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
A few weeks back I did an interview with Leslie Botha regarding the distribution of Depo Provera to women in developing countries. Recently Leslie shared with me an email she received from someone working in a family planning clinic in Karnataka, India. He described how he was providing the Depo Provera injection to women and finding that, after they stopped using it, they were not experiencing menstruation for up to nine months. He asked for advice – “what is the procedure to give them normal monthly menses….is there any medicine?”
I have written previously about one potential problem of providing women with Depo Provera – the possibility of continuous spotting and bleeding that would not only be distressing with no warning that this might happen and no medical support, but could also be difficult to navigate in a place with poor sanitation or with strong menstrual taboos. As women in developed countries are so very rarely counseled on side effects of hormonal methods of contraception, it seems unlikely women in developing countries receive such information. As we know, some women will instead experience their periods stopping entirely during use of the shot and, as we see from this email and from the comments on other posts written for this blog, long after use.
In this context I find it interesting that the Gates Foundation’s programs for contraception access have a very public focus on Depo Provera. The method was mentioned again by Melinda Gates in a recent TED interview and when she was interviewed as ‘Glamor magazine Woman of the Year’ the shot was front-and-center of the discussion of her work. Yet the Foundation also funds programs that provide support for menstrual management and sanitation. Continuous bleeding from the shot, or cessation of bleeding altogether, would seem to be an important connecting factor between these two campaigns.
Much has been written on the menstrual taboo in India and how this holds women back. In the US we have come to embrace menstrual suppression as great for our health and our progress as women. We see menstruation as holding women back in a variety of ways. However, in India could lack of menstruation also be seen as a positive outcome? Instead of dealing with the menstrual taboo with expensive programs that provide sanitary products and education, might suppressing menstruation entirely be seen as a far more cost-effective solution? It may seem like a stretch, but I am surprised this has not been brought up during debates about the need for contraceptive access in developing countries. Yet of course, the menstrual taboo may well extend to absence of menstruation – a woman who does not experience her period might also be treated suspiciously or poorly.
When Melinda Gates says women “prefer” and “request” Depo Provera I always wonder whether that’s after they’ve been told how it works (perhaps described as a six-month invisible contraception) or after they’ve had their first shot or after they’ve been on it for two years and then, via FDA guidelines, must find an alternative? How much follow up is there? As the self-injectable version is released widely how will women be counseled? Gates argues that the invisibility of the method is part of the draw as women do not have to tell their partners they are using contraception, but what happens when they bleed continuously or stop entirely?
It seems to me like there might be a real lack of communication – both between medical practitioners and their patients, drug providers and the practitioners, and those who fund these programs with everyone involved. It is often argued that the risks of pregnancy and childbirth in developing countries justify almost any means to prevent pregnancy – including the use of birth control methods that cause health issues. How much feedback are groups like the Gates Foundation getting on women’s preferences if they seem to be so unaware of the potential problems, even those that would greatly impact their wider work?
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?
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.
Since its publication in 1974, Steven King’s story of a young girl whose telekinetic powers are activated by a humiliating menstrual experience has fascinated readers, movie goers, and theater audiences ever since. Now, with the release of a new film (recently out on DVD) treatment of the story by the director Kimberly Peirce (director of another film with powerful menstrual moments, Boys Don’t Cry) the saga is on the popular radar once again. This is at least the seventh rendering the novel has received, beginning with Brian De Palma’s film in 1976 followed by a 1988 Broadway musical, a sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2) in 1999, a made-for-TV version in 2002, an off-Broadway revival in 2012 (previously reviewed on re:Cycling), and, along the way at least two camp parodies in which Carrie is played by a male actor in drag. What makes the story so enduring? Or, in show-biz language, what gives it such strong legs?
There’s something about the mysterious nature of menstruation that compels both awe and fear, particularly in men and others who have internalized the prevailing menstrual phobias. Steven King has claimed that the inspiration for the story occurred while he was working as a janitor’s assistant in a high school and, while they were cleaning the girls’ locker room, asked what the dispenser machine on the wall was for. The man replied, “They’re pussy plugs.” Thus, the girls chant at the panicked Carrie while they pelt her with tampons and pads from a broken machine, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
In DePalma’s Carrie this “plug it up” scene is a catalyst for Carrie’s telekinetic powers, but that is where the direct menstrual references end. Not so in Peirce’s version. What is most striking about this latest remake is the way Peirce uses technology and social media to further publicize the menstrual horror that Carrie experiences. Chris, the antagonist, uses her smartphone to film Carrie cowering on the shower floor as the girls scream “plug it up.” The clip is later uploaded to YouTube and becomes central to the way the director stages the horrendous prom scene in which Carrie is drenched in pig blood. Peirce frames Carrie between two large projection screens onstage. As Carrie accepts her crown, and the pig blood falls on her, the YouTube clip from the shower appears on the screens having been programmed by Chris as part of her plot to humiliate her.
