I didn’t celebrate my first period my drinking bottles red wine with the women in my family, wine purchased on the day of my birth in anticipation of this rite of passage. I didn’t call my friends giggling to share the wonderful news. There was no fanfare of any kind. In fact, there was nothing but fear and shame. I kept silent and stuffed my panties with layers of toilet paper that would peak to a v and eventually shred to bits. When”outed” by my mother, I fiercely denied the truth while simultaneously wishing that I would tell her the truth and get some maternal support (and a box of pads). Sensing my reluctance and discomfort, my mother bought a box of pads and left it under the bathroom sink. This silent delivery of bulky, winged pads continued in silence for years. The absence of celebration and generational bonding leaves me with a small hole in my heart. The shame I felt about my maturing body and the cultural messages that equate the vagina and menstruation with a noxious cesspool robbed me of an opportunity to love my body and its unique life-giving properties.
Examining representations of the female body within pop culture would not be complete without a critical examination of sociohistorical attitudes toward menstruation. After all, the advertising industry is replete with messages that reinforce ancient notions that menstruation is a cringe-worthy, filthy subject. How can a girl love herself completely when she has been raised in an environment that sees the female body as dirty? Shameful? How different would we feel about ourselves if our first period was met with revelry and joy?
For a recent blogging assignment in my Women and Pop Culture class, my students discussed their experiences with their cycle while referencing Red Moon: Menstruation, Culture and the Politics of Gender and The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. What follows is a collection of posts that provides an insightful glimpse into young women’s attitudes about “the curse.”
By: Laylee S, post in full and originally titled “I Love my Period”
It’s true. I completely and totally love my period and I have since the day it started. When I read books like Brumberg’s The Body Project or watch films like Red Moon that reveal the way menstruation has been devalued and disparaged in our culture, I can’t help but feel upset that more women don’t feel the same positive connection I feel with my period and thus my body.
“It’s a terrible disease” — “It’s disgusting and spreads filth around” — “It’s a sin of the devil”
These are all attitudes expressed by interviewees in Red Moon toward menstruation. Beliefs such as these are unfortunately widespread in our society. From the time we are very young, we hear our periods–a monthly reminder of our awe-inspiring life-giving power–referred to as a “curse” and a nightmare. In movies such as Superbad our periods are used for laughs because “Oh my god, there’s nothing more disgusting than period blood!” In polite company we are instructed from the onset of puberty to never ever mention our monthly cycles, especially if there are men present. Young women absorb these messages about the taboo of menstruation and all too often hold onto these negative attitudes until late in life.
Why do so many women admit that if given the opportunity they would gladly do away with their periods altogether? Cramps cannot be entirely to blame. The social stigma attached to menstruation weighs in heavily in forming women’s feelings about their own periods. How could they not? Women are still considered unfit for certain activities and occupations because of their monthly cycles. During the 2008 election, did anyone else hear men argue that Hillary Clinton couldn’t be an effective world leader because once a month she’d be thrown into the irrational, weepy, bitchy and hysterical throes of her period? I certainly did. How satisfying it was to learn that studies have shown that men’s moods are just as variable throughout the month as women’s! Arguments like this have been used against women entering male-dominated spaces for centuries—from the Victorian belief that women could not enter higher education because education would divert precious blood that should be going to their uteri to the claim that women could not work outside of the home. In our everyday lives, our periods are also used as an excuse to dismiss our arguments and emotions with the all-too-familiar refrain of “oh, she’s just PMSing.” This habit of brushing women aside because of our supposed PMS is reflected in countless television shows and movies.
As Brumberg’s chapter “The Body’s New Timetable” demonstrates, from Victorian to contemporary times, so many young girls are not prepared for their periods when they finally arrive because menstruation has been considered too taboo to discuss. Brumberg mentions young girls after the Civil War taking the onset of their periods to be a sign of hemmoraging, a story I’ve actually heard more than once amongst my peers. This cultural silence surrounding one of the most natural bodily processes women deal with in their lives speaks volumes about the way women and women’s bodies are valued in our society.
