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:
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by David Linton originally appeared October 8, 2009.
A 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.
Guest Post by Jen Lewis
From inception to the present, my art project Beauty in Blood has been a positivity-fueled whirlwind. In the very early stages I shared my concept with just two people, my husband and one of my dearest feminist friends. The positive and open way in which they received the message behind my concept helped me flesh out my thoughts and forge ahead with the execution without concern for any potential nay-sayers. Based on my preliminary research into menstrual art, I expected to face hateful trolls every time I introduced a new person to my work but that hasn’t been the experience at all. In the real world, when I tell people about Beauty in Blood their faces typically brighten in response to the casual mention of such a taboo topic. In fact, at social gatherings it can actually take over an entire conversation; I’ve watched women have micro feminist revelations in front of my eyes when discussing the secrecy and silence around menstruation. If that’s not a testament to the power of art, I don’t know what is.
Don’t get me wrong, detractors cross my path but they are few, far between and significantly politer than the hateful trolls in the comments sections of online articles. Typical detractors suggest I alter my art in order to follow the “sanitary” path laid out by menstrual product manufacturers, i.e. “It would look better if the blood was blue; the red is so offensive and difficult to digest.” Or “You’d probably sell a lot more if the prints were black and white.” Or “The message is great but people don’t want to talk about this stuff; they’re not ready even if you are.” Overall, the latter does not represent my experience in the least. Men and women alike have expressed curiosity, support and encouragement to continue developing and growing the scope of Beauty in Blood.
As Jenny Lapekas discussed last month on re:Cycling, there are many, many menstrual art haters online with vile things to say about women and our bodies. However, there are also many women who will not be silenced or, is more likely the case, who will not hear the trolls. Just about any student who took a 20th Century American Art survey course can tell you that menstrual fluid, along with a wide variety of biological substances, are nothing new in modern art. Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” and Judy Chicago’s “Red Flag” are often referenced in basic art survey texts as examples from the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. However, what I discovered when I started digging around the internet in search of “menstrual art” was that there are many women artists both from the past and presently working with menstrual fluid. Their visual art spans thematically from addressing political issues that pertain to women’s bodies to linking women’s bodies to natural earth cycles to simply creating something positive from an occurrence that is usually negative. Artist Vanessa Tiegs even coined a term for this art, Menstrala. The number of young women taking to livejournal.com and Tumblr to share their menstrual creations or DIY tips is as surprising as it is inspiring. Regardless of the haters and trolls, contemporary art made with and/or addressing the menstrual cycle are popping up across the globe. In Sweden, SMCR’s own Josefin Persdotter curated Period Pieces, a wildly successful travelling exhibit that features the work of 13 artists including Arvida Bystrom, Chloe Wise, and Petra Collins. In 2013, the Sunday Times Magazine introduced us to British artist Sarah Maple and her incredible oil painting “Menstruate with Pride”. In Australia, Casey Jenkins made headlines with her 28-day performance, “Casting Off My Womb,” where she knits one skein of wool that unravels from her vagina daily to mark a full menstrual cycle. Most recently, Egyptian feminist artist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy (photo NSFW) shocked the world by using her nude body and biological substances, her menses and excrement, to make an extreme political statement about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Trolls and haters be damned! Women have some things to say and there will be blood, lots of menstrual blood.
Every night Jon Stewart closes his DAILY SHOW with the sentence, “And now, your moment of Zen,” which is usually followed by a clip of some cable news program in which people say dopey or inane remarks. The purpose is to remind viewers of just how much stupidity is out there and the target is commonly self-inflated pundits on the FOX or CNN system.
Tuesday night, September 2, the clip consisted of a young woman reporting on a new line of underwear while holding up a pair of panties and saying, “Our underwear is actually functional; it’s fantastic for moms, and believe it or not it’s actually great for that time of the month. I bet you didn’t expect that.” A reaction shot includes a stuffy looking man who seems to hesitantly accept the fact that, since the show is about the “modern man” that means they’ll have to learn to tolerate “period talk” on TV news and consumer programs.
