Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Are There Limits to Empathy?

March 17th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Readers—I need your help!

Next month, I will participate in a friendly debate at the Museum of Modern Art about Sputniko!’s provocative piece “Menstrutation Machine.” We’ve written about Menstruation Machine on re:Cycling before. In short, the metal device is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, thus replicating the pain and bleeding of a five-day menstrual period.

Here’s the video that the artist created to simulate what it was like for one fictional boy (Takashi) when he wore the device while socializing with a friend in the streets of Tokyo.

The debate is part of a series Design and Violence-an “ongoing online curatorial experiment that explores the manifestations of violence in contemporary society by pairing critical thinkers with examples of challenging design work.”

The exact debate resolution is still being worked out, but it will revolve around this question of EMPATHY.

That is, what is the potential of “Menstruation Machine,” specifically, or any other object, to engender empathy in another?

Need more examples? Think Empathy Belly (thanks to sister blogger Chris Hitchcock who conjured that connection).

But we can extend the concept to ANY experience designed to expressly help an individual see inside someone else’s reality. Think “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”, the International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault & Gender Violence, “a playful opportunity for men to raise awareness in their community about the serious causes, effects and remediations to men’s sexualized violence against women”; The Blind Café; or the TV show 30 Days, “An unscripted, documentary-style program where an individual is inserted into a lifestyle that is completely different from his or her upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession for 30 days.”

So, dear readers, I am hungry for you to share your thoughts as I prepare for the debate.

What do YOU think?

Can design help us be more empathic?

Can a non-menstruator ever really know what it is like to menstruate?

Can a temporary simulated experience, like this or any other, build a bridge?

Are there limits to what we can know of another’s lived experience, even if we can, for a short while, FEEL the pain?

A Review of Selene: A New Cycle-Tracking App

September 2nd, 2013 by Chris Bobel

Guest Post by Amy Sedgwick, HRHP, Red Tent Sisters

Screenshot of Selene app // Photo courtesy of daringplan.com/selene

While there are no shortage of apps designed to help women track their periods, finding an app that meets the needs of women who are practicing fertility awareness methods (FAM) for birth control or conception can be quite a challenge. As a teacher of the Justisse Method of Fertility Management (there is currently no app available but there is one in development) I am often asked by my clients about web-based solutions to tracking their cycles when they are travelling or find themselves in other situations where their physical charts are impractical. Fertility Awareness users will be pleased to know that there is a new app on the market, Selene, which has been developed with FAM in mind. In addition to being able to chart the standard fertility markers (cervical mucus, cervical position, and basal body temperature), Selene boasts loads of unique features like the ability to make note of the things that affect reliability the most – like sickness, travel, and disturbed sleep. Selene also allows the user to define their own markers to track patterns in health, mood, libido, and more. The chart tab of the app shows you your cycle in a graph format, while the calendar tab displays it from a monthly perspective. Some of the other highlights of the app include a description of the daily moon phase, an automatic luteal phase calculator, the ability to ask questions about your chart in the “Ask an Expert” section, and a detailed instructions and help section. Selene excels at utilizing the principles of the widely-used fertility awareness method taught in Taking Charge of Your Fertility. Using principles from the book, the app will shade out days of predicted fertility based on the information you enter. It will also calculate an ovulation prediction based on the average length of your cycles. The app highly encourages users to seek additional support and education for their fertility awareness practice, particularly if they are using it for birth control. While Selene offers the most nuanced approach to menstrual cycle charting that I have thus seen (although I can’t claim to have evaluated all the apps on the market), one feature I would like to see added in future versions is the ability to manually choose whether a day is considered fertile (i.e., as indicated by bold stripes on the calendar view) so that those schooled in other approaches to fertility awareness, like the Justisse Method, could have the option of applying our own rules and calculations overtop of the calendar view. The only other critique I have of Selene is that the developer has chosen a dark navy background, which I personally find difficult to view. I’d prefer to see them use a colour scheme that is brighter and easier to read. I am grateful to Selene’s creators for being so thoughtful, thorough and conscientious in the creation of their app. I look forward to seeing what enhancements and updates they integrate into future versions.