We have disconnected ourselves from our bodies so thoroughly that most women don’t fully understand the way their periods work, especially if they’re on birth control. More than anything else, using a Diva Cup has reunited me with my body. It’s allowed me to bridge that gap that we’ve been encouraged to create between our bodies and our selves. Before I started using menstrual cups, I had no idea how much I bled each day, how the flow changed, how its consistency changed, all of that. I had a vague idea I suppose but I never felt comfortable and familiar with my period the way I do now. I won’t get too graphic for the squeamish out there (even the fact that I have to say this and censor myself is indicative of the problematic relationship we as a society have with women’s periods!) but now that I use a menstrual cup I’m able to see how much I bleed, which days I bleed more, what changes accompany my cramps (if there’s more or less blood, if the consistency of the blood changes, etc), and so much more. Our periods don’t have to be something we’re grossed out by, or bothered by (in the absence of cramps, extra sensitivity and whatnot). Just talking about my love for my Diva Cup has brought so many negative attitudes towards women’s periods out of the woodwork. Grown women have been completely grossed out that you have to –gasp—touch yourself “down there” and potentially risk touching your own blood in order to use a menstrual cup. I’m talking about grown women who have been menstruating for 20 years of their lives! My period is a beautiful thing that reminds me each month that (hooray!) I am not yet pregnant and (double hooray!) my healthy body is capable of creating a living, breathing human being. I for one think it should be respected as such.
*A note about the image used: it contains a quote from one of my favorite essays ever. In 1978, Gloria Steinem penned an excellent piece of satire aimed at illuminating the way menstruation is demonized in our society. I’ve linked to it before on our class blog and I’ll link to it again because I think every person out there should read it: If Men Could Menstruate.
By Alexa G, post in full and originally titled “The Tide Turns Red”
After reading through Brumberg’s The Body Project and watching Red Moon, it seems like the way we view menstruation really hasn’t changed that much.
I’m not here to deny that we haven’t moved on since the Victorian era. In fact, I’m really glad we have for so many reasons, but our attitude towards menstruation still seems a little archaic to me. It’s no longer commonplace to deny young women certain foods to keep periods away or deny us higher education based off of the idea that our complicated bodies will be “drained” from thinking too much. And we’ve moved pass these ideas- hip hip hooray! But while we are now able to consume meat and go to college, bringing up the topic and talking about our periods is still taboo and hush-hush.
Watching the men interviewed in Red Moon only confirms how much negativity is associated with monthly bleeding. None of the men featured were excited or even looked slightly comfortable talking about menstruation. The way they talked about it was slightly similar to how men back in the the 19th century did: it’s icky, it’s a sign of emotional and physical weakness andiwantnothingtodowithit. You would think that because so many men had spent so much time picking apart the subject that they would at least be slightly more comfortable with it by now.
Another thing that really struck me of how much hasn’t changed is how detached we are from our menstrual cycles. I’m not suggesting that we have fertility festivals and should run around meadows to celebrate our periods. (But if you want to do that, you are more than welcome to) But instead of straight talking the facts, we seem to walk around them. To do this today we still have “sanitary napkin” dispensers in bathrooms. Regardless of gender or age, Red Moon showed how uncomfortable we are with our own biology.
Advertising tells us that our periods are never a good thing- instead, they’re all about discomfort and physical pain. And when we see women on TV talking about their periods it seems to often be about just how crazy their hormones are making them that day! The media and advertisers aren’t very interested in letting us feel like our periods are a normal part of life. Instead, they are something to be feared and ashamed of.
Just from my own observations and experiences, I can see why so many women and girls feel so uncomfortable with menstruation. When the images you see and hear on TV or magazines related to periods always being a horrible experience it’s hard to stay positive. And since we don’t really talk openly about menstruation in general, it’s hard to bring it up without being awkward. Even my most open-minded and chatty female friends get uneasy talking about our bodies. And my guy friends? I think my ex-boyfriend’s feelings on periods summarizes how most of the guys I know think: “That is SO DISGUSTING”
By: Marley P, post in full and originally titled “Menstruation-Friend or Foe?”
