Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

State of Wonder–Part 3: Wondering about menstrual cycle misconceptions in a fictionalized theory for extended fertility

March 27th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In Parts 1 and 2, I wondered why author Ann Patchett chose not to include information about menstruation, femcare products and birth control that, logically, would have enhanced her novel’s inciting premise—lifelong menstruation and fertility—while retaining the literary integrity of State of Wonder. I believe just a few sentences could have accomplished this.

Now, I wonder about the menstrual cycle misconceptions that underpin Patchett’s proposed explanation for the extended fertility experienced by the Lakashi tribe.

The reader learns with Dr. Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, that the Lakashi women continue to menstruate, ovulate, conceive and give birth into their 70s because they regularly chew the bark of Martin trees found in the Brazilian rainforest. The bark is so effective there are no post-menopausal Lakashi.

The women chew the bark once every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant, because the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. The researchers, led by Dr. Annick Swenson who has been studying the Lakashi for decades, observe the women chewing the bark and collect cervical mucus swabs to monitor their estrogen levels. They dab the swabs on slides for “ferning.”

“No one does ferning anymore,” Marina said. It was the slightly arcane process of watching estrogen grow into intricate fern patterns on slides. No ferns, no fertility.

Dr. Saturn shrugged. “It’s very effective for the Lakashi. Their estrogen levels are quite sensitive to the intake of the bark.”

Patchett perpetuates the myth that fertility is all about estrogen. Actually, fertility is dependent upon the the cyclical ebb and flow of estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen levels build in the pre-ovulatory phase; when estrogen (and the ferning quality of cervical mucus) peaks, ovulation occurs. Estrogen drops quickly, mucus dries up (no ferns), the fertile phase ends and progesterone levels rise dramatically to act upon the endometrium in preparation for pregnancy. It would make sense for the Lakashi to chew the bark more often during the pre-ovulatory phase but be repulsed by it post-ovulation as progesterone rises. How neat would that have been? The researchers could have pinpointed ovulation in the Lakashi. Oddly, ovulation is not even mentioned.

Further, if intake of the bark raises estrogen levels, chewing the bark every five days would interfere with the post-ovulatory rise of progesterone, throwing the hormonal interplay of estrogen and progesterone required to achieve and support a pregnancy out of whack.

Another issue: Marina is told that by chewing the bark “her window for monthly fertility would be extended from three days to thirteen.” What does this really mean? According to the scientific principles underlying the fertility awareness method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy, the fertile phase starts when fertile-quality cervical mucus is first observed and ends when three dry days have passed. The bark would increase the fertile quality of the mucus and the number of days fertile mucus occurs pre-ovulation, thereby increasing the chances for conception. But sperm can only survive five days, kept viable by the mucus that locks it in the cervical crypts until an egg is released. And that egg will remain viable for only 24 hours. Timing of intercourse still matters. The extended fertility explanation in the novel does not suggest the Martin tree bark has any effect on these accepted reproductive factors.

Am I being too picky? Perhaps. State of Wonder is, after all, a work of fiction. But I expect a seasoned novelist to have researched basic menstrual cycle facts so as not to pose an explanation for extended fertility that doesn’t pass scrutiny. Had Patchett consulted with a menstrual cycle expert, perhaps an SMCR member, she might have imagined a much more plausible scenario. In the actual book I read, there were no acknowledgements to those she may have consulted on the subject.

I loved State of Wonder for all it’s literary complexity that goes far beyond the details related to the menstrual cycle that I have wondered about in this 3-part series. But it’s been fun to explore how one novelist wrote about a subject I am intimately familiar with and to suggest how she might have done it differently.

Ms. March—Menstruation Pin-Up

March 20th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. March: Bursting Through
Year: 2015
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Bad Blood!

March 10th, 2015 by David Linton

The history of women being discriminated against for having a menstrual cycle is, unfortunately, long and varied one, going far back into antiquity as demonstrated by prohibitions spelled out in the biblical book of Leviticus. Sometimes the prejudices or fears underlying both formal and informal practices spring from misunderstandings of biological functions; sometimes they are simply vestiges of patriarchal systems designed to maintain male dominance; sometimes they are indications of cultural lag, behaviors kept alive despite the fact that the individuals really “know better” but are stuck in their traditions. Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery,” captures such a phenomenon brilliantly.

