgins who await martyrs] are gorgeous young women with white skin, who never menstruate, urinate, or defecate.” The chapter goes on to explain how statements such as this are not consistent with other Islamic tenets nor with the beliefs of many Muslims, but the notion that menstruation is equivalent to processes of bodily waste elimination is a deep-seated conception that permeates many other belief systems as well.
Another chapter, “Investing in Education,” addresses the challenges involved in providing adequate schooling for girls and the need for sanitary facilities and products so that girls can manage their periods discretely and hygienically. Mention is made of a Proctor & Gamble project to distribute free pads in Africa, however, surprisingly, insufficient attention is given to home-grown efforts, such as SMCR member Megan White Mukuria’s ZanaAfrica, to provide both products and empowering education to girls in Kenya. One program called Camfed, for Campaign for Female Education, that operates in several African countries is justifiably credited for its thoroughness in addressing girls’ education, including the practice of supplying girls with pads and underwear so they can continue to go to classes during their periods.
Obviously, an entire book could be written about the links between women’s liberation and the menstrual cycle. Half the Sky is not that book, but it does make a contribution that is worthy of applause.
This holiday season consider giving the women in your life the gift of body literacy. The books, resources and services compiled below support understanding and appreciation of our bodies.
Gifts for teenagers:
* To hold a Wondrous Vulva Puppet is to experience a loving representation of the female body. Dorrie Lane’s vulva puppets are used around the world to spark conversations about our bodies and our sexuality. To quote a testimonial on the website: “The sensual curves, velvety feel and beauty of these puppets seems to disarm people in a way that opens the door to real discussion about women’s sexuality.”
* Toni Weschler, widely known for her best-selling book on fertility awareness Taking Charge of Your Fertility, has also written a book for teenagers. Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen’s Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body makes the perfect gift for your daughter or younger sister, neice or cousin. This book can transform a young teenager’s experience and understanding of her body as it teaches her the practical benefits of charting her menstrual cycles. Available in paperback and Kindle editions.
Gifts for those who want to learn fertility awareness:
* Justisse Method: Fertility Awareness and Body Literacy A User’s Guide by Justisse founder Geraldine Matus is a helpful gift for anyone wanting to learn about fertility awareness based methods (FABM) of birth control. It is “a primer for body literacy, and a guide for instructing women how to observe, chart and interpret their menstrual cycle events.”
For someone who wants to learn fertility awareness to prevent or achieve pregnancy, or to fix menstrual problems, finding a certified practitioner is getting easier. Technology can connect women with skilled instructors who may live thousands of miles away. Check out the practitioners below online and on Facebook.
* * * * * *
I invite other certified instructors who work locally to leave their contact information in comments.
Gifts for women in midlife
* For women who are in the perimenopausal transition – which can last from six to 10 years for most women, ending one year after the final menstrual period – give the gift of information. Connect friends and family with the website of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research where they’ll find many free resources that offer explanations and treatment suggestions for the symptoms they may experience throughout this transition including night sweats, hot flushes, heavy and/or longer flow, migraines, and sore, swollen breasts.
* To those who love fiction, consider giving Estrogen’s Storm Season, a fictionalized account of eight women’s journey through perimenopause written by CeMCOR’s Scientific Director, endocrinologist Dr. Jerilynn Prior:
They are as different as women can be—yet they share the mysterious experiences of perimenopause, night sweats, flooding periods or mood swings. We follow these women as they consult Dr. Madrona, learn the surprising hormonal changes explaining their symptoms, get better or worse, and try or refuse therapies. As each woman lives through her particular challenge, we begin to see how we, too, can survive perimenopause!
Proceeds from book sales support ongoing research.
From menarche to menopause, it is never too early or too late to acquire body literacy. I invite readers to share other gift ideas that promote menstrual cycle comfort and support body literacy.
How do girls learn about menstruation today? Who talks to them? Who do they talk to? Or do most girls rely on the Internet for information about periods?