I really appreciated Red Moon: Menstruation, Culture and the Politics of Gender because it illuminated the superficial relationship between menstruation and society and more importantly, the relationship between menstruation and women. I found it incredibly interesting that there have been studies done to show the differences in mood variation between the sexes and that both the men and women’s moods varied just about the same yet women perhaps were able to predict their cycles. The disconnection to our bodies becomes increasingly popular as it becomes easier to regard your body as something to control and manipulate rather than to trust that your bodies knows what to do and exactly how to do it. In a culture where the only talk of a period is through tampon commercials that make a mockery of women, we need more movies that aren’t willing to break the mold in talking about menstruation, or at least give women the proper tools and education to make healthy choices. I have to wonder, if at all times 25% of the female population is menstruating, isn’t it about time to decriminalize it? Even though menstruation is a natural biological process that all females go through, it has become a main source of stress and discomfort and we have lost the connection to ourselves and our bodies. Essentially making women shameful of their bodies is an extremely detrimental tactic to keep consumers buying and really does nothing but a great disservice to women of all ages. What does this say about our culture that a symbol of womanhood is perceived as something so dirty?
Growing up in a household in which reproductive health and justice were encouraged and openly talked about, I was always very aware of my body. It’s pretty hard to ignore your body when like clockwork every month you are subjected to severe menstrual cramps but I have been able to look at them as a reminder every month that my body is well and working. Nobody likes their period but I have never once wished I didn’t get my period or wished I was a man. “Diagnosing PMS” has become a way to belittle women or prove that they are somehow less efficient than a man because they are menstruating and it is a dangerous notion that affects the physical and emotional health of all women regardless of age (not to mention gives men an undeniable degree of entitlement and superiority).
In the Body Project, Joan Brumberg deconstructs our country’s “ovulatory revolution” and explains:
Although girls now mature sexually earlier than ever before, contemporary American society provides fewer social protections for them, a situation that leaves them unsupported in their development and extremely vulnerable to the excesses of popular culture and to pressure from peer groups.
Brumberg analyzes the changes in the sociohistorical landscape of our country that surrounds young women from the Victorian era to present. As the young girls of today have a much different biological and social timetable than the girls from previous eras, we are experiencing a new shift of attitudes surrounding one’s menstrual cycle. The hypersexualization of our youth and the overall acceptance of a phrase like “sex sells” in our daily lives is helping to lead to two very serious concerns a) girls are menstruating earlier than previous generations and b) are simultaneously not becoming more emotionally and cognitively ready to deal with these changes (i.e. becoming sexually active sooner and without the mental preparedness to deal).
The patriarchal framework of our society normalizes a message very early on that women are never to talk about their periods because the dominant culture does not want to hear it, it has become a shameful ‘downfall’ to the female body. I always felt very comfortable talking about menstuation and safe sex because I was aware that they were natural aspects to being a healthy female but that doesn’t mean that I am immune to the ceaseless images and judgments. Until very recently have I become aware of the extent to my own innate body bashing and the fact that I am unhappy with the first comment I have about myself is usually a negative one. W certainly don’t need our society attaching judgment to every move we make or every morning we decide to not put on make up. Our value and worth should not be based on our skin.
By: Carolyn B, post in full and originally titled “Uncursing ‘The Curse'”
It’s a damn shame that a fretful and despotic patriarchy has robbed womankind of the chance to harness the guttural and sacred power of their moon cycle to evoke power and transformation. Be it by hook, crook, depro-provera or deoderized douche, these men were scared silly by the sacred sorcery of the womb and tried to stifle its innate ecstatic capabilities. The patriarchy has spent the last 2000 years convincing women that life sprang from Adam’s rib, and that your vagina is merely a vessel for pain, shame, stench and vulnerability. Throwing brevity out the window, I could wax on indefinitely about the loss of the sacred feminine and quote Terence McKenna for miles on suppression of shamanistic ecstasy and the rise of patriarchal hegemony, but I’ll let you fall down that rabbit hole on your own accord and stick with the meat and potatoes.
