Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

‘Well, there is plenty of blood, but none of it’s bad’

September 29th, 2009 by Elizabeth Kissling

Apropos of Chris’ most recent post, the video of Serena Williams’ new ad for Tampax just popped up in my RSS feed. You can check it out at right.

I’m so torn on this. I’m pretty certain that this is the First. Time. Ever. that the word “blood” has been used in an ad for menstrual products. Do you know what a huge step forward for body acceptance and menstrual literacy that is? When I was growing up in the 1970s, pads were advertised by showing how well they absorbed BLUE fluid. (So were diapers, by the way.) Kotex was the first company to use the color red and the word “period” in ad campaign less than ten years ago. So there is a part of me that is delighted when Catherine Lloyd Burns, playing Mother Nature, smiles slyly and says, “Well, there is plenty of blood, but none of it’s bad”.

I also enjoy seeing a powerful woman say that she isn’t afraid of menstruation, and shown succeeding athletically while menstruating. Kinda reminds me of when Uta Pippig won the Boston Marathon while menstruating.

But the core message and most troubling element of this entire “Mother Nature” campaign is the idea that menstruation is the gift nobody wants. Can’t P&G (and Kotex, and every other femcare advertiser) just promote the damn products without promoting shame and body hatred? Women will buy menstrual products without being told that periods should make them feel “not so fresh”. In fact, the ads might be more compelling if they emphasized the absorbency of the product and treated menstruation as a fact of life, rather than a secret disaster. Just spare us the blue fluid, please.

The Top Ten Explanations for an Angry Woman

September 29th, 2009 by Chris Bobel
USA Today reports Serena Williams deal with P&G

USA Today reports Serena Williams deal with P&G

10) She is upset and wants someone to know

9) Something about estrogen levels

8 ) She is about to start her period

7) Matter over mind…her body has taken over

6) I don’t know, but she will feel better in a week or less

5) Hormones

4) Women do that about every 28 days

3) Time for tampons

2)We gave up trying to figure that out a long time ago, but it will pass

1) PMS, of course.

I know I am not the only one exasperated with the easy dismissal of women’s anger as little more than PMS.

Sometimes (and I’d venture, MUCH of the time), an angry woman IS simply, well, an angry woman.

But WE (culturally-speaking), tend to immediately link women’s anger with PMS. This is lazy and effectively trivializes and silences women. While I don’t dispute that hormonal fluctuations can and often do explain the TIMING and/or SEVERITY of a woman’s emotional expression, I argue that is it important, no IMPERATIVE, that we resist the temptation to immediately attribute a woman’s rage to the biological.

On 12 September 2009, Serena Williams verbally abused a line judge during the US Open. In the following days, the blogosphere hosted a hungry feast on the event. Racists had their usual deplorable field day; biological determinists joined in for the fun. Bloggers (many of them devoted fans) breezily attributed Serena’s outburst (and sure, it WAS a doozy), to PMS. One blogger referred to the incident as “Serena’s PMS Moment.”

“It was a total PMS moment…. completely unexplainable…

Another blogger wrote,

“Serena has already told the world that she has very difficult periods, in particular, menstrual migraines. And where there are menstrual migraines, PMS poisoning can’t be too far away.”

One more sample:

“She had a bad day on court, but to me, it just sounds like classic PMS emotional roller-coastering.

Then on 21 September 2009, Procter & Gamble’s announced that Serena Williams will headline a series of their “Outsmart Mother Nature” ads (print and video). Williams, says, P&G, was chosen because she “represents the energy, independence and strength of women they want to celebrate.” (And P&G supports her apology for her outburst.)

See the ad here. (Great fodder for another post, another time.)

Even though this deal was in works months (longer?) before the US Open and thus, unrelated to Serena’s “PMS Moment,” the press, like USA Today, still implicitly makes the link.

Take a good look at this story.  Notice the juxtaposition of a very angry (and very powerful) Serena Williams underneath the brand name TAMPAX. No cognitive dissonance there, right? Even funny, as in, ‘that’s rich….now Ms PMS is the spokesperson for a MENSTRUAL product. Good one, Tampax!”

Yesterday, I entered PMS + Serena Williams + US Open into google and I got 45, 000 hits. The feast continues.

Maybe Serena was PMSing that fateful day. Maybe not. I am not in a position to evaluate what motivated her to come unhinged. But neither are the legions of others who think they’ve got it all figured out, or worse, code anger as PMS, reducing a woman’s emotional expression to a “PMS moment.”

