Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Depo Provera and menstrual management

April 8th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Melinda Gates speaking at the London Summit on Family Planning; Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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?

Are There Limits to Empathy?

March 17th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

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?

A Letter to My Mom: I am Sorry I Was A Brat

February 17th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Photo courtesy someecards.com

Dear Mom,

I owe you an apology.

Remember when you were perimenopausal (or as we called it, “going through menopause”)? Remember when you experienced hot flashes? And remember when you did, how we, your loving family, either 1) ignored 2) trivialized or 3) mocked you? Your hot flashes were a constant source of humor around our house and I recall you joining the fun.

But I am betting that while you were yukking it up, you felt lonely and misunderstood. I think you were just ‘being a good sport’ because what choice did you have?

You deserved better.

I admit that until recently, until I began hotflashing myself, I forgot about your transition and how we responded to it. But now that I am living with my own body thermostat on the fritz, I get it.

Now that I am consumed by cycles of heat and chill with no warning, I am having a major A HA ! moment. Now that I find myself waking in the night, my pillow wet, my face wetter, my sleep disrupted, I am time traveling to our sunny kitchen on 2nd Street—you: flapping your blouse, face flushed. Me: rolling my eyes.

I feel badly that I did not appreciate that this process is HARD. I feel badly that I made fun of you, thinking you just a silly old woman whining about something meaningless.

In short, I was a total brat.

Sure. I did not have models for compassionate support. It seems that the discourse of peri/menopausel has two nodes 1) joking  2) patholgizing—another distorted binary that fails to capture the complexity of human experience.

I know that today, struggling through my own perimenopause, I need some simple understanding. I am normal. This is normal. AND this normal reproductive transition can suck to high heaven.

While, we don’t need to stop the clocks or call the midwife, I would like some acknowledgement (minus the sexist aging jokes, please) that doesn’t make me  (or my body) the butt of a joke.

You deserved better when it was your time, Mom, and I am so sorry you didn’t get it.

Love, Chrisi

Breaking the Silence

February 3rd, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta

When I read Chris Bobel’s recent post about silent menstrual suffering, I was instantly drawn in. Although her experiences are independent of my own, this particular experience felt familiar, as though I was reading a story about my own life. I can close my eyes and instead picture myself in her place. I can hear my silence. I can feel my frustration mounting. It made me wonder why I, and many others, feel compelled to hide the menstrual suffering. After all, we rarely hesitate to utter complaints of a cold, a poor night’s sleep, a stomachache, a headache, an injury, a hangover.

I’m menstruating. I’m hurting. I’m late to a meeting. I’m not fully engaged in a conversation. I leave work a little early. I am not feeling at ease. I am exceptionally in tune with my emotional state. And people are noticing that something is off. Eager to make excuses, I open my mouth to displace the blame that has no doubt been cast upon my character. But reactions to my secret race through my head, so I choke down the words. I, like Chris, suffer in silence. Why?

This is a question I was asking myself for days after reading her piece. Why do I–why do we–remain silent?

Is it because of the jokes? The jokes about PMS, menstruation, emotional instability, and “that time of the month” that are so casually and readily fired off at the sound of a woman who speaks with confidence? Maybe I won’t be taken seriously if people know that I’m menstruating. Maybe the quality of my work will be questioned. Or maybe it will be my competence, intelligence, or character.

Is it because of the media and its portrayal of women as objects meant for pleasure and servitude? As something to be controlled by men? Would the mention of menstruation hinder this oh-so-carefully crafted image? Perhaps my menstruating status would get in the way of my objectification. Surely I wouldn’t want that.

Is it because of a society’s past filled with male dominance and female domestication? Where the only true power is male power? Is it the legacy of female obedience and male ownership? Of female weakness and male strength? Maybe I only want to speak out about my suffering simply because I am too weak to suck it up. Have I been conditioned to feel weak?

Is it because of our unattainable standards of beauty? The expectations of wrinkle free and blemish-free skin, a super-model body, and perfectly-shaped breasts? Perhaps I’m not beautiful enough or perfect enough when I am menstruating.

Is it living in a society that undervalues, and often trivializes, the accomplishments and experiences of women? Is my menstrual pain not familiar enough? Is it not painful enough? Is it not real enough to be worth mentioning?

