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?
Red is my favorite color by far. Autumn is my favorite season. Autumn brings out the true essence of red. As I watch the leaves start to turn it’s hard not to think about the true power of the color.
It symbolizes transitions and cycles, regardless of whether we are talking about seasons or menstruation or anything else. It is a marker of change in that way.
It is warm and inviting but also dangerous sometimes.
It incites action (as in making bulls charge).
It can make people stop (as in red lights and stop signs).
It can instill caution (as in, “Caution, HOT!” or “Please use this product as directed” or “Do Not Enter”).
It can mark mistakes (as in grading incorrect responses) or stand in for punishment (as in the Scarlett Letter).
It can be representative of leaks (as in menstrual accidents) and first sexual activity (as in spotting because of the breaking of a hymen).
It is emotion (as in anger, embarrassment).
It is exertion (as in flushed, sweaty skin after a workout).
It is representative of symptoms (as in rashes or infected spots).
It signifies ideal feminine beauty (as in red lipstick or red nail polish), even sexiness and/or sexual desire (as in red high heels).
It symbolizes fertility (as in the Handmaid’s tale).
It can mean exclusion and celebration simultaneously (as in the red tent).
It symbolizes vulnerability (as in Red Riding Hood).
It can mean death (as in bloodshed).
It can represent life (as there is nothing more vital than blood itself).
It can mean fun (as in the Red Hat Society).
It stands in for love (as in hearts and roses for Valentine’s Day).
It can mean something is ripe or mature (as in a red apple or red strawberry).
It can stand in for communism or particular countries (as in China, for example).
It can mean drug prevention (as in the Red Ribbon campaign).
The list could go on and on….what am I missing?
As I live in my favorite season with my favorite color all around me, it is hard to miss the true power of red.
The World’s First Menstrual Poetry Slam, The Red Moon Howl, will occur the closing night of the SMCR conference, June 7, at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Featuring the works of noted poets such as Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, and Ntozake Shange as well as new works by emerging poets such as Coriel O’Shea and Maria Billini, the evening event will offer a variety of artistic perspectives on the menstrual cycle.
Given the history of menstrual lore and the way knowledge of the cycle has been shared by women over the span of human history, it is particularly appropriate that the topic of menstruation find an outlet in the form of poetry, the original form of oral creative expression. The event will literally “give voice” to a commonly hidden, taboo topic. In keeping with the conference theme, “Making Menstruation Matter,” the poets and performers will offer yet another contribution in the ongoing effort to bring the period out of the closet.
The evening will not be limited to just those who are on the performance roster. Everyone planning to attend the conference is encouraged to prepare a piece for the open mic portion of the evening which will open the event.
Some questions have been raised about the nature of poetry slams. Frequently such events have a competitive element as participants vie with one another for the favor of audience or judges. That’s not the case this time. Instead, the organizers are emphasizing the fact that the main difference between slam poetry and the more traditional, familiar variety is that poems presented in the slam setting are meant to be “performed,” that is, read or recited out loud so that the fundamental elements of the human voice engaged with the nature of spoken words can be savored by those in attendance. In this regard, the poetry slam is a reinvigoration of the original sources of the poetic impulse.
Following the conference, video samples of the performances will be available on line. Stay tuned for more information.
A surprising amount of my time last week was spent thinking about vaginas. In part, this was because I had plans to attend the Friday night show of The Vagina Monologues on my campus. It’s always a great show, and this year, one of my students was directing it. During the course of the week, however, a former student of mine also posted a news story about the use of the word vagina on my Facebook wall. All of this led to me reflecting a lot of people’s comfort and discomfort with this word.
The Vagina Monologues does address people’s comfort, or lack there of, with vaginas (or vulvas – although the way the two terms are conflated is a topic for another post) and women’s sexuality. My focus was a bit different. I was thinking about the word vagina itself….