The film Red Moon: Menstruation, Culture and the Politics of Gender and Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project examine the de-evolution of menstruation, showing how the male-dominated realms of Western religion and medicine dictate biological normatives, shaping our perceptions of ourselves and propagating fanciful myths about our biology. Red Moon‘s narrator reminds us that “80% of women suffer either physically or psychologically during menstruation and 150 different symptoms are attributed to PMS. In other words, at this very moment, millions of women on earth are unhappy and yet the silence is deafening.” Who hasn’t heard one or many illusory adages that bleeding makes you more susceptible to infection, less able to perform well in college or the workplace, and that the myriad moods of a cycling woman makes her unfit for a demanding career? Women have been taught to believe that blood obscures our capacity to think clearly, while the actual truth is that activity in both the limbic and endocrine systems are at their peak during menstruation, engaging the neurons, endorphins and neurotransmitters of the nervous system unlike any other time during a woman’s cycle. Bleeding also eliminates excess iron from the body, and in non-anemic women this can be of great benefit, preventing excess oxidation in the internal environment which is said to slow the aging process.
In typical patriarchal fashion, the so called anecdote for our wily, ‘rogue’ biology is to control its unpredictability through exogenous hormones and surgical procedures. The sad truth of the matter is that these procedures often shut down your body’s innate intelligence, obliterating a hormonal cascade that is responsible for so much more than your ‘monthly curse.’ Through unification of body and mind- achieved with practices like yoga, meditation, qi gong, tantra and dance-women can cultivate attention and sensation in the darker recesses of their sexual matter and reach a place of connectedness with their biology. These practices set free the so called ‘headache in the pelvis,’ obliterating menstrual cramps and hormonal pathologies for good (take it from me, sisters! I waved good bye to Motrin and the Pill long ago!). In buddhism, that which we give attention to ceases to plague us. Unfortunately for the powers that be, acquainting women with their biological processes in a way that is both healing and empowering would mean a vast decline in the sales of products targeted to rid us of that ‘not so fresh feeling.’ If we stand up and re-examine our notions of freshness, the scent of blood will no longer mean the scent of death, and it can reclaim its fragrance of power, peace and mystery.
By: Rachel O, post in full
In Red Moon and The Body Project, the issue of the repression and shame with menstruation is addressed. Women’s reproductive organs were a mystery for a long time to the medical world. Early on, doctors believed that hysteria was due to a woman’s uterus roaming through her body, as though it wasn’t attached to anything and was able to float around freely. So it was no surprise that doctors were baffled by menstruation. It was used as an excuse to repress women and promote racism. Women were kept out of the world of academia, as doctors wrote, “developing girls…were…damaged by any educational challenge that drew energy to the brain and away from the ovaries.” To make racism acceptable, doctors studied the menstrual cycles of women in Africa and the Middle East, the girls there menstruated early, taken as a sign of people who were “…more primitive and precocious.” Of course as a symptom of women not being allowed to pursue higher education, there were virtually no female doctors to challenge these outrageous findings, and so the ignorance of the men reigned as fact. As shown in the film Red Moon, some doctors today still hold these ridiculous Victorian ideas about women – one doctor compares menstruation to the work of the devil.
