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.
For me, that’s always the question.
Gross is a decision. It is a judgment based on a set of values derived from a particular perspective. And because of this slipperiness, some things are more widely deemed GROSS that some other things.
Readers of this blog are well aware that bleeding lady parts often end up in Grossland. And they end up there more often than other body parts doing their body part thing. So why is this?
It’s been a busy few weeks in Grossland— dizzying days upon days of seeing the obvious contradictions embedded in what we, as a culture, deem gross and what we see as just- bodies- being- natural-bodies. Sometimes these bodily functions are FUNNY and other times only mildly yucky, but still okay to talk about.And sometimes, in the case of menstruating bodies, we are socialized to keep the whole thing quiet and hidden.
My most recent trip to Grossland began with the uproar over the newly-released (and nearly sold out) American Apparel masturbation-period-vulva T shirt flap. The flap just barely died down when Kristen Schaal’s brilliant satire (on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) delivered a bit on the proliferation of sexy Halloween costumes for women. In it, Schaal suggested that women “take it to the next level … get everyone thinking about sex (by) dressing up as the place where sex happens!” (and in walks a 6 foot high vulva! With Stewart-as-straight-man remarking “I don’t know if we can show that….” )I love what she did there, but the piece is not ONLY funny for its feminist take down of the hypersexualization of women’s bodies. The costume is outrageous because it is gross, right? “Sexy Vagina” (vulva, of course, more accurately, but this is not the time for anatomical correctness) is funny because who-in-their-right-mind-would dress-up-like-that? That’s disgusting. Welcome to Grossland.
Petra Collins, the 20-year-old artist commissioned to produce the t-shirt image for no-friend-to-women retailer American Apparel gets this (even if her check was written by a corporate entity who could care less about the social message she has in mind). Collins speaks compellingly about the objectification and containment of women’s bodies that her work endeavors to challenge. And she reports that the controversy swirling around a line drawing of a hand stroking a menstruating (and hairy!!!) vulva was “awesome” because
“it totally proves my point…. that we’re so shocked and appalled at something that’s such a natural state—and its funny that out of all the images everywhere, all of the sexually violent images, or disgustingly derogatory images, this is something that’s so, so shocking apparently.”
And appalled we are! One commenter on a TIME article about the t shirt controversy remarked: I….would equate her imagery with a straining rectum expelling a painful, post-digestion steak dinner.” And there it is. We can’t seem to have a menstrual moment without someone rushing in to equate menstruation with defecation. Liz Kissling has taken it on. Breanne Fahs has, too, more recently, but we still haven’t gained much traction in showing that
1) menstruating and pooping are not the same thing, and even if they were,
2) menstruating IS more shamed than pooping
Menstruation is gross (throw in masturbation and pubes to make it really beyond the pale) because we say it is. And those that hasten to compare uterine-lining shining with expelling feces are missing the fact that while the processes do overlap in some ways, we are NOT, culturally speaking, as hellbent on silencing the poop (or the farts and certainly not the piss) as we are the menses. and why is that? Perhaps it it matters who is doing the business. I assert that it ain’t no coincidence that bleeding LADY parts are the Grossest of Them All.
To wit, I submit the following:
A colleague put the new film Movie 43, a blend of edgy and puerile vignettes acted by a star studded ensemble cast, on my radar. The film includes the segment: “Middleschool Date” (written by Elizabeth Shapiro. Elizabeth: If you are out there, will you be my friend?).
Guest Post by Jenny Lapekas
Many menstrual enthusiasts have become so invested in the menarcheal stories of adolescent girls, we can easily miss some intriguing film scenes that depict males’ experiences with blood as they make a difficult transition in their lives. While semen is often cinematically constructed as funny, menstrual blood remains offensive onscreen. The most well-known of these is, of course, in Greg Mottola’s raunchy cult classic Superbad (2007).
