Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

We Bring Our Bodies to Work

May 23rd, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

“Woman Working,” courtesy of Open Clip Art

A recent study by researchers at La Trobe University and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, suggests that working women “need more managerial support [while] going through menopause.” This “Women at Work” study explored the health and wellbeing of working women and women’s satisfaction at work, yet focused on working experiences in or around menopause. The lead researcher, Professor Gavin Jack, reports that “menstrual status did not affect work outcomes” but that “if a woman had one of the major symptoms associated with the menopause — for example weakness or fatigue, disturbed sleep or anxiety, then this did influence how they regarded work.” Jack is further quoted as saying: “What is really important is not the fact of going through the menopause in itself, but the frequency and severity of symptoms which women experience, and how these factors affect their work.”

This study has been described in several news sources over the past few weeks, such as the International Menopause Society, Science Daily, and IrishHealth.com. I have many reactions to this research, both positive and negative.

I’ll present my positive feelings first: I appreciate the fact that researchers are talking about the fact that menopausal women are a large part of the workforce and that menopausal experiences matter for individual women. I also applaud the attention given to the fact that workers are human beings with bodies, and that bodies matter. The idea that employers should recognize that paid workers have bodies and that paid workers may be affected by their bodies is an excellent one. I agree that employers should be educated to be more sensitive to menopause and other bodily experiences that their paid workers might have, and simple adjustments in work policies and work environments can go a long way in making employees happier and more productive (plenty of research has already shown this). Finally, and maybe most importantly, as one article in Science Daily notes, “Not enough attention is paid to the experiences which people go through at different stages of life — the workplace treats this very unevenly.” I couldn’t agree more. Especially when it comes to midlife and aging, we forget that paid workers are still dealing with bodily transitions. We forget the range of chronic illnesses that paid workers might have at midlife and beyond, as well as the many normal health transitions that any midlife or aging individual deals with. Anything from the acquisition of bifocals (and learning to see differently through bifocal lenses) to the hassles of dealing with back pain, neck pain, arthritis, hearing impairments, insomnia, etc., can affect one’s work. Not to mention menopause, prostate conditions, and other aging health concerns that can involve a range of different signs, symptoms, and stages. Starting at midlife, it is also much more common to deal with caregiving for elderly parents, divorces and remarriages, putting kids through college (or putting up with adult kids living at home), deaths of parents and spouses/partners,  and other social transitions, and all of these things will impact how a paid worker feels and acts on the job. There is much to pay attention to about paid workers in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond, and I believe that this research is a good start on that. Middle-aged paid workers may be reaching the peaks of their careers and may be excellent at their jobs, but they’re still dealing with a multitude of other life circumstances at the same time. And if they’re not performing well on the job, it may well be because of these very same issues. Paid workers are people, with full lives and physical bodies that they can’t leave at home (no matter how much they try).

The State of Sex Ed in America

April 28th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta

The things that consume my time are many and varied, but one of the most rewarding as of late has been volunteering for a local organization that aims to empower young women as they work through the many hardships of adolescence. Every Thursday for the past few months, I’ve spent the afternoon at a local high school with an incredible group of young women. The program focuses on healthy ways to manage the stresses of young adulthood, but the conversations often strayed towards topics like relationships, dating, sex, and even menstruation. Naturally, they were interested in these topics and seemed eager to get the opinions and advice of adult women who have undoubtedly had similar experiences.

During one meeting that I will likely not forget, the conversation made its way to—you guessed it—periods. The group was particularly fascinated by my current career path, and I was happy to discuss it with them. I imagine it’s not every day that one encounters someone like myself who is so invested in vaginas and other lady parts. Questions about Groove started flowing: how does the app work?, what made me decide to start a business?, what is menstrual cycle tracking?, and how does menstruation actually work?

Something that quickly became apparent to me was how little these young women knew about their bodies. I’ve known for quite some time that sex ed in the United States isn’t the greatest, because I was once a 16-year-old. But when questions like what is ovulation? and what are ovaries? arose, the pitfalls of our current sex education curriculums became overwhelmingly obvious. And I became increasingly angry—not angry with this group of completely amazing young women, of course, but angry at a system that is so blatantly failing them. Unfortunately, since we were on school property, there was only so much that I was allowed to tell this group of inquisitive young women about their bodies (though I have to admit that I knowingly pushed these limits).

The birth rate among teenagers in the United States is higher than in any other developed nation. We belong to a system in which our young people are not being provided even the most basic information about their bodies—have you seen the hilariously pathetic results of adults attempting to label the male and female reproductive systems? Despite our lacking curriculums, we (for some reason) still like to place blame for risky sexual behavior, spreading of STIs, and teen pregnancies entirely on the shoulders of our young people. This seems like an obvious question, but how does this make any sense? We should instead be focusing on how we can improve the current system to prevent these things in the first place. It seems so obvious, yet the concept seems to be lost on those who create these education standards.

Let us properly educate our nation’s young people and then we can point figures and engage in discussions about ways to lower teen pregnancy rates and the spread of STIs—though I have a hunch the conversation might be moot at that point. A single (and far too basic) sex education class cannot possibly create an informed generation. It’s ridiculous to blame an individual for being misinformed in a system that does not inform. It’s ridiculous that our system, in many cases, does not allow (or require) educators to provide direct answers to direct questions. Only 19 of the 51 states in the US require that information provided in sex ed classes be medically, factually, or technically accurate. That’s less than 40%! And still, there are questions being asked and fingers being pointed as though teenagers have all the information they need to make informed choices. Is it a coincidence that nations with more comprehensive sex education programs tend to have lower teen pregnancy rates? I think not! Take a gander at the stats of our northern neighbors.

Sex education and teen pregnancy are not mutually exclusive (sorry, politicians). I’m not advocating for contraceptive education in schools—because that’s a battle for another day—but information about the male and female reproductive systems (which is vital for maintaining good bodily health) is not something that should be glossed over.

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.