The bad news is that there are still a lot of cultural practices in place whose meaning or usefulness has long ago been found to be worthless. The good news is that every once in a while enough noise is made or enough light is shed on a bad idea that it is abandoned, even if reluctantly.

The recent story about how women job applicants have been asked intrusive and pointless questions about their menstrual cycles and how the interview questions were dropped from the protocol gives us cause to sigh in dismay that such things continue to happen but also gives us reason to smile with pleasure that public exposure brought about change.

Readers are encouraged to respond with posts citing other similar stories.

State of Wonder–Part 2: Wondering about missing femcare products and birth control references

March 6th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In State of Wonder–Part 1, I mused as to why, in a novel revolving around the extended menstruation and fertility of the Lakashi tribe, only the menstrual cycles of the Brazilian women being studied are made visible to the reader. Why does author Ann Patchett ignore the menstrual cycles of the novel’s protagonist, Marina Singh, or the other female research scientists? If they are eating the tree bark responsible for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, their menstrual responses should be of interest to the author.

Failure to mention the scientist’s cycles points to another puzzling omission. There is no reference to menstrual-care products the women would have required while living in the rainforest for years at a time. There was opportunity to do so because a few key scenes are set in the store where research leader Dr. Annick Swenson buys all the provisions for the camp.

Marina must visit the store immediately upon landing in Manaus because the airline has lost her luggage. She has no clothing, no toiletries, none of the necessities for daily living. Why does she not purchase, visibly to the reader, tampons or pads? If not on her first trip to the store, then on her second as she prepares to leave for the remote research camp with Dr. Swenson? She obviously will need such supplies as her weeks in Brazil progress, and the timing of her cycle, as deduced by this reader, suggests she needed them while in Manaus or shortly after arriving at the camp.

I think Patchett’s reason for leaving out this menstrual-related information was not literary, but rather socio-cultural in nature. She tastefully shares the intimate details of the Lakashi women’s menstrual cycles, but can’t find a way—with even a few sentences—to convey this aspect of other female character’s lives? (Exception: Dr. Swenson, whose experiences I avoid mentioning to prevent plot spoilers.) Did she try? Did she resist? If so, why? What a missed opportunity. Marina’s interior dialogue makes it clear she is a still-menstruating woman wondering if motherhood will be in her future. How easy it would have been to use Marina’s need for tampons as a segue to consideration of her fertility.

Which brings me to another menstrual-related omission in the book. There is no reference to the birth control methods used by Marina and one of the female scientists who lives in the research camp with her husband.

Drs. Nancy and Alan Saturn are part of the research team in Brazil. Nancy is eating the bark, enhancing her fertility. Pregnancy is not an objective for this couple; they must be using contraception. The pill would be contra-indicated—a double whammy of exogenous estrogen provided by the pill and the Martin tree bark could have negative consequences. Condoms would break down in the heat. A Mirena IUD might not be at odds with the estrogenic bark, which has another critical medicinal effect the researchers are eager to access. Maybe a copper IUD? A diaphragm? Abstinence? Does it matter? Perhaps not, but why not be daring and tell the reader anyway? Surely the author must have asked herself these questions.

And what about Marina’s choice of birth control? At 42 she is in an intimate relationship with a much older colleague, the man who sent her to Brazil. Contraceptive use is implied but the method is, yet again, invisible. One can assume it was non-hormonal and not an IUD because of what happens at the end of the novel. But why not write one or two sentences along the way to convey this information? Isn’t this what good writers do, litter clues as a novel progresses to set up what happens later?

Ann Patchett chose not to mention the femcare products and birth control methods her characters used in her novel State of Wonder. I can’t help wondering: why?

To be continued in State of Wonder—Part 3: Wondering about menstrual cycle misconceptions in postulating a theory of extended fertility

Call for Submissions: The Unmentionables Film Festival—Vol I: Menstruation

February 23rd, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui
Call for Submissions

The Unmentionables Film Festival –  Vol I: Menstruation
Maysles Cinema, NYC
June 14 – 21, 2015

 

Are you looking to change the conversation around menstruation?  Are you interested in demonstrating how this biological occurrence is not simply a “girl problem,” but an experience that touches us all in profound and unexpected ways?