Yes, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why we give into the “silent suffering,” as Chris called it. As conscious and as critical as I am of our society’s flaws, I cannot fully escape the overwhelming force of the words, the images, the actions, and the inactions. We cannot escape them until we defeat them. I feel a great sadness for the younger generations of women. I feel as though I have failed them. If I, as an adult woman, fall victim to our social pitfalls, then what hope do they have? Where does that leave them? We must break the silence. Next time, I will not be silent.

Will you join me?

Making Room for Menstrual Shame

January 20th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

This fall, our family TV indulgence was Master Chef Junior. My 10 year old, a master of scrambled eggs, pancakes and experimental smoothies, was into it, her enthusiasm contagious. So once a week, we sat on the couch– Mom, Dad, and Kid—and watched a dwindling number of freakishly talented miniature chefs slice, dice and sauté their way into our hearts.

Photo credit: Stuart Miles
FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I enjoyed this respite and low-output family time,  but, there was a price.

The commercials. Oh! Damn those commercials. Because we watched the show online (we don’t have TV), the commercial breaks typically repeated a small set of ads. Over and over again.

In a single episode, we screened some combination of ads for these products a dozen times. According to my crude math, by the time the Master Chef Junior (Alexander, in case you are a fan) was handed his trophy, we watched around 100 different glossy messages that pointed out just how inadequate we are, or would be, soon enough.

I began calling our ritual of watching Master Chef Junior “Self-Consciousness Hour.”

Here is a short list of what’s wrong with me:

My eyelashes are stumpy, thus, my eyes are ugly. 

My teeth are yellow. Yellow teeth are gross. Why bother to dress nice when my teeth are so unsightly? 

My skin is flawed and if I fix it, I will have more friends and a happier life. 

My deodorant is embarrassing me. I might have my disgusting animal smell under control but white powder under my arms can make me the laughing stock of the nightclub. 

Obviously these messages unnerved me (I am not immune to feeling inadequate in spite of my fierce feminism, let’s be honest).

But I really worried about was my daughter. I watched her watch those commercials, her brain processing how she measured up to the standards.

Of course we offered our own critical voice overs at every turn (e.g., You know, human teeth naturally yellow with age. Teeth are not supposed to be pearly white.). We mocked the commercials, trying to expose their absurdity. We initiated more serious discussions of the industry and its nefarious methods, and she engaged these critiques, to some degree. We did what we could (excepting refusing to watch the show, which we could have done, I know). But in spite of our efforts, we doubted our power to counter the power of marketing to manufacture “problems” and sweep in with “lifesaving solutions” all in one (minty fresh) breath.

When all was said and done, between lessons on how to perfectly boil an egg or debone a chicken, my impressionable kid was fed heaping spoonfuls of body shame.

And here’s the menstrual link.

This body shame is the context for her menstrual experiences-to-be. The menstrual taboo, the Grandmother of Body Shame, will slink into her life soon enough, directing her to hide, deny, and likely, detest a natural (and healthy body process). And thanks to  noisy, flashy persistent messages like these, the door is swung open, the lights on, and the pillows fluffed. Come on in, Menstrual Shame! We have been waiting for You! Puleeeze…make yourself at home! Have you met ‘Fat Shame’ sitting here with a throw pillow in her lap? 

I know it is impossible to censor everything my kid sees, hears, reads. I have some experience with this. She is our 3rd kid; we’ve been down this road before and we’ve learned. We tried to do somethings differently this time. Namely, we send her to a crunchy school with an explicit low tech policy (which we observe, on good days). But then the other day, I overheard one of her classmates look down at her feet and exclaim, with horror: “Ewww…My feet look fat in these shoes!” I remind you; she is 10.

Recognizing the ubiquitousness of media messages, our  aim is to teach our kid to responsibly consume what surrounds her. If we equip her with good media literacy skills, she can see commercials through a critical lens. And maybe when her friend complains her feet are fat, she will not take the bait. This is the best we can do, I think.

