Guest Post by Jen Lewis
Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. April: Galaxy
Cycle: April 2013
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis
Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research
Posing while pregnant in my pro-choice T-shirt in 1993 was a political statement, one I made with a huge sassy grin on my face. When I recreated the pose recently on my daughter’s 21st birthday, I found it easy to reprise the grin. First take, in fact. My choice tee is well worn; it’s a house/jammy shirt that my daughter has seen me in her whole life. Little does she know that she’s had her nose wiped by a piece of Canadian history.
I bought the choice tee at a fundraiser in Toronto when the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics was helping Canadian abortion rights crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler with legal expenses when he was forced to defend in court his practice of providing safe abortions in a free-standing clinic. At the time, abortion was legal in Canada, but only if approved by a Therapeutic Abortion Committee and performed in a hospital. I was 27 years old, fresh from university, and a legal abortion had allowed me to finish my degree unburdened by an unplanned pregnancy, but I supported fewer restrictions to access.
Like most twenty-somethings, I had a long history of contraceptive use. I’d tried the pill, an IUD, and even the rhythm method, a fuzzy grasp of which I probably had picked up in a public school health class. I had a rotten attitude about my fertility, saw it as a huge hassle, and had no interest whatsoever in becoming a mother. My social and political opinions about the right to reproductive choice were fully formed when I bought this T-shirt for the cause I so ardently supported.
I was 32 years old when I posed in it while pregnant. By then I’d been charting my menstrual cycles for enough years to have improved my attitude about fertility dramatically. I’d met Geraldine Matus in the late 80s and learned to use the Justisse Method for Fertility Awareness that she developed. It changed my life forever; not only did I gain body literacy, develop a healthy relationship with my cycling body, and break free from contraceptive drugs and devices forever, I also gained a cherished mentor in Geraldine, and a career path as a Justisse fertility awareness educator that has sustained and gratified me for the past 25 years.
I took that picture in my choice T-shirt in 1993 because, for me, it says “I’m choosing to be pregnant.” I grinned because it was my choice to have Clair; I wasn’t scared or forced or coerced into that pregnancy. It was entirely my free will to lend my body to the great task of having a child and I made that choice because of the healing that had gone on over the years of charting, coming into relationship with my body, and learning to appreciate the awesomeness of my pro-creative power. Now that my daughter is 21 years old, I think about the freedom and choices she has as a Canadian woman in 2014, and feel sadness for those who don’t have that choice. I reflect on what a shame it is that these battles over reproductive choice, human rights, access to birth control, stigma, and power seem never to be put to rest. On Clair’s birthday, I posed in my choice T-shirt for my family archives and for those who still do not have choice.
Lisa Leger is a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner (HRHP) and women’s health activist on Vancouver Island. She serves on the board of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.
Beauty in Blood Presents
Cycle: March 2014
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Director of Photography: Rob Lewis
Untitled #1 is currently part of the “Period Pieces” Art Show curated by SMCR member Josefin Persdotter. This exhibition opened on March 1st and is on display all month long at the Urban Artroom in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Scene 1 10: 45 am:
A quiet Sunday morning, sunny and bright. Brunch on the patio. I sat with my daughter, my partner, and my niece. Over pastries and coffee, I experienced waves of menstrual contractions, coming steadily every 15 minutes. And I winced, swallowing my moans.
While my niece spoke of her back pain, and my partner lamented his brief but powerful bout of the flu, I offered no comment about the vice grip around my uterus, the attention-grabbing cramping that hit me again and again. Through these cramping spells, I coached myself to “tough it out” though I noticed that when I was alone, I audibly groaned. I hurt, but I said nothing.
And interestingly, later, while chatting with my stepson and his boyfriend, I kept the cramps entirely to myself. I chose to suffer in silence.
I hurt and yet, it seemed, my menstrual pain was not worth mentioning. It was mundane, even nearly universal. It was not the type of thing you sit around and whine about. I was aware, at some level, that an occasional mention of my pain would garner some sympathy, but beyond that, let the eye rolling begin. And in some company, it might be too-much-information, too private, too gross, even, to mention.
Scene 2 4:30 pm: Returning home after a 10-day road trip. The house, showing the wear of a place overrun by two cats with little human intervention, needed to be restored to order. Piles of mail. Bags to unpack.
