Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Last Taboo

FLOW by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Published on Psychology Today (
By Molly Castelloe, Ph.D.
Created Aug 3 2010

The Last Taboo: Menstruation and Body Literacy

"Many moons ago, Gloria Steinem wrote and article "If Men Could Menstruate," which I excerpt here:

"So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event... Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ('men-struation') as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat ("You have to give blood to take blood"), occupy high political office ("Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?")... Street guys would invent slang ("He's a three-pad man") and "give fives" on the corner with some exchange like, "Man you lookin' good!" "Yeah, man, I'm on the rag!"... Lesbians would be said to fear blood and therefore life itself, though all they needed was a good menstruating man."

Gloria, you got to love her! She knows how to transform people and perspectives. Switching gender roles shows us how we create fictions around the subject of a bleeding uterus. What we take as objective or value-free (menstruation- shh, just clean it up!) is really man-made meaning. The riff above gives us a glimpse into how sexual difference is socially constructed. In other words, it shows the show.

I've enjoyed reading Regina Barreca's lively rejoinder to Satoshi Kanazawa's "Why modern feminism is illogical, unnecessary, and evil." Yet clearly the evil among us is menstruation. Or rather, how we think about it.

Contrary to what Kanazawa says, feminism (a multi-vocal movement) does not claim "men and women are on the whole identical." Feminism does, however, strive to illuminate how social and historical conditions make men and women seem more different than they are. For instance, Third Wave feminists of today detach menstruation from the gendered body. They reach out to transsexed people (Male-Females do menstruate) and acknowledge that not all women have a period (post-menopausal females do not). Of late, these plucky feminists have also been toying with the notion of menstrual taboos.

Social taboos against women's monthly have been common throughout history. Pagan Greek and Roman cultures believed that contact with women during menses withered crops and soured wine, dimmed the sheen of mirrors and dulled blades of steel. Leviticus, from the Old Testament, warns that during flow women are not only ritually "unclean," but in danger of contaminating others. Some theologians claim that the Christian perpetuation of these beliefs has fueled the case against women as priests in the Catholic Church.

Cultures often construct fantasies of danger and power around the body's orifices. These vulnerable, penetrating spots reveal our interiority. They are the places where we take things in (food, air) and put things out (words, blood, children, excrement). These are sites of terror and pleasure -- and intense myth making.

Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, authors of the book Flow (2009), argue menstruation is "hidden in a figurative box (scented, of course), stuffed deep inside the great medicine cabinet of American culture: out of sight and unmentioned." They claim this kind of silence is a matter of deep-rooted shame regarding the female body rather than an act of modesty or conversational etiquette. Secrecy is a familiar trope in the advertising for sanitary products. Pad and tampon ads avoid direct allusion to blood by pouring blue liquid on the hygienic napkin to demonstrate how it absorbs.

If men could menstruate, newspapers, TV, and online sources would treat the subject more openly. We have only to recall the media coverage of Uta Pippig's 1996 Boston Marathon victory to see the difficulty in dealing directly with the subject. Pippig spent most of 26.2 miles plagued by menstrual blood, cramps and a live camera feed. While the German runner, who finished first in the women's division, stopped several times to clean menstrual blood off her legs, commentators stumbled over their well-versed tongues: many halted at the euphemistic "physical problems" or "stomach pain." Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara sparked further controversy by remarking on the media's failure to address the incident in a straight-forward manner.

There is even more mystery shrouding flow for low-income minorities. A 2007 study "Nobody told me nothing," interviews seventeen African American women from a public housing project to find they have few reliable sources for learning about menstruation among their schools, their mothers, and female friends. According to the data, avoidance of the subject led to confusion and negative attitudes toward all menstrual-related events throughout a women's life. This is of special note, the study adds, since minority women in the U.S. face more menstrual problems than white women.

Women's periods are an astounding problem in developing nations, too, where annually girls miss on average 50 days of school and work due to fear of disgrace. According to children's rights activists Marc and Craig Kielburger:

"Three days a month, Annalita is too embarrassed to go to school. The Rwandan teen, like millions of her peers worldwide, is menstruating. Her family can't afford sanitary pads, so Annalita makes do with what few materials she can find including rags, bark and mud. But these makeshift pads are usually ineffective. Rather than focusing on her studies, Annalita spends her day anxious about a potential accident in front of her classmates."

It is this kind of message - the ominous threat of leakage - that multinational companies like Tampax bank on in some of their ads. Here's one from Seventeen (2004) that lays in on thick. It bodes of a shark attack with the caption "A Leak Can Attract Unwanted Attention."