Another Day, Another Shame: Sports Edition

August 5th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

The BODY POLICE just wrote us another ticket.

Sweating through our workout clothes, is a big NO NO, that is, if the sweat shows up (whisper…blush…giggle…) down there. The “solution” to the non-problem du jour is U By Kotex’s Sports Liners. Thank you, Kotex, for reminding me that I am, in fact, a functioning, healthy human. Here’s the commercial. (Prepare your rage).

In response, Australian Humorist Sammy J sent the BODY POLICE back to the station with: “The Crotch Song” He performed the jaunty tune on the new Australian weekly comedy series Wednesday Night Fever, which he hosts.  Then, like good satire often does, it went viral.

Apparently underestimating our hunger for a good solid FemCare smackdown, Sammy J humbly posted to his Facebook page on July 25th:I awoke to discover my song about crotch sweat has gone viral overnight, clocking up over 30,000 views. Power to the sisterhood!”  Well, Sammy J, your fandom is growing. Video views on YouTube alone are at nearly 48K and climbing.

I love the sassy critique of the product, of course, but I especially appreciate the way Sammy J redirects our attention away from the intractable ‘to use or not to use’ debate that quickly devolves into missing the point much bigger than any particular individual’s consumer choice. Instead, he exhorts every woman to steer clear of men (let’s expand that to ANYONE) “ who would make you feel as bad as panty liner companies.”

Amen.

Here’s the full lyrics here. Every delicious word.

 The Crotch Song by Sammy J 

 I saw a new ad for a new product aimed at women
New panty liners to eliminate crotch sweat.
And though I don’t have degree in feminism
I feel their message is a little hard to get

Cause the assumption seems to be that sweating when you exercise is a major turn off so it’s best to keep sweating in disguise

But that does not address the fact that any guy who judges you for sweating when you exercise is probably a cock-head.

So if we apply the logic they’re using to sell it.
And your crotch is sweaty so you buy a 30-pack

Well then there’s a stronger chance you’ll end up with a douche-bag, and that’s a few years of your life you won’t get back.

In-fact when you think it through
Any guy who talks to you despite your sweaty crotch has already past a very basic test
It means he’s not brain dead.
It means he understands the cause or link between exercise and perspiration.

So take him to the formal

The website says and this is word for word I’m quoting “It’s time we all stop being shy about vaginas” 


And then you click the product tab they’re promoting
 guilt, shame and embarrassment to sell their panty-liners.

So young girls if you’re listening and your crotch is feeling sweaty.
You can chose to use a liner. 
Do whatever sets you free

But as you make your way through life avoid dating the assholes who would make you feel as bad as panty liner companies.

[Source: LYBIO.net]

Five Things You Should Know About the Three Vs

April 9th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest post by Kati Bicknell, Kindara

Now I know in the title of this post I say “Five things you probably don’t know about your vagina,” but really it’s about more than your vagina. The V Book, by Elizabeth Gunther Stewart and Paula Spencer, is basically the owner’s manual for all people who have any of the following V’s — vagina, vulva, and vestibule. Don’t know what a vestibule is? Read on, my good friend!

I am a bonafide vagina nerd myself, and when I read this book I learned a BUNCH of things that I did not know. Here are my top five:

