Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

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

March 31st, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

The Lost Ones (2014); Artist: Nichole Speciale

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

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

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

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

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

March 27th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patchett perpetuates the myth that fertility is all about estrogen. Actually, fertility is dependent upon the the cyclical ebb and flow of estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen levels build in the pre-ovulatory phase; when estrogen (and the ferning quality of cervical mucus) peaks, ovulation occurs. Estrogen drops quickly, mucus dries up (no ferns), the fertile phase ends and progesterone levels rise dramatically to act upon the endometrium in preparation for pregnancy. It would make sense for the Lakashi to chew the bark more often during the pre-ovulatory phase but be repulsed by it post-ovulation as progesterone rises. How neat would that have been? The researchers could have pinpointed ovulation in the Lakashi. Oddly, ovulation is not even mentioned.

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

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

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

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

Period Revolution — How Period Apps are Changing Women’s Health

March 13th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Dr. Lara Briden

My new book Period Repair Manual begins with some warm words about Period Apps. I’m talking about the smart phone applications that let us tap in data about our period start date, bleed duration, and symptoms such as spotting, breast tenderness, and mood.

Of course we could always do the same thing with old-fashioned pen and paper, but period apps are different somehow. They’re right there in our bags. They’re often on our hand. That makes it so easy to check in with our body’s information on a daily basis. That makes it fun to track periods—almost like a game.

I love period apps because they have made periods seem less threatening. They have made periods seem normal (which of course they are). As a naturopathic doctor working with period health for the last twenty years, I perceive that period apps are part of something bigger now in women’s health. More and more women are talking openly about their periods, which is exciting. Even more exciting is the fact that more and more women are saying Yes to their own natural cycles, and No to the birth control pill.

Women are saying No to the pill because they’re finally starting to understand that pill-withdrawal bleeds are not real periods. They want real periods, and they’re ready to have a closer look at what those periods are actually doing. How better to have that closer look than with a period app?

Period apps help women to see how their periods currently are. They also help women to track the way their periods improve over time with natural treatment such diet, supplements, and herbs.

I have one big concern about period apps, and that’s the way they can confuse women about ovulation. I know, because I’ve had these conversations with some of my patients. Their phone tells them that they ovulate on a certain day, and they believe it. Why wouldn’t they believe it? It’s data from a high-tech device. I explain that their phone can only guess at ovulation based on the timing of their last period. It cannot truly know when they ovulated or even if they ovulated at all (it’s possible to have bleeds without ovulating). I teach patients to learn to know their ovulation. I teach them to look for the physical signs of ovulation such as fertile mucus, cervix position, and a shift in basal body temperature. They can enter that data into their period app, and then will they have a truly useful technology.

Periods apps are not perfect, but from my perspective, they’re a step in the right direction. They’re an important tool for body literacy and period health.

Lara Briden is a naturopathic doctor with nearly twenty years experience in women’s health. She is also the author of Period Repair Manual.
Read her blog and learn more at http://www.larabriden.com/.

Bad Blood!

March 10th, 2015 by David Linton

The history of women being discriminated against for having a menstrual cycle is, unfortunately, long and varied one, going far back into antiquity as demonstrated by prohibitions spelled out in the biblical book of Leviticus. Sometimes the prejudices or fears underlying both formal and informal practices spring from misunderstandings of biological functions; sometimes they are simply vestiges of patriarchal systems designed to maintain male dominance; sometimes they are indications of cultural lag, behaviors kept alive despite the fact that the individuals really “know better” but are stuck in their traditions. Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery,” captures such a phenomenon brilliantly.

The bad news is that there are still a lot of cultural practices in place whose meaning or usefulness has long ago been found to be worthless. The good news is that every once in a while enough noise is made or enough light is shed on a bad idea that it is abandoned, even if reluctantly.

The recent story about how women job applicants have been asked intrusive and pointless questions about their menstrual cycles and how the interview questions were dropped from the protocol gives us cause to sigh in dismay that such things continue to happen but also gives us reason to smile with pleasure that public exposure brought about change.

Readers are encouraged to respond with posts citing other similar stories.

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

March 6th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call for Submissions: The Unmentionables Film Festival—Vol I: Menstruation

February 23rd, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui
Call for Submissions

The Unmentionables Film Festival –  Vol I: Menstruation
Maysles Cinema, NYC
June 14 – 21, 2015

 

Are you looking to change the conversation around menstruation?  Are you interested in demonstrating how this biological occurrence is not simply a “girl problem,” but an experience that touches us all in profound and unexpected ways?