Silent Suffering: In 3 Scenes

December 23rd, 2013 by Chris Bobel

In PMS jokes the punchline is often a bitchy, out of control woman // someecards.com

Scene 1 10: 45 am:

A quiet Sunday morning, sunny and bright. Brunch on the patio.  I sat with my daughter, my partner, and my niece. Over pastries and coffee, I experienced waves of menstrual contractions, coming steadily every 15 minutes. And I winced, swallowing my moans.

While my niece spoke of her back pain, and my partner lamented his brief but powerful bout of the flu, I offered no comment about the vice grip around my uterus, the attention-grabbing cramping that hit me again and again. Through these cramping spells, I coached myself to  “tough it out” though I noticed that when I was alone, I audibly groaned. I hurt, but I said nothing.

And interestingly, later, while chatting with my stepson and his boyfriend, I kept the cramps entirely to myself. I chose to suffer in silence.

Why?

I hurt and yet, it seemed, my menstrual pain was not worth mentioning. It was mundane, even nearly universal. It was not the type of thing you sit around and whine about. I was aware, at some level, that an occasional mention of my pain would garner some sympathy, but beyond that, let the eye rolling begin. And in some company, it might be too-much-information, too private, too gross, even, to mention.

Scene 2  4:30 pm: Returning home after a 10-day road trip. The house, showing the wear of a place overrun by two cats with little human intervention, needed to be restored to order. Piles of mail. Bags to unpack.

But the very first thing I did when I walked through the door was take a shower and then do laundry. I had leaked badly during the last leg of the trip and I was a mess. My partner and daughter, alternatively, immediately settled on the (cat hair-encrusted) couch and reconnected to their wired worlds. While I, 21st century pioneer wife, scrubbed blood stains out of my clothes and hung another pair of “ruined” panties on the clothesline.

I walked past my family several times during my emergency clean up operation. With each glance, I felt envy rise up, and if i am honest,  resentment, too. But I did not complain. My body, my period, my mess. My problem.

But is it? Should it?

During menstrual moments like these,  (and now I will generalize) we often experience an acute embodied awareness that arrests our attention. At times, the experiences are painful or messy or both. Sometimes these ‘invasions’ are significant ,and we could benefit from some company. And yet, it is the rare menstruator who is NOT  socialized to  ‘buck up’ and ‘just deal with it.’ There is a persistent voice in our heads:  ‘No body wants to hear about your period…. Cramps are boring. And stain stories? Nobody wants to hear about THAT!”

I’ve argued this point before;  it seems the only acceptable menstrual discourse is PMS jokes (in which the punchline is a bitchy, out of control woman [see image above].

When it comes to expressing the reality of our menstrual lives—wherever our experiences fall on the continuum from menstrual joy to menstrual misery—we do so in a veritable sound chamber that CAN hurt us. For many of us, our menstrual experiences are uneventful, at least most of the time. But for the rest, they can be catastrophic. Or they may be normal, ho-hum, TODAY until they are NOT, a day later. Things change. Needs change. But the silence persists.

My concern is this: if we don’t open spaces for menstrual discourse, how can we find the support to discern the normal from the NOT normal? How can we get the info and support we need when we need it?

Scene: 3 3:24 am. I slowly came to consciousness and as I did, I instinctively reached between my legs. Yes. I was wet. Yes. My pad had shifted. And yes, so had the “insurance towel” I placed beneath me to protect the sheets. Damn. I didn’t want to get up and change my pad and underwear, but if I did not, I would have an even bigger stain on my sheet, maybe one that would  soak through the mattress pad and onto my mattress. Ugh.

In Honor of (a Sampling of) our Brave Menstrual Champions!

November 26th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

The recent death of writer Doris Lessing led me to revisit her work a bit. *

Author of more than 50 books as well as an opera, Lessing was brave. She spanned genres, refused to tow a singular ideological line and used her Nobel Prize moment to remind us that privilege shapes greatness as much, even more perhaps, than talent.  And Lessing wrote about menstruation when few others dared.

In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf journals on the first day of her period—chronicling every thought and feeling her menses produced for her. In the passage below, Wulf’s disgust with her body is hardly a menstrual-positive standpoint (and isn’t something off with her cycle if she detects such an offensive smell?). But there is an honesty, here. A broken silence. Lessing brought to the fore the reality of the fraught and conflicted menstruating body in the early 1960s, and that was a bold move.