  1. So we all know (now) about cervical fluid, but did you know that it’s not the only substance produced by your lady bits to keep things running smoothly? Your vulva actually produces a thin waxy substance, called sebum that lubricates the folds of your labia! It’s a blend of oils, fats, waxes, and cholesterol. If it didn’t, your labia and everything else would be all friction-y and chafe when you walked, had sex, moved, did anything really. That blew my mind. Thanks, body!
  2. Have you ever wondered how the vagina is simultaneously quite small, (i.e., sometimes even putting in a tampon might be uncomfortable and “stretchy”) and also somehow stretches to accommodate a baby passing through it? I definitely have. Well, it’s all thanks to your rugae! Rugae are small pleats that allow the vagina to be both very small and compact, and then to expand to many times its original size when necessary. Rugae is kind of like ruching! You know, the process of using tons of fabric and then scrunching it so it becomes a smaller form. I’m wearing a ruched jacket at this very moment, actually. It makes you think, if you wore this dress to the prom, are you subliminally broadcasting “HEY! THIS IS WHAT THE INSIDE OF MY VAGINA LOOKS LIKE”?
  3. Vestibule! (I told you we’d get here.) Okay! So the vestibule is important enough to be included in the three V’s of the V book, and yet I was like, “where the heck is my vestibule?” Well, it’s the place in between your inner labia. Here it is on Wikipedia, with an image that is ***not safe for work,*** unless you work in the field of sexual health, in which case, click away!
  4. Labia (as in the labia majora and labia minora). This word is actually plural. If you are referring to only one lip it’s called a labium.
  5. Only in rare instances is a human female born with the hymen completely covering the vaginal opening. Most hymens are a little circle of very thin skin that partially covers the vaginal opening, but still leaves space for menstrual blood and cervical fluid to come out. Here is a hilarious and educational video explaining more about this. [Editor's note: Many sex educators today call it the vaginal corona, not the hymen.]

And there is a LOT more info in that book. Tons. Go pick it up today and learn more than you ever thought possible about vaginas, vulvas, and vestibules!

Cross-posted at Kindara.com March 29, 2013.

what to tell the girl in my life about menstruation?

November 24th, 2011 by Alexandra Jacoby

Ever since I saw this uterus pillow, I have been thinking about what to tell the girl in my life about menstruation. She’s ten years old. This pillow is exactly something I would give her! It’s handmade, using strong colors of the kind I like, and about a subject most people don’t want to talk about. [I like to annoy her!] Also, it’s pretty.

I’ve had it since the summer, and I still haven’t given it to her — because I want to say something with it.

uterus pillow - ovulating

uterus pillow by Wendy Caesar.

But – what?

I have no idea what she knows or thinks or feels about her body in general, or about menstruation in particular.

Where do I start?

[translate that to several months of procrastination]

Telling myself that it was research and preparation for a good talk, I started asking people what they think I should say to a ten-year old girl in my life. Most asked me if it wasn’t too early to start this topic? I mean if she isn’t menstruating yet…

why bring it up?

Her school will know when to start the conversation. Or maybe leave it up to her, to whenever she asks you…

She’ll ask her mother then probably. Or maybe her mother has already started this conversation….

Wait! None of that matters —

I am totally ducking. I am afraid to get it wrong.

How will she know that conversations are not tests, or competitions, if I keep acting like there’s a right way to do this— like I need training, expertise or approval to talk to the girl in my life about something that I have experienced myself for several of her lifetimes?

I want her to know that it’s ok to not-know EVERYTHING about your body and what comes next, and that it’s ok to ask questions from a place of not-knowing.

Right. Decision made. I will not become an expert before talking with her.

I’ll make this about her and about me.

Here’s what I’ll do:

I’ll ask her what she’s heard so far:

  • What do you know about menstruation?
  • What did your mother tell you?
  • School?
  • Friends?
  • Female relatives?
  • Your father?

I’ll check in with her:

  • What does it feel like? – What people told you —
  • Is it: scary, embarrassing, no big deal, exciting…

I’ll tell her why I brought this up:

The menstrual cycle is not just about bleeding and whether you can get pregnant today — though, those two situations are reason enough to learn as much as you can about your cycle. You want to be prepared for, and satisfied with, both experiences.

uterus pillow - menstruating

the same uterus pillow, by Wendy Caesar.

The menstrual cycle is one of your body’s vital signs.

Its hormones and processes affect and interact with how you feel, how your bones grow, how your skin looks, your body temperature… From the inside out, of your body-your home, your cycle determines your quality of life in many ways.

Most of us know little about how our bodies work. And, unless we feel pain, have difficulty doing something we want to do, or are incapacitated, we don’t necessarily need to know any more than the little we know.

But — and this is why I bring it up — the more you do know about how it works, the more power you have over the quality of your body-life, which in turn feeds your mental-spiritual-emotional life. And back around again.

