Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Sweden’s Year of Menstruation – Is it the Menstrual Decade? Maybe the Menstrual Millennium?

October 24th, 2014 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Josefin Persdotter, Gothenburg University

As I write this, it is only hours until the acclaimed Swedish television program Kobra airs an episode about menstruation in art, and as a growing social movement in Sweden. They’ve interviewed none other than menstrual art and activism pioneer Judy Chicago. In the trailer she jokingly exclaims: “Oh, so Scandinavia’s discovered that women menstruate!” And it seems we have. Or at least Swedes seem to have. Sweden’s currently enjoying a kind of menstrual boom. Maybe one could even call it a menstrual revolution. From my (albeit very menstrually focused) horizon I see menstruation everywhere. During the last year it’s gone from (almost) total menstrual silence to it being in national newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and naturally, all over social media.

I guess one could say it began last summer.  Feminist cartoonist and writer Liv Strömquist (bravely!) did a two-hour radio show about menstruation, depicting menstrual taboos in history, arguing that it ought to be a much larger part of culture. The show aired on prime-time when “everyone” was listening. Being a menstrual activist for many years, I listened with a pounding heart wondering how Sweden would react. Though I’m sure she got some internet hate and many negative comments, the reception from those who liked it seems to have been quite overwhelming for Strömquist, and quite palpable to everyone else.

Instantly, something changed. Just as I had experienced when I met people through my own activism, but this time on a national scale. People began to open up; they shared their own menstrual stories openly on various social media platforms. And they haven’t stopped.

To only name a few of the many amazing things that have happened since then: several menstrual art projects have enjoyed unprecedented attention in the media, menstruation-related diseases make the headlines in the tabloids, several other radio-shows have had menstrually-themed episodes, a menstrual documentary has been made and another one is in post-production, new books about menstruation have been launched and sold out in weeks (!), and on top of that two national organizations for menstruation and PMS respectively have been founded. Menstruation’s become something that’s publicly handled as a truly relevant and important issue.

I may exaggerate a little, but I don’t want to downplay it either,  as I really do think that something rather spectacular has happened. First I called it a menstrual spring, then it became a menstrual year, and now it’s going on year two. Could one dare to hope for a menstrual paradigm shift? Or might the public lose interest? I see no signs of menstrual fatigue, but quite the opposite. More and more people and institutions engage in menstrual issues publicly. The need to talk periods seem to be stronger than ever.

Sweden’s got a small population of about 9 million, speaking an equally small language. This has been a pain in the neck in my menstrual activism, until it wasn’t. I was quite jealous of menstrual activists friends who got to do their work in English or Spanish, having so many millions more that could like, comment, and retweet on social media. But now I’ve begun to think the small size might be a huge advantage. I think we have the size to thank for some of what’s happened. It might be easier to reach everyone, to become in some way part of the media mainstream and have a national impact in a small country like this. Sweden has only a couple of national newspapers, fewer television news shows, etc., compared to larger nations.

I post this to the international menstrual community wondering if I am witnessing something unique, or something universal? Are there currently similar menstrual surges elsewhere as well? And naturally: what’s it been like historically? What can we learn from eachother? What should we think about to make these changes last and become real shifts in the menstruculture?

Periods: A Human Oddity

February 4th, 2013 by Paula Derry

What does it mean to have menstrual periods? This is an intensely personal question, but it is also a scientific and a cultural one.

The menstrual cycle can, of course, be described in terms of a woman’s personal experience of menstrual flow. It can also be described by the complex physiology of hormones climbing, pulsating, falling. However, what are some other things we know about periods?

We know that they are an oddity in nature. Most animals, aside from monkeys, apes, and us, thicken the wall inside the uterus only after an egg has been fertilized. We have periods because we routinely build a thicker wall inside the uterus, just in case it’s needed, which must be eliminated if we don’t become pregnant. According to Ann Voda, much of this wall is absorbed back into our bodies (the same way that if you smash your finger and get a clot under the skin, that blood is absorbed into the body then eliminated). Some of it is released to the outside world in an organized manner in what we call our period.