While many people look at old advertisements as silly in the vague wording, where you can barely tell the ad is for menstrual products, some of that still holds true today. A new ad campaign for Tampax hails their brand as the best solution for “Mother Nature’s monthly gift.” After a new set of Kotex ads came out, the public learned that advertisers are not allowed to say the word “vagina” and shouldn’t even allude to the area even by referring to it as “down there.” Even in the most liberal, outgoing, honest families, starting menstruation can feel shameful. I never had a reason to feel embarrassed about my period, but it wasn’t until I was 19 that I finally felt comfortable buying my “feminine hygiene” products on my own. With the exception of the U by Kotex ad campaign, which is challenging the ridiculous advertising for these products, most companies are still as vague as they were 30 years ago. I think this is a great example of how, even when women break through a barrier or tool of oppression, it doesn’t erase it entirely. As plenty of things in current day culture show us, that “outrageous” Victorian era thinking still holds true for some.
By: Alejandra L, post in full and originally titled “Our Body is a Battleground”
Womyn’s bodies are literally a battlefield, the most common enemy is menstruation. It hardly openly talked about and, honestly, I was surprised to know there was a history to menstruation. Womyn’s bodies have evolved through time to adapt to the changing needs and lifespans of the time period. At the turn of the century, girls menstruated later, typically at 15 or 16. Girls in the Victorian era, were a lot smaller and less healthy than girls today. Greater physical health resulted in the female body developing earlier. However, this did not correlate with greater emotional or cognitive development to be able to deal maturely or effectively with menstruation.(Brumberg,5) Furthermore, there is less societal help, nowadays to help young womyn make up for this developmental gap. It was very common for young womyn in the Victorian Era to be involved in extra curricular groups such as the Girl Scouts, bible groups, or the YWCA, where there were older womyn who acted as mentors, or almost older sisters for these young girls in a very difficult period of their lives. Of course, often those in professional groups such as these, came from middle class or upper middle class status, but, nonetheless, there was a belief throughout the Victorian era, whether you were poor or rich, black or white, that “older womyn had a responsibility to the younger of their sex”. They were mentors, not old enough to be their mothers but old enough to have experience and create a sense of community and support among womyn. However, this is not to say that everything was fine and dandy in the Victorian Era. Menstruation was the study and analysis of patriarchal doctors and institutions who were literally waging a war against it. Doctors such as Dr. Edward Clarke (of the highly regarded Harvard Medical School), made a case for “ovarian determinism” (Brumberg, p8) arguing against higher education for womyn claiming that because of their periods, womyn were incapable of highly intellectual activity. His argument was that once a month womyn had to dedicate all time and thought to their “periodicity” and therefore, could not focus on any “educational challenge that drew energy to the brain and away from the ovaries”. Womyn were, not just expected, but their purpose was to give birth. Their sole role in the Victorian era was reproduction. Yet at the same time, menarche, the very indication of possible childbearing years, was regarded as something unclean and instead indicated moral quality and virtue. The first menstruation marked the loss of innocence and indicated the hyper protection of a young womyn’s sexuality, body and mind.
Although, we have progressed from the belief that menstruation impedes on the intellectual capability of womyn, there are still some practices that we, as a society, continue to be Victorian about. Menstruation is hardly talked about, and when it is, it is given some type of nickname like “time of the month”, or “aunt flo”. It continues to be seen as something unclean and gross to be dreaded as each month passes. I can remember when I was in elementary school, not wanting to talk about it and absolutely not looking forward to the first time it happened. Whenever menstruation was talked about, it was always negative. However, it is important to keep in mind that, as we learned in the film, 80% of womyn do suffer during menstruation. It is something painful for a lot of us. Honestly, up until recently I have hated my period. I hated the blood, the pads and tampons, the having to hid to the world that I was on my period, the cramps and the 5 days it robbed from me every month. After, I stopped hating my period, I simply felt indifferent about it. That is a lot better that hate, but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t acknowledge it. As I reflect on the film and the reading, I can’t say I’m absolutely in love with my period but I am looking at it in a different light. Menstruation is something natural. It signifies fertility and child bearing, but it doesn’t reduce me to simply a reproductive machine (as it did in the Victorian Era). Patriarchal institutions and misogynistic ads and media are waging a war for me to hate my body. They create pills to “put our bodies on track” or to reduce our periods altogether to twice a year, and create pads with ultra quiet wrappers because god forbid somebody know “its that time of the month.” This type of mentality, creates shame for womyn for something absolutely biological and natural. It perpetuates and implies that womyn’s bodies are deviant and need to be regulated. We live in a patriarchal, binary society where everything is divided into male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, black or white, good or evil. “Reason” and “science” are the ultimate truths, but the female body does not fight into these tight little boxes. There is nothing rational or linear about bodies. They do not fit into the same biological clock as men. These messages imply that you can get all the plastic surgery to try to perfect your “womanness”, you can be on diets, get the latest fashion, dye your hair, but you are still a womyn. Though I cannot say that the time when I get my period is my favorite time of the month (maybe someday it will be, I don’t know), I know I cannot let these message win this battle. I will not let them hate me being a womyn.