I bring up the menstrual cycle because its integral to the workings of a woman’s body and while there are ranges of normal — day to day, it’s a unique experience for each of us.

I want her to be aware of that, and to begin paying attention to her body because it’s her body. Not just when it raised an issue that needs a response, like what to do about the blood.

I’ll end with:

Summer’s Eve Campaign Targets Wrong Body Part

August 2nd, 2011 by Laura Wershler

The print ad for the Summer's Eve campaign refers to the "V" but not the vagina.

If a product manufacturer or its advertising company, or both, cannot figure out which part of the female body their new line of feminine hygiene products can be used for, then both are in big trouble.

There has been much hoopla over the recently launched Summer’s Eve campaign. Links to stories about and response to the campaign can be found in my fellow blogger Elizabeth Kissling’s July 27th post. The most serious backlash to the campaign resulted in three videos perceived as “racially insensitive” being pulled from the campaign website late last week.

What rankles me about the campaign – beyond its patronizing, unsophisticated and euphemistically silly approach to the female genital area - is that it appears to target the vagina when it is clear that none of these products are actually intended for use in the vagina.

Regardless of what one might think about the value of or necessity for these femcare products, an advertising campaign for such products must convey accurate information. Like where to use them.

The product line includes: cleansing wash, cleansing cloths, deodorant spray, body powder, and bath and shower gel. Click on the OUR PRODUCTS box on the website home page and you’ll see this: Meet the products that love your vagina. Oh, really?

These products are not intended, I repeat, not intended for use in the vagina. One would think that the product manufacturer knows this. Why then did they choose a talking vagina, and across-the-board references to the vagina, to convey their product message on the website?

Interestingly, the print and TV ads hold no direct reference to the vagina. The website coyly advises viewers that they can call it “V” for short. It is this moniker and the tagline ” Hail to the V” that crosses over to print and television.

Maybe this was intended as a subtle reference to the other “V” word – vulva . It’s pretty clear this is the body part for which the Summer’s Eve products are intended.

I wanted to know why the creative team at The Richards Group, the ad company responsible for the campaign, chose to use the word vagina instead of vulva. My request for an interview to ask this question was turned down, so instead I asked two colleagues what they thought the reason might be.

Valerie Barr, veteran sexual health educator and training centre manager at Calgary Sexual Health Centre, suspects it’s because vagina is assumed to mean what is actually the vulva. She says, “I believe this assumption, or taken-for-granted use of the term, serves to avoid discussion of the clitoris and therefore, female sexual response.”  Barr says she thinks it demonstrates that in our culture we continue to be unconsciously uncomfortable with women being sexual beings.

Rebecca Chalker, female anatomy expert and author of The Clitoral Truth, also believes that fear of the word clitoris has much to do with it. ”Clitoris is the most toxic word in the English language, and to this day is considered obscene and too offensive to be used in the media. Just try it on people,” she says.

“Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) made the vagina safe for the general public – even she did not use the C–word. Vagina has now become the default reference for everything ‘down there.’ Those ad guys are no different. Perhaps they’re just using the default because that’s what they think people can relate to most readily,” Chalker says.

Although vulva is the accurate word to describe the female body part intended to benefit from the Summer’s Eve product line, Chalker says, “It would be a tragedy if vulva becomes the new default. In anatomical parlance vulva just means covering.”

All of this proves that Summer’s Eve Vaginaland is a minefield, and incredibly more complex than the silly campaign would have us believe. Marketing femcare products has always been a challenge for advertisers, but that’s another story.

In deciding to pull the aforementioned videos from the campaign, Stacie Barnett, Richards Group PR Executive, told Adweek that the backlash “had begun to overshadow the message and goal of the larger campaign – to educate women about their anatomy and break down taboos in talking about it….”

Well, the educational value of the ”Hail to the V” campaign is in question, and we’re still not talking about the right body part. 

We’re back!

July 27th, 2011 by Elizabeth Kissling

Tap, tap.

Is this thing working? Is this thing on?