Seth (Jonah Hill) is struggling with his imminent separation from his best friend as the pair prepare to venture into college next fall. At a house party, a fellow partygoer asks Seth, “Were you dancing with some chick in there?” When Seth confirms this and slowly realizes the truth surrounding the red stain on his pant leg, he begins to tremble and dramatically dry-heave and says, “Oh fuck. Oh my god. Oh shit. I’m gonna fucking throw up. Some one ‘perioded’ on my fucking leg?! What the fuck do I do? This is so disgusting!” As amused partygoers begin to circle him, viewers even hear, “That’s a fucking ‘mangina,’ man!” Seth, then, is effectively feminized by his peers who assert their privileged positions as non-menstruators. The event attracts attention and draws a crowd, and the scene is intended to be one of comical emasculation. What’s interesting is also the fact that agency is attributed to the gyrating girl, as she “periods” on Seth, and he then feels victimized by the crime.
A female bystander asks Seth if he needs a tampon and pulls one from her purse; this targeting also contributes to Seth’s emasculation, along with his “mangina.” Seth’s female status effectively negates her own, and she is temporarily unburdened from the restrictions of menstrual etiquette. Simultaneously, however, this scene depicts menstruation as a sort of weakness, a queerness, and a mark of inferiority. It is also noteworthy that the edited television version of this film omits the closeup shot of the red stain on Seth’s pants, while blood induced by violence flows gratuitously on numerous cable channels. Seth’s public menarche also illustrates his inner turmoil as he copes with the trauma of his best friend “abandoning” him to attend a different college.
In a way, Seth becomes a product surrogate as the scene concludes with a large bloodstain on his pants. Because viewers fail to see blood even in menstrual product commercials on television, it’s especially alarming for some viewers to encounter a woman menstruating onto a man’s pants and leaving a conspicuous mark—Seth’s scarlet letter as it were, rather than hers. Seth bears the shameful mark of menstruation, and he chooses to segregate himself from others, as they flock to him with their camera phones. In this scenario, while Seth represents the otherness of menstruation, onlookers are drawn to him rather than repelled. Because menstruators are queer, these hidden bleeders are conditioned to linger on the periphery, never admitting what is truly taking place within their bodies. In this particular film scene, Seth is queered and then chided for publicly exposing his queerness. His inability to hide the large, red stain exemplifies his sense of powerlessness in a subculture of young adults who have already suffered and forgotten this necessary pain. This stripping of adolescent masculinity is akin to the pregnancy scare narrative as the rejection of motherhood, and thus femininity.
Whether this obscure subplot arrives as the tragic result of grinding gone wrong or men sticking tampons up their noses—as in Channing Tatum’s character, Duke, in Andy Flickman’s 2006 comedy She’s the Man—cinematic depictions of “the curse” destroy its status as taboo and serve as a paradigm shift, in this case, of masculinity its cultural relationship with the menstrual cycle.
Why are media-based discussions about menstrual cycle advocacy vs. menstrual suppression, or hormonal birth control (HBC) vs. non-hormonal birth control (NHBC), so often fraught with conflict, suspicion and untested assumptions?
Because the opposing frames of reference are often considered to be an either/or dilemma, with “right” and “wrong” solutions according to our preferred position, rather than two ends of a polarity between which a dynamic range of positions fluctuate. We live with many common sense polarities, like rain and sunshine, knowing the right combination of both is in our best interests.
Please Don’t Judge Me for Skipping My Period, a recent post by Sarah Fazeli at Xojane illustrates the challenges in managing polarities. The title suggests the writer expects to be or has already been judged for her “wrong” decision, yet many of the 427 comments demonstrate the range of positions held on the issue.
At one end of the menstrual cycle polarity is my preferred position – based on experience, research and evidence-based medicine - that consistent ovulatory menstruation supports women’s bone, breast, heart, reproductive, sexual, psychological and overall health. HBC disrupts endocrine function and stops ovulation, impacting many physiological systems. Many women are choosing NHBC because they are HBC-intolerant and/or want to experience healthy menstrual cycles. I advocate for improved access to information, support and services to help them use NHBC effectively and confidently.
I understand how my position might be construed as an either/or dilemma, but in no way am I demanding HBC be banned, bullying women to stop taking their pills or alluding to anti-abortion views. Yet others make and act on untested assumptions that I and others who hold this position are doing some or all of these things.