But the very first thing I did when I walked through the door was take a shower and then do laundry. I had leaked badly during the last leg of the trip and I was a mess. My partner and daughter, alternatively, immediately settled on the (cat hair-encrusted) couch and reconnected to their wired worlds. While I, 21st century pioneer wife, scrubbed blood stains out of my clothes and hung another pair of “ruined” panties on the clothesline.
I walked past my family several times during my emergency clean up operation. With each glance, I felt envy rise up, and if i am honest, resentment, too. But I did not complain. My body, my period, my mess. My problem.
But is it? Should it?
During menstrual moments like these, (and now I will generalize) we often experience an acute embodied awareness that arrests our attention. At times, the experiences are painful or messy or both. Sometimes these ‘invasions’ are significant ,and we could benefit from some company. And yet, it is the rare menstruator who is NOT socialized to ‘buck up’ and ‘just deal with it.’ There is a persistent voice in our heads: ‘No body wants to hear about your period…. Cramps are boring. And stain stories? Nobody wants to hear about THAT!”
I’ve argued this point before; it seems the only acceptable menstrual discourse is PMS jokes (in which the punchline is a bitchy, out of control woman [see image above].
When it comes to expressing the reality of our menstrual lives—wherever our experiences fall on the continuum from menstrual joy to menstrual misery—we do so in a veritable sound chamber that CAN hurt us. For many of us, our menstrual experiences are uneventful, at least most of the time. But for the rest, they can be catastrophic. Or they may be normal, ho-hum, TODAY until they are NOT, a day later. Things change. Needs change. But the silence persists.
My concern is this: if we don’t open spaces for menstrual discourse, how can we find the support to discern the normal from the NOT normal? How can we get the info and support we need when we need it?
Scene: 3 3:24 am. I slowly came to consciousness and as I did, I instinctively reached between my legs. Yes. I was wet. Yes. My pad had shifted. And yes, so had the “insurance towel” I placed beneath me to protect the sheets. Damn. I didn’t want to get up and change my pad and underwear, but if I did not, I would have an even bigger stain on my sheet, maybe one that would soak through the mattress pad and onto my mattress. Ugh.
The recent death of writer Doris Lessing led me to revisit her work a bit. *
Author of more than 50 books as well as an opera, Lessing was brave. She spanned genres, refused to tow a singular ideological line and used her Nobel Prize moment to remind us that privilege shapes greatness as much, even more perhaps, than talent. And Lessing wrote about menstruation when few others dared.
In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf journals on the first day of her period—chronicling every thought and feeling her menses produced for her. In the passage below, Wulf’s disgust with her body is hardly a menstrual-positive standpoint (and isn’t something off with her cycle if she detects such an offensive smell?). But there is an honesty, here. A broken silence. Lessing brought to the fore the reality of the fraught and conflicted menstruating body in the early 1960s, and that was a bold move.
I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool … I roll tampons into my handbag, concealing them under a handkerchief … The fact that I am having my period is no more than an entrance into an emotional state, recurring regularly, that is of no particular importance … A man said he would be revolted by the description of a woman defecating. I resented this … but he right … For instance, when Molly said to me … I‘ve got the curse; I have instantly to suppress distaste, even though we are both women; and I begin to be conscious of the possibility of bad smells … and I begin to worry: Am I smelling? It is the only smell that I know of that I dislike. … But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent. It is a smell that I feel as strange even to me, an imposition from outside. Not from me. Yet for two days I have to deal with this thing from outside—a bad smell, emanating from me. … So I shut the thoughts of my period out of my mind; making, however, a mental note that as soon as I get to the office I must go to the washroom to make sure there is no smell (pp. 339-340).
Lessing is not alone among the brave who dare to Speak a Menstrual Language. In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I offer this shout out to a short list of the courageous who inspire. Thank you menstrual champions.
Rachel Horn, of Sustainable Cycles, who cycled coast to coast this summer, promoting menstrual literacy and menstrual cup awareness.
Holly Grigg-Spall, who has put herself on the line with her new book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Grigg-Spall has been challenged, sometimes pretty nastily, for suggesting that one can use a feminist reproductive justice lens to be critical of the pill.
And how about radical feminist pioneer of queer cinema, Barbara Hammer. Her 1974 expeimental film Menses playfully interprets, though a group of women enacting their own individual fantasies, what menstruation means to them. 1974!
