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?
This holiday season consider giving the women in your life the gift of body literacy. The books, resources and services compiled below support understanding and appreciation of our bodies.
Gifts for teenagers:
* To hold a Wondrous Vulva Puppet is to experience a loving representation of the female body. Dorrie Lane’s vulva puppets are used around the world to spark conversations about our bodies and our sexuality. To quote a testimonial on the website: “The sensual curves, velvety feel and beauty of these puppets seems to disarm people in a way that opens the door to real discussion about women’s sexuality.”
* Toni Weschler, widely known for her best-selling book on fertility awareness Taking Charge of Your Fertility, has also written a book for teenagers. Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen’s Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body makes the perfect gift for your daughter or younger sister, neice or cousin. This book can transform a young teenager’s experience and understanding of her body as it teaches her the practical benefits of charting her menstrual cycles. Available in paperback and Kindle editions.
Gifts for those who want to learn fertility awareness:
* Justisse Method: Fertility Awareness and Body Literacy A User’s Guide by Justisse founder Geraldine Matus is a helpful gift for anyone wanting to learn about fertility awareness based methods (FABM) of birth control. It is “a primer for body literacy, and a guide for instructing women how to observe, chart and interpret their menstrual cycle events.”
For someone who wants to learn fertility awareness to prevent or achieve pregnancy, or to fix menstrual problems, finding a certified practitioner is getting easier. Technology can connect women with skilled instructors who may live thousands of miles away. Check out the practitioners below online and on Facebook.
* * * * * *
I invite other certified instructors who work locally to leave their contact information in comments.
Gifts for women in midlife
* For women who are in the perimenopausal transition – which can last from six to 10 years for most women, ending one year after the final menstrual period – give the gift of information. Connect friends and family with the website of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research where they’ll find many free resources that offer explanations and treatment suggestions for the symptoms they may experience throughout this transition including night sweats, hot flushes, heavy and/or longer flow, migraines, and sore, swollen breasts.
* To those who love fiction, consider giving Estrogen’s Storm Season, a fictionalized account of eight women’s journey through perimenopause written by CeMCOR’s Scientific Director, endocrinologist Dr. Jerilynn Prior:
They are as different as women can be—yet they share the mysterious experiences of perimenopause, night sweats, flooding periods or mood swings. We follow these women as they consult Dr. Madrona, learn the surprising hormonal changes explaining their symptoms, get better or worse, and try or refuse therapies. As each woman lives through her particular challenge, we begin to see how we, too, can survive perimenopause!
Proceeds from book sales support ongoing research.
From menarche to menopause, it is never too early or too late to acquire body literacy. I invite readers to share other gift ideas that promote menstrual cycle comfort and support body literacy.
Recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to lend an excerpt of my recently released book to the UK Sunday Times Style magazine. The mostly fashion-centric Style magazine is not really known for its edginess or risk-taking (except perhaps in the realm of shoe and make-up choices) and so I was happily surprised when the editor told me that the subject matter discussed in my book that she happened to find most interesting was, in fact, menstruation. I had expected her to want to focus on condoms perhaps, or just my personal story, but no, she was keenly interested in what I wrote about periods.
The argument I make in my book is that how we feel about hormonal birth control is inextricably linked to how we feel about menstruation. In a sense, many of the newer methods of hormonal birth control, as well as the newer uses (running packets of pills together, prescriptions for cramps or heavy bleeding) show an effort to get rid of the period completely, rather than just hide it away. I also discuss in the book, briefly, menstruation activism. However, I do defer to the far better work done by the likes of SMCR’s own Chris Bobel who writes on this topic with far more knowledge (not to mention wit).
You can read the feature in full here at my website (it’s otherwise behind an online pay wall and frankly I’m pleased to rob Rupert Murdoch of a few pounds by making it freely available).
In the end, the feature was not exactly an excerpt from my book – more so it was quotes from the book mixed with quotes from a long interview with the editor. Therefore I didn’t quite know what would be published in the magazine. The finished piece covered a range of controversial topics seen here at re:Cycling regularly – menstrual outing, reusable femcare products, the potential health benefits of ovulation…
If the high point of my career was getting the word “patriarchy” into the notoriously right-wing British tabloid The Daily Mail, I think I had another peak seeing this sentence in the Style (notorious for its high priced designer fashion spreads) – “This movement believes the act of stopping and hiding our periods with hormonal contraceptives and sanitary products is a mark of corporate ownership of our bodies.” I take great pride in also getting a discussion of menstrual extraction on to Style’s pages, and therefore onto the breakfast table of approximately one million British people – “an entire period’s worth of menstrual blood could be removed in a few hours instead of being experienced over days.” Well, if we can have Page 3, why not menstrual extraction?