After some rest, reconnaissance, and re-organization, re:Cycling is back — bigger, bolder, and with more menstruation and women’s health news than ever. Most of our old team is back, along with a few new recruits and some exciting guest bloggers. There’ll be some new features here as well. More about all of that is coming soon. Our posting will be spotty and irregular throughout August, but expect to see a more consistent, regular flow after September 1. (Yeah, see what I did there? )

We’ve missed a lot of action in four months away. We can’t possibly summarize all of it, but here are some of my personal highlights:

 

July 19 – The Institute of Medicine (U.S.)  just released a report on preventive health services for women, and the consensus is that health plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 should cover contraception without demanding co-payments. You can read and/or download the full report here.

 

July 18 – Remember Summer’s Eve marketing disaster last summer? They still don’t get it. This year’s “Hail to the V” campaign may be saluting vaginas, but it’s still telling everyone vaginas are dirty.

As Maya put it over at Feministing.com,

That chatty hand claims to be my vagina but is clearly an impostor, because my vagina would never refer to herself as a “vertical smile,” knows better than to even mention vajazzaling to me, and is too busy complaining about how long it’s been since she’s gotten laid to give a damn about if my cleansing wash is PH-balanced. My vagina is not a whiny little pussy.

If you’re not offended enough, check out the stereotypes in the Black and Latina vaginas. For a satisfying satirical response, check out Stephen Colbert’s July 25 program.

 

July 13 – Bloggers at Ms. magazine have done yeoman work drawing attention to the sexism in the latest PSA from the milk industry, criticizing the sexism toward both women and men in the Milk Board’s stereotype-rich “Everything I Do Is Wrong” campaign about PMS. Ms. has also promoted Change.org’s petition protesting the campaign. Update: By July 24, the campaign had been pulled in response to protests.

2011 Ad for Always brand maxi padJuly 5 – As copyranter astutely notes, the use of a RED spot in the center of a maxi-pad to represent menstrual blood is an historic moment in advertising history. Are we finally done with the mysterious blue fluid? (By the way, copyranter is THE source for smart, snarky analysis of advertising;  he oughta know — his day job is writing the stuff.)

 

June 20 – Corporate and subsidized donations of disposable menstrual pads may be good for girls, but not so good for the environment.

 

June 2 – British artist Tracey Emin  art student at University of Wisconsin, follows in Judy Chicago’s inspirational footsteps and turns her tampons into art.

 

What else have we missed? Add your links in the comments, and don’t be shy about sending us suggestions!

 

 

Party Time

September 23rd, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Liz Henry's uterus pinataHave you ever wanted to make a uterus piñata? Say, for a baby shower or a menarche party? Liz Henry explains how.

Ms. Henry notes that the symbolism is not as violent as it might first appear:

Now you might think of this as perturbingly violent or promoting the idea of bashing someone’s body part with a baseball bat. However, try to adjust your mind to a different symbolism where cornucopia-like, abundant wealth flows freely out of a fertile, open uterus and you, as whackers with baseball bats, are encouraging it to open up to the world and deliver its fabulous contents!

[via Geek Feminism]


It’s OK to Talk to My Daughter about Sex, but Don’t Tell Her about her Vulva!

June 15th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

In Therese Shechter’s guest-post about the German teen magazine feature article, “Every Vulva Is Different”, she noted that we’re unlikely to see such an explicit, body-positive article in a U.S. teen magazine. Therese, as usual, knows what she’s talking about. In this just-released video clip from her forthcoming documentary How to Lose Your Virginity, Susan Schulz, the Editor-in-Chief of CosmoGirl! magazine, tells viewers about the time CosmoGirl! ran an article titled “Vulva Love”, which included a cartoon drawing of vulvar anatomy and some basic, age-appropriate physiological and health information about vulvas. It was the most complained about article ever published by the magazine. The complaints were not from the magazine readers, however: the grievances were filed by the mothers of subscribers. Parents thought it was inappropriate material for their teen daughters.

After you watch the clip, consider throwing a few bucks Trixie’s way so she can complete the film – the project needs another $3585 pledged by July 1 to receive the $10,000 they’re trying to raise.

