Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

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.

Someone Stole my Menstrual Cycle Research Bag

July 19th, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

Photo courtesy of Mindy Erchull, since my red bag was stolen

Two months ago someone broke into my office at work. They didn’t steal anything of monetary value so, in the larger picture, it’s not really that big of a deal. The campus police think that probably they were looking for laptops or other technology items that were easy to steal, which they did not find. But they did steal some random things, like books on race and class inequality and my red conference bag from the last Society for Menstrual Cycle Research meetings in June 2011. The books they took are probably worth almost nothing and I have plenty of conference bags and life will go on. What I found interesting, though, is the many interactions and feelings I experienced about this stolen red bag.

When the police came they of course took an inventory of all things stolen. I had to tell them what the red bag looked like and what it said on the bag. I’m pretty sure the thirty-something male police officer who recorded the incident did not even write down the fact that the bag said “Society for Menstrual Cycle Research” on it. In fact, when I told him what the bag said, he and my colleague standing next to me had a conversation about how the thief most likely ditched the bag as soon as they realized what it said and laughed. It’s probably true. What thief would want to walk around with a red bag that said “Society for Menstrual Cycle Research” on it?

Eventually two female police officers were involved as well (as investigators at the scene). The two female officers never really reacted to the fact that the red bag said “Society for Menstrual Cycle Research” and reacted with no emotion whatsoever about it. I couldn’t tell whether they thought it was unimportant or whether they did not want to deal with what the bag said. Once everyone knew that no items of monetary value were stolen, it was very clear that the incident was not of priority to everyone. I completely understood since, I, too, knew that I would not really miss the items stolen. But every colleague who found out what bag was stolen laughed at the mention of the red stolen bag. It was almost as if this red bag made it okay to think the break-in was not that important. That there was no way to track down a thief of a Menstrual Cycle Research bag because a smart thief would get rid of that bag the minute they could.

Did all of this happen the way it did simply because of what the stolen red bag said on it? Is this because of the mere mention of menstruation? And why did I feel slightly uncomfortable the whole time the police were involved? And why did I know ahead of time that there would be no police follow-up about the missing bag (or whether I had found anything else missing over time)?

It crossed my mind at the time that this is what it must feel like to suspect racism in interactions but not be able to prove it.

In the end, I don’t miss the things stolen, but I do feel like something else was going on in all of the interactions about the red bag and the lack of police follow-up on this incident. However subtle the stigma surrounding menstruation and however unimportant the bag is to me in the end, I still feel strange about the incident two months later.

To me this signifies the very, very subtle ways in which stigma works its power and the very, very subtle ways norms are reified. I also have lots of questions remaining in my head that highlight my mixed feelings about the incident: Who cares if a Menstrual Cycle Research bag is stolen? Should I really care that I have less public evidence that I go to such a conference or study menstruation and menopause? Should I really care that people don’t want to think or talk about Menstrual Cycle Research? Should I care that all of my colleagues laughed, and that I laughed once or twice too, to think of a thief running around with a Menstrual Cycle Research bag? Should police really investigate the loss of such a trivial item? My unsettled feelings about this experience make me want to at least write this blog post about it, even if it’s not important enough to keep thinking about after this. I’d love to hear if readers have had similar experiences of dealing publicly with the fact that they study menstruation, because I think this is one example of just that – a menstrual cycle researcher having contact (however insignificant) with the real world.

Where have all the menstruators gone?

July 18th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne

Exploring missing menstruation on screen

Periods are depicted far more often on screen than I could have ever imagined; perhaps the biggest surprise I got from spending a year researching the topic.

Less surprising however, was that most presentations depict menstruation as the messy, embarrassing, sex-interrupting, mood-swing-inducing week-long hell ride that women have grown to expect from Hollywood.

While 200 scenes were many more than I expected, given that nearly all women will menstruate monthly for some thirty-odd years, 200 scenes actually isn’t all that many.

While most of Periods in Pop Culture focuses on what those scenes themselves reveal about society’s fraught relationship with periods, one chapter in fact explores the why so few portrayals. Given how very common and normal it is, why is the topic so frequently eschewed?

I proposed a handful of reasons including Hollywood’s aversion to telling female stories, narrative distraction, and the show don’t tell nature of the screen. In this post I offer  two other explanations: menstruation as a non-event and political correctness.

As one of the millions of girls who got an (albeit long outdated) menstrual education from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, I learnt that some girls apparently eagerly await their first period kinda like Christmas. I wasn’t like Margaret. I didn’t pine for it, and when I got it I didn’t look down at my underpants and throw my head back in delight like Debbie (Nell Schofield) in the Australian film Puberty Blues (1981): for me it was a non-event.

The non-event nature of menstruation appears a central explanation for its absence.

