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.
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:
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.
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?).
A couple of recent web site items capture a wide range of male responses to Close Encounters of the Menstrual Kind.
First, consider a peculiar blog post by a man named David Barton Wallace who does music reviews, this time a piece titled, “Brazilian Girls go with the flow at Highline.” He felt obliged to preface his review with a parenthetic comment: “Warning: This review is not for the squeamish,” because it included descriptions of what appeared to be the lead singer of the group getting her period on stage while wearing a tight, white body suit.
As pointed out a few days later on the Jezebel site (which has previously offered a positive item about the June SMCR conference in New York City) in an amusingly snarky post titled, “Singer Has Maybe-Fake Period Onstage, Tragically Grossing Out Man,” it seems that the huge stain across the front of the performer’s outfit was surely fake, part of some sort of transgressive commentary. In fact, as seen on the YouTube post of the performance, another red stain also appeared over her left breast. The Jezebel article roasted the reviewer thoroughly and listed all of the portions of his article that expressed “how grossed out he was.”
Perhaps Mr. Wallace was unfamiliar with the earlier incident of a woman rocker, Donita Sparks in the band L7, who actually weaponized her period during a concert in England in 1992 by pulling out her tampon and throwing it at some hecklers in the crowd.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum of male engagement with menstruation is an item on a site called The Good Men Project in a section titled, “Dads & Families.” The specific article by a man named Robert Duffer is labeled, “Should Dads Talk To Their Kids About Menstruation?” Of course, the answer is a resounding “YES” and, for the most part, it’s a sound and sensitive discussion, including comments by SMCR Board member Mindy J. Erchull, Ph.D. from the University of Mary Washington. Yet even this well-intentioned discussion hits a sour note early on with the following sentence, “I have a boy, 7, and a girl, almost 6, who I’ve stopped from singing ‘I’m Sexy And I Know It,’ by saying no, you’re not, (which I would say to any douchebag singing that song).” How a “sensitive” guy, writing on The Good Men Project site has not learned that calling anyone a “douchbag” is an obvious use of a mysogynistic expression is a puzzle to me. Perhaps it’s one of those “two steps forward, one step back” situations.
The best thing we can say about these appearances is that it suggests that men are at least finding it necessary to confront their previously unexamined feelings and presumptions and prejudices about menstruation in their midst.
Reddit, the social entertainment website, has a section called “Reddit WTF?!” where users can post images or links that fit the category of “What the fuck?” Under the title of “Who Wants a Shot!?” one user posted an image of a package of five “flasks” that are in the shape of tampons and come with nondescript tampon wrappers. As the post is nearing 1,000 comments there is a lot to discuss about this image and what others are saying about it. Yes, we could have the usual conversation how this is simply another aspect of menstrual shame—the whole point of these flask tampons is that no one will want to touch them and thus the product and period are reinforced as disgusting objects. To be sure, there are many comments that illustrate this negative construction of the tampon and also frame the cycle as a grotesque event. Instead, I’d like to talk about the positive (and sometimes humorous) responses on Reddit to these flask tampons.
The comments range in topic including the price (most seem appalled at the $12 price tag); places where these could potentially be useful (movie theatres, airports, concerts, sports venues—there’s even a small write-up on them in Sports Illustrated); how drugs and pills could also be smuggled via the “tampons”; and who should carry these faux menstrual products.
It’s the last point that piqued my interest as I was pleasantly surprised how many users were promoting different ways for men to carry these and suggesting appropriate responses should they be questioned. The most common one I seemed to find is the well-known use of tampons to stop nosebleeds, including one where a wrestler wrote that tampons helped him out numerous times with his nosebleeds. Others mentioned that tampons could be used by soldiers to help stop the bleeding from bullet holes or other wounds. Several people said that a man should carry these in his personal bag and if asked should say that they are for his girlfriend. This example, of carrying around a girlfriend’s tampons, also serves as a form of menstrual protest. It was obvious through several of the comments that a man who carries around tampons should expect to get odd looks and questions when someone searches his bag. However, the reaction leaned more towards an aura of think how funny this is going to be rather than the this is so disgusting scenario, leading me to conclude that many of the people who commented (particularly the men) felt that carrying around these faux tampons was, yes, a way to sneak alcohol, but also a form of menstrual protest.
In addition, there are many comments from people who seem disappointed in the unrealistic feature of the product, particularly the nondescript wrappers that simply say “TAMPON.” Perhaps this is more indicative of our saturated advertising culture, but a few posters thought that someone searching the bag would catch on to the fake tampons due to the lack of color or logo/design to suggest a particular brand. Although, as someone who has used off-brand disposable products in the past, I can confirm that often times there is no logo or brand name on the wrapper.
Lastly, mixed throughout the puns (for example, “Bloody Mary” anyone?) and suggested uses of these tampons, were the expected comments about the revolting nature of the period. What was interesting to see is that these comments were met with others that challenge this type of characterization. It was a tête-à-tête with some commentators as those who posted remarks such as “Men, never trust anything that bleeds for 7 days, and doesn’t die,” were countered with equally crass “Women, never trust anything with two heads and one brain.”
Last week at The Art of Manliness, a contributor wrote a post about numerous possible wilderness survival uses of tampons. The post was picked up by the popular site, Boing Boing, and the commenters in both sites added more uses, as well uses for disposable maxi pads (although some contributors seem uncertain of the difference). Many creative uses for disposable femcare products were suggested, and while I can’t personally vouch for (or against) any of them, I offer this post as Public Service Announcement to correct some of the misinformation about tampons and pads that those uses presume.