Take this article by Elizabeth (bylines are first names only) – What I Wish I Knew About My Period – posted last week at Rookie, an online magazine for teenage girls. Not a teenager but definitely a young woman, Elizabeth (Spiridakus) shares the wisdom she’s gained through her menstrual experience. Here’s her sum-up:
These are all the things I wish someone had told me before I got my first period, and in the couple of years that followed. Most of all, I wish I had FOUND SOMEONE TO TALK TO! I had so many questions and fears about the whole business, and I think I would have been so much less self-conscious, and so much HAPPIER, if I had only had access to some friendly advice. So, talk to your friends! Talk to your cool older cousin or aunt or sister or your best friend’s cool mom or your OWN cool mom. Leave your questions—and your good advice—in the comments, because I certainly haven’t been able to cover all the bases here.
Read this again: “Most of all, I wish I had FOUND SOMEONE TO TALK TO!”
Elizabeth urges readers to talk to their friends, cool older relatives, or their own – or somebody else’s – “cool mom.” Great advice, but I have to ask: Why aren’t cool moms and older relatives already talking to the girls in their lives about menstruation? Sharing friendly advice? Passing on wisdom from mother to daughter, woman to woman?
Suzan Hutchinson, menstrual activist, educator and founder of periodwise.com, a project dedicated to empowering girls and women to embrace the taboo subject of menstruation, has a few ideas about this. She thinks many moms don’t know when to begin “the period talk” or what to say, so they remain silent until their daughters start their periods, or they wait thinking their daughters will initiate period talk. She warns against this.
“We should all remember that when moms offer too little information or start providing information too late, girls often question their credibility and hesitate to return as new questions arise.”
Although Suzan’s mother talked to her about menstruation, she didn’t start early enough, before Suzan heard things from other girls that she didn’t understand. Her early menstrual experience included lying to her friends about getting her period long before she did at age 15. By then she was “too embarrassed to ask my much more experienced friends” and “too proud to turn to Mom.” She tried to deal with things on her own.
“I needed a period coach – someone to walk through things with me and instruct me…help me figure out what to do, when to do, how to do.”
A period coach. This is exactly what Elizabeth is for the girls at Rookie. Read the comments. Readers loved it.
She’s not the only one using the Internet to connect with girls about menstruation. Despite my reservations about a website operated by the company that sells Always and Tampax, the content of which deserves serious critique, I must acknowledge that thousands of girls are turning to beinggirl.com for period coaching, including tips on how to talk to their moms!
The more information girls have the better. Brava to Elizabeth for What I Wish I Knew About My Period. But moms and cool older relatives have got to get in the game. Now. Don’t wait until the girls in your life come to you.
What does it mean to have menstrual periods? This is an intensely personal question, but it is also a scientific and a cultural one.
The menstrual cycle can, of course, be described in terms of a woman’s personal experience of menstrual flow. It can also be described by the complex physiology of hormones climbing, pulsating, falling. However, what are some other things we know about periods?
We know that they are an oddity in nature. Most animals, aside from monkeys, apes, and us, thicken the wall inside the uterus only after an egg has been fertilized. We have periods because we routinely build a thicker wall inside the uterus, just in case it’s needed, which must be eliminated if we don’t become pregnant. According to Ann Voda, much of this wall is absorbed back into our bodies (the same way that if you smash your finger and get a clot under the skin, that blood is absorbed into the body then eliminated). Some of it is released to the outside world in an organized manner in what we call our period.
We know that the menstrual cycle is only one part of a larger whole. I’ve always liked the description of adolescent development in Barry Bogin’s textbook Patterns of Human Growth.