Menarchists Jaqueline J. Gonzalez and Stephanie Robinson, who founded the Menstrual Activist Research Collective (M.A.R.C) in 2011, and just released their line of menstrual gear (http://www.etsy.com/shop/menarchists) at cost so you can help them spread the good word, or as they put, leave your MARC! We bleed. It is okay. We bleed.
Then there’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, the self described “school dropout” (and now the subject of a new documentary) who developed a table top machine that rural Indian women can use to produce and sell low cost single use menstrual pads. He wants to make life easier for Indian women (and he is not interested in getting rich). Yes, there are sustainability issues, here, but there’s also a widening of options for women.
Every teenager who, on the way to the school toilet, ever dared to walk down the hall with femcare-product-of-choice in open view.
Every menstruator who hangs cloth pads on the clothesline with the rest of the laundry.
Recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to lend an excerpt of my recently released book to the UK Sunday Times Style magazine. The mostly fashion-centric Style magazine is not really known for its edginess or risk-taking (except perhaps in the realm of shoe and make-up choices) and so I was happily surprised when the editor told me that the subject matter discussed in my book that she happened to find most interesting was, in fact, menstruation. I had expected her to want to focus on condoms perhaps, or just my personal story, but no, she was keenly interested in what I wrote about periods.
The argument I make in my book is that how we feel about hormonal birth control is inextricably linked to how we feel about menstruation. In a sense, many of the newer methods of hormonal birth control, as well as the newer uses (running packets of pills together, prescriptions for cramps or heavy bleeding) show an effort to get rid of the period completely, rather than just hide it away. I also discuss in the book, briefly, menstruation activism. However, I do defer to the far better work done by the likes of SMCR’s own Chris Bobel who writes on this topic with far more knowledge (not to mention wit).
You can read the feature in full here at my website (it’s otherwise behind an online pay wall and frankly I’m pleased to rob Rupert Murdoch of a few pounds by making it freely available).
In the end, the feature was not exactly an excerpt from my book – more so it was quotes from the book mixed with quotes from a long interview with the editor. Therefore I didn’t quite know what would be published in the magazine. The finished piece covered a range of controversial topics seen here at re:Cycling regularly – menstrual outing, reusable femcare products, the potential health benefits of ovulation…
If the high point of my career was getting the word “patriarchy” into the notoriously right-wing British tabloid The Daily Mail, I think I had another peak seeing this sentence in the Style (notorious for its high priced designer fashion spreads) – “This movement believes the act of stopping and hiding our periods with hormonal contraceptives and sanitary products is a mark of corporate ownership of our bodies.” I take great pride in also getting a discussion of menstrual extraction on to Style’s pages, and therefore onto the breakfast table of approximately one million British people – “an entire period’s worth of menstrual blood could be removed in a few hours instead of being experienced over days.” Well, if we can have Page 3, why not menstrual extraction?
The editor who did such a great job on this piece was Fleur Britten and in a funny twist of fate I realized, during our conversations, that in my first full time working position after college, at the publishing company Debrett’s in London, I worked as a production assistant on one of her books – Etiquette for Girls. At that time controversy surrounded Fleur’s section on the proper etiquette for one-night stands (I think it was something about getting out quickly, quietly, but leaving a nice handwritten note). So, it made me smile to see her skewer the etiquette of menstruation in the opening paragraph of this piece: “Many women are bored with having to take a whole handbag into the ladies rather than carry a tampon in their hand. Men say “I’m going to take a dump,” but we don’t say, “I’m just going to change my tampon.””
When I was carrying the proofs of Fleur’s book to the printers back some seven years ago, little did I know we would be conspiring to get the British public to say “I am menstruating” today over tea and toast.
As a point of contention and as a reaction to my previous claims that women should more often engage in “menstrual outing,” some critics have responded by saying that disclosing one’s menstrual status is similar to women disclosing that they have just urinated, defecated, or vomited. In my November 2012 column called “Menstrual outing, menstrual panics,” here are some of the responses I got when advocating that women openly discuss menstruation:
In response to some of these comments, Elizabeth Kissling rightly noted that the difference between menstruation and bowel movements often revolves around the level of shaming. Femcare ads routinely try to sell products based on the shameful qualities of menstruating, while toilet paper ads rarely employ such strategies. Endometriosis diagnoses lag because doctors do not believe women about their symptoms of pain, while problems with digestion and colon issues promptly receive medical attention (unless, of course, you’re poor). And, Kissling added, “people do talk about bowel movements. All the time. They talk about how particular foods affect their digestion. They excuse themselves from meetings and social gatherings to use the bathroom, sometimes saying why in euphemistic terms, sometimes in coarse and graphic language. The older they get, the more they do it.”