Why is this so important? In DePalma’s version menstruation is shown only as the facilitator for Carrie’s first use of her powers. In Peirce’s version it is shown not only in the opening shower scene, but in the climactic prom scene where the wrath of Carrie’s powers is truly leashed. Here, Carrie’s first period is meant to serve as a point of embarrassment for her in front of the entire student body, thanks to Chris’s YouTube video. Those who exposed Carrie’s menstrual embarrassment in such a viral way are punished for their actions.
The new version is the first by a woman director, though in a New York Times article she says she had conversations with De Palma about his vision of the story. It remains to be seen if future directors will find new ways to get even more mileage out of this endlessly fascinating story of menstrual mystery.
“During that period [of menstruation], most women experience psychological and physiological discomfort,” said Degtyaryov.
He also argued that pain from menstruation causes heightened fatigue, reduced memory and efficiency at work, and emotional discomfort.
NBC, amongst other sources, reported this news as a sign of Russia’s move towards more conservative social politics.
“Scientists and gynecologists look on difficult menstruation not only as a medical, but also a social problem,” Degtyaryov explained.
Responses to this across feminist media and others ranged from shocked to outraged.
I argue in my book ‘Sweetening the Pill’ that the emphasis on constant and consistent productivity and on quantity over quality of work is hard on everyone, not just women, and not just when they’re menstruating. As technology makes it so we can be available at all times, we therefore have to be available at all times. Dave Eggers’ novel ‘The Circle’ satirizes this pressure to be “on” brilliantly, making for an exhausting read in itself.
Our desire to miss out on the time when we might be pre-disposed to slow down – our period – by taking drugs that let us keep up the consistency in all ways is symptomatic of a wider cultural emphasis on inhuman work expectations.
SMCR’s own Margaret Stubbs pointed out in an interview with Yahoo! Shine – why can’t women just take sick days when they’re menstruating, if they want?
However, most US employers do not provide paid sick days, and those that do limit the number significantly. A sick day often needs to be used for a doctor’s appointment, a family emergency, or just to catch up on myriad other duties. A policy that attributes additional sick days (and if we’re talking two days per month that means A LOT of additional sick days) doesn’t seem such a bad idea to me at this point.
There was something of an echo of the Cold War in the reaction to this news. It was partly America’s faith in work as a cure-all that positioned it in opposition to the communists.
Yes, menstrual leave is not entirely unproblematic as a proposal, within the context. Apparently, according to Wikipedia at least, the LDPR party is worryingly nationalistic (any Russian readers please feel free to correct me on this). But some of the reactions suggested a pride in the American way of long hours and little vacation time. As I find myself saying at least once a week as a British person living in Los Angeles – take a look at the economically solid, recession-surviving countries like Germany and Australia for some good reasons why that pride is misplaced.
Sometimes it seems many women are so busy establishing the lack of difference between themselves and men that they find it hard to be truly honest about the experience – possibly painful, possibly tiring – that they are going through when they get their period. See Chris Bobel’s great post about suffering in silence for more on this. She suggests that discomfort during menstruation should indeed be a “social problem” of a kind.
If we are only valued for our productive output then menstrual leave will always be seen as dead time. It will then be more about getting women out of the office when their productivity is low and they may become a burden, than it is about valuing the potential benefits of the leave for the woman.
I admit that this is old news, and well-discussed elsewhere, but what prompted me to write a post is the desire to share more widely this great piece of writing over at the Irish Feminist Network by Barbara Scully. She discusses a BBC documentary that showed a British woman’s experience of a menstrual hut in a tribal community. Just as the capitalists saw the communists as backward, we sometimes too willingly believe our way of organizing things is the most progressive, most modern, most sophisticated. Perhaps we’re not always right.
A month ago I was musing about what it might be like to blog about fun stuff like food, fashion or travel – you know, topics not quite so “fraught” as the menstrual cycle. Sometimes it feels like just so much work sharing facts and opinions about why body literacy matters, why knowing how our cycles work and how ovulation impacts our health can lead us into meaningful, self-determined relationship with our bodies and ourselves.
But in the days leading up to Christmas, I was reminded by two young women, both of whom I’ve known since they were babies, daughters of friends, one in her late 20s, the other in her early 30s, why I do what I do.
The younger had contacted me last September, at the suggestion of her mother, with questions about switching birth control methods. She was fed up with the Pill, wanted to quit, was considering the Mirena IUD, told me about her history with ovarian cysts, irregular cycles. In a stable relationship, she hadn’t thought much about children. We talked about options. I assured her there were effective non-hormonal methods she could use, that by doing so she could assess her fertility, get her cycle functioning normally before making a decision about the Mirena. I sent her information about treatment – not involving hormonal contraceptives – for ovarian cysts; I asked a medical colleague questions on her behalf. She was thankful, emailing me that she had “some heavy thinking to do, including my actual timeline for children.”