I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool … I roll tampons into my handbag, concealing them under a handkerchief … The fact that I am having my period is no more than an entrance into an emotional state, recurring regularly, that is of no particular importance … A man said he would be revolted by the description of a woman defecating. I resented this … but he right … For instance, when Molly said to me … I‘ve got the curse; I have instantly to suppress distaste, even though we are both women; and I begin to be conscious of the possibility of bad smells … and I begin to worry: Am I smelling? It is the only smell that I know of that I dislike. … But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent. It is a smell that I feel as strange even to me, an imposition from outside. Not from me. Yet for two days I have to deal with this thing from outside—a bad smell, emanating from me. … So I shut the thoughts of my period out of my mind; making, however, a mental note that as soon as I get to the office I must go to the washroom to make sure there is no smell (pp. 339-340).

Lessing is not alone among the brave who dare to Speak a Menstrual Language. In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I offer this shout out to a short list of  the courageous who inspire. Thank you menstrual champions.

Rachel Horn, of Sustainable Cycles, who cycled coast to coast this summer, promoting menstrual literacy and menstrual cup awareness.

Holly Grigg-Spall, who has put herself on the line with her new book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Grigg-Spall has been challenged, sometimes pretty nastily, for suggesting that one can use a feminist reproductive justice lens to be critical of the pill.

And how about radical feminist pioneer of queer cinema, Barbara Hammer. Her 1974 expeimental film Menses playfully interprets, though a group of women enacting their own individual fantasies, what menstruation means to them. 1974!

Menarchists Jaqueline J. Gonzalez and Stephanie Robinson, who founded the Menstrual Activist Research Collective (M.A.R.C) in 2011, and just released their line of menstrual gear (http://www.etsy.com/shop/menarchists) at cost so you can help them spread the good word, or as they put, leave your MARC! We bleed. It is okay. We bleed. 

Then there’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, the self described “school dropout” (and now the subject of a new documentary) who developed a table top machine that rural Indian women can use to produce and sell low cost single use menstrual pads. He wants to make life easier for Indian women (and he is not interested in getting rich). Yes, there are sustainability issues, here, but there’s also a widening of options for women.

Used with Permission

Every teenager who, on the way to the school toilet, ever dared to walk down the hall with femcare-product-of-choice in open view. 

Every menstruator who hangs cloth pads on the clothesline with the rest of the laundry.

What Menopausal Women Want to Hear

November 7th, 2013 by Heather Dillaway

 

Photo Courtesy of Heather Dillaway

I’ve been thinking a lot about the messages that women do or don’t get at menopause.

Because of this, I decided to come up with a list of things that women would love to hear at menopause (or perimenopause, if we are talking about when women experience the majority of their signs and symptoms).

I’ve divided my list into things that they might want to hear that are true, and things that they might want to hear but might not be true yet (but should be). I’d love to hear reader comments on this division and any ideas about what I’ve forgotten that should be on my lists!

 

Things Menopausal Women Would Love to Hear That ARE True:

1. It’s okay to be glad to be done with menstruation, the threat of pregnancy, the burdens of contraception, etc. It’s also okay to use the menopausal transition to question whether you really wanted kids, whether you had the number of kids you wanted, and whether you’ve been satisfied with your reproductive life in general. It’s normal to have all of these thoughts and feelings.

2. You’re entering the best, most free part of your life! But, it’s okay if it doesn’t feel like that yet.

3. Menopause does not mean you are old. In fact, potentially you are only half way through your life.

4. You are not alone. Lots of people have the experiences you do. You are normal!

5. I understand what you’re going through. (Or, alternatively, I don’t completely understand what you’re going through but I’m willing to listen.)

6. It’s okay to be confused and frustrated at this time of life, or in any other time of life!

7. You’ve had an entire lifetime of reproductive experiences, and this is simply one more. How you feel about menopause is probably related to how you’ve felt about other reproductive experiences over time, however. It might be helpful to reflect back on all of the reproductive experiences you’ve had to sort out how you feel about menopause.

8.  Talk to other women you know. Talking about menopause helps everybody.

9. Menopause and midlife can be as significant or insignificant as you’d like them to be. For some women, these transitions mean very important things but, for others, they mean little. Whatever it means to you is okay.