Is this a peculiar form of progress or just another adolescent period joke? Should we enjoy our moment of mockery of those up-tight men who are so-not-hip, unlike us Comedy Central fans? Or is the real joke on Jon Stewart and his producers for thinking that someone else making a casual period reference is something to poke fun at?
(Note: to watch the brief menstrual moment you will probably have to wade through an ad and a plug for the show itself.)
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Elizabeth Kissling originally appeared September 29, 2009.
Apropos of Chris’ most recent post, the video of Serena Williams’ new ad for Tampax just popped up in my RSS feed. You can check it out at right.
I’m so torn on this. I’m pretty certain that this is the First. Time. Ever. that the word “blood” has been used in an ad for menstrual products. Do you know what a huge step forward for body acceptance and menstrual literacy that is? When I was growing up in the 1970s, pads were advertised by showing how well they absorbed BLUE fluid. (So were diapers, by the way.) Kotex was the first company to use the color red and the word “period” in ad campaign less than ten years ago. So there is a part of me that is delighted when Catherine Lloyd Burns, playing Mother Nature, smiles slyly and says, “Well, there is plenty of blood, but none of it’s bad”.
I also enjoy seeing a powerful woman say that she isn’t afraid of menstruation, and shown succeeding athletically while menstruating. Kinda reminds me of when Uta Pippig won the Boston Marathon while menstruating.
But the core message and most troubling element of this entire “Mother Nature” campaign is the idea that menstruation is the gift nobody wants. Can’t P&G (and Kotex, and every other femcare advertiser) just promote the damn products without promoting shame and body hatred? Women will buy menstrual products without being told that periods should make them feel “not so fresh”. In fact, the ads might be more compelling if they emphasized the absorbency of the product and treated menstruation as a fact of life, rather than a secret disaster. Just spare us the blue fluid, please.
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Chris Bobel originally appeared October 1, 2012.
Okay. Enough. I gotta say something.
Because I am committed to various efforts to reclaim the menstrual cycle as a vital sign and subvert the dominant narrative that menstruation is obsolete and/or a badge of shame, many people assume my periods are all drum circles, red jewelry and a week-long love affair with my Diva Cup.
More insidious still is the pervasive assumption that thinking differently about our cycles necessarily points to LOVING our cycles. As if there are ONLY two choices on the menstrual menu: I’ll have the Obsolete Shaming Nuisance or My Cycle is Womb-alicious. That doesn’t work for me as I suspect it does not work for others. There’s a whole lot of territory between refusing to see menstruation as meaningless OR as proof positive that my body is unruly, out of control, and a source of deep-seated shame AND embracing my menses as the Sine qua non of my gender identity or the gift that keeps on giving, about every 28 days.
I gotta ask: can’t I resist the shame and still find the monthly uterine shedding a royal pain in the vagina? Because, dear reader, that’s how I feel about MY menstruation. Most of the time, I really hate my period.
I am a heavy bleeder– a seven full days of gushing, clotting, and without fail, staining usually both my sheets and my underwear. My period is a week of carrying an extra pair of underwear with me in my backpack, sleeping on a towel (that always bunches up and makes me miserable as I try to find a comfortable sleeping position) and scrubbing stains out of my underwear.
I do not celebrate my flow during my menses. At the same time, I am grateful that my body is signaling All Operations Normal and Functioning. Yes. I AM appreciative of the reminder to practice self care, to slow down, to pause…. but I rarely do, if I am honest. Truth is, even in the context of all this gratitude for what my body is doing to keep me healthy, I groan when Aunt Flo comes a-calling.
But admitting that has not come easily because I am privy toan awful lot of menstrual talk (on this blog and in the wider world) and the two OPTIONS ONLY discourse is pervasive. You either hate it (shame on you for shaming on you) or you love it (Fool. Join the 21st century!). See?
My point is simple. Let’s not trade one dogma for another. Messages on either pole fail to listen to women and instead, PRESCRIBE how we should THINK about our embodied experiences. Some menstruators DO welcome their periods and find ways to celebrate them. Some menstruators spend Day 1 on the floor of the bathroom, clutching the rim of the toilet. Some menstruators are damn grateful to see bloody panties as a signal of Not Pregnant or Right on Schedule and then pretty quickly shift into dogged management mode. Some menstruators _________________ (your experience here).