I realize that often, people use PMS to (generously?) excuse a woman’s anger (as in ‘she didn’t mean it, she was just hormonal’). But that’s no better, really. Anger should be neither erased nor excused. Anger is powerful stuff. Anger is energy. Anger is information.

Again, let me be clear: I am not dismissing the reality of hormonally-enhanced emotional expression. Just yesterday, I had two mini meltdowns of my own (tellingly, days before my period will start). But I’ve learned to pay attention to WHAT I am upset about, even if the HOW and WHEN of my expression can be tied to a particular phase in my menstrual cycle. My anger isn’t merely the consequence of my body’s mysterious workings. My anger, at times, is the product of a complex interplay between the biological and the emotional. But in any case, my anger is real and it shouldn’t be explained away.

I agree with Christiane Northrup who asserts that in a culture that discourages women from productively expressing their anger, the big A goes underground and often gets expressed as manipulation. Thus, it is no surprise that women rage when they are premenstrual. The hormonal fluctuations, in a sense, may push us to express ourselves, literally, in spite of ourselves. If ‘nice ladies’ don’t act pissed, then the logic of “the devil (in the body) made me do it” lets us off the hook.  The problem with this thinking is when we get angry, we are not taken seriously.

I don’t want to be let off the hook. I want to be (and should be) accountable for my anger (just as Serena Williams should be accountable for hers). Wasn’t John McEnroe accountable for his ridiculous outbursts on the court during his heyday?

Accountability–I advocate for more of that, including  being more accountable to the women in our lives.

What is the future of YAZ?

September 26th, 2009 by Elizabeth Kissling

The popular birth control pill, Yaz is in the news again. Readers may remember that last autumn, Bayer (the maker of Yaz) was sanctioned by the FDA for their television commercials, “because they encourage use of Yaz in circumstances other than those in which the drug has been approved, over-promise the benefits and minimize the risks associated with Yaz.” The FDA actually required Bayer not only to end the advertising campaign immediately but to make amends by publicizing corrective information — an unusually bold move from the FDA. That led to the ad shown at right.

Bayer was cited by the FDA again earlier this year, for failure to follow proper quality control in the plant that manufactures the synthetic hormones used in Yaz.

Bayer is now defending itself against 74 lawsuits filed by users who developed health problems, such as blood clots or heart attacks. Bayer is taking the FDA citations seriously and plans to “defend itself vigorously against the suits.” Dr. David A. Grimes, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina medical school and paid consultant to Bayer says the risk of injury from Yaz is tiny. “My dictum is that a multiple of a rare event is still a rare event,” says Grimes. And the New York Times seems far more concerned with how the FDA citations and the lawsuits will affect Yaz’ image and sales than they are with women’s health.

Didn’t these people learn anything from the saga of the Dalkon Shield?

October 2, 2009

Edited to Add: The New York Times report neglected to mention that Swissmedic is investigating the death of a young woman from the effects of pulmonary embolism that may be linked to her use of Yaz.

Penelope Trunk: Telling the truth about women’s lives

September 24th, 2009 by Elizabeth Kissling

I adore Penelope Trunk. I may not always agree with her, but I always read her column, and I’m glad she exists. Today, she wrote about the backlash she received for this recent tweet:

Twitter _ Penelope Trunk_ I_m in a board meeting. Ha ...-2

She is a little stunned that there was such an uproar about her tweet: other bloggers wrote posts about the “disgustingness” of it all, and 70 people stopped following her on Twitter (at this moment, she has more than 18,000 followers, so it’s not a huge uproar). She writes,

Most miscarriages happen at work. Twenty-five percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Seventy-five percent of women who are of child-bearing age are working. Most miscarriages run their course over weeks. Even if you are someone who wanted the baby and are devastated by the loss, you’re not going to sit in bed for weeks. You are going to pick up your life and get back to it, which includes going back to work.

This means that there are thousands of miscarriages in progress, at work, on any given day. That we don’t acknowledge this is absurd. That it is such a common occurrence and no one thinks it’s okay to talk about is terrible for women.