10. Researchers are working hard to understand this reproductive transition more fully.

 

Things Menopausal Women Would Love to Hear But Might NOT Be True:

1. This is guaranteed to be your last menstrual period. You are done! (Or, a related one: You’ve already had the worst signs and symptoms. It gets better from here on out!

2. Signs and symptoms of menopause will be predictable and will not interrupt your life.

3. No one will think negatively of you or differently about you if you tell them you’re menopausal.

4. There are no major side effects to hormone therapies or any other medical treatments you might be considering.

5. Doctors will be able to help you, and will understand your signs and symptoms, if you need relief.

6. Leaky bodies are no problem! No one will care if your body does what it wants whenever it wants.

7. Partners, children, coworkers, and others will completely understand what you’re going through.

8. Middle-aged women are respected in this society, and it is truly a benefit to be at this life stage.

9. There is a clear beginning and a clear end to this transition.

10. Clinical researchers are researching the parts of menopause that you care about.

 

In my opinion, things that menopausal women would love to hear but might not be true speak to many of our societal norms and biases. Menopausal women are in a tough spot when it comes to norms about bodies, aging, gender, etc. Items on this second list also speak to menopausal women’s difficulties in accessing quality health care or getting safe relief from symptoms when needed. The latter list also notes the potential disconnects between research findings and women’s true needs during this transition. The first list represents what we should probably tell women and represents the kinds of supportive comments they might want to hear while going through perimenopause in particular.

It Is Gross, but Why Is It Gross? Adventures in Grossland

October 28th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

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?).

On (bull)shit and menstrual solidarity

October 18th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

As a point of contention and as a reaction to my previous claims that women should more often engage in “menstrual outing,” some critics have responded by saying that disclosing one’s menstrual status is similar to women disclosing that they have just urinated, defecated, or vomited. In my November 2012 column called “Menstrual outing, menstrual panics,” here are some of the responses I got when advocating that women openly discuss menstruation:

  • “to announce it to strangers to me, is intrusive toward them on my part, and just seems to lack social grace”
  • “But just as I don’t discuss bowel movements in public, or talk about the fight my parents had last night with my co-workers, I have no desire to shove the fact that I’m menstruating in anyone’s face. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s also just not interesting to anyone – why should they care? I don’t care to know when they’re sweating, or having urinary incontinence, or struggling with loose bowels, unless of course someone needs my help or sympathy.”
  • “Are we going to share bowel movements too?  I’m not ashamed of my bowel movements. Doesn’t mean I have to post it all over facebook”

In response to some of these comments, Elizabeth Kissling rightly noted that the difference between menstruation and bowel movements often revolves around the level of shaming. Femcare ads routinely try to sell products based on the shameful qualities of menstruating, while toilet paper ads rarely employ such strategies. Endometriosis diagnoses lag because doctors do not believe women about their symptoms of pain, while problems with digestion and colon issues promptly receive medical attention (unless, of course, you’re poor). And, Kissling added, “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.”

Building off of this, I will admit that this discourse of “menstruation = shit” has started to bother me more and more. As Kissling argued, people do talk about using the restroom in graphic language all the time. We consider it adorable and normative for older people (and even some younger people) to talk about eating fiber, “cleaning their drains,” and feeling joyful when they can successfully poop. I could never imagine menstruating women routinely doing the same and discussing their periods in such (joyous, prideful) detail. Admitting that one is menstruating, or needing to take care of changing a tampon/pad or cleaning up after dribbling blood on the floor, is rarely an occurrence that people can or will discuss. As some of our critics noted, it “lacks social grace.” But why it lacks social grace is a far more interesting topic, as the routine construction of women’s bodies as always disgusting, always failing, always excessive, and always subpar deserves more attention.