The different menstrual world I want is a bigger one, one shaped by a more (not less) pluralistic menstrual discourse that makes the way for as many menstrual attitudes are they are menstrual experiences. This stuff is personal and individual and yet, because of FemCare ads, industry-sponsored menstrual education in schools and increasingly Big Pharma’s awkward melding of high tech body meddling so that women can menstruate like their Paleo ancestors, it is hard to hear our OWN voices over the din.
Here’s my voice: thanks for the free monthly wellness check but I wish it were not so much work. But I will be damned if I will whisper that I need to change my pad or be seduced by a slick ad campaign that enlists me as a paying research subject. I just need better pads (longer, anyone?) and maybe a terry cloth fitted sheet. And someone to do my laundry.
On June 7, we posted a video of slam poet Dominique Christina performing a poem combating men’s shaming of women and their menstrual cycles. In the “Period Poem,” which she dedicated to her daughter, Christina encourages women who are confronted by men’s negativity toward menstruation to bleed, and bleed, and bleed on everything he loves. It is a fierce, bold, rebellious poem that has garnered much attention on social media, which received upwards of 6 million “likes” when it later appeared on Facebook. There is something magical and inspiring about menstrual art—poetry, paintings, songs, stories. For myself, who most often addresses menstruation in academic work—mired in journal edits, statistics, interviews, and such—I am in awe, somehow, by the similar themes that art, activism, and academia all address around the topic of menstruation.
To borrow a title from Dorothy Alison, here are two or three things I know for sure (about menstruation):
(1) First, the disgust directed toward women’s bodies serves as a powerful regulatory force to direct, contain, control, and denigrate women’s bodies. By eliciting disgust, we can summon people’s sense of outrage, moral judgments, visceral reactions, and “irrational” fears and funnel them toward a particular target. I continue to be amazed at how disgust about menstruating women (and, specifically, menstruating vaginas) permeates popular culture, social media, news media, and informal interactions. My research on disgust and menstruation has found that people find menstruation more disgusting than nearly any other bodily product or bodily occurrence. A recent pilot study I conducted found that this normal, healthy monthly cycle weighs in as more disgusting than open wounds, diarrhea, used diapers, and vomit. Dominique Christina’s response to the “dummy on Twitter” that dissed his girlfriend for starting her period during sex is tapping into this same phenomenon. Disgust is dangerous, and it connects powerfully to the undercurrents of misogyny in this country.
(2) Resistance to men’s shaming of menstruation is everywhere, hidden in simple acts of rebellion all over the world. Whether through poetry, art, the refusal to use commercial menstrual products, the impulse to fight back against the idiocy that permeates online culture, the commitment to love one’s body no matter what, the embrace of cycles and changes in the body, the refusal to be silent or unseen, the desire to connect to other women, the communication with daughters and grand-daughters about their cycles, and in a thousand other simple and elegant and (often) hidden ways, women resist the bullying, misogyny, and shaming of menstruation all the time. We can and should expect such resistance.
(3) Menstruation is no trivial subject. We are taught, as women, that our concerns, thoughts, fields of study, feelings, and attitudes are trivial, silly, not relevant, not important. (The journal, Trivia: Voice of Feminism, exists to combat this very assumption, publishing some of the most engaging and interesting feminist creative writing around). Menstruation is no exception. We learn very early that our menstrual cycles are either wholly invisible or targets for ridicule and misogynistic humor. And yet, what could possibly be more powerful than women’s reproductive capacities, their ability to bleed and give birth? Where are political, social, personal, cultural, and institutional intrusions more keenly felt than in women’s decisions about, and relationship to, their menstrual cycles? There is much at stake in resisting the stories we are told about our bodies, and, as I have too often found in my own work, doing so can make people frothing-at-the-mouth angry. My prediction: the more we continue to resist and fight back against menstrual shaming—whether through art, activism, or academia—the more clear it will become that menstruation is far, far, far from trivial.