 

If so, we want to hear from you.

 

The Unmentionables Film Festival is an annual theme-based program that will focus on a different “taboo” topic each year.  The inaugural program, Vol. I: Menstruation,  will present a week-long exploration of menstruation at Maysles Cinema, an independent film house in Manhattan.

 

The Festival is currently accepting submissions for narrative, documentary, and experimental short and feature-length films.

 

Not a filmmaker?

 

In addition to films and videos, the Festival seeks performances, stories, installations, visual art pieces, literary works, sound art, essays, poems, etc. on the subject of menstruation.

 

Facebook: http://on.fb.me/170rMUB
Twitter: @unmentionableFF

APPLICATION INSTRUCTIONS
Film/Video Submissions
Film and video entries can be submitted online via FilmFreeway.com, by April 3, 2015.

 

Non-Film/Video Submissions
Proposals for non-film/video works can be submitted using the online form on the Festival’s website, by April 3, 2015.

http://www.unmentionablesfilmfestival.com/submissions-2-1/

Ms. February—Menstruation Pin-Up

February 20th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents:
Ms. February: Let It Flow #1
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Changing Attitudes on Menstruation in Australia

February 10th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Rosie Sheb’a

Many questions have come up recently about why my focus is on Australia, when there are so many places that appear “worse off” than we are that I could be focussing my attention on. You may have seen the recent media coverage (Huffpost, Upworthy and the likes) about the great stuff happening with menstrual cups in Africa. These posts get so much attention not only because they are in popular media, but because they give the reader that “feel good” sensation that there are people doing worse than them, and that someone is out there helping them. However, I feel that here in Australia, in the area of menstruation and women’s knowledge of our own bodies, we are actually doing pretty abysmally.

Most women I speak to (who haven’t used a cup) don’t even know what their cervix is, let alone how to find it. Many Australian women don’t know that if they tense their body in fear, or lie really still, it makes cramping worse. Women haven’t been told that opening up the pelvis, and moving around while breathing deeply and slowly out is a really good way to release period pain. Until I started using and researching menstrual cups, I didn’t realise myself just how amazing periods can be, and how important it is to understand how our bodies work. One of the biggest barriers I have come across with women using menstrual cups, is their fears of what can happen. “What if it gets lost?” The impossibility of this due to the vagina having an end is not understood. Many Australian women don’t realise their vagina has muscles that they can use to push things out with.

We have an epidemic in Australia. It is the fear of the uterus, vagina and their inner workings. We treat it with The Pill. We treat it with Nurofen, Paracetamol, and Codeine. We treat it with Implanon, white bleached tampons and pads, and most of all – we treat it with silence. We leave the room, or tell our friends to keep their voices down if they dare speak about it in a public place. We shield our children from the topic, and we make up names to cover up the shame of speaking about something that without it, none of us would be here. Europe is years ahead with “period positive” talk and action, so is Canada, America is catching up, and even in parts of Africa the women know more about their bodies than we do. It’s time Australia woke up too.

This is my mission with Sustainable Menstruation Australia. To open the conversation about menstruation. To share knowledge, and learn from our friends, colleagues, families and lovers. To move from a culture of fear, shame and taboo, to one of celebration for the beautiful and powerful ability we have as human beings who menstruate. Menstruation is not just about reproduction. When we get in touch with our cycles, it becomes a powerful tool to use in our lives every day. We know when we are likely to be feeling certain ways due to the cocktail of hormones (or lack thereof) coursing through our veins. We learn that certain times of our cycle are going to be really awesome for networking, making connections and growing projects and plans. Other times are going to be great for self-reflection, reassessing our lives and taking good care of ourselves. Our cycles give us a brilliant road map to help our lives. And when we release the fears and tensions associated with menstruation, the pain starts to ease. We can participate in swimming, sports, work and other areas of our lives that felt impossible. Pain, fear, shame, and the copious amounts of waste through disposable products and menstruation are not Sustainable. Not for ourselves, our communities or our planet.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. That light is in the form laughter, liberation and learning. Our bodies can be celebrated, not feared. We can use products that don’t pollute our planet or make a large dent in our budget. We can love our bodies, relax into them and honour our cycles. We can use this knowledge to become more powerful and in control of our lives. There is a revolution afoot, and Australia is getting on board. It’s learning to love our bodies again. Our cycles. Our selves. Our planet. Let’s celebrate.