In the late 1990s, when I was a senior in college, I had the wonderful opportunity to see Eve Ensler perform The Vagina Monologues as a one woman show on my campus as part of the dedication celebration for the newly funded Women’s Studies chair which would allow for the formal creation of a Women’s Studies major. Since I was one of the students most involved with the program, I was given one of the few tickets for students.
Since so few students attended the show, Sunday brunch conversation the next day largely consisted of a discussion of The Vagina Monologues over dining hall french toast sticks. One of my friends was very uncomfortable with the conversation because I was consistently using the word vagina “in mixed company”. I try to be respectful of others’ limits, but I couldn’t wrap my head around how to talk about this show without using the word vagina. Plus, it’s not a slang or pejorative term – it’s a formal anatomical name for a body part.
Given that The Vagina Monologues were part of my plans for the week, this experience immediately came to mind when my former students shared a Jezebel.com post about a tenth grade science teacher facing investigation and possible disciplinary action for using the word vagina in an anatomy lesson. Seriously? Once again, this is a formal biological term for a body part. Yes, it’s a body part associated with sex and reproduction, but we need to be able to use these words.
When I teach Psychology of Women and get to development, reproduction, and women’s health, I typically have to spend a few minutes just saying vagina repeatedly until the giggles stop, the discomfort dies down, and we can actually move on with the content of the class. Yes, words have power – but we don’t get like this about the words knee or forehead. People run around in “Save the Ta-Tas” t-shirts. Why can’t we say vagina?
One of the fundraisers the students staging The Vagina Monologues did this year was to sell buttons that say “I ♥ My Vagina”. Yes, we should love our vaginas and the vaginas of our consensual sexual partners. I also think we should love the word vagina. Let’s stop being scared of this one. Don’t shush people if they say it in public. Don’t try to come up with covert ways of referring to vaginas without using this word. Just say vagina.
Vagina. Vagina, vagina, vagina. Va-gin-a.
Give me a V, give me an A, give me a G, give me an I, give me an N, give me an A. What’s that spell? VAGINA!
Come on – say it with me: Vagina!
Be loud. Be proud. Love and respect vaginas, but also embrace the word. Some words need to be normalized. It astounds and saddens me that this has not yet happened with vagina. Let’s change that starting today.
Okay. Enough. I gotta say something.
Because I am committed to various efforts to reclaim the menstrual cycle as a vital sign and subvert the dominant narrative that menstruation is obsolete and/or a badge of shame, many people assume my periods are all drum circles, red jewelry and a week-long love affair with my Diva Cup.
More insidious still is the pervasive assumption that thinking differently about our cycles necessarily points to LOVING our cycles. As if there are ONLY two choices on the menstrual menu: I’ll have the Obsolete Shaming Nuisance or My Cycle is Womb-alicious. That doesn’t work for me as I suspect it does not work for others. There’s a whole lot of territory between refusing to see menstruation as meaningless OR as proof positive that my body is unruly, out of control, and a source of deep-seated shame AND embracing my menses as the Sine qua non of my gender identity or the gift that keeps on giving, about every 28 days.
I gotta ask: can’t I resist the shame and still find the monthly uterine shedding a royal pain in the vagina? Because, dear reader, that’s how I feel about MY menstruation. Most of the time, I really hate my period.
I am a heavy bleeder– a seven full days of gushing, clotting, and without fail, staining usually both my sheets and my underwear. My period is a week of carrying an extra pair of underwear with me in my backpack, sleeping on a towel (that always bunches up and makes me miserable as I try to find a comfortable sleeping position) and scrubbing stains out of my underwear.
I do not celebrate my flow during my menses. At the same time, I am grateful that my body is signaling All Operations Normal and Functioning. Yes. I AM appreciative of the reminder to practice self care, to slow down, to pause…. but I rarely do, if I am honest. Truth is, even in the context of all this gratitude for what my body is doing to keep me healthy, I groan when Aunt Flo comes a-calling.