The editor who did such a great job on this piece was Fleur Britten and in a funny twist of fate I realized, during our conversations, that in my first full time working position after college, at the publishing company Debrett’s in London, I worked as a production assistant on one of her books – Etiquette for Girls. At that time controversy surrounded Fleur’s section on the proper etiquette for one-night stands (I think it was something about getting out quickly, quietly, but leaving a nice handwritten note). So, it made me smile to see her skewer the etiquette of menstruation in the opening paragraph of this piece: “Many women are bored with having to take a whole handbag into the ladies rather than carry a tampon in their hand. Men say “I’m going to take a dump,” but we don’t say, “I’m just going to change my tampon.””
When I was carrying the proofs of Fleur’s book to the printers back some seven years ago, little did I know we would be conspiring to get the British public to say “I am menstruating” today over tea and toast.
It was great to see the media attention garnered last week by Red Moon Howl, the menstrual poetry slam happening in New York City on Friday night, June 7, 2013, at Marymount Manhattan College. The event is part of the upcoming Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference – Making Menstruation Matter.
But as re:Cycling noted on our Facebook page, it was a shame the only way Jezebel, The Gloss, and The Frisky could think to illustrate their previews of the event was with stock photos of femcare products.
It made me realize the value of the archive I have of menstrual images created by women who attended the menstrual arts and crafts events we hosted when I was executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta. At Scarlet Summer [pdf], an event held in August 2007, attendees watched Giovanna Chesler’s documentary Period: End of Menstruation, participated in a discussion, then created visual and tactile illustrations of what menstruation means to them.
In anticipation of the upcoming conference and menstrual poetry slam, here are several menstrual images that may inspire your own periodic creativity.
How do girls learn about menstruation today? Who talks to them? Who do they talk to? Or do most girls rely on the Internet for information about periods?
Take this article by Elizabeth (bylines are first names only) – What I Wish I Knew About My Period – posted last week at Rookie, an online magazine for teenage girls. Not a teenager but definitely a young woman, Elizabeth (Spiridakus) shares the wisdom she’s gained through her menstrual experience. Here’s her sum-up:
These are all the things I wish someone had told me before I got my first period, and in the couple of years that followed. Most of all, I wish I had FOUND SOMEONE TO TALK TO! I had so many questions and fears about the whole business, and I think I would have been so much less self-conscious, and so much HAPPIER, if I had only had access to some friendly advice. So, talk to your friends! Talk to your cool older cousin or aunt or sister or your best friend’s cool mom or your OWN cool mom. Leave your questions—and your good advice—in the comments, because I certainly haven’t been able to cover all the bases here.
Read this again: “Most of all, I wish I had FOUND SOMEONE TO TALK TO!”
Elizabeth urges readers to talk to their friends, cool older relatives, or their own – or somebody else’s – “cool mom.” Great advice, but I have to ask: Why aren’t cool moms and older relatives already talking to the girls in their lives about menstruation? Sharing friendly advice? Passing on wisdom from mother to daughter, woman to woman?
Suzan Hutchinson, menstrual activist, educator and founder of periodwise.com, a project dedicated to empowering girls and women to embrace the taboo subject of menstruation, has a few ideas about this. She thinks many moms don’t know when to begin “the period talk” or what to say, so they remain silent until their daughters start their periods, or they wait thinking their daughters will initiate period talk. She warns against this.
“We should all remember that when moms offer too little information or start providing information too late, girls often question their credibility and hesitate to return as new questions arise.”
Although Suzan’s mother talked to her about menstruation, she didn’t start early enough, before Suzan heard things from other girls that she didn’t understand. Her early menstrual experience included lying to her friends about getting her period long before she did at age 15. By then she was “too embarrassed to ask my much more experienced friends” and “too proud to turn to Mom.” She tried to deal with things on her own.
“I needed a period coach – someone to walk through things with me and instruct me…help me figure out what to do, when to do, how to do.”
A period coach. This is exactly what Elizabeth is for the girls at Rookie. Read the comments. Readers loved it.
She’s not the only one using the Internet to connect with girls about menstruation. Despite my reservations about a website operated by the company that sells Always and Tampax, the content of which deserves serious critique, I must acknowledge that thousands of girls are turning to beinggirl.com for period coaching, including tips on how to talk to their moms!
The more information girls have the better. Brava to Elizabeth for What I Wish I Knew About My Period. But moms and cool older relatives have got to get in the game. Now. Don’t wait until the girls in your life come to you.
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.
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.
Barry Bogin, Patterns of Human Growth, 1999, Cambridge University Press.
Ann Voda, Menopause, Me and You, 1997, Haworth Press: Binghamton, NY.