We know that the menstrual cycle is only one part of a larger whole.  I’ve always liked the description of adolescent development in Barry Bogin’s textbook Patterns of Human Growth.

public domain image from the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration

To summarize the content of his book: A part of the brain called the hypothalamus changes. Then a growth spurt begins (we all remember growing taller quickly): this is unique to humans, nonhuman primates and other animals don’t have a growth spurt. Then a girl begins developing secondary sexual characteristics, breast buds (the beginning of breasts) and the beginning of pubic hair. Then estrogen levels begin to rise, which leads to a particular female shape due to fat in the hips, buttocks, and thighs. The first menstrual cycle occurs some years after these other changes begin. We’re not done yet. Menstrual cycles are at first irregular and girls rarely ovulate, it is a few years before girls ovulate as regularly as does an adult. In addition, the bones of the pelvis don’t grow quickly during the growth spurt, and it is many years after menarche, when a girl is in her late teens, that the pelvis has finished growing.

To continue the summary: Reproductive maturity requires biological, social, and psychological maturation. It means being an adult.  In Bogin’s words, “[b]ecoming pregnant is only a part of the business of reproduction.  Maintaining the pregnancy to term and raising offspring to adulthood are equally important (p.212).” In cross-cultural research, behavioral and social events typically co-occur with adolescent physical changes. As girls visibly physically mature, and as they begin menstruating, they are invited into the world of adult women. They develop adult modes of thinking (for example with regard to Piagetian stage), interacting with men and women, sexuality. They refine practical skills needed for the tasks and occupations of a competent adult. Age of having a first child is often years after menarche, often around nineteen years of age among women from many diverse cultures. When compared with animals, this complex transitional stage of life from adolescence through adulthood is a human oddity.

Nobody knows biologically for sure why women menstruate, but cultures, including ours, typically assign meaning to menstruation. Personally, I’d say that getting your period isn’t a transition in the sense of flipping a switch on. However, in most cultures, menstruation is an important marker or component with multi-layered meaning for a larger, rich life stage.

References

Barry Bogin, Patterns of Human Growth, 1999, Cambridge University Press.

Ann Voda, Menopause, Me and You, 1997, Haworth Press: Binghamton, NY.

Collateral damage: Throwing menstruation out of the museum narrative

July 27th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

Last year, the media focused much attention on the Smithsonian’s decision to pull the David Wojnarowicz video, “A Fire in My Belly,” from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., entitled, “Hide/Seek”.  The museum apologized for the piece’s contents after a group of Republican representatives and the Catholic League demanded the removal of the video.  Part of “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture”, the piece depicted the suffering of an HIV positive man along with ants crawling on a crucifix.  Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia called it “in your face perversion paid for by tax dollars”.

'Menstruation' art and photo by Pauliina Seppälä // CC 2.0

This scenario is far from unique, as the issue of censoring sex (alongside feminism and women artists in general) in museums has a long and contentious history both in the United States and abroad.  In the late 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) engaged fierce battles about whether to fund so-called obscene shows, often equating obscenity with explicitly gay and lesbian content (e.g., Robert Maplethorpe’s photography). Museums like the Chicago Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have both battled over the morality and ethics of censoring sex in the museum (John E. Semonche, Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media). Greek vases and objects depicting explicit sexual acts have been deemed unfit for children’s viewing and have been removed from major museums throughout the world.  The National Museum of Erotica in Canberry, Australia shut down over controversies surrounding its explicit portrayal of sexual artifacts.

So how might this relate to the menstruating body? This week, I visited one of my favorite museums in the world—the Heard Museum of American Indian Art and History in Phoenix, Arizona. They had several exhibits revolving around family life, ritual, and celebrations of “coming of age” among indigenous cultures in the Southwest. One exhibit featured paintings of ceremonies practiced among Native American communities of the Southwest. Another exhibit on Apache life featured several cases of clothing and text dedicated to women’s initiation into womanhood following the onset of puberty. Notably, the word menstruation or any depiction of women’s menstrual blood were entirely absent from both of these exhibits. Discussions of preparation of food, flowers, and clothing by elderly members of the girls’ communities were featured prominently, along with the significance of women learning how to transition to womanhood. Almost certainly, this ritualized process revolved around the onset of women’s menstrual cycles, yet no mention of women’s menarche occurred.  I wondered: Has the menstruating body suffered from collateral damage of censoring sex?  Do we associate all aspects of the (leaky, “disgusting”, abject) female body with the “sinful” and “harmful-to-children” rhetoric of sexually-explicit museum materials?  When men’s “powerful” ejaculations (Jackson Pollack!!) and phallic powers are celebrated in full force, why do women’s cycling bodies hold such a taboo place in museum culture?  What would it mean if menstruation held a more prominent place in museums in general?