 

If so, we want to hear from you.

 

The Unmentionables Film Festival is an annual theme-based program that will focus on a different “taboo” topic each year.  The inaugural program, Vol. I: Menstruation,  will present a week-long exploration of menstruation at Maysles Cinema, an independent film house in Manhattan.

 

The Festival is currently accepting submissions for narrative, documentary, and experimental short and feature-length films.

 

Not a filmmaker?

 

In addition to films and videos, the Festival seeks performances, stories, installations, visual art pieces, literary works, sound art, essays, poems, etc. on the subject of menstruation.

 

Facebook: http://on.fb.me/170rMUB
Twitter: @unmentionableFF

APPLICATION INSTRUCTIONS
Film/Video Submissions
Film and video entries can be submitted online via FilmFreeway.com, by April 3, 2015.

 

Non-Film/Video Submissions
Proposals for non-film/video works can be submitted using the online form on the Festival’s website, by April 3, 2015.

http://www.unmentionablesfilmfestival.com/submissions-2-1/

Changing Attitudes on Menstruation in Australia

February 10th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Rosie Sheb’a

Many questions have come up recently about why my focus is on Australia, when there are so many places that appear “worse off” than we are that I could be focussing my attention on. You may have seen the recent media coverage (Huffpost, Upworthy and the likes) about the great stuff happening with menstrual cups in Africa. These posts get so much attention not only because they are in popular media, but because they give the reader that “feel good” sensation that there are people doing worse than them, and that someone is out there helping them. However, I feel that here in Australia, in the area of menstruation and women’s knowledge of our own bodies, we are actually doing pretty abysmally.

Most women I speak to (who haven’t used a cup) don’t even know what their cervix is, let alone how to find it. Many Australian women don’t know that if they tense their body in fear, or lie really still, it makes cramping worse. Women haven’t been told that opening up the pelvis, and moving around while breathing deeply and slowly out is a really good way to release period pain. Until I started using and researching menstrual cups, I didn’t realise myself just how amazing periods can be, and how important it is to understand how our bodies work. One of the biggest barriers I have come across with women using menstrual cups, is their fears of what can happen. “What if it gets lost?” The impossibility of this due to the vagina having an end is not understood. Many Australian women don’t realise their vagina has muscles that they can use to push things out with.

We have an epidemic in Australia. It is the fear of the uterus, vagina and their inner workings. We treat it with The Pill. We treat it with Nurofen, Paracetamol, and Codeine. We treat it with Implanon, white bleached tampons and pads, and most of all – we treat it with silence. We leave the room, or tell our friends to keep their voices down if they dare speak about it in a public place. We shield our children from the topic, and we make up names to cover up the shame of speaking about something that without it, none of us would be here. Europe is years ahead with “period positive” talk and action, so is Canada, America is catching up, and even in parts of Africa the women know more about their bodies than we do. It’s time Australia woke up too.

This is my mission with Sustainable Menstruation Australia. To open the conversation about menstruation. To share knowledge, and learn from our friends, colleagues, families and lovers. To move from a culture of fear, shame and taboo, to one of celebration for the beautiful and powerful ability we have as human beings who menstruate. Menstruation is not just about reproduction. When we get in touch with our cycles, it becomes a powerful tool to use in our lives every day. We know when we are likely to be feeling certain ways due to the cocktail of hormones (or lack thereof) coursing through our veins. We learn that certain times of our cycle are going to be really awesome for networking, making connections and growing projects and plans. Other times are going to be great for self-reflection, reassessing our lives and taking good care of ourselves. Our cycles give us a brilliant road map to help our lives. And when we release the fears and tensions associated with menstruation, the pain starts to ease. We can participate in swimming, sports, work and other areas of our lives that felt impossible. Pain, fear, shame, and the copious amounts of waste through disposable products and menstruation are not Sustainable. Not for ourselves, our communities or our planet.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. That light is in the form laughter, liberation and learning. Our bodies can be celebrated, not feared. We can use products that don’t pollute our planet or make a large dent in our budget. We can love our bodies, relax into them and honour our cycles. We can use this knowledge to become more powerful and in control of our lives. There is a revolution afoot, and Australia is getting on board. It’s learning to love our bodies again. Our cycles. Our selves. Our planet. Let’s celebrate.

Use Your Period To Help You Pole Dance

February 2nd, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Dana Michelle Gillespie

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 22nd, 2015 by Laura Wershler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.