So how might we all – advocates, health professionals, educators, journalists, bloggers and the public – talk about the menstrual cycle polarity in ways that create opportunities and commitment to work together to meet all women’s needs?
For answers I revisited my training manual in Contemplative Dialogue. In 2009, I took a four-day intensive workshop to learn about this process of engaging collective awareness to create “a deep experience of community where division or separation may have been the felt starting point.”
Contemplative means taking a long, compassionate look at the real; dialogue is the practice of creating shared meaning. Compassion is a key element because “it helps us get past the kind of guarded and defended reactions that undercut us doing things together.”
I refreshed my memory on how to avoid acting on untested assumptions. I thought about how I might become skilled enough to back not just myself but other people down Chris Argyris’s “ladder of inference” in a non-threatening way to resolve misunderstandings and create shared meaning.
Contemplative Dialogue also incorporates into its process Barry Johnson’s work in managing polarities. In emotional debates it helps if we can learn to speak across polar values.
This process calls for me to identify both my preferred value and the opposite value. In dialogue I first acknowledge the upside of the opposite value followed by the potential downside of my preferred value. Keeping my language fair and non-pejorative, I then speak of the downside of the opposite value that I fear. Finally, I get to talk about the upside outcomes to my preferred value that I’m striving for.
I want to keep talking about these issues, but I’m not up for a range war, a spilling of metaphorical menstrual blood to determine who holds the higher ground or owns the greater truth. I’m committed to practicing contemplative dialogue to bridge the divisions between the two ends of the menstrual cycle polarity.
The second week of July began with a post at The Daily Beast titled ‘Are Tampons Anti-Feminist’ and ended with my own post for Dame ‘5 Facts About Menstrual Suppression.’ In between there was ‘Not Everything is a Feminist Issue for Chissakes,’ and ‘I Do Not Think Tampons Are Anti-Feminist, for Chrissakes.’ Meanwhile, towards the end of that week, women were having their tampons and pads confiscated by security guards at the Texas Senate as they entered to protest the proposed ban on abortions after 20 weeks. It was a perfect storm for a debate around menstrual shame.
With notable foresight the first article mentioned ends with, “For women who can’t break the silence, there are other ways to protest. Just ask DiFranco. “I didn’t really have much to say/the whole time I was there,” she sings in “Blood in the Boardroom,” “so I just left a big brown bloodstain/on their white chair.”” Later, women at the Texas Senate shared responses that were similar to this statement (“No tampons allowed? Guess we’ll just have to bleed all over the seats” and “Maybe it’s time for a bleed-in”), although there were an equal number remarking on their feelings of humiliation and horror at having their tampons and pads exposed in public.
Somehow, along the way, these threads of discussion were merged – if we’re considering tampons as anti-feminist, or menstrual shame culture as anti-feminist more accurately, then surely what we’re saying is that women should just bleed all over their furniture and clothing, right? Right?
Texas native and high-profile feminist writer Amanda Marcotte weighed in on the debate: “I used to joke that anti-choicers would start considering bans on menstruation,” she wrote.
I would argue that between menstrual shame culture and the pharmaceutical industry we have a “ban on menstruation” of a kind already.
When asked why it was necessary to keep tampons and pads “private” anyway and why it was that confiscating them in public was being discussed as a power move on the part of the Senate employees, she responded with:
“I’m not afraid to be a urinating human being, but I also don’t just go pee on the street corner. One can want to go about without blood on their clothes and not be ashamed of being female. I promise.”
And then, after some attempts at reasoning, “Convinced. I am going to pee freely now, and anyone who says no is just down on me for having a urethra.”
Never mind that they weren’t confiscating toilet paper, available and publicly displayed in the Senate bathrooms.
Elsewhere she suggested that those who were questioning our acceptance of the menstrual hygiene industry’s messages were just “weirdos.”
Marcotte: “I just want once to make a tampon joke without the weirdos who think women should bleed freely for “feminism” coming at me.”
Response: “Do these people have jobs? Or couches?”