I hoped to see her at her family’s annual Christmas party. We greeted each other briefly when I arrived, but not until the house was teeming with guests did we have the chance to talk privately amidst the holiday din. She told me she’d stopped the Pill three months before, could hardly believe how much better she felt, even though she’d yet to have a period. She thanked me, again, for validating her desire to quit the Pill. It so happened she had an appointment the next day with her family doctor; she knew what treatment she would request to help get her cycle started.
It did not go well. Her doctor, like so many I’ve heard about, was not interested in the menstrual cycle research she had done or the choices she wanted to make about her reproductive health. Quite the contrary: her doctor was hostile. It was disheartening for her, maddening to me, but not surprising.
A day later, at another holiday gathering, the other young woman stopped me in the hall to ask what I thought of the Mirena. She’d made the switch from the combined Pill (estrogen/progestin) to a progestin-only version to help with migraines. She offered that she and her partner had not yet decided about children, but she was concerned about leaving it too late. I told her the Mirena was intended as a five-year method, and if she was thinking she might want a child, it was a good time to stop hormonal contraception and assess her fertility before making a decision, either way.
I forwarded both women links to a naturopath skilled in menstrual cycle and fertility issues, and to a fertility awareness instructor who’d just announced her 2014 Eco-Contraception Program. The decision about what to do next, of course, will be theirs.
I sense both young women are searching for new, mindful connections to their bodies. Even if all I ever do is help a few such women find the support they need to make this connection, then to hell with food and fashion, I’ll keep writing about the menstrual cycle.
Since my upcoming book about menstrual stigmas and the symptothermal method of fertility awareness is getting close to launch, I thought today’s blog post would be the perfect opportunity to provide a short excerpt for your reading pleasure. I’m excited to help debunk some menstrual myths and break some menstrual stigmas, and I hope you enjoy this little taste of what’s to come:
Menstrual advertisements and commercials are quite possibly the biggest contributors to modern menstrual stigma. I know what you’re probably thinking: “Menstruation ads are everywhere! How could they possibly create stigma?” While it’s true that television commercials, billboards, and other types of advertising are riddled with menstrual messages, they aren’t the type of messages we should be sending or receiving.
The first big qualm I have with menstrual ads is the strange blue liquid we always see in tampon and pad commercials. Watch as we pour this weird blue stuff on this pad to show you how absorbent it is! What the heck is that, anyway? Maybe that stuff is accurate for Smurfette, but that’s definitely not what my menstrual blood looks like! Part of the reason we find the idea of using a red liquid in these ads so revolting is that their use of this odd blue stuff makes us uncomfortable with the liquid that is actually absorbed by these products. One of the other major problems of advertising with this mysterious liquid is the message we’re sending to young people. When I was a kid, of course I remember seeing these ads, but I couldn’t have begun guessing the purpose the products actually served. When young girls see their first fateful stain, panic ensues. Many of them, like myself, may not even realize the purpose pads and tampons serve until they experience Menarche, or their first menstrual period.
Not only do ads never show anything that even slightly resembles blood, but I have yet to see an ad or commercial released by Tampax, Playtex, or Kotex that makes use of correct terminology. Words like “vagina”, “menstruation”, and “endometrium” (the scientific term for menstrual blood) are glaringly absent from product ads. And yet commercials and ads for products like adhesive bandages and antibiotic cream are riddled with bloody knees and scraped elbows. Beating around the bush about an event like menstruation that will play such a prominent role in women’s lives isn’t doing us any good.
I made a trip to the public library in search of some resources to use for this very book. I knew I wanted to find books or journal articles about menstruation, but I wasn’t sure where to begin looking. Luckily, most libraries come complete with a handy computer that informs you of the sections in which you’ll find certain topics. As I was approaching said computer, a woman who worked at the library insisted on helping me with my computer search. Being that she had a lot more experience with this than myself, I happily accepted her help. She asked, “What topic are you searching for?” to which I replied “menstruation”.
She looked at me a bit funny, which, at this point in the game, I was used to; people tend to get uncomfortable when this particular subject is mentioned. Then she asked, “That’s a period, right? Like…what a woman gets?” Upon hearing this question, I figured that, like many people, maybe she was hoping she misheard me so she would be spared an uncomfortable conversation. “Yes ma’am, it is,” I said. It wasn’t until I saw her struggling to spell the word that I realized she had not misheard me. Sure, not everyone is great at spelling, but when I began chatting with her about the topic, it quickly became apparent how little she really knew about it. Eventually we got everything figured out, but I found myself extremely distraught by the fact that an adult woman had such a poor understanding of menstruation. But it wasn’t her fault. In a society where it’s beyond taboo merely to utter the word, it’s no wonder so many know so little.