Hooked on Estrogen

May 13th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Jerilynn Prior, M.D.,  Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research

Estrogen moleculeYes! I’m sure you can hear my whoop of excitement and vindication. Finally, something negative about estrogen and positive about progesterone in the mainstream media. According to this article by Emily Anthes in the current issue of Scientific American: Mind,  women’s risk for addiction, and potential for successful withdrawal, are both linked to our menstrual cycle hormones. Estrogen increases women’s addictive behaviors while progesterone assists with successful addiction recovery.

Why am I feeling vindicated? Because I recently declared that hot flushes/flashes and night sweats are estrogen addiction (1). That wild but supportable hypothesis is based on the evidence that prolonged or high-dose estrogen exposure is required for hot flushes to occur. But, it is the subsequent abrupt decrease in estrogen levels that triggers vasomotor symptoms. Drug exposure—drug withdrawal symptoms. And do women feel high on estrogen? Perhaps. Clearly the withdrawal is miserable—as one woman said, “I continued to take it only because I couldn’t stand being off the hormone. I really couldn’t function.” (p. 2130 (2). Just ask any woman taking estrogen for hot flushes who has tried to stop it.

Rat brains are not the focus of my research—and I generally think rodents aren’t much like women. However, the animal evidence showing that estrogen increases addictive behaviours is strong and extensive. About a year ago I had occasion to visit a recovery facility for women with addictions—it suddenly struck me that most of the women there were perimenopausal. They were experiencing estrogen’s highs and the roller coasters and because normal ovulation is rare in perimenopause they were not having enough progesterone—and battling drug dependence. Sure enough, as Anthes states, hundred of experiments show that female rats become addicted more quickly than male rats, are less likely to become addicted without their ovaries but the quick-dependence problem returns when they are given estrogen (3).

As Anthes reports, it is exciting from animal data that progesterone assists to prevent or treat addictions. However, even more important is the notion that progesterone can assist in addiction recovery—not just in rats but in women. The data strongly suggest that progesterone aids women trying to stop cigarettes (4). Progesterone also appears to decrease the drug “high,” and certain actions of cocaine such as fast heart rate in women who are addicted (5). That was true whether cocaine was administered in the luteal phase (when progesterone is normally high) compared with the estrogen-dominant follicular phase, or when progesterone or placebo were administered to women in the follicular phase (5).

The effect of stress can add another layer of understanding to the addiction arena. We know that estrogen amplifies the responses of the stress hormones ACTH, cortisol and norepinephrine to social stress (ironically, based on a randomized, placebo-controlled trial in men) (6). Could that be one of the reasons estrogen increases women’s addiction susceptibility? It is known but rarely discussed that stress makes both addictive behaviors and hot flushes worse. Progesterone’s positive role in both addictions and hot flush treatment may be because of its effects to improve sleep and decrease anxiety. Two different randomized, placebo-controlled, double masked (neither researchers nor participants knew the identity of the pills) trials show that oral micronized progesterone (Prometrium—300 mg at bedtime) improves sleep without a morning hangover (7), and decreases anxiety in women with premenstrual symptoms (8). These actions may play important roles in progesterone’s potential use as a treatment for addictions and for hot flushes.

I’m happy to see this recent review of women and addictions—in addition to being a fact-based exception to the “good-news-estrogen-tune” that the media usually sings, the evidence that progesterone might help women with addictions toward successfully withdrawal is fundamentally good news. Finally, these differing brain-centered actions of progesterone and estrogen fit with the Susan Baxter’s and my message that for good health our two important hormones need to be in balance—the theme of our recent book, The Estrogen Errors—Why Progesterone is Better for Women’s Health (Praeger, Westport, CT 2009)(9).

Cross-posted at The Estrogen Errors.

Seeing Ourselves for Ourselves

April 12th, 2010 by Chris Bobel

Guest Post by Alexandra Jacoby

handmirror

handmirror

Controversy Rages Over Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery”. You can read the full article by Betsy Bates in Ob.Gyn. News. Bates interviews doctors as to whether performing these procedures meets a need or exploits a lack of body-knowledge among women. Both sides claim to be taking care of, and empowering, women.