The other day a Huffington Post article crossed my desk, titled, “Gift Guide 2012: What To Get The Menopausal Women In Your Life.” According to this article, here are some of the things menopausal women (read: perimenopausal women) might want this December:
- Coldfront cooling palm packs (to relieve sweaty palms)
- A personal desk fan (for those hot flashes at work)
- A “menopause gift basket” filled with healthy treats and goodies, maybe also including vitamins, and alternative remedies for relief, “to stabilize mood and help the body adjust to hormonal changes.”
- A Feel Cooler Cooling Mattress Pad or Cooling Pillow that interacts with your nightly body temperatures to cool you down (for night sweats)
- Cool Sensations Moisture Wicking Bed Sheets (reportedly for those floods of night sweats you might get)
- Hot Girls Pearls – cooling beads to wear around your neck (for hot flashes) – apparently these have even made it onto Oprah’s Show
- Tickets to Menopause the Musical
- Sweat-wicking pajamas (there are lots of different brands, again to deal with night sweats)
Clearly the theme here is that menopausal women get hot and need relief. Fair enough, for many menopausal women this would be true. But this list got me thinking: what might I add to this list? Here are some I thought of:
- Humorous gifts, such as books of jokes about menopause and aging?
- Books about menopause
- Cookbooks that specialize in natural eating?
- A yoga gift certificate? Or other exercise certificate?
I’d love to hear from readers about other ideas for menopause-related holiday gifts.
Then I got to thinking again: If my daughter had reached menarche already, what kinds of holiday gifts could I get her that relate to her life stage? Here are some of the ideas I thought of, and I definitely need help from readers to expand this list:
- Pretty reusable (washable) maxi pads (e.g., Lunapads)
- A cool bag to carry maxi-pads around in
- A cool tampon case (like the ones that Uncommon Goods sells)
- Cool new (extra) underwear
- A special calendar for her to use to track her periods
- New Moon Girls’ magazine (or just an online membership to New Moon Girls)
- The book, Our Bodies Ourselves, or other books on puberty and menstruation
So, readers, what else belongs on this list? Those of you already buying for Hannukah and Christmas might have some great ideas…..please chime in!
When we sit with our clients – whether it’s a medical consultation, a therapy session, a group program or even spiritual guidance – what happens when we include a woman’s cyclic nature in the conversation?
As a holistic reproductive health coach using the Hakomi somatic counseling method, this question is not only unavoidable but inevitable.
Hakomi is a therapeutic method that uses mindfulness in our present time experience to discover unconscious beliefs that either resource or limit us. Put another way, we bring a woman’s awareness to what is happening in her body as we’re consulting with her. This is done with the understanding that our bodies are as much a part of our experience as our cognitive experience (how we make meaning) but they have a less perfected filtering and editing capacity, making them a wonderfully effective access route to our unconscious – our experience outside our awareness.
Many of my clients come to me for help with their emotional hormonal symptoms (perimenopause, PMS). Below are a few different ways I work in this hormone/psyche/somatic interface. I thought this might be a place for us to share what we’ve discovered.
Knowing Where She’s At
I begin each session by establishing which phase of her monthly cycle and/or life-cycle she’s in. We explore how she experiences these phases (which initially requires teaching tracking and observation skills). I also find it extremely helpful to find out what birth control she uses to ascertain whether she is using endocrine disruptors.
Her Relationship to Her Cycle
We get to know what beliefs she has about her cycle and her body. Many core beliefs about the Self reside in her relationship with her body and can show up in how she experiences her period, her birth control choices, how she inhabits different parts of her body – specifically her reproductive organs and pelvis, etc. (I like the work of Tami Kent on this last point). Many issues of self-regard, self-compassion and agency might also be expressed through this relationship.
We explore her first period experience; for example, how old she was, what was happening in her life at that time and the messages she got leading up to and including her first period. These might include difficulty in accepting her sexuality; anger and resentment towards the masculine, or the feminine; shame, confusion, disappointment or rage about her menstruating body; relief and excitement about being a woman; etc. We also explore her significant relationships at that time – with mother, father, sisters, brothers, grandmother etc. We note whether she experienced any loss of relationships because of her menarche. We offer her the “missed experience” of acceptance of her womanhood, fertility and sexuality (with gender-identity appropriateness).
Normalizing the Fluctuations
We discuss variations in energy, temperament, sexuality, mood, “liminal” state (see Alexandra Pope’s Wild Genie), etc. through her cycle. She learns to recognize her unique patterns. We explore any fears/judgments/beliefs about being “unpredictable” or “inconsistent”, specifically in relation to expectations she might have for herself.
The Resource of Hormonal Literacy
We point out new signs and beliefs as she begins to integrate her hormonal experience. for example, moments of self-compassion, nonjudgmental, embodiment, empowerment, etc. We work somatically to create new neural pathways that integrate her developing hormonal literacy.