In an episode of sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), Sophia (Estelle Getty) reflected on her periods: “I got it, no one told me. I didn’t get it, no one told me. I figured, this is life, and went back to my meatballs.” In this scene, Sophia reflects that many women don’t see any overwhelmingly need to talk about menstruation or complain about it or even to honor it, but that it is simply something that needs to be gotten on with.

Aside from those times when pregnancy is feared or desired, there are few occasions when menstruation is experienced as particularly memorable or gets bestowed with any great significance. I think this fact significantly underpins its absence on screen.

Thinking of menstruation as somehow naturally insignificant or uninteresting however, would be premature. In the film To Sir With Love (1967), there is a scene where teacher Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) reprimanded girls who he believed burnt a menstrual product in his classroom: “A decent woman keeps things private. Only a filthy slut would have done this!”  Here, Thackeray refers to the most important rule of menstruation: concealment. On screen, if audiences see menstruation or if a character identifies as bleeding, she has neglected her most important gender burden. By infrequently portraying menstruation, the secrecy imperative is upheld. When women downplay the significant of their periods, when they believe their periods are uninteresting, internalized sexism is highlighted.

Another explanation for missing menstruation is so-called political correctness; that avoiding it reflects the contemporary dictums of liberal feminism: shunning topics which play up differences between men and women.

Given that menstruation is so common and that so many taboos exist surround it, it might be assumed that including it in narratives would be a feminist act. The flipside of this however, is that doing so might do gender equality a disservice; that presenting it reminds audiences of biological inequalities between men and women.

In a scene from the series Californication (2007-), Hank (David Duchovny) is about to have sex with his daughter’s teacher Mrs. Patterson (Justine Bateman). As they undress, Mrs. Patterson says, “Just so you know, I’m on my period.” Mrs. Patterson didn’t – and likely in our culture couldn’t – automatically assume that Hank would be fine and thus gave him an exit strategy. By mentioning menstruation in a sex scene, it existed as a glaring biological power imbalance; that an opportunity was offered for Hank to reject her on the basis of her biology.

By excluding menstruation, a female character can be interpreted as having the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with her male counterpart; that she can be as sexually aggressive as she likes and not have to query whether her partner is bothered by her period. In turn, she doesn’t get limited by her biology.

Predictably, there are some serious limitations to this argument. On screen and off, women’s biology is ever present. Eliminating reference to menstruation certainly doesn’t make female characters any less female; in fact, disproportionate inclusion of, and focus on women who are stereotypically feminine demonstrates that biological differences between men are women continue to be crucially important on screen.

Over 200 scenes of menstruation did indeed surprise me, although admittedly it’s quite a bit sad that it did. Given how common menstruation is, given that the good majority of women cope each month without drama, fanfare or hijinks, one might expect that more presentations – notably more normal presentations – would redden our screens.

 

Dr Lauren Rosewarne is a political scientist based at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of four books; her newest, Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, will soon be published by Lexington Books.

Sorry, You’ll Never Get the Good Blood…

June 21st, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

Photo by Mark Sylvester, Courtesy of and ©Free Range Stock

How do you tell a preschool-aged boy that he’ll never menstruate?

I thought I was doing a great thing. Ever since my daughter was born I’ve spun a positive story about menstruation for her. Even when she was 2 and 3 years old I’d tell her it was the “good blood,” the blood that meant you were healthy and could maybe have babies some day if you wanted them. Now she is 7 years old and I continue to tell her that the good blood is a healthy thing and that someday soon she will have it too. I came up with the idea to call it “good blood” because I didn’t want her to think of it as something I was hiding or sad about. I wanted her to be informed and think positively about her future as a woman.

BUT, my son is now 4 and he has been listening to the same story. About a year ago he asked me when he would get the good blood. I tried to tell him that he would not get it and he cried and said he wanted to be able to be healthy like us. He said he wanted to be able to have babies some day. Still today he talks to me sometimes about the fact that he won’t get the good blood and he is sad.

I’ve thought a lot about how to be a good parent to a girl and a boy. I’m a firm believer that gender is mostly created by us and, despite biological or physiological differences between women and men, we can change how people act, think, and orient themselves if we want to. At least in part. Yet I think that talking about the “good blood” backfired on me to some extent. In redefining menstruation as positive for my daughter, I left my son by the wayside a bit. I still struggle with what to do about this. How do I redefine menstruation in a positive way without making my son feel bad?

I’d love to hear readers’ own stories about this, because I think this is something we should talk about more fully. How do moms talk to their little boys about menstruation? And when they talk about it, what do they say? Boys will grow up to have so many privileges that women don’t have but you can’t explain that to a 4-year-old very easily. And sure, you can say, “Everyone’s different and special in their own way,” but that’s a pretty empty statement for a 4-year-old who’s keeping track of all the things that others get that they don’t.