Building off of this, I will admit that this discourse of “menstruation = shit” has started to bother me more and more. As Kissling argued, people do talk about using the restroom in graphic language all the time. We consider it adorable and normative for older people (and even some younger people) to talk about eating fiber, “cleaning their drains,” and feeling joyful when they can successfully poop. I could never imagine menstruating women routinely doing the same and discussing their periods in such (joyous, prideful) detail. Admitting that one is menstruating, or needing to take care of changing a tampon/pad or cleaning up after dribbling blood on the floor, is rarely an occurrence that people can or will discuss. As some of our critics noted, it “lacks social grace.” But why it lacks social grace is a far more interesting topic, as the routine construction of women’s bodies as always disgusting, always failing, always excessive, and always subpar deserves more attention.
In stark contrast, however, to these claims of similarity between menstrual blood and other bodily fluids and functions, I have become increasingly curious about the notion of menstrual synchrony and why so many women want to believe in menstrual synchrony despite controversies about its existence. For example, even though menstrual synchrony might not exist, women still want to feel in solidarity with other women via cycling together, a topic my research group and I have recently taken up in a research article. This notion that women want to say, “I menstruate together with my roommates/sister/mother/friends” also contradicts the notion that menstrual blood is just like other bodily fluids. Never do we hear women talking about being in solidarity with other women’s defecation and urination habits. The reason for this, I argue, is that women fundamentally understand the stigma surrounding menstruation; claims of menstrual synchrony might help them to fight back against this stigma and shame, using experiences of menstruation to enact practices of political solidarity, alliance, and resistance. This is something to celebrate indeed!
I had the privilege of writing the foreword for Holly Grigg-Spall’s recently published book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. It’s astounding to me that more than 30 years ago, before Holly was born, I was asking some of the same questions she explores in her book. I thought we’d have more answers by now, but one thing is certain: Holly’s book has prompted long-overdue discussion and debate about issues related to hormonal birth control. Below is my foreword to Sweetening the Pill.
In a letter dated March 22, 1980, I proposed to the editor of an American woman’s magazine that they consider my enclosed article: The Contraceptive Dilemma – A Subjective Appraisal of the Status of Birth Control.
“Recent articles (about birth control) deal almost exclusively with the basic pros, cons, and how-tos of the various contraceptives available – matter-of-fact discussions that reduce birth control to a mere pragmatic decision. If only that were the case.
Contraception, like the sexual interaction that necessitates it, involves our emotions as much as it does the facts. Yet the subjective, personal aspect of contraception is so often ignored. In this age of scientific research we are expected to (subjugate) our emotional reactions to significant probabilities, our anger to logic. Very real fears and earnest questions are dismissed as irrelevant….”
Although today I wouldn’t use the phrase “emotional reactions,” it’s hard to believe that three decades later, the status of birth control and women’s relationship to it has not much changed. Websites, not magazines, now host information about the basic pros, cons and how-tos of available birth control methods. And it is writers like Holly, half my age, who honour women’s real fears and ask earnest questions that are still being dismissed as mostly irrelevant.
Just as my personal story with the pill – including over a year of distressing post-pill amenorrhea – set me on a course of research and advocacy, so too has Holly’s personal experience. Sweetening the Pill explores and challenges the ways in which the pill and other drug-based contraceptives damage women’s health, threaten our autonomy and thwart body literacy. What we don’t know about our bodies helps pharmaceutical companies “sell” their contraceptive drugs, and keeps us “addicted” to them.
At some point between my first attempt at non-hormonal contraceptive advocacy and Holly’s exploration of how we’ve become hooked on hormonal birth control, something disturbing transpired. Prescribing the pill, or other forms of hormonal contraception, has become, in the minds of most health-care providers, the “standard of care” for being a girl. It is all too common to subjugate a girl’s menstrual cycle to synthetic hormones that superficially “regulate,” but actually suspend the maturation of her reproductive system. And for many girls, the use of hormonal contraception continues well into their 20s, without awareness of what might be or has been sacrificed.
