Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

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?”

To be 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 Hygiene” Explored: Capturing the the Wider Context

December 9th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

This summer, I bought a new camera. I needed it to snap pictures during a research trip to India where I explored diverse approaches to what’s called in the development sector, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). I chose a sleek, high tech device with a powerful, intuitive zoom.

Photo by author

In Bangalore, I captured the sweet intimacy of two schoolgirls as they watched the menstrual health animated video “Mythri” at a government school. In Tamil Nadu, I used my zoom for close shots of skilled women tailors sewing brightly colored cloth menstrual pads for the social business, Eco Femme.

Photo by author

In South Delhi, I used my zoom to preserve the mounds of cloth painstakingly repurposed as low cost menstrual pads at NGO Goonj.

But here’s the problem. These close up shots may please the eye, but they leave out the context that surrounds and shapes each photo’s subject. And what exists outside the frame is at least as important as what is inside. That’s hardly a revelation, I realize, but when it comes to doing Menstrual Hygiene Management work, in an effort to find solutions, the “big picture”—both literally and figuratively—sometimes gets obscured.

Photo by author

For example, when I snapped the picture of the mound of menstrual pads pictured here, I focused on a product, a simple product, that could truly improve the quality of someone’s life. But when I trained my attention on the product, what did I miss?

In short, a wider angle lens reveals the context of menstrual product access—a complicated web of many intersecting issues: infrastructural deficits (safe, secure, and clean latrines and sites for disposal), access to resources (like soap and water), gender norms, and menstrual restrictions rooted in culture or religion.

Imagine that one of brightly colored packages of menstrual pads ends up in the hands of a 15 year old girl. I will call her Madhavi.

Madhavi is delighted to have a dedicated set of her very own clean rags to absorb her flow.

Goonj worker with pads ready for distribution and sale
Photo by author

But does she have access to clean water and soap to wash them?

Does she have family support to dry her rags on the clothesline, in direct sunlight, even though her brothers, uncles, and neighbors will be able to see them?

Does she have a safe, secure place at school to change her rags?

Does she have someone to turn to when she has a question about her menstrual cycle?

These questions are important because they point to what gets in the way of effective and sustainable MHM. My own review of the emerging empirical literature on MHM revealed that the top three impediments to school girls’ positive and healthy menstrual experiences are 1) inadequate facilities 2) inadequate knowledge and 3) fear of disclosure, especially to boys. I want to focus on this last one for a moment by widening the frame a bit more.

Menstrual Hygiene Management is part of a complex and enduring project of loosening the social control of women’s bodies, of working to move embodiment, more generally, from object to subject status—something absolutely foundational to taking on a host of other urgent issues; from human trafficking to eating disorders to sexual assault.

As we know throughout the West, menstrual taboos do not disappear as we upgrade our menstrual care. Without the heavy lifting of menstrual normalization, any menstrual care practice will make a minimal impact.

Thus, menstrual activism must always incorporate an analysis of how gender norms maintain the menstrual status quo. And it must engage the potential of men and boys as allies, not enemies. That’s a tall order that cuts to the very core of gender socialization. But if we don’t take this on, no product in the world will be enough.

Anyone with a camera knows that framing a picture is a choice. Am I suggesting that we should never use the zoom, that we should forgo the rich and textured details possible when we tighten the shot? Of course not, as focus is crucial to our understanding. But when we do aim our figurative cameras and shoot, let’s not forget what lies outside the visual frame. Let’s not forget what else must change for the pad to be a truly sustainable solution.

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

Literary Menstruation

November 12th, 2014 by David Linton

Given their first-hand awareness of the role it has played in their own lives, it is not surprising that women writers (and researchers) have included references to the menstrual cycle in their books. Even so, social taboos have probably tended to keep the subject from appearing as often as it might have otherwise and literary menstrual references have only come to the surface in the mid-twentieth century. The women appearing in the fiction of Bronte, Eliot, Alcott, du Maurier, and the other major women writers of the 19th century seem to be lacking a menstrual cycle regardless of how otherwise thoroughly detailed their lives were depicted.