To summarize the content of his book: A part of the brain called the hypothalamus changes. Then a growth spurt begins (we all remember growing taller quickly): this is unique to humans, nonhuman primates and other animals don’t have a growth spurt. Then a girl begins developing secondary sexual characteristics, breast buds (the beginning of breasts) and the beginning of pubic hair. Then estrogen levels begin to rise, which leads to a particular female shape due to fat in the hips, buttocks, and thighs. The first menstrual cycle occurs some years after these other changes begin. We’re not done yet. Menstrual cycles are at first irregular and girls rarely ovulate, it is a few years before girls ovulate as regularly as does an adult. In addition, the bones of the pelvis don’t grow quickly during the growth spurt, and it is many years after menarche, when a girl is in her late teens, that the pelvis has finished growing.
To continue the summary: Reproductive maturity requires biological, social, and psychological maturation. It means being an adult. In Bogin’s words, “[b]ecoming pregnant is only a part of the business of reproduction. Maintaining the pregnancy to term and raising offspring to adulthood are equally important (p.212).” In cross-cultural research, behavioral and social events typically co-occur with adolescent physical changes. As girls visibly physically mature, and as they begin menstruating, they are invited into the world of adult women. They develop adult modes of thinking (for example with regard to Piagetian stage), interacting with men and women, sexuality. They refine practical skills needed for the tasks and occupations of a competent adult. Age of having a first child is often years after menarche, often around nineteen years of age among women from many diverse cultures. When compared with animals, this complex transitional stage of life from adolescence through adulthood is a human oddity.
Nobody knows biologically for sure why women menstruate, but cultures, including ours, typically assign meaning to menstruation. Personally, I’d say that getting your period isn’t a transition in the sense of flipping a switch on. However, in most cultures, menstruation is an important marker or component with multi-layered meaning for a larger, rich life stage.
Barry Bogin, Patterns of Human Growth, 1999, Cambridge University Press.
Ann Voda, Menopause, Me and You, 1997, Haworth Press: Binghamton, NY.
The other day a Huffington Post article crossed my desk, titled, “Gift Guide 2012: What To Get The Menopausal Women In Your Life.” According to this article, here are some of the things menopausal women (read: perimenopausal women) might want this December:
- Coldfront cooling palm packs (to relieve sweaty palms)
- A personal desk fan (for those hot flashes at work)
- A “menopause gift basket” filled with healthy treats and goodies, maybe also including vitamins, and alternative remedies for relief, “to stabilize mood and help the body adjust to hormonal changes.”
- A Feel Cooler Cooling Mattress Pad or Cooling Pillow that interacts with your nightly body temperatures to cool you down (for night sweats)
- Cool Sensations Moisture Wicking Bed Sheets (reportedly for those floods of night sweats you might get)
- Hot Girls Pearls – cooling beads to wear around your neck (for hot flashes) – apparently these have even made it onto Oprah’s Show
- Tickets to Menopause the Musical
- Sweat-wicking pajamas (there are lots of different brands, again to deal with night sweats)
Clearly the theme here is that menopausal women get hot and need relief. Fair enough, for many menopausal women this would be true. But this list got me thinking: what might I add to this list? Here are some I thought of:
- Humorous gifts, such as books of jokes about menopause and aging?
- Books about menopause
- Cookbooks that specialize in natural eating?
- A yoga gift certificate? Or other exercise certificate?
I’d love to hear from readers about other ideas for menopause-related holiday gifts.
Then I got to thinking again: If my daughter had reached menarche already, what kinds of holiday gifts could I get her that relate to her life stage? Here are some of the ideas I thought of, and I definitely need help from readers to expand this list:
- Pretty reusable (washable) maxi pads (e.g., Lunapads)
- A cool bag to carry maxi-pads around in
- A cool tampon case (like the ones that Uncommon Goods sells)
- Cool new (extra) underwear
- A special calendar for her to use to track her periods
- New Moon Girls’ magazine (or just an online membership to New Moon Girls)
- The book, Our Bodies Ourselves, or other books on puberty and menstruation
So, readers, what else belongs on this list? Those of you already buying for Hannukah and Christmas might have some great ideas…..please chime in!
