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?).
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.
Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne
Courtney Cox shocked America in 1985 when she became the first person to say “period” on TV. Period, at least, in the context of menstruation and not punctuation.
Flash forward a couple of decades and this year the same daring word (along with a couple of other doozies) ruffled a few feathers in a Carefree ad. At least it did initially. The furore quickly dissipated and the ad now runs regularly, uneventfully, in Australia. We’ve seemingly learnt how to cope without the conniptions.
I daresay it’s the ingratiating of the Carefree ad – with its references to the bits of ladyhood ironically considered least feminine – into our landscape that’s paved the way for another revolutionary down-there-business ad going undetected. Undetected and surprisingly, unwhinged about.
The new Libra ad dares use the P-word again – sure, itself a euphemism but a) “menstruation” is probably too many syllables for a short ad and b) I’d still rather hear period than any other sanitised circumlocution.
The truly startling bit about the ad however, is the way female sexuality is presented.
For most of last year I was living and breathing menstruation while writing a book on it. My focus was on media presentations and sex n’ blood got treated to a whole chapter.
While there are signs that our culture has become more menstrually mature – we’ve evidently learnt not to dial 000 when discharge is mentioned on TV for example – some menstrual taboos remain. Menstrual sex is a biggie.
On one hand thinking of the menstruator as sexy seems outlandish in the context of film and television. A couple of wonderful Californication scenes aside, periods on screen invariably and inevitably disrupt sex lives and give women – and men – an excuse to restrict it to spoonin’.
On the other hand, feminine hygiene ads are in fact full of attractive ladies peddling products to help menstruators stay sexy all month long. In advertising, the idea of the bleeding woman as outwardly desirable is effortlessly detected.
A much more shocking – and far more insteresting – construct however, is the idea of the menstruator herself feeling sexy. By sexy here, I’m not referring to the way others see her – to her objectification – rather, to her being in touch with her own horniness at a time when women often feel – biologically or because society has coerced it – dirty and out-of-action.
The Libra ad involves a woman who, while initially reluctant because of her period, eventually joins her friend to perve on male boot campers.
Lecherous ladies in advertising are nothing new of course; Diet Coke has long been flogged with some mildly hideous Sex and the City-style male sexualisation:
My concept of feminism doesn’t deem women panting over men as something inherently progressive. It’s not the ogling in the Libra ad however, that interests me. Rather, it’s the act of ogling for the purposes of arousal while the woman has her period.
I can’t help but be charmed by TV offering us a horny menstruator.
While a niche genre, menstrual-themed porn – here, I refer to the indie material, rather than, say, the buckets-o’-blood-fetish stuff – hints to the idea that some women are, shock horror, actually randier during their periods. Mainstream pop culture and vanilla porn however, routinely give the idea a wide berth. As in No Strings Attached (2011), menstruation is apparently a time when a bloke is just not gonna get a look in.
Just as I’m delighted when I see a woman on TV who deviates from the young/thin/white archetype that pop culture so adores, equally happy am I to see an example of female sexuality presented as a little more complex – and a tad more messier – than what’s normally on offer.
A small win, but I’ll take it.
Republished with permission from The Conversation
His mother told me she was in the shower and when she came out, there he was. “He kept pushing them through the applicator and saying, ‘A flower!’ and then trying to sniff them,” she explained (and the t-shirt, by the way, is just a wonderful coincidence).
So why is this such a charming yet cringe-worthy moment captured in time?
A sweet little boy innocently explores some curious objects, ‘flowers’ to him. They are not charged with a snicker and an ‘ohmigod.’ They are not products just for women’s deep dark ‘down there’. They are neither yucky nor gross. In fact, they are FASCINATING and FUN! And that’s because our menstrual shaming culture has not worked its insidious magic on him yet. Today, these tampons are just flowers. [And a fun fact here: in the Middle Ages, the word “flower” was commonly used to signal menstruation, according to scholars Etienne Van De Walle and Elisha P. Renne]
As I studied this photo, dissecting the typical reactions it surely elicits, my mind wandered to my favorite passage from the Roald Dahl classic, The Big Friendly Giant. In it, Sophie, the little girl who befriends the massive and gentle protagonist with his own unique vocabulary, attempts to explain the impropriety of open, let’s just say it, fart talk.
Everyone is whizzpopping, if that’s what you call it, Sophie said. Kings and Queens are whizzpopping. Presidents are whizpopping, then why not talk about it? Glamorous film stars are whizzpopping. Little babies are whizzpopping. But where I come from it is not polite to talk about it.
Exactly. Everyone farts, so why the hush hush? About one-half the world’s human population menstruates (most for multiple decades) but we are expected to pretend we do not.
Redunculous, but oh-so-common. So when a little boy brings evidence of menstruation into the light of day, we think, if only he knew what THOSE THINGS WERE REALLY FOR! The horror! But what if he knew AND he didn’t care? What if he knew and he STILL thought they were still fun to play with, still reminded him of flowers?