So, starting with the assumption that boys should learn something about menstruation and eventually will find out that they will not menstruate, how do you say, “Sorry, you’ll never get the good blood” in a positive and productive way?
I’m looking forward to the responses on this post!

Are We Stalled?

May 14th, 2012 by Chris Bobel

What is worse? A problem unnamed or a problem named and denied as our own?

In a recent class discussion, a (white) student shared that she while she was in high school (a racially diverse high school, she explained), “everybody got along and racism was not a problem.” But now, since taking my class, she sees there IS racism around her.

The denial of racism in our own lives. This denial, like so many others, is certainly not uncommon, especially among those protected by some measure of privilege. Sometimes our denial is less passive (I didn’t know better); sometimes it is more active (I sure do know, but the knowing is painful and expects me to DO SOMETHING and I rather not, thank you very much).

This reminds me of the responses I typically hear from my students when we discuss menstrual shame. When I show commercials like the one below, they tell me they are NOT ashamed of their periods. They talk openly about their cycles. This menstrual taboo I speak of—old school. When I probe and ask if they carry their menstrual products around in the open, then, they tell me, “No…that’s just not something you do.”

 

A student denies racism in her high school, but sees it OUT THERE. Young women deny menstrual shame while concealing their tampons. These contradictions vex me. What gives?

I think we are in the midst of what sociologist Arlie Hochshild calls a ‘stalled revolution.’

Hochschild uses this concept to explain how the feminist movement helped women pursue careers but stalled before it (and by it, I mean WE) succeeded in dramatically altering the gendered division of household labor. I think the concept applies here, too.

We see racism but NOT HERE, not involving ME.  We follow the rules of concealment even while we deny that we are embarrassed. I am not ashamed; other people are. We can name the problem, but we cannot, will not, claim it for ourselves. That’s where the engine cuts out. That’s where we are stalled.

We live in a culture where racism is DISCUSSED, at least. Look at the tremendous response to the murder of Travyon Martin for a recent example. And we ARE  talking more about periods and about our bodies; the very fact that Kotex launched its ’break the cycle’ campaign in 2010 is fair evidence that the menstrual discourse IS enlarging. But forgive me if I am not jumping up and down with glee. After all, there’s more talk about EVERYTHING now. We have more ways, more means, more access to express and connect, instantaneously.  Some might argue we talk too much; we tweet and post and text before we think. Sometimes talk is just…talk.

Are talking toward change? Or we just talking, talking, talking about other people’s racism, other people’s shame.

What will it take to re-start our engines and both name and CLAIM the problems for ourselves?

 

All Wrapped Up

February 20th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Saniya Ghanoui

Photo by Jennifer Gaillard // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I always felt that airline travel involves building many short-lasting friendships where people bond over delayed flights, weather problems and luggage issues. Recently I was traveling and had to make a connection in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. I was using the restroom and I could hear the lady in the stall next to me change her sanitary napkin. She dropped the plastic wrapping from the new pad and it floated into my stall. Without hesitation, I picked up the wrapper and disposed of it. We both exited our stalls around the same time and as we approached the sinks she turned to me and said quickly but firmly, “Thank you so much for doing that.” I was a bit taken aback but responded “Oh, no problem,” we washed our hands and we bid each other farewell as we left the restroom.

The reason I was taken aback was because I felt she had nothing to thank me for. I simply picked up a piece of wrapping and threw it away. However, the serious tone of her voice told me that she was grateful for what I did. Perhaps it saved her what she deemed the embarrassment of picking it up herself? Or maybe she was just thanking me for a kind gesture. It wasn’t as if I gave her something (like a pad or tampon) that she could thank me for and the act in no way inconvenienced me. I wonder if she would have felt inclined to thank me if she had dropped a candy wrapper or tissue instead.

While there has always been this overall social need to conceal the period, it seems lately that there has been a surge in the desire to conceal menstrual products. Procter and Gamble has a site, Being Girl, that gives the Dos and Don’ts of tampon usage, including practicing at home to “see how quiet you can be when making a quick change.” And silence is one aspect that P&G tends to advertise, especially with its Tampax Pearl product. The wrapper becomes a selling point for Tampax Pearl because of its quiet and easy-to-open tabs that allow for utmost discretion.

I’m sure most re:Cycling readers have seen the U by Kotex line of menstrual products. This line is aimed at a younger crowd, the website has a section for tweens, and takes the idea of concealing in a different direction. Instead of making the products discreet and quiet the company advertises “hot new colors and wrappers.” However, changing the color or design of a tampon wrapper is still missing the point and is just as damaging as advertising products with quiet wrappers. The period is still being hidden. If a woman drops a bright green tampon wrapper on the floor is she now going to be less embarrassed because of the color? It doesn’t matter if the wrapper is white, pastel or a bright color, she shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. That is what needs to change — the embarrassment factor women have about their periods, not the colors of the products used.

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.