Stigma surrounding menstruation tells women there is something wrong with their bodies. It fosters shame, self-loathing, and a bad self-image. Many women internalize this attitude, learning to hate their bodies. In the West, they spend extravagant time and money trying to "improve" them, medicate them, aromatize them. You may even see ads for these kinds of products in the margins of this page.

In her book, "New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation" (2010), Chris Bobel argues that when women can't talk openly about "leaky, messy, authentic bodies" they become vulnerable to pharmaceutical companies, like the makers of Lybrel -- the first extended-cycle oral contraceptive that eliminates menstruation altogether. Bobel claims these corporations exploit women's discomfort through the cleverly packaged idea of freedom from the body. As she puts it, these pills "promote liberation (get it? Lybrel/Liberty?) from our unruly, messy, uncooperative bodies that get in the way." Instead, Bobel encourages "body literacy" with regard to women's cycling. That means "you decide how you feel about your period - not tampon manufacturers, not your 5th grade health teacher, not your Mom, not pharmaceutical companies - you."

In Rwanda, inadequate information and hygiene has spawned a new market-based program that generates support for affordable, eco-friendly sanitary products. In conjunction with MIT, Sustainable Health Enterprises creates a sanitary pad made of banana fibers -- a material abundant in the landlocked African country. The product can be sold at 30% less cost than international brands and made locally by Rwandan women with microfinance loans.”

Personal comment: After it was explained to me (in student health class) what was going to happen I began to look forward to when I would be old enough to get my period. I’m fortunate that my periods are almost painless and when I began cycling (I was 14 and in ballet school where the training almost certainly delayed menarche for me by at least two years) my cycles stabilized and became regular within a few months so I have had no real menstrual problems. I do realize that I’m fortunate and that some women and girls have terrible periods so painful and heavy that they are immobilized and need hormones to moderate the symptoms. I think one of the major advantages of using the Mirena IUD which releases the progestin levonorgestrel or the single rod implant Implanon which releases the progestin etonogestrel is that for women who have menstrual problems these devices can minimize or eliminate most of the symptoms for many users.

A word about Lybrel: It can take a long time for the body to adjust to Lybrel (365 active pills) and other extended cycle birth control pills such as Seasonale and Seasonique (84 active pills each). For a significant percentage of extended cycle pill users irregular bleeding is a common side effect for up to nine months after starting those pills. Many women who switched to extended cycle pills to be ‘period-free’ find they can’t stand not knowing when they will start to bleed and switch back to a 28 day pill cycle again.

Menstruating women and shark attacks: I think the probability of being attacked is no greater while a woman is on her period than off. The National Association of Rescue Divers: says this about menstruation and shark attacks:

“Shark bites occur more frequently in murky water. They are attracted by lights, noise, or splashing, and smell. For theses reasons surface swimming should be kept to a minimum, in shark waters. Research shows that bright colors attract sharks more than dark objects, so it is better for divers to wear dark colors. Blood in the water can attract sharks from long distances. They can sense blood in the water in concentrations as little as 4 parts per million. Bleeding into the water by a diver or swimmer may not go unnoticed. Women who are menstruating are recommended to wear tampons. As to any evidence that the menstrual cycle can increase the hazard of shark attack is inconclusive. It is believed that sharks are only attracted by fresh blood.”

And this from Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida: about shark attacks and menstruating women, which says in part: “Don't worry about it. Lots of women safely dive while menstruating. Although we haven't got solid scientific data on the subject, so far we haven't seen any obvious pattern of increased attacks on menstruating women.”

I wouldn’t go swimming without wearing a menstrual flow control device of some sort, a tampon, diaphragm or menstrual cup mainly for hygienic purposes, but scaring menstruating women out of the water because they may attract sharks is pretty far fetched. It has more to do with the colors of clothing the clarity of the water and the amount of splashing a swimmer is doing. I’ve been swimming around sharks in the coves of Virgin Gorda when I’m flowing and haven’t had any problems. Now dolphins are a different story entirely. Males dolphins have initiated sexual encounters with me when I’m fertile as well as menstrual. Perhaps they can sense that my secondary libidinal peak is when I’m menstrual. You think?

I think having my period is a reaffirmation of my femininity, my ability to bring new life into the world and a sign that my reproductive cycle is functioning normally. I try to teach my students that their periods are to be cherished and used for pleasure and should not be a cause for sequestering themselves while auntie Flo is visiting.

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I'm a classically trained dancer and SAB grad. A Dance Captain and go-to girl overseeing high-roller entertainment for a major casino/resort