One of the doctors who performs genital cosmetic surgery is not only sure that women are well-educated on the range of diversity of normal-looking vulva, he also feels it would be insulting to our intelligence and confidence to raise the question.

From where I sit, he is mistaken about this – we do need to be educated! – and, on another note: why is it disrespectful to offer information?

Admittedly, Ob.Gyn. is not my field, nevertheless, I’d like to say a few words. No – wait, it IS my field, or rather I’m its field – as I am a woman. One who didn’t give her body a lot of thought – until I started photographing vulvas.

The photography project began as a response to a friend who told me that she “didn’t like the way her vagina looked”. I wanted her to know that there was no one right way to look, that we were all unique.

I’ve photographed 107 vulvas so far, and produce exhibitions of the v-portraits. The most common response among women is “Wow! So, we really are all different.” The next most common response is “I guess I’m not so weird after all.”

I’ve been exhibiting since 2002, and these are consistently the most common responses.

One response to the project back when I first announced it was: “Great. Another body part to worry about!” She had not given what her vulva looked like a thought until I brought it up.

Here’s a response emailed to me after an exhibition last summer:

“…The photographs made me aware again of how incredibly different and beautiful we all are, and how (taken out of context) the images look like intricate, unique sculptures. The colors and shapes and attitudes are so utterly individual…

It made me wish I had had an experience like this (encountering you and this open attitude) when I was in college (now more than 30 years ago) because at that point I was completely clueless and embarrassed about my body. My ignorance was stunning, and I was ashamed of that ignorance. I have since learned to love and appreciate my body, even though it in no way conforms to the traditional standards of what’s supposed to be beautiful and sexy. Beauty and sexiness are emotional, not physical, and all of our bodies should be celebrated. And you gave me a view of myself I had never had before…”

My friend, she hadn’t seen other vulvas. Most of the women attending the exhibitions, they hadn’t either. Some women told me that they were nervous to come to an exhibition, and then were relieved and empowered having attended. They now felt they were part of something. A continuum of unique and normal.

So far no one has told me to cease and desist my v-portraiture because OBVIOUSLY we’ve all seen this before.

I do it, too. I don’t always offer information because I don’t want to offend anyone by thinking that s/he doesn’t already know the answer. Similarly, I don’t always ask questions because I believe I should already know the answer. And, I ALWAYS regret both withholds.

This is not a good reason to skip over offering women the opportunity to see the diversity of our vulvas that is normal before they make a decision about surgery.

I don’t want to draw a line between medically-indicated and cosmetic surgery and eliminate the cosmetic. Decisions about your body are yours. The article raises questions about safety and also about how and where procedures are being taught. Since, I’m not an Ob.Gyn., an academic or a regulator, I’m not in those conversations. My conversations center around what we women look like down there. And, from what I’m hearing women say [and not say because it’s too embarrassing], I had better get my vulva photography project finished sooner than later because women need to see ourselves for ourselves

Of Hot Flushes, Lie Detectors, and Stress

March 7th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Jerilynn C. Prior, Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research

A hot flush causes failure on a lie detector test! The same galvanic skin response (in simple terms—clammy skin) is positive in both. Why? Because—with every flush—there is massive dogs’ breakfast of neurotransmitters and brain stress hormones released. These are the same brain chemicals that are produced as we struggle to create a plausible falsehood. Both arise from a fundamental, brain pathway that mediates both our physical and emotional responses to “threats” (be they nutritional, emotional, physical or some combination of stressors).

Some years ago a psychologist from London Ontario showed that menopausal women’s hot flushes were increased by stressful environment (1). Menopausal women who regularly experienced eight hot flushes a day attended two randomly-ordered 4-hour sessions a week apart. During the sessions they had flushes objectively documented by galvanic skin response. When they were forced to experience a chaotic environment, loud noises, unpleasant videos and bright lights, each of these women experienced more hot flushes; they did not in the alternative calm and pleasant session (1). Likewise, the large Study of Women Across the Nation showed that perimenopausal women who reported “trouble paying for basics” (like food and shelter) had more hot flushes than did those with economic and social security (2).