What then? What would menstruation feel like, for menstruators and everyone else, without the yuck factor? How would resistance to shame reshape our menstrual culture? Our menstrual practices? Our attitudes toward our very own bodies, whatever they do or do not leak? These are not new questions—we ask them again and again on this blog and that’s just here. And yet, while we are clear that menstrual shame is counterproductive, even damaging to quality of life, most of us are still pretty stuck there. What do we actually DO differently to normalize menstruation? Isn’t this how we remake the world, one simple act at a time?
Can we begin with this sweet little guy? Let’s try. What do we say to him when we find him on the bed, about to peel open another super tampon?
Uh..no, honey…those are just for Mommy. Those are not for little boys. Let me have those (as we hurriedly scoop them up and hide them, better this time).
Do we say something else, something that refuses to inject these wads of cotton and rayon with a mysterious negative charge, and just, matter of factly, states their purpose—the same way we would respond as if he had broken into a box of Band-aids or Q-tips. If he has a follow up question (sometimes they do at this age; sometimes not), we answer.
What would YOU say to our little tampon enthusiast?
Last fall, as a women and gender studies professor, I taught a course called “Psychology of Gender” where I decided to include an experiential activist assignment that asked students to form groups and engage in some sort of menstrual activism. The instructions asked students to choose some aspect of cultural attitudes toward menstruation that they wanted to improve (e.g., pharmaceutical labeling of “PMS” and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, men’s negativity toward menstruation, shame and silence around menstruation, problems with conventional menstrual products, and so on) and design a simple intervention that could enact change either on campus or in the community. As I had never assigned this before, and I had no idea what would happen, I had no clear expectations for how this would turn out, though I had a hunch that students would encounter some resistance and pushback for this work.
My students created a series of innovative projects and set out in earnest to challenge negative attitudes about menstruation. One group designed labels with accurate information about menstruation, and they then put these on a variety of menstrual products that they distributed on campus. Another group made fliers and signs that warned passersby about the dangers of conventional tampons; they also handed out information about Lunapads, Gladrags, Divacups, and other do-it-yourself products. A third group made buttons that read, simply, “Real Men Buy Tampons”, and handed these out to men on campus, while a fourth group went into gas stations and created makeshift “need a tampon, take a tampon” boxes near the cash registers. A fifth group challenged negativity about menstrual sex by holding signs near the streets bordering campus that read, “Honk if you love menstrual sex,” and a final group dressed a woman in white pants (with a notable red stain on her pants) and filmed her as she walked through a local mall.
The results of this “experiment” yielded some fascinating clues about the culture of menstruation today, ones that have far-reaching implications for those of us who may think menstruation is, well, “out of the box.” While students certainly encountered many positive reactions (e.g., men who eagerly and proudly wore their buttons; women who appreciated the “free stuff”; people who praised the students for their bravery), they also dealt with a surprising amount of negative backlash. Students faced verbal harassment and “police presence” on campus while handing out tampons. Signs were removed from the cafeteria by administrators because they would “disrupt” student appetites. The woman walking through the mall faced stares and snickers (and, on one occasion, a group of teenage boys called her names and told her she was “disgusting”), though few people notified her of her “accident.” Most interestingly, however, the group that held signs about menstrual sex actually triggered a reaction from a local state representative, who started a full-blown menstrual panic by calling the office of the President at the university and demanding to know why students would engage in this sort of “obscenity” (humorously, she mixed up “menstruation” with “masturbation” in her description).
Without going into too many details of what followed after (we have a book coming out soon called The Moral Panics of Sexuality that includes a chapter about this “menstrual panic”), this entire project made me reflect on a few aspects of activism we too often forget: first, it takes very little to incite panic about menstruation; second, students can make a big impact in small ways, which makes menstruation an ideal site for pedagogical discussion and activism; and third, even the mere mention of menstruation is itself a radical act. This latter point has gotten me thinking about issues of disclosure and visibility about menstruation, particularly among our more like-minded feminist allies. What if we simply started to violate the silent stigma around menstruation by disclosing that we were menstruating today? I have a group of students (Jax Gonzalez, Stephanie Robinson, and Marisa Loiacono) who presented this idea last weekend at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Oakland, California. Their claim? That simply saying I am menstruating today can radically upset discourses of silence and shame about menstruation, while also holding us accountable for how we put our bodies on the line in feminist activism.
I am menstruating today. A simple statement that has the potential to undermine and upset the most basic assumptions about menstruation: that it will remain invisible, silent, secret, “managed,” “maintained,” and certainly undisclosed in public. With this in mind, and in honor of these fantastic students, I encourage you to try this. “Out” yourself as menstruating, not just to your family/partner/loved ones, but in a public sense. See what happens. It is, after all, the simple rebellions that create the most panic.
How do you tell a preschool-aged boy that he’ll never menstruate?