Last year, the media focused much attention on the Smithsonian’s decision to pull the David Wojnarowicz video, “A Fire in My Belly,” from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., entitled, “Hide/Seek”. The museum apologized for the piece’s contents after a group of Republican representatives and the Catholic League demanded the removal of the video. Part of “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture”, the piece depicted the suffering of an HIV positive man along with ants crawling on a crucifix. Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia called it “in your face perversion paid for by tax dollars”.
This scenario is far from unique, as the issue of censoring sex (alongside feminism and women artists in general) in museums has a long and contentious history both in the United States and abroad. In the late 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) engaged fierce battles about whether to fund so-called obscene shows, often equating obscenity with explicitly gay and lesbian content (e.g., Robert Maplethorpe’s photography). Museums like the Chicago Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have both battled over the morality and ethics of censoring sex in the museum (John E. Semonche, Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media). Greek vases and objects depicting explicit sexual acts have been deemed unfit for children’s viewing and have been removed from major museums throughout the world. The National Museum of Erotica in Canberry, Australia shut down over controversies surrounding its explicit portrayal of sexual artifacts.
So how might this relate to the menstruating body? This week, I visited one of my favorite museums in the world—the Heard Museum of American Indian Art and History in Phoenix, Arizona. They had several exhibits revolving around family life, ritual, and celebrations of “coming of age” among indigenous cultures in the Southwest. One exhibit featured paintings of ceremonies practiced among Native American communities of the Southwest. Another exhibit on Apache life featured several cases of clothing and text dedicated to women’s initiation into womanhood following the onset of puberty. Notably, the word menstruation or any depiction of women’s menstrual blood were entirely absent from both of these exhibits. Discussions of preparation of food, flowers, and clothing by elderly members of the girls’ communities were featured prominently, along with the significance of women learning how to transition to womanhood. Almost certainly, this ritualized process revolved around the onset of women’s menstrual cycles, yet no mention of women’s menarche occurred. I wondered: Has the menstruating body suffered from collateral damage of censoring sex? Do we associate all aspects of the (leaky, “disgusting”, abject) female body with the “sinful” and “harmful-to-children” rhetoric of sexually-explicit museum materials? When men’s “powerful” ejaculations (Jackson Pollack!!) and phallic powers are celebrated in full force, why do women’s cycling bodies hold such a taboo place in museum culture? What would it mean if menstruation held a more prominent place in museums in general?
Taboos surrounding the entrance of menstruation into museums continue in full force. Though a few radical feminist performance artists have featured work on menstruation (see Linder Sterling’s menstrual jewelry, or Mako Idemitsu’s 1973 piece, What a Woman Made featuring photos of tampons), the normally edgy and forward-thinking art world has yet to fully recognize menstruation as a valid subject of interest. The backlash against the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (MUM), once located in Carrollton, Maryland and now featured only online, reveals just how much difficulty the public has accepting menstruation as a valid subject of analysis. In a 2007 article discussing the “10 Most Bizarre Museums”, MUM is listed alongside the Toilet Museum, the Voodoo Museum, the Museum of the Penis, and the Burger Museum. In another article on “The Seven Most Horrifying Museums on Earth”, MUM takes company with museums on child mummies, psychiatric patients, ventriloquism, fetuses in jars, and ancient phalluses. Harry Finley, the founder and curator of MUM, said in a 2010 interview, “[Menstruation] is not a polite thing to talk about in casual society. I’ve gotten so used to this now that it’s no big deal for me. But it is for other people. Especially coming from some guy. I really get, sometimes, a horrified reaction. I can tell by the stares and the silence. Even from liberal people. When I started the museum, I thought, ‘Oh boy, this would not bother them.’ But it still bothers basically everybody. Almost every reaction is negative. . . . I think a lot of it is the association of a male doing this. Like, what is his interest in this?”