Given these fundamental relationships between hot flushes and stress, it is no wonder that “paced respiration,” “yoga breathing,” mindfulness meditation, the relaxation response, acupuncture, exercise training and many other techniques that reduce our central reaction to stress will decrease night sweats and hot flushes.

I totally agree with Janet Carpenter that women are eager to find non-pharmaceutical ways to decrease the number and intensity of night sweats and hot flushes (collectively called vasomotor symptoms, or VMS for short).  However, to put into perspective the new research being done by the investigators at the School of Nursing at Indiana University, we need to realize that the first randomized controlled trial of “yoga breathing” for VMS was published in 1984 (3) and followed in 1991 by a similar study using objective VMS measures (4). Subsequently, studies of acupuncture (5-8), relaxation (9) and relaxation plus other therapies (10) all show that they are better than placebo at decreasing VMS. [Editor’s note: As she stated in the Indianapolis Star interview published March 4, 2010, Dr. Carpenter is building upon previous research. She did not claim to invent the concept of managing hot flashes with breathing techniques.]

The research on hot flushes and our central stress response is just beginning. But the average 25-50% improvement in VMS in those taking placebos in trials of soy beverage (11) or hormone therapy (12) are evidence that believing a treatment is therapeutic is pretty effective all by itself.

Reference List

1. Swartzman LC, Edelberg R, Kemmann E. Impact of stress on objectively recorded menopausal hot flushes and on flush report bias. Health Psychology 1990;9:529-45.
2. Gold EB, Sternfeld B, Kelsey JL, Brown C, Mouton C, Reame N et al. Relation of demographic and lifestyle factors to symptoms in a multi-racial/ethnic population of women 40-55 years of age. Am.J.Epidemiol. 2000;152:463-73.
3. Germaine LM, Freedman RR. Behavioral treatment of menopausal hot flashes: evaluation by objective methods. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1984;52(6):1072-9.
4. Freedman RR, Woodward S. Behavioral treatment of menopausal hot flushes: evaluation by ambulatory monitoring. Am.J.Obstet.Gynecol. 1991;167:436-9.
5.  Wyon Y, Lindgren R, Lundeberg T, Hammar M. Effects of acupuncture on climacteric symtpoms, quality of life and urinary excretion of neuropeptides among postmenopausal women. Menopause 1995;2(1):3-12.
6. Hammar M, Frisk J, Grimas O, Hook M, Spetz AC, Wyon Y. Acupuncture treatment of vasomotor symptoms in men with prostatic carcinoma: a pilot study. J Urol. 1999;161(3):853-6.
7.  Borud EK, Alraek T, White A, Fonnebo V, Eggen AE, Hammar M et al. The Acupuncture on Hot Flushes Among Menopausal Women (ACUFLASH) study, a randomized controlled trial. Menopause 2009;16(3):484-93.
8.  Zhou J, Qu F, Sang X, Wang X, Nan R. Acupuncture and Auricular Acupressure in Relieving Menopausal Hot Flashes of Bilaterally Ovariectomized Chinese Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Evid.Based.Complement Alternat.Med 2009.
9. Wijma K, Melin A, Nedstrand E, Hammar M. Treatment of menopausal symptoms with applied relaxation: a pilot study. J.Behav.Ther.Exp.Psychiatry 1997;28(4):251-61.
10.  Ganz PA, Greendale GA, Petersen L, Zibecchi L, Kahn B, Belin TR. Managing menopausal symptoms in breast cancer survivors: results of a randomized controlled trial. J Natl.Cancer Inst. 2000;92(13):1054-64.
11.  Van Patten CL, Olivotto IA, Chambers GK, Gelman KA, Hislop TG, Templeton E et al. Effect of soy phytoestrogens on hot flashes in postmenopausal women with breast cancer: a randomized, controlled clinical trial. J.Clin.Oncol. 2002;20:1449-55.
12. MacLennan A, Lester S, Moore V. Oral estrogen replacement therapy versus placebo for hot flushes: a systematic review. Climacteric. 2001;4(1):58-74.

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