Throughout history, the way women have gained control of the female experience is to talk about what is happening, and what it’s like. We see that women’s lives are more enjoyable, more full, and women are more able to summon resilience when women talk openly about their lives. [Emphasis mine]

I practically stood up and cheered. This is exactly why we started our little blog (I say ‘little’ because I know we don’t have 18,000 followers). We want to talk openly about women’s lives, and invite others to join the conversation. Although there are many times it is inconvenient, messy, sometimes even painful, menstruation, like miscarriage, is part of (most) women’s lives.

And like miscarriage, menstruation happens at work, too. From the factory floor to the board room, women are bleeding on the job. And sometimes, women need or want to talk about it. Maybe to seek support. Maybe to request a bathroom break to change her pad or tampon. Maybe to lie down for an hour until the cramps subside. Maybe just to know she’s normal. What’s “disgusting” isn’t the menstruating or the miscarrying, or even the talking about it, but the shaming of women for doing so. (Read the whole thing – the quote above is just an excerpt.)

And one more thing: Penelope Trunk is absolutely right – it is fucked up to have to wait three weeks for an abortion.

Blood on Screen: Truth or Dare

September 23rd, 2009 by Giovanna Chesler
Truth or Dare (Francois Ozon, 1994)

Truth or Dare (Francois Ozon, 1994)

Surprisingly this isn’t a post on Madonna, but another media artist interested in gender: Francois Ozon. His short film Truth or Dare (1994) welcomes us into the inner circle of four teenagers engaged in the game. As the two boys and two girls challenge each other with “Action” or “Verite” they address and trangress every taboo (sex between children, boys kissing boys, AIDS, girls fondling girls.) Yet one taboo will trump them all!

View a scene from the film here:

As with most of his work, Ozon manages to engage in taboo with sympathy and emotion. He crafts films that are intimate, inviting the viewer to imagine their own sexual transgression. Screenings of Truth or Dare make a room of viewers squirm and titter with delight as they partake in the pleasure of watching this naughty game. Menstrual activists may not know whether to cheer or boo at the end. That is, of course, Ozon’s wish.

Girls, Periods, and Missing School, or More Hazards of Menstrual Silence

September 21st, 2009 by Chris Bobel

Moon CupEver-alert Liz Kissling drew my attention to this post on Nicholas Kristof’s blog (he’s the co-author of Half the Sky – check it out)

Kristof picked up on the does-menstruation-keep-girls-out-of-school buzz that researchers and on-the-ground development workers have been asking for some time. This is the same link that opportunistic P&G picked up in 2007 with the launch of their cause marketing campaign “Protecting Futures.” The campaign involved Always-brand pad distribution, school bathroom construction and health education, yet, as far I can tell, “Protecting Futures” has ended with a whimper…I can’t find a thing about it on the web, save dated references.

Maybe the campaign has slipped into obscurity because the girls lack commercial products–girls miss school causal connection is being weakened by research like the study cited by Kristof.

Researchers Emily Oster and Rebecca Thorton supplied girls with menstrual cups (note: not single use pads) and measured whether their use of cups had an effect on school attendance and grades. Nope, they found, makes no difference; the girls with and without cups missed about the same number of days and performed about the same in school.

In a way, their findings didn’t surprise me.

Girls have been managing their flow since, well, there were girls, and I bristle at the implication that their lack of access to single use commercial products was high on the global south wish list. It always seemed like a version of those ignorant primitives will never join the 21st century until they consume more stuff line of thinking that motivates (ethnocentric) global north “do-gooders” (and multinational corporations)

But, from my living room in the US, steps away from a washing machine/dryer and a reliable bathroom, I didn’t dismiss the possibility too quickly. The menstrual taboo, after all, does complicate period management when you spend the day with boys, boys who must not know what your body is up to–this takes time and energy

But here’s the thing.

Oster and Thorton DID find a menstruation-school attendance link. Menstruation DOES indeed impact school attendance, they found, in one particular way.

CRAMPS, reported the girls, keeps them home. Get this: nearly 44% of the girls cited cramping as the reason they couldn’t make it to school while they were menstruating.

CRAMPS. Sound familiar to anyone?

So that seems an invitation to find out more.

  • What kind of cramps?
  • What do the girls know about cramp prevention and management?
  • What kind of information and support do the girls need to deal with their contracting uteri so that they can get to school and stay there without sitting in at their desks doubled over in pain?

But addressing the cramp problem aint gonna be easy.

The very same pernicious menstrual taboo that mandates that girls manage (read: hide) their periods, also makes it difficult for girls to get informed and take effective action when the cramps hit.

