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 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.
It’s Throwback Thursday on social media, and we’re joining in with this ad for Pursettes tampons that ran in Cosmpolitan (U.S.) magazine in 1966. Nearly 50 years on, little has changed in femcare marketing: Look at the familiar themes of medicalization of menstruation, secrecy, fearmongering, and the dreaded scourge of odor problems.
The idea that tampons can steal virginity isn’t quite as pervasive today, but one can still find it in tampon ads as recently as 1990 in teen magazines.
Guest Post by Jenny Lapekas
Many menstrual enthusiasts have become so invested in the menarcheal stories of adolescent girls, we can easily miss some intriguing film scenes that depict males’ experiences with blood as they make a difficult transition in their lives. While semen is often cinematically constructed as funny, menstrual blood remains offensive onscreen. The most well-known of these is, of course, in Greg Mottola’s raunchy cult classic Superbad (2007).
Seth (Jonah Hill) is struggling with his imminent separation from his best friend as the pair prepare to venture into college next fall. At a house party, a fellow partygoer asks Seth, “Were you dancing with some chick in there?” When Seth confirms this and slowly realizes the truth surrounding the red stain on his pant leg, he begins to tremble and dramatically dry-heave and says, “Oh fuck. Oh my god. Oh shit. I’m gonna fucking throw up. Some one ‘perioded’ on my fucking leg?! What the fuck do I do? This is so disgusting!” As amused partygoers begin to circle him, viewers even hear, “That’s a fucking ‘mangina,’ man!” Seth, then, is effectively feminized by his peers who assert their privileged positions as non-menstruators. The event attracts attention and draws a crowd, and the scene is intended to be one of comical emasculation. What’s interesting is also the fact that agency is attributed to the gyrating girl, as she “periods” on Seth, and he then feels victimized by the crime.
A female bystander asks Seth if he needs a tampon and pulls one from her purse; this targeting also contributes to Seth’s emasculation, along with his “mangina.” Seth’s female status effectively negates her own, and she is temporarily unburdened from the restrictions of menstrual etiquette. Simultaneously, however, this scene depicts menstruation as a sort of weakness, a queerness, and a mark of inferiority. It is also noteworthy that the edited television version of this film omits the closeup shot of the red stain on Seth’s pants, while blood induced by violence flows gratuitously on numerous cable channels. Seth’s public menarche also illustrates his inner turmoil as he copes with the trauma of his best friend “abandoning” him to attend a different college.
In a way, Seth becomes a product surrogate as the scene concludes with a large bloodstain on his pants. Because viewers fail to see blood even in menstrual product commercials on television, it’s especially alarming for some viewers to encounter a woman menstruating onto a man’s pants and leaving a conspicuous mark—Seth’s scarlet letter as it were, rather than hers. Seth bears the shameful mark of menstruation, and he chooses to segregate himself from others, as they flock to him with their camera phones. In this scenario, while Seth represents the otherness of menstruation, onlookers are drawn to him rather than repelled. Because menstruators are queer, these hidden bleeders are conditioned to linger on the periphery, never admitting what is truly taking place within their bodies. In this particular film scene, Seth is queered and then chided for publicly exposing his queerness. His inability to hide the large, red stain exemplifies his sense of powerlessness in a subculture of young adults who have already suffered and forgotten this necessary pain. This stripping of adolescent masculinity is akin to the pregnancy scare narrative as the rejection of motherhood, and thus femininity.
Whether this obscure subplot arrives as the tragic result of grinding gone wrong or men sticking tampons up their noses—as in Channing Tatum’s character, Duke, in Andy Flickman’s 2006 comedy She’s the Man—cinematic depictions of “the curse” destroy its status as taboo and serve as a paradigm shift, in this case, of masculinity its cultural relationship with the menstrual cycle.
One of the biggest changes in TV programming in the last 20 years has been the rise of programs collectively known as “Reality TV.” The primary stylistic device in nearly all of these shows consists of cross cutting between “real” moments that the participants are engaged in and their direct address to the audience via the camera during which they comment on the experiences they are having. Whether it’s Mafia Wives or one of the Real Housewives spin offs or a home make over effort, we are meant to believe that the arguments, conversations, redecorating efforts or struggles to survive in the wild are actual, unstaged events that the camera has happened to capture in a documentary kind of moment. The commentary that the participants provide is intended to help the viewers comprehend the motives and inner feelings of the “characters” and to give them opportunities to add editorial interpretations on each other’s behavior.
Despite the fact that many of the reality shows feature women in intimate situations, very few of them include references to the women’s menstrual cycles. The rare exceptions, such as a single episode of Jersey Shore or Sorority Life, are noteworthy not just for their very existence but, as in both of these cases, because they depict menstruation with a smarmy leer.