Use Your Period To Help You Pole Dance

February 2nd, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Dana Michelle Gillespie

Editor’s Note: This blog cross-posted from Pole World News.

Pole dancing has quickly become one of the most internationally sought after fitness, sports, and art forms in the world. The pole movement craze is a rapidly growing industry where whole multi-million dollar enterprises and careers have successfully been built. Pole dancing is no stranger to media attention either. The 2010 IPDFA Championship Competition was covered by more than 4000 media outlets in over 120 countries. And it’s celebrity following is similar to that of a female Golden Globes party: Oprah, Marisa Tomei, Cindy Crawford, Heidi Klum, Teri Hatcher, Carmen Electrica, Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey, and Britney Spears — just to name a few.

The love and lure to this beautiful and physically demanding activity can not only bring some bruises and strains to the body but can also be challenging on an emotional and mental level as well. Ask most any pole dancer and you’ll hear an almost addiction type response to their love and enthusiasm of pole dancing. As a female pole dancer — knowing your body is not only an asset but a necessity. And knowing what phase of your female hormonal cycle you’re on can greatly increase your capacity to move and perform at your best, at all times. In the past — the female hormonal cycle was commonly associated with “I’m pms-ing” and maybe “I’m on my time of the month.” Quite often, females felt these two phases on some level with regret and frustration as to the supposed limits they imparted. As women continued to soar in not just the pole community, but the world at large — having every available asset to help us soar with grace and ease — was and is essential. The demand on the female body to perform and feel the same way every day is not only quite limiting, harmful, and invalidating — it’s actually a male thought-form and not conducive to our female well-being; especially when you want to live in balance with your own body and allow it to function at it’s highest potential. Expecting it to feel the same way every day is similar to demanding the earth to have only one season, like winter — every day — all year round. If we didn’t have all the seasons to till and prepare the soil perfectly, healthy food would be very challenging, if not unlikely to grow at all, and survival next to impossible. Females have exclusive access to this amazing ever-changing energy cycle that allows us to effortlessly create and give birth naturally. Birth to babies, businesses, dance performances, better relationships — there is no limit to what a female can give birth to.

It just helps knowing and using your own bodies cycles to create it with more effortless ease. As females both individually and collectively are tapping back into their own body cycle’s inherit smartness, now more than ever, women everywhere are beginning to see their female cycle as giving them access to the different, almost ‘super powers,’ throughout the month. Knowing your phases and what phase you’re on cannot only give you a richer, more loving and fulfilling relationship with yourself, it can also give you your best advantage in life. There are 4 phases of the female hormonal cycle. In medical terms they are recognized as: Menstrual Phase, Follicular Phase, Ovulatory Phase, and Luteal Phase. Commonly they are referred to as: Menstruation/Sage Phase, Pre-Ovulation/Maiden Phase, Ovulation/Mother Phase, and Pre-Menstrual/Enchantress Phase. Once you recognize the strengths and abilities of each phase for yourself — it can propel your life forward. There’s no limit to what you can create and enjoy in your life.

Pre-ovulation/Maiden Phase is a time of physical body lightness and dynamic activity. This phase begins when bleeding ends. The mind is ready for creativity and going out into the world and the body is ready for physical stamina. The chemicals and flow of energy in the body have set up this time to be the best time to organize, plan, create, and be sociable, yet get things done. It’s a great time to plan your dance routines, travels, business endeavors, and test new challenging pole tricks and routines. You’re light and outgoing during this phase, like a maiden, and you like to get s*#t done! A Wonder Women cape would be easily acceptable during this phase.