Marcotte: “I have no idea. I just assume it’s part of that crunchy fake feminism that thinks women should give birth in ditches, too.”
I don’t think many women are going to argue that we bleed on our couches and clothes because, considering the statistics on division of housework, it’s definitely women who are going to have to clean that up. And if doing laundry isn’t anti-feminist, well, I don’t know what is.
Elsewhere the writer of ‘Not Everything is a Feminist Issue…’ Erin Gloria Ryan, another high-profile feminist writer, when directed to re:Cycling as a source of knowledge on the issue responded with “Ill read it (the blog) aloud at my next fun social gathering filled with normal people.”
Whether it’s from lack of awareness of the history of oppression of women via their bodies or whether it’s just another symptom of the corporate/capitalist feminism that dominates the mainstream, these are the women considered to be representative of the whole.
I relay the details of this interesting week not to depress, but to galvanize.
I, for one, am proud to be a weirdo, an abnormal person, a crunchy feminist, a fake feminist, oh and a miserable enemy of uteri everywhere, a bitch, and a…err…fish.
Menstruation occurs because the inner lining of the uterus (called the endometrium) has undergone changes that prepare for pregnancy. If there is a fertilized egg, the uterus will be able to provide a hospitable and nurturing environment. If a woman doesn’t become pregnant, the inner lining is shed, in a discharge that includes cells, fluid, and blood; we call this menstruation.
Fun fact #1: Menstruation is a rarity, perhaps an oddity, in nature. Most animals don’t prepare a lining in advance just in case pregnancy occurs. They have hormonal cycles, which are called estrus cycles, but not menstrual periods. Most primates (monkeys, apes, and us) menstruate (Nelson, page 262).
Fun fact #2: The endometrium is shed in layers during menstruation (Voda, page 62). That is, although cells are dying, blood vessels are leaking, and other changes are occurring, this breakdown occurs in the form of shedding of layers, not in a random cataclysm.
Fun fact #3: Most of the endometrial material that is eliminated is resorbed, not menstruated (Voda, page 62). That is, your body typically clears away material that is no longer useful or is waste. Suppose, for example, you bang your finger hammering a nail and get a bruise. Over time, the black-and-blue area at your injury, with its injured cells, blood, and other material, returns to normal as your body clears away the debris. Similarly, according to Voda, most of the endometrial material is resorbed; menstrual flow is a minority of the material being shed.
Fun fact #4: Why do women (or monkeys and apes, for that matter) menstruate?
Answer: There are theories, but no one knows.
Nelson, Randy. An Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology. Sinauer Associates.
Voda, Ann. Menopause, me and you. Haworth Press.
It was great to see the media attention garnered last week by Red Moon Howl, the menstrual poetry slam happening in New York City on Friday night, June 7, 2013, at Marymount Manhattan College. The event is part of the upcoming Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference – Making Menstruation Matter.
But as re:Cycling noted on our Facebook page, it was a shame the only way Jezebel, The Gloss, and The Frisky could think to illustrate their previews of the event was with stock photos of femcare products.
It made me realize the value of the archive I have of menstrual images created by women who attended the menstrual arts and crafts events we hosted when I was executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta. At Scarlet Summer [pdf], an event held in August 2007, attendees watched Giovanna Chesler’s documentary Period: End of Menstruation, participated in a discussion, then created visual and tactile illustrations of what menstruation means to them.
In anticipation of the upcoming conference and menstrual poetry slam, here are several menstrual images that may inspire your own periodic creativity.
Menstruation appears far more frequently film and television than you might think — Lauren Rosewarne recently identified more than 200 scenes in her study, Periods in Pop Culture. Other scholars, including David Linton, Chris Bobel, and me, have also written frequently about how menstruation is represented in media and pop culture. Certain themes recur, such ideas about fear, illness, shame, secrecy, and premenstrual craziness, to name just a few.
But this scene from the independent film Rid of Me is one-of-a-kind. A woman sees her husband’s new girlfriend in the grocery, and after a moment of icy stares, she quietly slips her hand into her jeans and then wipes it on her romantic rival’s face, leaving a wide streak of menstrual blood. No words are exchanged, and when the other woman discovers what is on her face, she runs screaming from the store.