But admitting that has not come easily because I am privy toan awful lot of menstrual talk (on this blog and in the wider world) and the two OPTIONS ONLY discourse is pervasive. You either hate it (shame on you for shaming on you) or you love it (Fool. Join the 21st century!). See?
My point is simple. Let’s not trade one dogma for another. Messages on either pole fail to listen to women and instead, PRESCRIBE how we should THINK about our embodied experiences. Some menstruators DO welcome their periods and find ways to celebrate them. Some menstruators spend Day 1 on the floor of the bathroom, clutching the rim of the toilet. Some menstruators are damn grateful to see bloody panties as a signal of Not Pregnant or Right on Schedule and then pretty quickly shift into dogged management mode. Some menstruators _________________ (your experience here).
The different menstrual world I want is a bigger one, one shaped by a more (not less) pluralistic menstrual discourse that makes the way for as many menstrual attitudes are they are menstrual experiences. This stuff is personal and individual and yet, because of FemCare ads, industry-sponsored menstrual education in schools and increasingly Big Pharma’s awkward melding of high tech body meddling so that women can menstruate like their Paleo ancestors, it is hard to hear our OWN voices over the din.
Here’s my voice: thanks for the free monthly wellness check but I wish it were not so much work. But I will be damned if I will whisper that I need to change my pad or be seduced by a slick ad campaign that enlists me as a paying research subject. I just need better pads (longer, anyone?) and maybe a terry cloth fitted sheet. And someone to do my laundry.
Cervical fluid, the sticky/creamy/stretchy/slippery substance produced by the cervix is arguably the most important substance on earth. Without it, the human race would be shortly extinct, yet not many people even know what it is. This is unacceptable, and you and I are going to change this.
In case you don’t know, Cervical Fluid plays a vital role in helping women get pregnant, avoid pregnancy, and figure out health issues, yet its name has remained merely a description. Cervical fluid is too important to be forever described but never properly named.
Cervical fluid is incredibly valuable. Without it, life as we know it would literally cease to exist. Fertile cervical fluid keeps sperm alive once it is inside the vagina. It provides nutrients, a hospitable alkaline environment, and aids in transportation. Cervical Fluid helps the sperm survive, sometimes for up to five days, while waiting for an egg to be released. Cervical fluid is like a soccer mom, providing snacks, protection, and transportation to the sperm, while they are on their way to the big game. Without her, there would be no game, and getting pregnant would be virtually impossible without outside intervention.
And that is just ONE of the many ways cervical fluid makes our lives richer. It also tells an awful lot about the state of a woman’s hormones, which can play a key role in many health issues.
OK, so we’ve established that cervical fluid plays a vital role in the continuance of the human race, not to mention women’s health. But with just a description for a name, we are faced with an intractable communication problem: unnamed bodily substances have a particular propensity to make people uncomfortable, and currently many people get scared off or grossed out by cervical fluid’s various descriptive identifiers.
You’ll hear it referred to as “Cervical Mucus”, “Vaginal Discharge”, “Vaginal Mucus”, and the slightly less gross-sounding “Cervical Fluid”. It’s not fair. What if semen was called “Testicle Mucus”, or “Penile Discharge”? Imagine if saliva was called “Oral Mucus”, or “Mouth Discharge”? It’s not, for a reason! Even feces gets its own name! You don’t often hear it referred to as “Solid Anal Discharge”. Each of these substances has an important role to play in the health of the human body, and hence, they have been given names, not just descriptions, so that we can acknowledge and understand them.
This quote from The Simpsons episode The Principal and the Pauper illustrates my point:
Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you called ‘em stench blossoms.
Homer: Or crapweeds.
Marge: I’d sure hate to get a dozen crapweeds for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy.
Homer: Not if they were called scumdrops.
You get the point. Something can be lovely and beautiful and wanted, but if you call it by an unappealing name, no one is going to give it a chance.