A show on The History Channel called American Restoration gives the cycle a different spin by focusing on how freaked out men can be about any contact, no matter how distant or benign, with menstrual products. This show consists of weekly stories about a repair and restoration shop called Rick’s Restoration which specializes in restoring broken or antique objects such as cars, antique toys, or equipment to a pristine condition.
In this episode, a woman named Kelly who is part of the family that owns the business arrives with an old 1940s Kotex dispenser that is dinged and scratched and the mechanical innards are broken. A client wants it repaired and painted pink with a red ribbon to be auctioned off at a charity event.
The men who are given the task are appalled. Rick Dale, the head of the company, responds to the challenge by saying, “You gotta be kidding!” and adds, “It’s the first, and hopefully the last, feminine napkin dispenser we ever have to do.” It goes down hill from there. One man grumbles, “Well, I’m not touchin’ that,” and another carps, “Hell no, I ain’t touchin’ that Kotex machine. Kelly is out of her mind.” Yet he sets about refurbishing the device under full coverage of the camera crew while announcing how shameful it would be if anyone saw him, “I got to get the hell out of this room before anyone finds out I helped Kelly with this one.”
To show just how widespread menstrual contamination can reach, the teenaged son of the owner, a spiked hair youth named Tyler, is sent to the store to buy a variety of products to test out the repaired machine. His take on the assignment is dire, “I hate my life. I don’t know what could be more embarrassing than this [pause] Nothing – NOTH-ING.”
We then see him in a market loading various packages into a shopping cart and wheeling them to the checkout counter while his voice-over says, “I swear, I’m scared for life.” He asks the woman clerk to double bag his purchase before lugging his buys back to the shop.
As the beautifully restored dispenser is revealed, Rick speaks to the camera again, “I got a shop full of guys and getting them to work on something specifically for women was like pulling teeth.”
The show ends on a happy note as the device nets a final bid of $400.00 to go for breast cancer cure and treatment.
Of course, there’s a peculiar contradiction in the arrangements in this show. At the same time that the men protest vociferously that being seen having anything to do with a menstrual product is deeply humiliating they are gladly (we assume) participating in the filming of the show so that potentially thousands of viewers will witness their shame. The moral? Fame Trumps Shame.
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.
The repetition of all-things-pink=all-things-related-to-women’s-health has started to seriously irritate me. First, we had pink containers for birth control pills, followed by the pink repackaging of Prozac (renamed Sarafem) to treat “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder” (PMDD).” Then we dealt with the reductive and ferociously popular pink ads, logos, banners, and yogurt containers of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation. Next came special dye that “restored” women’s so-called natural pink color to their labias (“My New Pink Button”), reminding women (especially women of color) that their brown and grey and flesh colored labia are not…pink enough? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the most popular menstruation apps for the iPhone and iPad—Period Tracker, iPeriod, Period Diary, and Monthly Cycle—have a similarly pink, flowery, and “girlie” vibe. Anything designed for women’s bodies apparently has infantilize women by looking like Strawberry Shortcake and Barbie, regardless of how adult we may get. But my issues with these apps do not end there.
Having used Period Tracker now for several years as a way to predict my period, I am most familiar with its particular brand of what it means to menstruate. Much like the messages featured in advertisements for pregnancy tests—which emphasize women’s longing for pregnancy and their sheer and utter joy when finding out the news of their pregnancy—Period Tracker also frames the purpose of the app as a sort of fertility monitoring tool even though reviews of the app suggest that most women use it to do what the title says: to track periods. The assumptions that women want to become pregnant extend into many features of the app: when a woman ovulates, flowers appear on the otherwise-barren tree, reminding her that she should get it on with a sperm provider; during menstruation, the app starts a “countdown,” allowing women to tick off the number of days they have “endured” their cycle; green dots appear for the days women can get pregnant; and, finally, the app features a tool where women can track “intimacy.” (Apparently, the word “sex” is too gauche for the world of period tracker apps, leaving “intimacy” as a code for sexual intercourse).
Further, Period Tracker has a variety of built-in ways to attach menstruation—and the menstrual cycle in general—to shame and negativity.
The app allows women to track a variety of symptoms throughout their cycle, but every single one of these has negative connotations of pain and misery. Acne. Backaches. Bloating. Bodyaches. Constipation. Cramps. Cravings (Salty). Cravings (Sweet). Dizziness. Spotting. Headaches. Indigestion. Insomnia. Joint Pains. Nausea. Neckaches. Tender Breasts. In the list of moods one can track, the first two listed are ANGRY and ANXIOUS. Period Tracker also alerts women to the start date of their period, but it does so by referring to it as, simply, “P” (implying that, if someone saw that we had a period start date alert on our phone, it would shame us). (Note that the app, iPeriod, has similar features, as they call sex a “love connection,” allow three options for mood—normal, sad, and irritable—and construct pregnancy as the ultimate goal of tracking the menstrual cycle.)
All this emphasis on pregnancy, menstrual negativity, and the “monstrous” symptoms of PMS obscures the fundamentally important (and feminist!) work of tracking one’s menstrual cycle for positive and decidedly non-fertility reasons: most obviously, to anticipate our period’s starting date, but less obviously, to understand and track the body’s rhythms, to actively avoid pregnancy, to know ourselves more deeply, to appreciate our cycles, to better predict menstruation and how it coordinates with our schedules, to accurately assess whether we have experienced a drastic change in our “normal,” to track a female partner’s cycles, to signal the start of menopause or irregular cycling, to keep an eye on heavy periods versus light periods, and to feel more in tune with our bodies (among others).
Why can’t a period tracker allow women to celebrate the menstrual cycle or see the arrival of menstruation as joyous or positive? Why can’t we track positive bodily changes like “Increased Libido,” “Elevated Mood,” and “Heightened Sensitivity”? I want a period tracker that dumps the hot pink color, the swirling flowers that only bloom during ovulation, the adamantly pro-pregnancy angle, the sex phobic language, the heterosexism, and the shaming of women’s menstrual cycles in favor of a radically reimagined, positive, celebratory mode of menstrual charting. Knowing what our bodies are up to has long roots in our feminist past—let’s find a way to have our technology reflect that!
Guest Post by Chella Quint, Adventures in Menstruating
I saw a femcare ad that I actually liked.
I know, right? I don’t even know who I am anymore.
I’m kidding. I’m exactly the same person. It’s the ad that’s different.
Now. I don’t promote individual femcare companies. I do ad analysis. As long as femcare adverts remain the loudest voice in the menstrual discourse, I’ll keep encouraging people to use social media to create a two-way conversation and to increase their advertising literacy. Since I started this project, though, I’ve longed to see an ad that was period positive: that didn’t use shame to sell or use humour at the expense of menstruators. This is the first one I’ve ever seen.
It’s a viral video that’s been put out this week by Mooncup UK, a small (but growing), ethical company producing reusable, medical grade silicone menstrual cups. The ad directly challenges the current market leaders and promotes their own product without once dipping into the fear/embarrassment/secrecy triumvirate used throughout the history of femcare.
Here’s the ad:
And here’s the analysis:
Like a number of femcare ads that have made news over the past couple of years, it’s funny, viral, and sends itself up.
Where previous ads by bigger brands have gotten it wrong, though, it’s usually been because there were still echoes of the history of shame, fear and manufactured problems that could all be solved by the product. Ads for disposables somehow never seeming to mention the inconvenient truth (thanks, Al) about landfills and waste.
But the Mooncup ad works because:
They have a massively on-message USP. The unique selling point is that it’s reusable for years. Those who prefer tampons to pads could be persuaded to make the switch. I know many people who have sung their praises for ages, and while I’ve been doing the Adventures in Menstruating project, their company’s reach has grown far beyond its Brighton offices, and awareness around menstrual cups generally (a number of companies produce silicone and latex menstrual cups around the world), has spread, mostly by word of mouth, small distributors, and a few clever ad campaigns.
Brand loyalty for products that you don’t need to replace often is built through trust, reliability, and integrity. It’s a classic advertising model, but it’s usually applied to big ticket items like cars. Gives a whole new meaning to Think Small.
I’m aware that there are very different business models working with a one off purchase vs. repeat purchase disposables. If tampon companies respond, it’d be refreshing if they used what I like to call the Ocean Breeze Soap model. (Tampons are convenient in a pinch. Just like other disposable products are handy for the same reason. It would be way better for the environment if we used fewer convenience products, but if you do choose to use a disposable product of any kind, we hope you’ll choose ours.) Disposable femcare companies can’t deny their carbon footprint, but they frequently take the lazy option and distract consumers with shame and fear.
Shame is out of the equation. Its persuasive powers aren’t tainted by the classic canon of leakage fear, invisibility, euphemisms like ‘comfort’ or ‘freshness’, or that mysterious blue liquid. (Okay seriously – what IS that stuff? Do they use water with food colouring? Wildberry fruit punch? What?) They don’t need to use shame – no femcare company does.
They have a convincing argument backed up by statistics (that they are willing to share and which you are welcome to read and critique further). This ad lists the reasons why menstrual cups are better in a direct product comparison: better for your body, better value financially, and better for the environment than disposables. (In the style of a rap battle. But I’ll come back to that in my next post next week.)
I emailed Mooncup and requested data to back up the claims, and they, impressively, sent it straight over:
Source: Mooncups hold 3x as much as a tampon