Taboos surrounding the entrance of menstruation into museums continue in full force.  Though a few radical feminist performance artists have featured work on menstruation (see Linder Sterling’s menstrual jewelry, or Mako Idemitsu’s 1973 piece, What a Woman Made featuring photos of tampons), the normally edgy and forward-thinking art world has yet to fully recognize menstruation as a valid subject of interest.  The backlash against the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (MUM), once located in Carrollton, Maryland and now featured only online, reveals just how much difficulty the public has accepting menstruation as a valid subject of analysis.  In a 2007 article discussing the “10 Most Bizarre Museums”, MUM is listed alongside the Toilet Museum, the Voodoo Museum, the Museum of the Penis, and the Burger Museum.  In another article on “The Seven Most Horrifying Museums on Earth”, MUM takes company with museums on child mummies, psychiatric patients, ventriloquism, fetuses in jars, and ancient phalluses. Harry Finley, the founder and curator of MUM, said in a 2010 interview, “[Menstruation] is not a polite thing to talk about in casual society. I’ve gotten so used to this now that it’s no big deal for me. But it is for other people. Especially coming from some guy. I really get, sometimes, a horrified reaction. I can tell by the stares and the silence. Even from liberal people. When I started the museum, I thought, ‘Oh boy, this would not bother them.’ But it still bothers basically everybody. Almost every reaction is negative. . . . I think a lot of it is the association of a male doing this. Like, what is his interest in this?”

It’s My Period and I’ll Have a Party If I Want To

April 6th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

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Respecting the Maori Menstrual Taboo

October 14th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Female visitors to Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand) are faced with a difficult moral dilemma regarding the taonga Maori collection included in an upcoming tour.

An invitation for regional museum staff to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of Te Papa’s collections included the condition that “wahine who are either hapu [pregnant] or mate wahine [menstruating]” were unable to attend.

Te Papa spokeswoman Jane Keig said the policy was in place because of Maori beliefs surrounding the taonga Maori collection included in the tour.

“There are items within that collection that have been used in sacred rituals. That rule is in place with consideration for both the safety of the taonga and the women,” Keig said.

She said there was a belief that each taonga had its own wairua, or spirit, inside it.

“Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”

The policy does not apply to the entire exhibit, but to a “behind-the-scenes” tour offered November 5. Visitors’ reproductive status will not be verified in any way, but women are expected to be honest about it and obey the request.


Tonight’s the Night: Listen to Seeing RED

June 14th, 2010 by Laura Wershler

Tonight’s the night, Monday, June 14th, to tune in as CBC Radio airs Part One of: Seeing RED: A Cultural History of Menstruation This two part documentary concludes next Monday, June 21st. If you miss the original broadcast, which you can listen to online at 9:00 PM in all time zones (choose the program IDEAS) you will be able to link to the podcast at any time convenient to you as of Tuesday, June 15th.  SHAA SEP 07 029

Introduction to the documentary:

They are misfits. Witches. Children. Just a few of the labels used to portray menstruating women over time. The Bible has described the bleeding woman as undergoing “customary impurity”. In the Middle Ages, it was thought that women menstruated to release “sexual overflow”. Their counterparts in the Victorian era were told that a period would deplete their body’s precious resources. Twentieth century feminists worked hard to reclaim menstruation as a vital and positive part of womanhood. IDEAS producer Mary O’Connell explores menstruation from a cultural and historical perspective.

Several members of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research were interviewed for this documentary. We invite our readers to listen to the program and share their thoughts and comments.    (Photo by Laura Wershler of Bleedy, the Period Puppet, created by Bree Horel at a Menstrual Arts and Crafts event held by Sexual Health Access Alberta.)

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.