In stark contrast, however, to these claims of similarity between menstrual blood and other bodily fluids and functions, I have become increasingly curious about the notion of menstrual synchrony and why so many women want to believe in menstrual synchrony despite controversies about its existence. For example, even though menstrual synchrony might not exist, women still want to feel in solidarity with other women via cycling together, a topic my research group and I have recently taken up in a research article. This notion that women want to say, “I menstruate together with my roommates/sister/mother/friends” also contradicts the notion that menstrual blood is just like other bodily fluids. Never do we hear women talking about being in solidarity with other women’s defecation and urination habits. The reason for this, I argue, is that women fundamentally understand the stigma surrounding menstruation; claims of menstrual synchrony might help them to fight back against this stigma and shame, using experiences of menstruation to enact practices of political solidarity, alliance, and resistance. This is something to celebrate indeed!

Sustainable Cycles: 4624 miles, buckets of sweat, and 90 menstrual cups

September 30th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

Guest Post by Rachel Horn of Sustainable Cycles

All photos courtesy of Owen Gorman.

Last month, I returned to California after my friend Owen and I rode our bicycles from San Francisco to New York City. We rode 4,624 miles through 12 states over 3 months. We carried our essentials (about 70 lbs, bikes included), met hundreds of people, received incredible amounts of kindness, and talked a lot about periods.

I am a spokeswoman for a project called Sustainable Cycles—I rode from town to town, facilitating discussions about menstrual products. Women, men, people, bookworms, students, graduates, clinicians, mothers, teenagers, environmentalists, bicycle enthusiasts, passers by—we all gathered to talk about the cost (~$2000 over a lifetime), waste (~260 lbs of trash), and content (synthetics, pesticides, & dioxins) of conventional pads and tampons. I carried a slew of products with me—a pad, a tampon, a cloth pad, sea sponges, and menstrual cups—to show, and we created a space where any question could be asked and any story be shared. Each event was a space for open, honest, and unashamed conversation about anything menstruation-related. As party favors, people who wanted to make ‘the switch’ from disposables left with a new menstrual cup.

Owen and I had never done a long-distance bike trip before, but by now we’re pretty good at it. Our farthest day was 123 miles from Cleveland, OH to Erie, PA; the longest stretch without services was 84 miles in Utah; our tallest summit was 11,400 feet in Colorado; and we only ran out of water once (which was enough) in Nevada. I organized discussions along the way using public library computers and fast food restaurant wifi. At night we stayed in parks, campsites, at friends of friends places, with online hosts, and with random strangers we met in bike shops. I found people all across this country to be incredibly giving and hospitable. We were treated to countless meals, showers, beds, laundry, great conversations, and all kinds of support. If I had a nickel for every time I was told, “this is your home”, I could buy all 30 jars of peanut butter we consumed.

Sustainable Cycles is small, it’s young, and it is one of the most amazing projects of our time. I happened to stumble upon it earlier this year as I was brainstorming about how to fund my cross-country cycling adventure. I found a blog about two young women who bicycled from Seattle to Los Angeles in 2011, hootin’ and hollerin’ about menstruation and giving away free menstrual cups as they went. Toni and Sarah were “sparking a grassroots movement toward more sustainable approaches to menstruation” and, armed with almost 300 cups donated to them, started Sustainable Cycles. A satisfied cup user myself, I contacted them, began to fundraise, received 90 cups generously donated by DivaCup, and on May 4, 2013 began spreading the gospel as I pedaled east.

Most of the people we encountered were supportive and surprised by the project. I got anywhere from a pensive “Um…that’s interesting…I’ll tell my wife” to a passionate “Thank you so so much for doing this”. The purpose of this bike ride is to combat the shame and taboo that keeps us silent and ignorant about issues surrounding menstruation. It is about calling attention to the environmental, economic, and health impacts of conventional products and creating a space where people can question exactly what they support with their dollar, be it Tampax tampons or cut-up T-shirts. It is about sharing knowledge and empowering each other; everyone is invited to the discussion, no matter what they do or do not use. I see menstruation as a phenomenon that connects us despite race, color, gender, socioeconomic status, language, ethnicity, culture, ability, education level, shape, size, etc. It is a conversation we do no have often enough. During my three months on the road, I held discussions in all of the states I pedaled through, gifted cups to interested persons, and met a lot of people I otherwise may never have. Like a professional taxidermist in Nevada, a man in Nebraska who’s first and last name are exactly the same, and a solo bike tourist who became our dear friend.

Giving birth in ditches

July 30th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

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.

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.