Now, I personally LOVE cervical fluid. It has taught me a great deal about my fertility and my health. It’s a crime that this stuff is not more not widely popular. I posit that if cervical fluid had a more euphonious appellation, people would be more interested in hearing, talking, and reading about it. Which would lead to understanding and wider acceptance. This Quest to name Cervical Fluid has broad-reaching social implications. With wider understanding and acceptance of this most sacred substance, women would own their fertility again. The sense of panic and confusion that many women experience when thinking about their reproductive health would diminish and eventually vanish. There would be fewer unplanned pregnancies and more wanted pregnancies. More wanted pregnancies would lead to happier families and, ultimately, a happier world! For the betterment of women everywhere and the world at large, cervical fluid needs a name of its own!
I propose we give cervical fluid a name within six months. I will be working towards this goal. If you want to help, please leave your thoughts about this and your suggestions for cervical fluid’s new name in the comments below. Together, we’ll make history.
Guest post by Karina Billini
In the beginning of my college career, I was given powerful advice: “In every class you take, apply your craft. Challenge it and challenge yourself.” From gay studies to Child Development, I have taken the opportunity of higher education to explore myself as a writer. So there I was in my last semester as an undergrad, taking the most spoken about course at Marymount Manhattan College—Social Construction of Menstruation. As a theatre and creative writing student, I haven’t had much explicit exposure to the social construction of menstruation. Yes, I have been exposed to it through Always commercials and even the opinions of my female friends, but never within my craft. The only thing I have been exposed to that is relevant to menstruation is The Vagina Monologues, which is not really much. Plus, I had NEVER stumbled across any menstruation-themed poetry. So, when my class was presented with the rubric for our final project, I decided to put together a poetry collection of menstruation-themed poetry and yes, even write my own for the very first time.
I have always liked a challenge, particularly one that deals with the legitimacy of my craft. In the academic world, poetry has always been seen as flowery. Many fail to acknowledge it as a potent social commentator. Poetry is not just about the aligning of words for lovely rhythm and vivid imagery, but to provoke the minds of its readers and be the voice for the growing unheard. Poetry allows the preservation of the human experience and all its aesthetics that can sometimes be drowned out by the stiff language and observations of theoretical work. For example, the poetry of Audre Lorde really spoke for women of color who were, at that time, written into invisibility within the mainstream movements for woman’s rights. I think about Langston Hughes’ poetry and how it beautifully and explicitly illustrated the struggle of African Americans. If poetry can help illuminate the menstrual experience and possible attack some of its negative social constructions, why isn’t there more menstruation-themed poetry? Why is it that when I Google menstruation-themed poetry, the results are so scarce? Why haven’t I written any poetry on menstruation?
As a female playwright and poet, I thought I wrote explicitly on the woman experience. I have dramatized attacks on gender inequality, given birth to strong female protagonists, and poetically sculpted what I thought woman should be. I have even let my readers become Peeping Toms to my womanhood, allowing them to read my struggle with the power dynamics of love, sex, money, and education. However, I never wrote about the major factor that played in all my experiences as a woman: my body. As I decided on my final project to be a collection of menstruation-themed poetry, I realized that I never wrote about this phenomenon that had such a tremendous impact on my shaping as a woman.
Why haven’t I? Why was I so brave and comfortable to allow my readers into the playground of my bed and the fallen country of my broken heart…..but not menstruation? Why was it second nature for me to script words like “sex” or “fuck”, but not “menstruation” or “vagina”? After all, I had spent most of my childhood waiting for my first period and will continue to revolve my calendar around my cycle for the rest of my menstrual life. I had secretly pocketed away my menstrual experiences in the manner that I slip neon-colored pads into my purse’s interior pocket. I had done it for the same reasons: 1) learned/inherited embarrassment and 2) maintenance of “lady-like” appearances (whatever that means). I was not writing, but being written, shaped, and formed by these societal norms.
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!
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