Men too have been menstrual-averse. The cycle played no part though later male authors, notably William Faulkner, did include specific menstrual details if only to capture a male chart in the lives of the women in the novels of Hardy, Conrad, James, Dickens, Lawrence or Hawthorne, to name a representative few. Men seem to be “in avoidance,” if not “in denial” about the cycle’s presence. Even male writers such as Updike and Roth for all their frank depictions of sexual behavior have treated menstruation gingerly, in the case of Roth using it in two novels to express characters’ kinkiness.

The more permissive climate of the past 60 or 70 years not only saw the rise of a new generation of women writers, but a greater openness to the inclusion of menstrual material in their stories. Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Patchett, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few of the most noteworthy, have built entire scenes or even complete plot lines around menstrual tropes.

This is a subject rich in possibilities for a wide variety of investigations in literary studies, women’s and gender studies, communication and media, sociology, psychology, and even religious studies. With the exception of Dana Medoro’s path breaking book, The Bleeding of America, the subject is virtually untouched. Readers are urged to dig into this treasure trove of material.

So, the purpose of this blog post is to invite suggestions of literary sources that are fertile ground for cycle commentary. Help build the menstrual canon with mention of “sightings” that have come to your attention.

Sweden’s Year of Menstruation – Is it the Menstrual Decade? Maybe the Menstrual Millennium?

October 24th, 2014 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Josefin Persdotter, Gothenburg University

As I write this, it is only hours until the acclaimed Swedish television program Kobra airs an episode about menstruation in art, and as a growing social movement in Sweden. They’ve interviewed none other than menstrual art and activism pioneer Judy Chicago. In the trailer she jokingly exclaims: “Oh, so Scandinavia’s discovered that women menstruate!” And it seems we have. Or at least Swedes seem to have. Sweden’s currently enjoying a kind of menstrual boom. Maybe one could even call it a menstrual revolution. From my (albeit very menstrually focused) horizon I see menstruation everywhere. During the last year it’s gone from (almost) total menstrual silence to it being in national newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and naturally, all over social media.

I guess one could say it began last summer.  Feminist cartoonist and writer Liv Strömquist (bravely!) did a two-hour radio show about menstruation, depicting menstrual taboos in history, arguing that it ought to be a much larger part of culture. The show aired on prime-time when “everyone” was listening. Being a menstrual activist for many years, I listened with a pounding heart wondering how Sweden would react. Though I’m sure she got some internet hate and many negative comments, the reception from those who liked it seems to have been quite overwhelming for Strömquist, and quite palpable to everyone else.

Instantly, something changed. Just as I had experienced when I met people through my own activism, but this time on a national scale. People began to open up; they shared their own menstrual stories openly on various social media platforms. And they haven’t stopped.

To only name a few of the many amazing things that have happened since then: several menstrual art projects have enjoyed unprecedented attention in the media, menstruation-related diseases make the headlines in the tabloids, several other radio-shows have had menstrually-themed episodes, a menstrual documentary has been made and another one is in post-production, new books about menstruation have been launched and sold out in weeks (!), and on top of that two national organizations for menstruation and PMS respectively have been founded. Menstruation’s become something that’s publicly handled as a truly relevant and important issue.

I may exaggerate a little, but I don’t want to downplay it either,  as I really do think that something rather spectacular has happened. First I called it a menstrual spring, then it became a menstrual year, and now it’s going on year two. Could one dare to hope for a menstrual paradigm shift? Or might the public lose interest? I see no signs of menstrual fatigue, but quite the opposite. More and more people and institutions engage in menstrual issues publicly. The need to talk periods seem to be stronger than ever.