We just don’t talk about this stuff–and that’s a silence heard around the world.

In rural Nepal and Soweto and suburban Boston and, yes, in your neighborhood, too.

Opening up the conversation about our bodies and how their work–in all their messy, often inconvenient, often mystifying complexity– gives us a chance to take control of our health and our lives.

In other words, the key to keeping girls in school may NOT be “more efficient” menstrual management, but rather, breaking the silence surrounding the body.

But we can’t expect only vulnerable girls to breach the taboo and begin asking the questions. Adult women and men, teachers, policy makers, government officials, health care workers, moms, dads, bloggers, all of us, need to get talking. In other words, those of us with some measure of privilege need to model that it is okay, even GOOD, to speak about the menstrual cycle.

That talk , of course, will sound different in different places and in different cultures. So we need to develop culturally-sensitive menstrual literacies and we need to start now.

What’s that?

Sorry. I can’t hear you.

Could you please speak up?

An Autonomous Kingdom of Women

September 20th, 2009 by Elizabeth Kissling

That’s how Varda Polak-Sahm, writing in today’s Washington Post, describes her visit to the Mikveh in preparation for her second wedding. The Mikveh is the ritual purification bath Halakha, the Jewish law, requires of women after each menstrual cycle and prior to an Orthodox wedding ceremony.

According to Orthodox rabbinic law, immersion in the mayyim hayyim, or living waters, removes the impurity left by menstruation and transforms the woman’s status from contaminated to pure. This is an essential element of Jewish existence. Before a synagogue is built, Jewish communities install a Mikveh. Without purification, Orthodox men cannot even touch their wives. Thus, without purification in the Mikveh, there is no future for the Jewish people.

Polak-Sahm writes about her own changing understanding of the Mikveh in this brief essay, making her new book, The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh, sound like a worthwhile read for those of us interested in traditions and beliefs surrounding menstruation.

Blood on Screen: Menstrual Movies

September 17th, 2009 by Giovanna Chesler

Despite the shame of menstruation, feminist media makers have often turned to the cycle for inspiration. At the 2009 Spokane Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Conference, I curated a screening of short films on the menstrual cycle. Over the next few weeks I will blog about these films. From there, I’ll regularly review film works made on and about the cycle.

These works fascinate me as they diversely render menstruation. In the words of fellow SMCR blogger, Elizabeth Kissling from her book Capitalizing on the Curse, “There is no shortage of blood in US Mass Media: News broadcasts nightly reveal the blood of violent conflict; movies display gallons of simulated blood in simulated explosions and attacks… But menstrual blood is never seen and seldom mentioned; acknowledgment of the fact that women menstruate remains rare. Menstruation is our ‘dirty little secret.” These films put blood back on screen and re-imagine blood as non-violent. Despite visualizing blood, however, these films see menstruation diversely. There is no single essential menstrual experience when these films are viewed together.

The film program included works by celebrated experimental feminist filmmakers Zeinabu irene Davis (Cycles, 1989) and Barbara Hammer (Menses, 1974) as well as new pieces by upstart filmmakers Marina Shoupe (Bounce, 2007) and Angelique Smith (MENstruation, 2008). To see these films, you will need to contact the makers and I will include links to their sites when they have them. However, to begin this blog theme, I’ll tell you about one work that has a maker I have yet to identify, but which is readily available for viewing. And I will call the piece “Menstruation Animation” (though after the screening, everyone called it “Blob.”

If you type “menstruation” into You Tube, this video is first to appear. This is an animated play on the classic sex-ed films which relentlessly detail the release of the egg and its journey to the uterus. However, this egg squeals with fear as it travels. It clutches the uterine wall, begging not to go as a chorus of “blob”s begins. What strikes me are the male voices singing “Blob. Blob. Blob.” And their goatee-d visages! This short animates the body as a trans-gendered space, and the cycle as a trans-event. With humor. Not derision.

If you wish to have your film reviewed on the blog, please mail it to me on DVD or VHS to: Giovanna Chesler, Marymount Manhattan College, 221 E 71st Street, New York, NY 10021.