Rid of Me is described on its website and on Netflix as a ‘black comedy’, which seems to mean comedy which doesn’t make you laugh. It’s the story of Meris, a socially awkward young woman who moves to with her husband to his suburban Portland hometown, where he is soon reunited with his high school girlfriend. He leaves Meris for his ex, and alone in an unfamiliar place, she makes friends in the local punk scene.
When Meris is baffled at being terminated from employment at the candy shop a few days after the menstrual scene shown above, her officious co-worker Dawn tells her that it’s because of the disgusting thing she did: not only the assault, but “touching your own menses”. But the menstrual assault gives her street cred in her new community. When her BFF Trudy asks why she did it, Meris sighs and says, “It had to be done”.
But did it? While the new punked-out Meris is more confident, the use of her menstrual blood doesn’t read as an empowering act in the way of riot grrrls throwing used tampons on stage. This seems meant to embarrass or punish a sexual rival, a reinforcement of menstruation as a stigma.
I’d love to hear what re:Cycling readers think.
One way of telling how comfortable a man is with the biological facts of women’s lives is how he responds to calls for him to go shopping for menstrual products or to have physical contact with a woman’s menses.
Depictions of this challenge have occasionally been a subject of humor on TV shows such as in the episode of King of the Hill titled “Aisle # 8″ in which the bumbling Hank Hill has to enter the fearful menstrual aisle of a supermarket or, for contrast, in an episode of Californication when the father of a daughter who has just had her first period heroically fends off other customers to get her the last package of pads on the shelf.
An early literary description of a menstrual product shopping moment, one that was deeply traumatic for the character, is in Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Set in a psychoanalyst’s office during a single rambling session, Alex Portnoy relates a terrifying incident from his childhood when, at the age of eleven, his mother sent him out to buy a box of Kotex:
“It was years later that she called from the bathroom, Run to the drugstore! bring a box of Kotex! immediately! And the panic in her voice. Did I run! And then at home again, breathlessly handed the box to the white fingers that extended themselves at me through a narrow crack in the bathroom door. . . Though her menstrual troubles eventually had to be resolved by surgery, it is difficult nevertheless to forgive her for having sent me on that mission of mercy. Better she should have bled herself out on our cold bathroom floor, better that than to have sent an eleven-year-old boy in hot pursuit of sanitary napkins!” (43-44)
Whew! Now there’s a Freudian field day, and from a time when Freudian technique was in full fashion. More than 30 years later, in The Dying Animal (2001 ), another Roth character seems to have made some progress, at least on the surface. Perhaps his analysis has succeeded. A senior professor, the 62-year-old David Kepesh, plays out an erotic fantasy with a 24-year-old graduate student, Consuela Castillo. Kepesh, a serial womanizer who considers himself an erotic master, is stunned when she tells him that a former boyfriend liked to watch her take out her tampon, realizing that he has never done anything like that. His sexual competitiveness requires that he immediately enact the same scene. However, the act throws him into a state of Portnoy-like humiliation:
“Then came the night that Consuela pulled out her tampon and stood there in my bathroom, with one knee dipping toward the other and, like Mantegna’ Saint Sebastian, bleeding in a trickle down her thighs while I watched. Was it thrilling? Was I delighted? Was I mesmerized? Sure, but again I felt like a boy. I had set out to demand the most from her, and when she shamelessly obliged, I wound up again intimidating myself. There seemed nothing to be done – if I wished not to be humbled completely by her exotic matter-of-factness – except to fall to my knees to lick her clean. Which she allowed to happen without comment. Making me into a still smaller boy.” (71-72)
Though there are more scenes in this book and others by Roth that employ menstrual details to capture character and advance plots, these two embody deep-seated male confusion and anxiety about how to deal with menstrual encounters. The candor Roth exhibits, as is often the case with his writing, is admirable for its openness to exploring taboos, but one also wishes he was able to provide more nuanced treatments of women’s experiences as well. Perhaps we should turn to Joyce Carol Oates in search of such treatments. Perhaps in a future post.