Sweden’s got a small population of about 9 million, speaking an equally small language. This has been a pain in the neck in my menstrual activism, until it wasn’t. I was quite jealous of menstrual activists friends who got to do their work in English or Spanish, having so many millions more that could like, comment, and retweet on social media. But now I’ve begun to think the small size might be a huge advantage. I think we have the size to thank for some of what’s happened. It might be easier to reach everyone, to become in some way part of the media mainstream and have a national impact in a small country like this. Sweden has only a couple of national newspapers, fewer television news shows, etc., compared to larger nations.

I post this to the international menstrual community wondering if I am witnessing something unique, or something universal? Are there currently similar menstrual surges elsewhere as well? And naturally: what’s it been like historically? What can we learn from eachother? What should we think about to make these changes last and become real shifts in the menstruculture?

Ms. October—Menstruation Pin-Up

October 17th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. October: Sucked Away #2
Cycle: August 2013 
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Winning the Menstrual Battle in the Abortion War

October 15th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Last week, Loretta Ross, the pioneering women’s health activist, came to Boston for a public lecture.  Ross will keynote at our upcoming “Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice: Human Rights Across the Lifespan” (What? You didn’t hear?). Hearing her speak tripled my excitement for her keynote in June. I, a serious fangirl, listened intently as she narrated a personal history of the women’s health movement and offered a clear-eyed, no nonsense way forward. This lady knows some stuff! If you don’t know Ross, you should. For one, she was one of 12 women who developed the globetrotting concept of “Reproductive Justice”—which intersects social justice and reproductive rights, or as Ross, puts it, “brings Human Rights home by looking at the totality of women’s lives.”

Though I generally resist militarized language, I also know that the persistent assault on abortion rights is nothing short of a war against women. Many of us, caught up in our own fisticuffs on neighboring battlegrounds (for affordable better birth control, against pinkwashing, for comprehensive sexuality education, for transgender health care), may not realize how our struggles are, indeed, united. We are all fighting for bodily autonomy, after all. Ross’ remarks made clear to me how our battles are united and that we will NOT win any of them if we don’t manage to see these connections.

Let’s look at how the abortion issue and menstrual health are linked.

To begin, thinking about abortion in a REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE framework allows us to address what Ross calls the “Oh My God!” Reactions many women face when they think they might be pregnant:

1) OMG! I am in an abusive relationship. What do I tell my partner? Will I be safe?

2) OMG! I am 16. What will my family say?

3) OMG! I am a college student. Can I finish school?

4) OMG! I have no health insurance? How do I pay for this?

When we pay attention to the OMG reactions, we acknowledge the reality of women’s lives—and the complicated context that shapes reproductive decision making. And as we consider that context, we have to tune into the following:

• Safe abortion is not enough. It must ALSO be safe to TALK about abortion.

• We need ‘kitchen table conversations’ about women taking reproductive knowledge back into our own hands. (And my favorite line of the night: “Why are we ceding the responsibility of our bodies to a bunch of assholes. We built a women’s health movement. Let’s act like it.”)

• We absolutely must listen to Women of Color and the issues that matter to them (e.g voting rights, immigrant rights).

The menstrual connections are evident here. Do you see them, too? Improving menstrual health through menstrual literacy for health care workers and menstruators alike is fundamental to winning this war.

I submit the following:

FIRST: Breaking Silence. Yup. Challenging menstrual shame, silence and secrecy is JOB ONE for many of us. We know that our cultural allergy to making mensruation audible and visible (to quote filmmaker Giovanna Chesler) is at the root of menstrual ILLiteracy which leads to poor reproductive health. Imagine if menstruators felt supported to speak up when they had questions about their cycles—from pre menarche (what does a period feel like?) through menopause (is this heavy bleeding normal?).

SECOND: Taking our health care into our own hands. Do It Yourself. DIY has been foundational to the women’s health movement since its genesis. DIY vaginal exams. DIY menstrual extraction. Menstrual activists, at least since the 70s, have been promoting DIY menstrual care as a way to take control BACK from the body shaming FemCare industry while doing our part to protect the planet.