What It Feels Like for a Girl

September 17th, 2009 by Elizabeth Kissling

Nearly 20(!) years ago, I conducted research for my doctoral dissertation about how and what girls learn about menstruation. I researched the literature and interviewed girls ages 11-16 about what kinds of information about menstruation they received and the sources of their menstrual knowledge. Among my findings, I learned that even girls who had received adequate menstrual education from school and parents did not consider themselves prepared for their first periods. They wanted to know more about what menstruation would feel like – not more about ovaries and hormones (although research and anecdotal evidence suggests their knowledge in that area is not as well-developed as they believe). They had serious questions about whether it would hurt, how often they would need to change their menstrual pads, and other phenomenological questions about the experience of menstruation. This kind of information is seldom part of formal menstrual education, but the girls in my study found ways to seek out this information, often through girlfriends and sometimes through popular culture sources, such as teen magazines.

These issues are even more important to girls with autism or other special developmental needs. This morning I stumbled upon this discussion at about how communication with one’s daughter about what to expect at menarche is even more critical for autistic girls:

[w]hile I knew full well what menstruation “was,” my lack of expressive communication created a pretty major problem. And that wasn’t the only major problem. There was also the issue of the cramps, low blood pressure, and other ill effects which completely confused me on every level. My internal body sense is very poor, so I would mistake cramps for needing to use the toilet, or (much worse) needing to use the toilet for cramps. Self care issues with cleanliness were a big problem. On top of that sensory issues with pads were so bad that menstruation was truly a nightmare event. As I’ve aged, I’ve found ways to cope with all of these things, but it would have been much better had I found those ways to cope as a pre-teen rather than as an adult.

As someone who came of menstrual age in the 1970s when disposable menstrual pads were the approximate size and thickness of an entire box of Kleenex, I chuckled to myself when adolescent girls of the early 1990s complained to me that their paper-thin, modern pads felt like diapers. Knowing little about autism or its variants at the time, it didn’t occur to me how different the sensory experience of wearing pads could be. I’m glad I kept my amusement to myself, and I second the recommendations for instructing girls about menarche from Dora, the writer quoted above, whether they are autistic or not.

1. Communication–communicating about it when it happens, self-advocating for needs related to it

2. Sensory and motor issues with feminine products–tampons or pads, cloth or paper, consideration both of what feels (from a sensory angle) least irritating and is within the person’s motor capacity for managing

3. Internal body sense–managing pain or any other “sickness” associated with menstruation, the distinction between menstruation-related sensations and other body sensations

4. Schedule and hygiene–routines and schedules for managing feminine products, motor and executive function skills for maintaining hygiene, getting assistance if necessary

Guest Post: Chella Quint

September 16th, 2009 by Chris Bobel

This morning brings our first guest post, from our friend Chella Quint at Adventures in Menstruating.

Nice guys don’t always finish last2nd-place

Sometimes they come in…second.

Hear me out – I’ve (possibly in my sleep, which means this is one of my genius-or-madness-and-probably-madness ideas) come up with an award for positive use of menstrual comedy in a fictional work.

I’m calling it the Adventures in Menstruating Second Place Award, and, yes, it’s because second place at most good county fairs, municipal soccer leagues, and junior athletics tournaments is usually a red ribbon. I drew the one above to (badly) illustrate my point, mainly because I couldn’t find a photo on the internets that I could leglly use, and because my own red ribbon that I got for long jump in sixth grade is in a box back at my parents’ house. I’m sure you could also read all sorts into ’second place’, like the potential second class citizen status that menstruators are reduced to by the other kind of menstural humour. You know, the kind that presents women who bleed as bitchy, disgusting or insane? That doesn’t get a prize. (Well, not from me, anyway, although people who tell those jokes sometimes get their own comedy special. Go figure.)

Anyway, my award (which only exists in pixel form at the moment – sorry about that…) is for jokes that, refreshingly, do not make us the punchline. It shouldn’t be a novel concept, but there it is. I’ll add the ’second place award’ category to my links and post more examples of this as I find them, and invite you all to send me suggestions. I’ll add them to the blog as I get them.

We’re kicking off with last week’s episode of a comedy detective show called Psych (which I’m pleased to say co-stars and is sometimes written by an old Tisch classmate of mine) where periods very briefly feature in a verbal gag based on a simple misunderstanding: PTSD vs. PMS. Props to the writers, who could easily have made reference to the charater’s alleged demonic possession (long – and quite funny – story) and linked it to a cheesy PMS joke, but didn’t. It’s a good show – US viewers can check it out themselves this week online, and everyone else can grab it on DVD sometime in the future.

Look out for more second place awards.

Cross-posted at Adventures in Menstruating.

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.