There are many women like Holly who are fed up with hormonal birth control. I’ve met scores of them during my 30 years involvement within the mainstream pro-choice sexual and reproductive health community, the one that prides itself on inclusion and diversity. Yet I’ve been unsuccessful in my constant advocacy for this community to accommodate a more inclusive, diverse approach to contraception, to provide acknowledgement, support and services to women who cannot or do not want to use drug- or devised-based methods. We pay lip service to the idea, but the message we convey is: “You’re on your own.”
I’ve found enthusiasm in other realms for my menstrual cycle advocacy and my belief that many women want to, and can, learn to use non-hormonal methods effectively and confidently. I’ve found scientific evidence of the value of ovulation to women’s health and well-being.
I’ve read, met or worked with several of the sources included in this book. Many have devoted their careers to understanding women’s bodies and our relationships with our bodies in ways the medical mainstream typically ignores and barely comprehends. They have made contributions that help us imagine a different way of thinking about fertility, contraception and our menstrual cycles in relation to our sexual, reproductive and overall health.
Last month, I returned to California after my friend Owen and I rode our bicycles from San Francisco to New York City. We rode 4,624 miles through 12 states over 3 months. We carried our essentials (about 70 lbs, bikes included), met hundreds of people, received incredible amounts of kindness, and talked a lot about periods.
I am a spokeswoman for a project called Sustainable Cycles—I rode from town to town, facilitating discussions about menstrual products. Women, men, people, bookworms, students, graduates, clinicians, mothers, teenagers, environmentalists, bicycle enthusiasts, passers by—we all gathered to talk about the cost (~$2000 over a lifetime), waste (~260 lbs of trash), and content (synthetics, pesticides, & dioxins) of conventional pads and tampons. I carried a slew of products with me—a pad, a tampon, a cloth pad, sea sponges, and menstrual cups—to show, and we created a space where any question could be asked and any story be shared. Each event was a space for open, honest, and unashamed conversation about anything menstruation-related. As party favors, people who wanted to make ‘the switch’ from disposables left with a new menstrual cup.
Owen and I had never done a long-distance bike trip before, but by now we’re pretty good at it. Our farthest day was 123 miles from Cleveland, OH to Erie, PA; the longest stretch without services was 84 miles in Utah; our tallest summit was 11,400 feet in Colorado; and we only ran out of water once (which was enough) in Nevada. I organized discussions along the way using public library computers and fast food restaurant wifi. At night we stayed in parks, campsites, at friends of friends places, with online hosts, and with random strangers we met in bike shops. I found people all across this country to be incredibly giving and hospitable. We were treated to countless meals, showers, beds, laundry, great conversations, and all kinds of support. If I had a nickel for every time I was told, “this is your home”, I could buy all 30 jars of peanut butter we consumed.
Sustainable Cycles is small, it’s young, and it is one of the most amazing projects of our time. I happened to stumble upon it earlier this year as I was brainstorming about how to fund my cross-country cycling adventure. I found a blog about two young women who bicycled from Seattle to Los Angeles in 2011, hootin’ and hollerin’ about menstruation and giving away free menstrual cups as they went. Toni and Sarah were “sparking a grassroots movement toward more sustainable approaches to menstruation” and, armed with almost 300 cups donated to them, started Sustainable Cycles. A satisfied cup user myself, I contacted them, began to fundraise, received 90 cups generously donated by DivaCup, and on May 4, 2013 began spreading the gospel as I pedaled east.
Most of the people we encountered were supportive and surprised by the project. I got anywhere from a pensive “Um…that’s interesting…I’ll tell my wife” to a passionate “Thank you so so much for doing this”. The purpose of this bike ride is to combat the shame and taboo that keeps us silent and ignorant about issues surrounding menstruation. It is about calling attention to the environmental, economic, and health impacts of conventional products and creating a space where people can question exactly what they support with their dollar, be it Tampax tampons or cut-up T-shirts. It is about sharing knowledge and empowering each other; everyone is invited to the discussion, no matter what they do or do not use. I see menstruation as a phenomenon that connects us despite race, color, gender, socioeconomic status, language, ethnicity, culture, ability, education level, shape, size, etc. It is a conversation we do no have often enough. During my three months on the road, I held discussions in all of the states I pedaled through, gifted cups to interested persons, and met a lot of people I otherwise may never have. Like a professional taxidermist in Nevada, a man in Nebraska who’s first and last name are exactly the same, and a solo bike tourist who became our dear friend.