Ms. January—Menstruation Pin-Up

January 16th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents:
Ms. January: The Crimson Wave
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Ms. December—Menstruation Pin-Up

December 19th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. December: Landscape
Cycle: January 2013, Cycle 2
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis

Menstrual Marking

November 18th, 2014 by David Linton

The idea that animals (male animals, that is) mark territories with urine streams is well established, particularly in the case of dogs, wolves, and other similar breeds. It seems that men too (notably adolescent boys) engage in some sort of marking practices when it comes to failure to flush urinals or toilets in public (and sometimes domestic) facilities.

A story by Haruki Murakami in a recent New Yorker magazine (Oct. 13, 2014; pg. 100+) depicts a teenage girl who uses a menstrual product as a way of marking territory as well. Murakami’s character is a middle-aged woman in a story titled “Scheherazade” who, in the course of a string of post-coital sharing moments, confides to the narrator a time in her adolescence when she was obsessed with a boy in her high school. Too shy to approach him personally, she would occasionally sneak into his home and peruse the contents of his bedroom. Eventually she stole several of his personal objects – a pencil, soccer insignia, sweaty tee shirt – and leaves something of her own hidden in the back of a drawer or under some old notebooks. In addition to a few strands of her hair, she hides the most personal object she can think of:

“Finally, I decided to leave a tampon behind. An unused one, of course, still in its plastic wrapper. . . . I hid it at the very back of the bottom drawer, where it would be difficult to find. That really turned me on. The fact that a tampon of mine was stashed away in his desk drawer. Maybe it was because I was so turned on that my period started almost immediately after that.”

When she returns to the house on several later trips she always checks to see that the tampon is still in place and delights that it has remained in the boy’s drawer. The tampon comes to be described as “a token” that represents her unrequited crush on the boy who is barely aware of her existence. Eventually she comes to associate her erotic attraction with her menstrual cycle, even thinking about the boy’s masturbation as being compared to her period, “All those sperm had to go somewhere, just as girls had to have periods.” Finally, the boy’s parents discover that someone has been invading their home and change the locks so that her trespasses are ended. But the story’s exploration of the erotic associations of menstrual details is fascinating and fairly rare.

Furthermore, the fact that this is a male author’s take on the topic probably makes it somewhat unreliable even though it claims to be told through the words of a woman’s reminiscences. Readers are invited to respond with mention of other stories that explore both the erotic and territorial marking potential of menstrual products and blood.

Literary Menstruation

November 12th, 2014 by David Linton

Given their first-hand awareness of the role it has played in their own lives, it is not surprising that women writers (and researchers) have included references to the menstrual cycle in their books. Even so, social taboos have probably tended to keep the subject from appearing as often as it might have otherwise and literary menstrual references have only come to the surface in the mid-twentieth century. The women appearing in the fiction of Bronte, Eliot, Alcott, du Maurier, and the other major women writers of the 19th century seem to be lacking a menstrual cycle regardless of how otherwise thoroughly detailed their lives were depicted.

Men too have been menstrual-averse. The cycle played no part though later male authors, notably William Faulkner, did include specific menstrual details if only to capture a male chart in the lives of the women in the novels of Hardy, Conrad, James, Dickens, Lawrence or Hawthorne, to name a representative few. Men seem to be “in avoidance,” if not “in denial” about the cycle’s presence. Even male writers such as Updike and Roth for all their frank depictions of sexual behavior have treated menstruation gingerly, in the case of Roth using it in two novels to express characters’ kinkiness.

The more permissive climate of the past 60 or 70 years not only saw the rise of a new generation of women writers, but a greater openness to the inclusion of menstrual material in their stories. Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Patchett, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few of the most noteworthy, have built entire scenes or even complete plot lines around menstrual tropes.

This is a subject rich in possibilities for a wide variety of investigations in literary studies, women’s and gender studies, communication and media, sociology, psychology, and even religious studies. With the exception of Dana Medoro’s path breaking book, The Bleeding of America, the subject is virtually untouched. Readers are urged to dig into this treasure trove of material.

So, the purpose of this blog post is to invite suggestions of literary sources that are fertile ground for cycle commentary. Help build the menstrual canon with mention of “sightings” that have come to your attention.

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.