Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: