Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Have You Heard? Menstrual Hygiene GOES GLOBAL!

June 10th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

Guest Post by Danielle I. Keiser, WASH United gGmbH/Berlin, Germany

From May #MENSTRAVAGANZA to Menstrual Hygiene Day:

WASH United is Turning Up the Volume

and Helping Breaking the Silence

Did you hear about May #MENSTRAVAGANZA? It was truly menstravagant. It was the first-ever social media campaign of its kind: a 28-day awareness cycle lead by WASH United to break the silence around menstruation and menstrual hygiene.

WASH United is a Berlin-based international social impact organization that promotes safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) for all. Using our expertise in innovative campaigning, positive communication, and network building, our ambition is to bring the most neglected of all WASH issues into the spotlight. Our vision is to create a world in which every woman and girl can manage her menstruation in a hygienic way — in privacy, safety, and with dignity — at home, at school, and at the workplace.

Menstruation: It happens.

Menstruation is a normal human process. Nevertheless, it is still treated as a taboo in many cultures and societies across the globe. A profound silence around the topic combined with a lack of access to information results in girls and women possessing very little understanding of their own bodies. Many are left to manage their periods in an unsafe manner, using old rags or other unhygienic and ineffective materials. The problem is exacerbated by limited access to hygienic products, safe and private sanitation facilities, inconsistent supplies of water for personal hygiene, and inadequate disposal options.

As a result, menstruating girls and women often feel ashamed and embarrassed about themselves. Facing health problems and socio-cultural taboos surrounding their periods, they become isolated from family, school, and their communities. Women and girls miss school and productive work days, thus falling behind their male counterparts.

Some facts and figures

  • 48% of girls in Iran, 10% in India, and 7% in Afghanistan believe that menstruation is a disease.[1]
  • In a survey of 747 women and girls across five states in rural India, only 30.2% of girls and women reported knowing about menstruation before they received their first period.[2]
  • Women in rural Nepal are often restricted to separate huts or cow sheds during menstruation. Other activities are also restricted, such as preparing and consuming food, socializing, traveling, and even attending school.[3]
  • In rural Nigeria, men and women may maintain separate quarters while a woman is menstruating. Some women choose to not wash their pads daily or worry about how to dispose of them out of fear they may be vulnerable to witchcraft attacks.[4]
  • A study across six rural districts in Sierra Leone schools revealed that up to 21.3% of students report missing school during their menstrual periods.[5]
  • In a study in Bangladeshi garment factories, where 80% of factory workers are women, a majority of them were using rags from the factory floor for menstrual cloths. Infections are common, leading to 73% of women missing work for an average of six unpaid days per month.[6]

If periods are such a normal and natural occurrence, why are people so afraid to talk about them or the specific needs related to managing them?

Using ‘Misses with Moustaches’ as spokesladies for May #MENSTRAVAGANZA, the idea was that, if women can have moustaches, can’t we all talk about menstruation? Throughout the campaign, questions raised by the ‘Misses in Moustaches’ included:

  • Why is there such an iron-fisted taboo around menstruation?
  • What are some harsh realities that girls and women face every time they menstruate?
  • Putting the ‘MEN’ in MENSTRAVAGANZA: who are the men working on menstrual issues and innovations in MHM
  • How is MHM more than just a ‘health’ or ‘women’s’ issue?
  • Where does it all go? How can we better understand issues of disposal?

The diversity of content ranged from recommending our favorite books on the subject (“Flow” and “The Red Tent”) to a rap about organic tampons to addressing the unnoticed challenges that girls and women with disabilities face in managing their menstruation. Throughout the campaign, we obtained 800 new fans on Facebook and over 250 new followers on Twitter. For a topic so ‘out of sight’ and unmentionable, May #MENSTRAVAGANZA took the social media world by storm!

Celebrating Period Poetry in New York City

May 21st, 2013 by David Linton

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 Week of Vaginas

April 3rd, 2013 by Mindy Erchull

The Cast of the 2013 UMW Production of The Vagina Monologues || photo used with permission from JB Bridgeman and the cast

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.

photo taken by Mindy Erchull

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.

Menstruation according to Apple

March 14th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

Screen shot from GP International LLC

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!

Shameless. Or, How To Make An Ethical Femcare Ad.

February 1st, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

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: no of tampons (22 per period)

Source: tampons absorb “everything”

Source: Mooncups hold 3x as much as a tampon

Portnoy’s (Menstrual) Complaint

January 1st, 2013 by David Linton

One way of telling how comfortable a man is with the biological facts of women’s lives is how he responds to calls for him to go shopping for menstrual products or to have physical contact with a woman’s menses.

Depictions of this challenge have occasionally been a subject of humor on TV shows such as in the episode of King of the Hill titled “Aisle # 8″ in which the bumbling Hank Hill has to enter the fearful menstrual aisle of a supermarket or, for contrast, in an episode of Californication when the father of a daughter who has just had her first period heroically fends off other customers to get her the last package of pads on the shelf.

An early literary description of a menstrual product shopping moment, one that was deeply traumatic for the character, is in Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Set in a psychoanalyst’s office during a single rambling session, Alex Portnoy relates a terrifying incident from his childhood when, at the age of eleven, his mother sent him out to buy a box of Kotex:

“It was years later that she called from the bathroom, Run to the drugstore! bring a box of Kotex! immediately! And the panic in her voice. Did I run! And then at home again, breathlessly handed the box to the white fingers that extended themselves at me through a narrow crack in the bathroom door. . . Though her menstrual troubles eventually had to be resolved by surgery, it is difficult nevertheless to forgive her for having sent me on that mission of mercy. Better she should have bled herself out on our cold bathroom floor, better that than to have sent an eleven-year-old boy in hot pursuit of sanitary napkins!” (43-44)

Whew! Now there’s a Freudian field day, and from a time when Freudian technique was in full fashion. More than 30 years later, in The Dying Animal (2001 ), another Roth character seems to have made some progress, at least on the surface. Perhaps his analysis has succeeded. A senior professor, the 62-year-old David Kepesh, plays out an erotic fantasy with a 24-year-old graduate student, Consuela Castillo. Kepesh, a serial womanizer who considers himself an erotic master, is stunned when she tells him that a former boyfriend liked to watch her take out her tampon, realizing that he has never done anything like that. His sexual competitiveness requires that he immediately enact the same scene. However, the act throws him into a state of Portnoy-like humiliation:

“Then came the night that Consuela pulled out her tampon and stood there in my bathroom, with one knee dipping toward the other and, like Mantegna’ Saint Sebastian, bleeding in a trickle down her thighs while I watched. Was it thrilling? Was I delighted? Was I mesmerized? Sure, but again I felt like a boy. I had set out to demand the most from her, and when she shamelessly obliged, I wound up again intimidating myself. There seemed nothing to be done – if I wished not to be humbled completely by her exotic matter-of-factness – except to fall to my knees to lick her clean. Which she allowed to happen without comment. Making me into a still smaller boy.” (71-72)

Though there are more scenes in this book and others by Roth that employ menstrual details to capture character and advance plots, these two embody deep-seated male confusion and anxiety about how to deal with menstrual encounters. The candor Roth exhibits, as is often the case with his writing, is admirable for its openness to exploring taboos, but one also wishes he was able to provide more nuanced treatments of women’s experiences as well. Perhaps we should turn to Joyce Carol Oates in search of such treatments. Perhaps in a future post.

Menstruation — It’s Not Like Anything Else

December 26th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

I got a bit snippy with a new reader in our comments recently. I didn’t mean to, and I sure hope I didn’t drive anyone away from re:Cycling.

But after 20 years of studying, writing, talking, and reading menstruation research, I’ve grown weary of certain predictable responses when people learn the subject of my work. Chris Bobel sometimes talks about the “You study WHAT?!?” reaction, but that’s not the one that triggers my snark response.

Photo by K Connors

What grates my cheese is when someone listens respectfully for a moment or two to the elevator speech version of my latest article or talk, and then says something like, “Well, why should people talk more about menstruation? It’s not like I go around talking about my bowel movements all the time. It’s a natural function, too, it’s just private, yadda yadda, end of discussion. Period.”

No. Not end of discussion.

I’m so, so tired of this comparison. It’s not about ‘they’re both natural and they’re both private’. Menstruation is shamed and vilified because women do it. I turn, once again, to Simone de Beauvoir: “the blood, indeed, does not make woman impure; it is rather a sign of her impurity” (p. 169). That is to say, menstruation does not make woman the Other; it is because she is Other that menstruation is a curse.

Just as the penis derives its privileged evaluation from the social context, so it is the social context that makes menstruation a curse. The one symbolizes manhood, the other femininity; and it is because femininity signifies alterity and inferiority that its manifestation is met with shame. (1952, p. 354)

 

One only need take a quick look around to see differential treatment of body functions. Are manufacturers of toilet paper trying to sell you TP based on how shameful it is to poop? Consider those dirty-ass bears in Charmin ads telling you to “enjoy the go”– a marked contrast from femcare ads.

Is the average time from onset of pain in bowel diseases to diagnosis eleven years because people think pain with bowel movements is normal or because physicians and/or family members think you’re exaggerating how much it hurts? Compare documented endometriosis research.

Plus, people do talk about bowel movements. All the time. They talk about how particular foods affect their digestion. They excuse themselves from meetings and social gatherings to use the bathroom, sometimes saying why in euphemistic terms, sometimes in coarse and graphic language. The older they get, the more they do it.

This is not merely about what’s ‘natural’ or ‘private’. It’s about women, and about who counts and what matters. Women count, and menstruation matters.

Occupy Your Period

November 28th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

The Occupy movement is about equality. Its primary aim is to create a more just world economically, but socially, too, for economic justice and social justice are inextricably linked. The specific focus of each local group may be somewhat different, but Occupiers share a distrust of corporations and financial institutions and concern for erosion of democracy. Globally, this movement suggests another world – another way of doing politics – is possible, as protesters visualize and plan for one.

If you think the Occupy movement has been lying low since they were kicked out of Zuccotti Park last fall, you’re wrong. They’re still going strong, helping New York and New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy. Occupy Sandy is a coalition from Occupy Wall Street, 350.org, recovers.org and interoccupy.net. Another off-shoot of Occupy Wall Street started the Rolling Jubilee, a project that buys debt for pennies on the dollar and abolishes it, instead of collecting it. It’s basically the people’s bailout.

If we want to see a new way of menstruating – open, without shame, like Chris wrote about earlier this week, with honest talk Heather has called for, without the the moral panic Breanne’s students reported at NWSA– we must Occupy Menstruation. Even the parts we hate. I like to think all of re:Cycling is part of the Occupation, along with #periodtalk and others who break the silence.

And it wouldn’t hurt if we followed Max’s example above, and protested the economic injustice of it as well.

Menstrual “Outing,” Menstrual Panics

November 16th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

Last fall, as a women and gender studies professor, I taught a course called “Psychology of Gender” where I decided to include an experiential activist assignment that asked students to form groups and engage in some sort of menstrual activism. The instructions asked students to choose some aspect of cultural attitudes toward menstruation that they wanted to improve (e.g., pharmaceutical labeling of “PMS” and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, men’s negativity toward menstruation, shame and silence around menstruation, problems with conventional menstrual products, and so on) and design a simple intervention that could enact change either on campus or in the community. As I had never assigned this before, and I had no idea what would happen, I had no clear expectations for how this would turn out, though I had a hunch that students would encounter some resistance and pushback for this work.

Photo used with permission

My students created a series of innovative projects and set out in earnest to challenge negative attitudes about menstruation. One group designed labels with accurate information about menstruation, and they then put these on a variety of menstrual products that they distributed on campus. Another group made fliers and signs that warned passersby about the dangers of conventional tampons; they also handed out information about Lunapads, Gladrags, Divacups, and other do-it-yourself products. A third group made buttons that read, simply, “Real Men Buy Tampons”, and handed these out to men on campus, while a fourth group went into gas stations and created makeshift “need a tampon, take a tampon” boxes near the cash registers. A fifth group challenged negativity about menstrual sex by holding signs near the streets bordering campus that read, “Honk if you love menstrual sex,” and a final group dressed a woman in white pants (with a notable red stain on her pants) and filmed her as she walked through a local mall.

The results of this “experiment” yielded some fascinating clues about the culture of menstruation today, ones that have far-reaching implications for those of us who may think menstruation is, well, “out of the box.”  While students certainly encountered many positive reactions (e.g., men who eagerly and proudly wore their buttons; women who appreciated the “free stuff”; people who praised the students for their bravery), they also dealt with a surprising amount of negative backlash. Students faced verbal harassment and “police presence” on campus while handing out tampons. Signs were removed from the cafeteria by administrators because they would “disrupt” student appetites. The woman walking through the mall faced stares and snickers (and, on one occasion, a group of teenage boys called her names and told her she was “disgusting”), though few people notified her of her “accident.” Most interestingly, however, the group that held signs about menstrual sex actually triggered a reaction from a local state representative, who started a full-blown menstrual panic by calling the office of the President at the university and demanding to know why students would engage in this sort of “obscenity” (humorously, she mixed up “menstruation” with “masturbation” in her description).

Photo used with permission

Without going into too many details of what followed after (we have a book coming out soon called The Moral Panics of Sexuality that includes a chapter about this “menstrual panic”), this entire project made me reflect on a few aspects of activism we too often forget: first, it takes very little to incite panic about menstruation; second, students can make a big impact in small ways, which makes menstruation an ideal site for pedagogical discussion and activism; and third, even the mere mention of menstruation is itself a radical act. This latter point has gotten me thinking about issues of disclosure and visibility about menstruation, particularly among our more like-minded feminist allies. What if we simply started to violate the silent stigma around menstruation by disclosing that we were menstruating today? I have a group of students (Jax Gonzalez, Stephanie Robinson, and Marisa Loiacono) who presented this idea last weekend at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Oakland, California. Their claim? That simply saying I am menstruating today can radically upset discourses of silence and shame about menstruation, while also holding us accountable for how we put our bodies on the line in feminist activism.

I am menstruating today. A simple statement that has the potential to undermine and upset the most basic assumptions about menstruation: that it will remain invisible, silent, secret, “managed,” “maintained,” and certainly undisclosed in public. With this in mind, and in honor of these fantastic students, I encourage you to try this. “Out” yourself as menstruating, not just to your family/partner/loved ones, but in a public sense. See what happens. It is, after all, the simple rebellions that create the most panic.

Is Hormonal Literacy Important in a Counseling Session?

October 19th, 2012 by Ashley Ross

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.

Menarche

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.

Mortification Wars

October 9th, 2012 by David Linton

Recently menstrual shame made the front page of the New York Times in paragraph one of an article titled, “For Women in Street Stops, Deeper Humiliation.” The piece reported on an ongoing debate about the “stop and frisk” policies of the police who, seemingly at random, stop individuals in public places and pat them down or require them to empty their pockets and purses if the police have reason to suspect they are in possession of drugs, guns, or other illegal materials.  The opening sentence of the article by Wendy Ruderman presents a dramatic scene:

 Shari Archibald’s black handbag sat at her feet on the sidewalk in front of her Bronx home on a recent summer night.  The two male officers crouched over her leather bag and rooted around inside, elbow-deep.  One officer fished out a tampon and then a sanitary napkin, crinkling the waxy orange wrapper between his fingers in search of drugs.

The language is rife with invasive images: “crouched over,” “rooted around inside, elbow-deep,” “fished out a tampon,” “crinkled the … wrapper between his fingers.” It goes on to also have the officer handling her birth control package, further humiliating her.

Just a month later, again in the New York Times, this time a piece by their regular advertising columnist, Stuart Elliott, the following appeared: “In a Forthright Campaign, More Unmentionables Mentioned.”  Is anyone going to be surprised to learn what unmentionable was mentioned? Though the main topic was the new approach to advertising the laxative Senokot, Elliott links it to earlier restrictions against advertising menstrual products:

“Ads for products like laxatives, toilet paper, condoms and tampons have become more forthcoming as societal attitudes on what can be discussed in public . . . have significantly changes.  Consumers of a certain age can still recall ads for Modess sanitary napkins that uttered only two words, ‘Modess … because,’ well, because menstruation was deemed a taboo topic.”

There’s nothing new about this phenomenon nor about the titillating fascination with the taboo itself.  A few years ago (March 2008, p. 281) Glamour magazine ran a piece called, “Tampon mortification!” about the shame of dropping a tampon in public. But this time they turned it into a prank by staging the accident and photographing the responses. As the tag line put it, “We’ve all had a stray one fly out of our bag. But a boxful?  Volunteer Sabrina Fernandez lives the nightmare.”

The most noteworthy advertising campaign to confront the taboo in recent years has been the assertive and cleverly named U by Kotex series.  Comprised of little more than new packaging (black boxes containing neon colored applicators and envelopes for pads) and yet another punning slogan, “Break the Cycle,” the campaign urges women to flaunt their periods without shame.

Yet it is both weird and worrisome that the woman whose bag and arm we see in the ad apparently finds it necessary to carry an entire box full of the product with her rather than the usual few.  Should we be concerned?  Is she experiencing menorrhagia or, to the contrary, is this an expression of menstrual activism?

Cosmo’s Menstrual Politics

August 14th, 2012 by David Linton

Saniya Ghanoui and David Linton

How peculiar are the sexual politics of Cosmopolitan magazine?!?! We previously noted the editorial avoidance of menstrual sex, but let’s take a look at their most recent ride on the menstrual cycle.

On one hand, Cosmo aspires to liberate women from sexual repression into a world of ever better orgasms and perpetual youth and beauty. On the other hand, it ceaselessly stokes anxiety and insecurity with its constant twin emphasis on pleasing “him” and urging the purchase of the latest Big Thing. Occasionally, in an effort to demonstrate concern for women’s health there appears a reference to some aspect of the menstrual cycle.

The most recent example occurs in the June 2012 issue whose cover, under a hot photo of the rock star Pink, announces that inside you can learn, “Why your Period Makes You Cra-a-zy”. Off the bat, the cover recirculates the tired notion that the period is responsible for some kind of transformation, turning a woman into a crazy person. The use of an extra “a” emphasizes the word in a way that enhances its meaning, thus the period causes almost an abnormal form of craziness. There’s also a lovely irony to this cover. Pink is dressed in a vibrant solid-red dress that counters her pale skin and hair. She pulls up one side of outfit as she claws her dress and her expression is meant to show a “tough girl” side to her personality. It’s as if the cover alludes to notions of craziness, as caused by the period, via the image of Pink.

The article does seem to contain practical advice for those who experience some level of discomfort prior to getting their period. The five suggestions include topics such as diet, exercise, orgasms, coffee, and laughter. Unfortunately, embedded in the nuggets of advice one finds relentless reinforcements of age-old prejudices, stereotypes, and negative perspectives. Even the opening page, which sets up the piece, is titled “Beat the PMS Brain Haze” and shows a woman whose head is slightly out of focus and fading into a cloud. In case you miss the point, a sentence beside her head states, “It’s hard to function when your head is in the clouds”. In larger type under the title the message is reinforced, “It’s when you feel so foggy, you can barely choose between a lemon and a lime for your diet soda”.

The next two pages of suggestions comprise a litany of ways to cope with the “annoying symptom”, “hormonal cloud”, “haze”, and “PMS coma” that leave women “easily overwhelmed, stressed out, forgetful and indecisive”, Women are told to “cancel everything that’s optional”, “snack on yummy oatmeal” to “make up for the PMS brain drain”, “ask your guy to rub your back”, and have “a dose of caffeine”.

As published in June 2012 issue of Cosmopolitan

What is obvious about the article and the tips that are meant to keep women “sane”, insinuating that one may be insane while PMSing, is the way in which each bit of advice is meant to fix some frustrating characteristic that is either caused or heightened by PMS. Thus, the message is that women have an extra hindrance they must overcome in order to have a peaceful week leading up to their period. In order to solve the problem Cosmo advises some simple changes, such as having a cup of coffee, to more radical ones like changing or canceling items on your schedule. What the latter puts forward is the idea that PMS is such a hindrance that one must change one’s weekly agenda in order to function normally. While it is true that some may have discomfort during PMS and desire extra time to relax, to completely cancel or modify a weekly schedule suggests a level of wealth or leisure that is in the realm of fantasy.

Despite the appearance that the article is simply a pleasant set of suggestions, it turns out that the three pages are actually a lead into a fourth page on the right side so the connection can’t be missed, consisting of the latest ad for Tampax Radiant tampons. In design and placement the ad blends perfectly with the article so as to flow, as it were, directly from the pre-menstrual days into the period itself with Tampax waiting there to fill the need.

There has been a lot written in recent years about the blurring of lines between editorial content and advertising but the only blurring in this case is the unintentional design of the first page of the piece which is purposely shot out of focus to visually illustrate how women must feel as their hormones debilitate them.

Furthermore, the ad purposely counters all the frustrations exhibited in the previous three pages. The ad promotes the “invisible” period, thanks to this specific tampon, that has “leakguard technology” and a “discreet resealable wrapper.” All of these characteristics are meant to ease irritations associated with the period. And why wouldn’t a woman want to have her aggravations eliminated, especially after reading three pages of problems associated with PMS? It seems the message is that since there isn’t a menstrual product (outside of drugs) that can ease PMS, at least the period can be eased by this tampon.

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.