By: Chanel M, post in full and originally titled “Mother Nature’s Gift”
Of course it goes without saying that the word “period,” or “menstruation” comes hand in hand with feelings of anxiety. Most men and women get uncomfortable when hearing or when asked to talk about the “curse,” just as seen in the film Red Moon. Even though this is something that we all know from experience, it seems to surprise me time and time again, especially after watching the film last week. Even middle-aged men grew uncomfortable when hearing the word menstruation. I was strangely surprised to hear the same nervous giggles that I’d expect from a 12 year-old boy. Even worse was the information I learned from Brumberg’s “The Body Project.” It was disturbing to hear that mothers would control the lifestyle of their daughters in order to prevent the early arrival of their periods. It was seen as impure for a girl to begin menstruating thus measures were taken in order to prevent it as long as possible. These same mothers were once in their daughter’s shoes, and yet it seems to me that it was so natural to act in ways that they themselves would have hated when they were young.
I identified a lot with the young girl in Red Moon because she reminded me of how young I really was when I first got my period. When I was in 5th grade I remember hearing about the special privileges the first girls who had gotten her period would get. They were allowed to leave the room without raising their hands, and when they were on their period they would work on their own schedule simply because changing a pad was taught to be so embarrassing. It was such an enormous secret for a girl to have her period. So much so that all of the girls were utterly terrified for that very moment when Mother Nature would strike with her monthly gift. It was such a stressful ordeal in order to transfer the pads from our backpacks into our pockets; so undercover that we might as well have been smuggling drugs. As Brumberg stated, “our society makes no effort to help girls deal with the lag between their biological and their intellectual development.” Because of this, very young girls end up learning from each other, often a faulty way, and are left lost and embarrassed and unable to openly discuss the sensitive topic with others.
My first experiences with the different reactions towards periods slowly came as I grew older into my middle school years. Watching different mother daughter relationships across cultures with regards to menstruation was something very foreign to me. Within my own Persian culture, mothers were overjoyed at the news that their daughters had hit that mark and started menstruating. Showered with gifts galore, many of my friends grew angry and even more embarrassed, thus many girls developed somewhat of a trust issue with their own mothers. We simply didn’t understand why it had to be such a celebration. I know for myself, I just wanted to keep it to myself, only telling my mom so that she can provide me with the proper materials to take care of things. Other families who were of American descent were more casual about the ascent into womanhood. I remember wishing my family were the same, hoping that they would keep the information hush hush like their daughters requested. The moment I got my period I became highly overdramatic. I remember feeling like I was ill with some sort of incurable virus that didn’t allow me to leave my bedroom, and even though I was so young, I have to say it was because I truly believed that is what I was supposed to feel. Pop culture’s portrayal of menstruation was extremely influential on my own perspective of first time menstruation. Being told all the things I would crave, all the things I would feel, and all the ways I would act during my period through shows like the animated version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch really turned into a reality as I unconsciously mimicked those actions. Clearly this didn’t do me any good since the next few months looked very similar to the ones before where I would camp out in my bedroom, and wear layers upon layers in order to make sure no one was able to notice that I was on my period. And yet again, I must thank pop culture for this.