THIRD: Paying attention to Women of Color in everything we do. When it comes to ANY reproductive health issue, race matters. White supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy have had disastrous effects on women of color’s lives (sterilization abuse, higher mortality and morbidity for heart disease lung and breast cancers, and HIV/AIDS are just a few examples).

Using a critical race lens on menstrual and ovulatory health sharpens our focus and begs important questions, such as:

Call for Abstracts for SMCR 2015 in Boston

September 25th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Ms. September—Menstruation Pin-Up

September 19th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. September: Owl Totem
Cycle: August 2013 
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Putting the ‘Men’ in Menstruation

September 12th, 2014 by David Linton

re-blogging re:Cycling

In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by David Linton originally appeared October 8, 2009.

pms_buddyA lot of ideas get hatched in a bar over drinks with friends. Most don’t make it past the sober morning after.  But a conversation in a Denver bistro in 2008 led to the creation of a new Internet service that aims to address Rodney King’s eternal question, “Can’t we all just get along?”  In this case the “getting along” applies to men and women who feel afflicted by the scourge of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome – PMS – and its presumed negative impact on otherwise harmonious relationships.

Despite the sound research and persuasive arguments of writers such as Carol Tavris (The Mismeasure of Woman), Anne Fausto-Sterling (Myths of Gender), Joan C. Chrisler (Charting a New Course for Feminist Psychology) and Paula Caplan (Fighting the Pathologizing of PMS), to name just a few who have labored to dispel the pernicious misconceptions and stigma surrounding the menstrual cycle, stereotypes and myths have been tenacious.  Thus, in the digital age it was probably inevitable that PMS Lore would find new outlets for dissemination.  Which brings us back to Denver.

One of the participants in the fateful exchange over Coors and coolers in the Mile High City was Jordan Eisenberg, a self-described entrepreneur.  He and a group of friends had somehow gotten into a spirited conversation about PMS.  The women expressed annoyance that men sometimes asked, “Are you getting your period?” as a way to discredit feelings women had about real concerns.  It was so bad, they said, that even if they actually were menstruating, they could never acknowledge it because they’d be dismissed out of hand.

Opinions bounced around until one of the men mentioned that he put the date of his girl friend’s expected period in his Palm Pilot so he could anticipate her mood swings and avoid topics that might provoke conflict on “those days.”  The men thought that this was a sensible idea, and the women were outraged that anyone would track their biology so mechanically.

For all but one of the participants the evening’s outing yielded no more than another story to share with friends at some future bar gathering.  But for Jordan Eisenberg it was an inspiration.  And so was born the Web site PMSBuddy.com.

In no time at all, the site has become an Internet hit.  It can be found as an iPhone application and comes up under a number of Google search terms. Within a year of its launch, the site claimed to have 150,000 registered users and that it was currently tracking (as of 10/5/09) 33,192  menstrual cycles.  According to the daily tally 1,366 women whose cycles were being tracked began to have PMS that day.   Another 6,437 would begin within five days and the “Overall Threat Index” was “1-4:1,” whatever that means.

One might view the site as just a “guy joke,” another way for men to make light of something they don’t understand and to cope with their menstrual fears.  The PMSBuddy web site uses fairly benign language and claims to have good intentions.  It even has what it calls an “altruistic” aim with a slogan that boasts, “Saving relationships, one month at a time!” yet it reflects an underlying anxiety.  It addresses male subscribers in a chummy voice: “PMSBuddy.com is a free service . . .to keep you aware of when . . . things can get intense for what may seem to be no reason at all. . . .there is no reason to ever be blindsided by PMS again.”

In addition to tracking the cycles of women in the lives of its subscribers and sending warning announcements about the impending periods of one’s wife, girlfriend, daughters, etc., it has a section called “PMS Stories,” submissions from subscribers about their PMS encounters and opinions.   On the first day I first looked at the site there were nearly 150 stories posted from both men and women, but by the time these pages are being read there are surely many more.

My first reaction on discovering PMSbuddy.com was a combination of wonder and amusement.

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.