Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menstruation — It’s Not Like Anything Else

December 26th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

I got a bit snippy with a new reader in our comments recently. I didn’t mean to, and I sure hope I didn’t drive anyone away from re:Cycling.

But after 20 years of studying, writing, talking, and reading menstruation research, I’ve grown weary of certain predictable responses when people learn the subject of my work. Chris Bobel sometimes talks about the “You study WHAT?!?” reaction, but that’s not the one that triggers my snark response.

Photo by K Connors

What grates my cheese is when someone listens respectfully for a moment or two to the elevator speech version of my latest article or talk, and then says something like, “Well, why should people talk more about menstruation? It’s not like I go around talking about my bowel movements all the time. It’s a natural function, too, it’s just private, yadda yadda, end of discussion. Period.”

No. Not end of discussion.

I’m so, so tired of this comparison. It’s not about ‘they’re both natural and they’re both private’. Menstruation is shamed and vilified because women do it. I turn, once again, to Simone de Beauvoir: “the blood, indeed, does not make woman impure; it is rather a sign of her impurity” (p. 169). That is to say, menstruation does not make woman the Other; it is because she is Other that menstruation is a curse.

Just as the penis derives its privileged evaluation from the social context, so it is the social context that makes menstruation a curse. The one symbolizes manhood, the other femininity; and it is because femininity signifies alterity and inferiority that its manifestation is met with shame. (1952, p. 354)

 

One only need take a quick look around to see differential treatment of body functions. Are manufacturers of toilet paper trying to sell you TP based on how shameful it is to poop? Consider those dirty-ass bears in Charmin ads telling you to “enjoy the go”– a marked contrast from femcare ads.

Is the average time from onset of pain in bowel diseases to diagnosis eleven years because people think pain with bowel movements is normal or because physicians and/or family members think you’re exaggerating how much it hurts? Compare documented endometriosis research.

Plus, 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.

This is not merely about what’s ‘natural’ or ‘private’. It’s about women, and about who counts and what matters. Women count, and menstruation matters.

Christina Aguilera, Etta James, and a Lesson in Uncontrollable Bodies

February 2nd, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

It was Etta, Christina, Los Angeles. Was that menstrual blood or a melting spray-on tan running down Christina Aguilera’s legs during her performance at Etta James’ memorial service last Saturday? The verdict is still out. Regardless, word on the internet is that Aguilera’s bodily event, and not her heartfelt performance of James’ hit song At Last, stole the show.

 

When will we realize that bodies are sometimes uncontrollable? Think about all the ways our bodies demonstrate this, and often in public. Our noses run, our throats need clearing, we sweat when we’re nervous, burp after we eat, pass gas without meaning to, leak milk when we breastfeed, throw up when we have the flu, lose our balance, bump into walls, break out in acne, and yes, evil of all evils, maybe even menstruate.

Yet cultural norms suggest that we can, or should, control our bodies in all moments and that we can have the bodies we desire if we work hard enough. But when we really think about it, who can believe this is true?

Seriously, bodies are uncontrollable. They are leaky. They react to the things we do to them and inevitably carry on natural, physiological processes – like digestion and menstruation — even when we want to pretend that they don’t.

And we can be vicious in our response when real life drives this lesson home. Visit YouTube, celebrity news columns and even mainstream news sites and you can read about Aguilera’s outstanding performance at James’ memorial service, only to find out about the “disgrace” she caused while singing. The incident is being called Aguilera’s most recent “mishap”, a “wardrobe malfunction,” or a “disgusting accident,” depending on which article you’re reading.

I find it interesting that almost all commenters on this story imply that Aguilera should have been able to control her body. Says who?  What makes Aguilera so different than any of the rest of us who have been unable to control our bodies in public at times? Despite what cultural norms tell us, bodies are sometimes uncontrollable. The very event – Etta James’ memorial service – reminds us that bodies are at times in control of themselves, even telling us when life is done. The idea that we can completely control natural processes is ridiculous.  We can try to control our bodies as much as we want, but sometimes they just do what they want, when they want.

I also find it fascinating that Aguilera’s publicists (and plenty of commenters on this story) are so intent on discounting the idea that Aguilera might have started her period. To them, a dripping spray tan is the “better” story. Really? So, a natural process that almost all women experience for a good portion of their lives is more “embarrassing” and “gross” than spraying oneself with a fake tan?

Commenters on this story seem appeased by the possibility that Aguilera was simply trying to beautify (tan) herself, indicating to me that the natural (menstruation) has now become unnatural and the unnatural (fake tans) is the new natural. It is now more acceptable (“natural”) to fake a culturally condoned physical appearance than to menstruate? This seems a bit backwards. Why is evidence of a fake tan better than evidence of menstruation? Why has the unnatural become natural and more acceptable here?

Finally, the shaming of the individual (here, Aguilera) is so blatantly obvious that I am reminded of how distanced most of us are from our own bodies but how, simultaneously, we are so ready to gaze on others’ bodies to critique them for being just that, bodies!

Women and their bodies are shamed in very specific ways. Plenty of feminist researchers have written about menstrual shaming and menstrual taboos. Others have written about the power of Western beauty norms. We know that women are told they are dirty, evil, ugly, untrustworthy, irrational, etc., when they are menstruating, and must hide any evidence of menstruation. At the same time, we know that women are held to unattainable beauty standards and are critiqued for not meeting these standards. Aguilera was doomed to be derided for this bodily event. Regardless of what it was running down her legs, she is at fault for not being able to control her body. Which brings me back to my original point and question:

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.