I thought I was doing a great thing. Ever since my daughter was born I’ve spun a positive story about menstruation for her. Even when she was 2 and 3 years old I’d tell her it was the “good blood,” the blood that meant you were healthy and could maybe have babies some day if you wanted them. Now she is 7 years old and I continue to tell her that the good blood is a healthy thing and that someday soon she will have it too. I came up with the idea to call it “good blood” because I didn’t want her to think of it as something I was hiding or sad about. I wanted her to be informed and think positively about her future as a woman.
BUT, my son is now 4 and he has been listening to the same story. About a year ago he asked me when he would get the good blood. I tried to tell him that he would not get it and he cried and said he wanted to be able to be healthy like us. He said he wanted to be able to have babies some day. Still today he talks to me sometimes about the fact that he won’t get the good blood and he is sad.
I’ve thought a lot about how to be a good parent to a girl and a boy. I’m a firm believer that gender is mostly created by us and, despite biological or physiological differences between women and men, we can change how people act, think, and orient themselves if we want to. At least in part. Yet I think that talking about the “good blood” backfired on me to some extent. In redefining menstruation as positive for my daughter, I left my son by the wayside a bit. I still struggle with what to do about this. How do I redefine menstruation in a positive way without making my son feel bad?
I’d love to hear readers’ own stories about this, because I think this is something we should talk about more fully. How do moms talk to their little boys about menstruation? And when they talk about it, what do they say? Boys will grow up to have so many privileges that women don’t have but you can’t explain that to a 4-year-old very easily. And sure, you can say, “Everyone’s different and special in their own way,” but that’s a pretty empty statement for a 4-year-old who’s keeping track of all the things that others get that they don’t.
So, starting with the assumption that boys should learn something about menstruation and eventually will find out that they will not menstruate, how do you say, “Sorry, you’ll never get the good blood” in a positive and productive way?
I’m looking forward to the responses on this post!
At the 2007 conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, a presenter cited the famous satirical essay by Gloria Steinem, If Men Could Menstruate, as inspiration for ”flipping the image” to raise awareness about an issue.
Remembering this and frustrated by the marketing of cycle-stopping contraception, Lisa Leger created this spoof ad for a drug that suppresses an integral part of the male reproductive cycle.
I work in a pharmacy setting and monitor the medical journals to observe how the pharmaceutical industry markets drugs to both doctors and patients. An ad framing male ejaculation as a bothersome and icky inconvenience mirrors the way cycle-stopping contraceptives are marketed to women as a modern way to escape the hassles and mess of menstruation. By flipping the image and taking the same marketing tactics that are used toward women and using them toward men, the absurdity of suppressing a vital body function for the sake of convenience is revealed.
Lisa Leger is an SMCR member and fertility awareness educator who works in a community pharmacy setting on Vancouver Island. Her cartoons featuring the adventures of Wanda the Wandering Uterus have appeared in Femme Fertile, the newsletter of Justisse Healthworks for Women.
When Arunachalam Muruganantham discovered that his wife was using old rags for menstrual pads to save their family the cost of pre-manufactured sanitary napkins (paying Indian prices for sanitary napkins “meant no milk for the family” that week), he decided to create a low-cost napkin. Read his amazing story of how he did it: It includes teaching himself English and pretending to be a millionaire to get U.S. manufacturers to send him samples of their raw material, and testing his pads by wearing them himself — while also wearing women’s underwear and his own homemade menstruating uterus, consisting of a bladder filled with goat’s blood.
It’s hard to imagine a high school dropout in the U.S. pushing this as far as Muruganantham did with the obstacles he faced — but only because we can take cheap pads and tampons for granted.
Thanks to Khalil for sending me this story.
Of the growing list of reasons why women might want to reconsider using birth control pills, this could well be the strangest.
Researchers at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto published a study on Nov. 15 in the BMJ Open Journal in which they found a “strong correlation” between the use of birth control pills and the incidence of prostate cancer worldwide.
One of the possible explanations of how the two are related is the potential impact of the estrogen compound – ethinyloestradiol – that women using the pill secrete in their urine. It has been speculated elsewhere that these endocrine-disrupting substances could end up in our drinking water or get into the food chain.
The Pill, introduced in the 60’s, has been widely used for decades. The study suggests that exposure to these substances over 20 to 30 years could have a clinically significant effect. Researchers said further study of this link is needed.
In 2010 the media was full of stories marking the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox, rang the headline of a Time Magazine article by Nancy Gibbs. Could rising rates of prostate cancer be part of this paradox?
So says 15-year-old Judy to her boyfriend Johnny on the occasion of her first period, in this vintage film about menstruation, Linda’s Film About Menstruation. This 18-minute treasure was produced in 1974 by the Creative Artists Public Service Program of the New York State Council of the Arts (CAPS), a program that ran from 1970 to 1981.
Would that cities and states still had arts budgets for these kinds of projects!