Adventures in Menstruation: Time to Dump Those Silly Taboos

Personal Health

In 1970, Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, “If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood. If it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go.”

In 2013, "menstrual activists," or menarchists (menstrual anarchists) are tasting, baking, making art and painting their lips with their own menstrual blood as a gesture of defiance toward the shame and secrecy that still attends periods, even in ostensibly modern, Western, secular culture.

Germaine would be proud.

These fearless feminists are just some examples of a recent wave of menstrual activists who are refusing to see themselves as biohazards just for doing what comes naturally and occupies a sizable portion of a woman’s lifetime. Other activists are questioning the medicalization of premenstrual syndrome and the over-prescription of anti-depressants to treat its symptoms. (Although some women certainly do suffer painful physical and sometimes psychological symptoms around their periods, the problem arises when Big Pharma sees big dollar signs.) These mostly young women are taking on the menstrual products industry, the mega corporations behind it, like Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly Clarke, and the shame-based advertising that has always been the hallmark of selling period products to women.

There’s also the environmental wing of the movement, which points out that the average (Western) woman will use somewhere in the vicinity of 11,800 tampons in her lifetime, tampons that are not particularly well-regulated in terms of their pesticide and dioxin content and which will fill both landfills and oceans. “Friends don’t let friends use tampons,” writes RandomGirl. In the U.S., the environmental impact is exacerbated by the fact that tampons are generally inserted with applicators—not so in Europe.

Finally, there are activists who are questioning the way we educate young girls about menstruation. “We teach them that it is a hygienic crisis,” says Chris Bobel, author of New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, “rather than what it is, which is an important gateway to talk about our bodies, our sexuality, our health, how we mature and age, as well as body image issues.  Talking about menstruation can be a way to begin teaching girls that they are not products for consumer culture, to be improved upon, sculpted and cleaned up. It opens up the discourse about all sorts of issues.”

Clearly, not every woman loves her period, or sees it as an occasion to celebrate. There will be those who will be tempted to try the latest birth control pills, which suppress periods altogether, like Lybrel made by Pfizer, and largely made up of an estrogen-based compound. But where some see liberation, others see Big Pharma declaring that those messy, disgusting periods are outdated, and now women can be “clean,” “more sexually appealing” and available. The lack of scientific studies on the long-term effects of these hormonally based, period-suppressing oral contraceptives is also troubling.

However you feel about your period, menstrual activists just want to see a whole lot more openness about the whole bloody topic. “A lot of energy is expended on claiming that it is a non-issue,” Bobel says, “when clearly, it’s still a charged topic.”

Which is why those body outlaws, those menarchists are painting their lips with their menses. To shock us into a discussion. “We think menstruation is funny,” reads the menstrual zine, Adventures in Menstruating, edited by British activist and comic Chella Quint. The online pub promises “highly unsanitary comedy,” and features plenty of hilarious leakage stories. Anything to get the conversation, ahem, flowing.

But seriously, considering that the average woman spends about an eighth of her life menstruating, it is amazing how both entrenched and universal the menstrual taboo remains. It has some deep roots, of course. Traditional religions have long emphasized the “impurity” of the menstruating woman. And many of us grew up with the view that menstruation is a “curse.”  

A quick rundown:

Orthodox Judaism: The strictest. It is a religion of laws, after all: 613 of them to be exact, many of them in the book of Leviticus. No physical contact is allowed with a menstruating woman both during her period, and for a week after (until she becomes “clean” again with the ritual mikvah bath.) A menstruating woman cannot pass an object directly to another person. She must first put it down, then the other person can pick it up so as not to be contaminated. She cannot share a bed or even a seat cushion with her husband, and he can’t eat her leftovers, smell her perfume, look at her clothes, or listen to her sing.

Christianity: The proscriptions are not as explicit as in Judaism, but the menstrual taboo has long helped keep women out of authority in the church.

Islam: No touching a menstruating woman, who is unclean, and she cannot pray, enter a mosque, touch or speak the Q’ran, or fast for Ramadan.

Hinduism: The menstruating woman cannot enter a temple, and she must leave the house. She can’t ride a horse, ox or elephant, or drive a vehicle. She also must not be allowed to touch a pickle, since it will spoil if she does.

Buddhism: Menstruating women are seen as dangerously vulnerable, and Buddhist scripture sees all bodies, male and female, as flawed, leaky and filthy.

Sikhism: The best of the lot when it comes to equality between the sexes. Women are seen as equal, and equally pure as men. The menstrual cycle is not seen as a pollutant in any way.

There’s the flipside, too: the societies where menstrual blood is seen as powerful. The Maoris bathe in it and even drink it, and believe it contains human souls.

Now, some might say that hanging out in a menstrual hut with other women would come as a welcome break from the drudgery of housework, cooking for the family and other chores, although childcare does still generally fall to even menstruating women, and some feminists have embraced the idea of the Red Tent or some other kind of structure as a place of retreat and rejuvenation, or just a place where women can gather amongst themselves.

In the modern world,  the menstrual taboo mostly takes the form of a certain silence around the subject. Many girls are taught not to discuss their period with boys, or even their fathers. Ads for sanitary products still feature a mysterious blue fluid to show absorbency, and the word vagina can be used in sitcoms, but not tampon ads. Buying menstrual products is seen as excruciatingly embarrassing. And one study showed that a woman just visibly carrying tampons was held in lower esteem than a woman with no tampons on her person.

“Women,” as Chris Bobel says, “are expected to keep their periods hidden and silenced.” Something that the runner Uta Pippig was not able to do when she won the Boston Marathon in 1996 with visible menstrual blood running down her leg. The horrified commentators were completely tongue-tied about the situation, never once referring to it as what it so obviously was. A woman doing a very ordinary thing, having her period, while also doing something extraordinary, winning the marathon.

Still, we have come some way in making menstruation matter, and bringing the topic out into the open. Online forums feature young women declaring their refusal to see their periods as dirty, and automatically rejecting boyfriends who won’t go down on them when they are menstruating. “It’s my litmus test,” one declares. Spiritual feminists celebrate their inner moon goddess, wear red jewelry, and fertilize their plants with menstrual blood. The marketing of renewable, healthy and environmentally sound methods of catching period blood, such as Moon Cups, sea sponges and washable pads has gone viral, and menstrual activism is springing up in many parts of the world. Girls and women are increasingly being taught about their cycling body as a resource rather than as a curse.

Some will no doubt choose that period-free life Big Pharma is promising. Choice is, after all, a good thing, as long as it is educated. As Bobel says, “We shouldn’t trade one dogma for another. However you feel about your period is fine.” Body literacy, not dogma, is the goal.

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