The use of an opened tampon or a maxi pad for a bandage probably seems obvious to re:Cycling readers, as many are familiar with the history of Kotex, developed when World War I nurses discovered that the cotton cellulose they were using on wounded soldiers was highly absorbent. (The phrase ko-tex stands for cotton texture.) But as a few sharp readers of The Art of Manliness are aware, it has been decades since maxi-pads or tampons of any brand were made of cotton (except, obviously, the all-cotton types sold in health food stores). Pads are made from mostly from wood cellulose fibers, with plastic outer layers made of polypropylene or polyethylene. Some of the newer, improved maxi-pads feature synthetic gels designed to draw blood away from the body — not exactly a feature you’d want in a bandage, when you’re trying to stanch the flow of blood and promote clotting. If you’re bleeding heavily, you’re probably better off tearing off your t-shirt and pressing it against the wound. Tampons are also made of wood cellulose, often with a core of viscose fiber. Viscose fiber is rayon, created by treating cellulose with sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide.
And although most brands are individually wrapped these days, neither tampons nor pads are sterile. Nor are they produced in sterile conditions. I’d be very leery of using a tampon as a water filter. Surely there are safer, equally portable, emergency filters one could pack in a wilderness survival kit.
Many of the other emergency uses of tampons involved using the fluffy wood pulp as kindling, or otherwise setting them on fire. Now there’s a use I can get behind!
Lately I’m fed up with the kinds of articles and news items that cross my desk (or computer screen) about perimenopause and menopause. So much of the news on this midlife transition seems negative. I hear about the new treatments for (unbearable) hot flashes or a new movie saying how terrible menopause is (remember my blog entry on Hot Flash Havoc? That movie is still getting a ton of press for better or worse). The most neutral reports seem to be about lifestyle changes (exercise, diet, quitting smoking, etc.) women can make to lessen “problematic” symptoms.
So, I’m starting to wonder: Is there any purely good news about menopause? Any news that will make women feel good about their midlife transitions?
To answer my own question, I typed “good news about menopause” into google, bing, and yahoo search engines. Readers of this blog should try it themselves. Type it in and see what you get.
When I typed this phrase into different search engines, right away the same sorts of news articles described above popped up. There is “good news” for menopause “sufferers” who want to try out new medical treatments for menopausal symptoms (you too can lessen your hot flashes!), “good news” that menopausal women can reverse aging (read: aging is bad!), “good news” that perimenopausal women can change their diet, “good news” that women can take supplements that will make sex better after menopause, etc. In my opinion, most of these articles have a negative undertone – that menopause is something to be suffered and endured and disliked overall. While these articles might be offering solutions to make life better, the underlying message is still that this life stage sucks for women. There were few exceptions to this, but the exceptions are worth mentioning. For instance a blog about the wisdom and freedom that women can find at menopause did pop up, as did another “menopause goddess” blog that gave a much more positive spin to this midlife transition. I personally wish I had seen more items like the latter two. For me, most of the “good news” that popped up is not so good.
I think about the perimenopausal or menopausal women who might be looking for “good news” about their life stage and I wonder what they might be looking for. If you are perimenopausal or menopausal and you’re reading this, what “good news” are you looking for? And how do you feel about the “good news” you’re getting?
I get Google Alerts on “menopause” every Wednesday because it’s important that I know about the new bits of information popping up about the topic I research most. Most of the time, though, I’m frustrated with the discussion of menopause online and don’t pay attention much to the alerts I get. Yet, amidst the endless biomedical debates about whether soy or other supplements and alternative therapies reduce hot flashes, whether hormone therapies (HT) are risky, and whether or not a male menopause exists, there ARE a few important things to notice in the online menopause world. For instance, a short article called “True or False: Test your menopause smarts” at SunHerald.com (a news sources for the “Biloxi-Gulfport and South Mississippi” region) represents what I see as a fairly positive contribution to the online readings on women’s health and, more specifically, menopause. For instance, in reviewing menopause the author proposes that:
1. There ARE variations in women’s experiences, and that these variations are normal!
2. Too often we see menopause as primarily negative, when there are positive things about menopause. Or, at the very least, women might be likely to feel indifferent about menopause.
3. The menopause transition (perimenopause) can be a long-term process, and the author acknowledges that it could last as long as a decade or more. Women probably need to know this from the start!
4. Hot flashes are normal despite being frustrating, and that it is likely that you might experience them.
5. Women might not feel one particular way about sex during menopause – and no matter whether you feel good or bad about sex during menopause it’s probably okay (unless you personally would like it to be different, in which case there are probably things you can do to change your situation).
6. The U.S. does not represent the best model for how to go through menopause (at least this is what the author infers). In fact, women in other countries may fair much better as they go through menopause, for a variety of reasons that the author does not get into.
7. Recent breakthroughs in medical science might make women who are worried about having children get a blood test to see how long they have until perimenopause sets in (see my earlier blog post about this blood test last year!). The way in which the author wrote up this part of their article suggests to me that they can see the pros and cons of this blood test, which I like.
Many of my blog posts represent a critique of information out there for menopausal women, but I thought it might be nice to highlight a positive contribution to the online literature on women’s health. Despite my minor critiques of this article (e.g., the word “suffer” appears frequently, and there is a huge focus on sex over other topics, etc.), I think women should read this article. Which leads me to my main point in writing this blog post: there ARE some good things out there about menopause. Anyone else find a good example of positive health information lately?