These are a few areas that I feel warrant further discussion and examination in how we include a woman’s hormonal experience in our interactions with her in a session. There are more, of course, like the counselor’s relationship to hormones and menstruation (counter-transference) as well as bringing hormone awareness to treatment with addiction or trauma. Rich stuff.
What I’ve noticed by including this interplay between hormones, psyche, and the body is the phenomenon of how awareness changes a woman’s experience. When she connects the dots between her hormonal cycle and her experience, it not only empowers her but shifts her hormonal experience itself.
I know we all look forward to the day when our hormonal and somatic awareness are so integrated, they become the water we swim in – that great day when we are not appreciated and valued regardless of our hormones but because of them. Until then, I believe we can best serve women by including hormonal literacy in our work together.
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”.
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?”
Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne
Exploring missing menstruation on screen
Less surprising however, was that most presentations depict menstruation as the messy, embarrassing, sex-interrupting, mood-swing-inducing week-long hell ride that women have grown to expect from Hollywood.
While 200 scenes were many more than I expected, given that nearly all women will menstruate monthly for some thirty-odd years, 200 scenes actually isn’t all that many.
While most of Periods in Pop Culture focuses on what those scenes themselves reveal about society’s fraught relationship with periods, one chapter in fact explores the why so few portrayals. Given how very common and normal it is, why is the topic so frequently eschewed?
I proposed a handful of reasons including Hollywood’s aversion to telling female stories, narrative distraction, and the show don’t tell nature of the screen. In this post I offer two other explanations: menstruation as a non-event and political correctness.
As one of the millions of girls who got an (albeit long outdated) menstrual education from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, I learnt that some girls apparently eagerly await their first period kinda like Christmas. I wasn’t like Margaret. I didn’t pine for it, and when I got it I didn’t look down at my underpants and throw my head back in delight like Debbie (Nell Schofield) in the Australian film Puberty Blues (1981): for me it was a non-event.
The non-event nature of menstruation appears a central explanation for its absence.
In an episode of sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), Sophia (Estelle Getty) reflected on her periods: “I got it, no one told me. I didn’t get it, no one told me. I figured, this is life, and went back to my meatballs.” In this scene, Sophia reflects that many women don’t see any overwhelmingly need to talk about menstruation or complain about it or even to honor it, but that it is simply something that needs to be gotten on with.
Aside from those times when pregnancy is feared or desired, there are few occasions when menstruation is experienced as particularly memorable or gets bestowed with any great significance. I think this fact significantly underpins its absence on screen.
Thinking of menstruation as somehow naturally insignificant or uninteresting however, would be premature. In the film To Sir With Love (1967), there is a scene where teacher Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) reprimanded girls who he believed burnt a menstrual product in his classroom: “A decent woman keeps things private. Only a filthy slut would have done this!” Here, Thackeray refers to the most important rule of menstruation: concealment. On screen, if audiences see menstruation or if a character identifies as bleeding, she has neglected her most important gender burden. By infrequently portraying menstruation, the secrecy imperative is upheld. When women downplay the significant of their periods, when they believe their periods are uninteresting, internalized sexism is highlighted.
Another explanation for missing menstruation is so-called political correctness; that avoiding it reflects the contemporary dictums of liberal feminism: shunning topics which play up differences between men and women.
Given that menstruation is so common and that so many taboos exist surround it, it might be assumed that including it in narratives would be a feminist act. The flipside of this however, is that doing so might do gender equality a disservice; that presenting it reminds audiences of biological inequalities between men and women.
In a scene from the series Californication (2007-), Hank (David Duchovny) is about to have sex with his daughter’s teacher Mrs. Patterson (Justine Bateman). As they undress, Mrs. Patterson says, “Just so you know, I’m on my period.” Mrs. Patterson didn’t – and likely in our culture couldn’t – automatically assume that Hank would be fine and thus gave him an exit strategy. By mentioning menstruation in a sex scene, it existed as a glaring biological power imbalance; that an opportunity was offered for Hank to reject her on the basis of her biology.
By excluding menstruation, a female character can be interpreted as having the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with her male counterpart; that she can be as sexually aggressive as she likes and not have to query whether her partner is bothered by her period. In turn, she doesn’t get limited by her biology.
Predictably, there are some serious limitations to this argument. On screen and off, women’s biology is ever present. Eliminating reference to menstruation certainly doesn’t make female characters any less female; in fact, disproportionate inclusion of, and focus on women who are stereotypically feminine demonstrates that biological differences between men are women continue to be crucially important on screen.
Over 200 scenes of menstruation did indeed surprise me, although admittedly it’s quite a bit sad that it did. Given how common menstruation is, given that the good majority of women cope each month without drama, fanfare or hijinks, one might expect that more presentations – notably more normal presentations – would redden our screens.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne is a political scientist based at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of four books; her newest, Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, will soon be published by Lexington Books.