Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Long Live The Difference

December 5th, 2010 by Holly Grigg-Spall

toiletcorbis The UK Daily Mail newspaper last week reported that a company in Norway required that its female employees wear a red bracelet when menstruating as a way to monitor the extra toilet breaks it is assumed they need at that time. Firstly, and aside from all the historical context for such stigmatization, it isn’t obvious why it would be assumed women having their period would need to visit the bathroom more often than normal. It certainly sounds like a thought from an ignorant male manager. Perhaps it is necessary to have one extra toilet break within the eight hours, two at most. Anyone who has worked in an office job knows that the bathroom is used for all manner of purposes other than for that it was designed – for taking a break from the monotony of office work, to take a break from the computer, to chat with a friend in private, to make a phone call, to organize a night out after work – by men and women.

If toilet breaks are such a hindrance to companies then the next logical step is statutory Seasonique for every new female employee.

Monitoring bathroom breaks has historical links to the monitoring of women in the workplace specifically. Emily Martin discusses in her book The Woman In The Body how women were thought incapable of working alongside men exactly because they menstruate – and their menstruation was the central example of their difference, and inferiority – and so the necessity for extra bathroom breaks once a month was said to be detrimental to the productivity of the factory – as opposed to the modern-day version, the office. But Martin points out that bathrooms were also the only space in which the women workers could be away from men and speak in private. This made bathroom breaks times for women to establish their own identity outside of the male-created, male-ruled environment and to connect with each other. I have written about this in more detail for my own blog, Sweetening The Pill.

In The Daily Mail article although ostensibly the source of outrage is the red bracelets, menstruation is lumped in with all the other bodily functions reserved for the toilet. It is interesting to see the difficulty the media has in placing menstruation within its understanding of human experience. That it is said women feel ‘justifiably humiliated’ and ‘insulted’ is not explored in any of the coverage, it is only accepted that it is right they feel this way because menstruation is private, and by private it is meant dirty, disgusting and needing to be hidden away. When people use the bathroom for urinating they don’t pretend they are only going in there to have a glass of water or sit down. Or in a way actually, they do and perhaps shame and the need for women to be disassociated from their bodies is the source of the mythology that has built up around women’s bathroom breaks – that they always go in pairs, that they stay in their a long time, that they are doing other things, anything other than urinating.

Miranda Gray writes in The Optimized Woman that menstruation should set women apart from men in a positive way, that women’s menstrual cycles and the changes that occur in their skills and talents across the month could be used to reinvent the work environment and the structure of the 9-5 working week to be more humane, and therefore more productive. She sees that the male-created working world needs to be made better for the sake of women and men, and that the cycle might present an alternative that allows humans to be human and does not expect them to behave as machines.

4 responses to “Long Live The Difference”

  1. Naomi says:

    Interesting (and shocking story in the mail) but i have to argue that your patriarchal analysis doesn’t reach far enough…the world of work is money-created, not man-created, in my opinion. Is it too simplistic to suggest the red bracelet policy is simply an idiotic efficiency drive? Of course the result is sexist, but I’m not sure the motive is.

  2. Naomi – Absolutely. I sort of go into this a bit more in my own blog – linked to here, Sweetening The Pill. Barbara Ehrenreich’s For Her Own Good was very enlightening.

  3. I really loved this piece, and the one on your blog.

    Here’s a mock “menstruation policy” ad I made, if you want to look at it (starring my sister)

    In reference to red bracelet, here’s some red collars Molly Strange made, for Menstrual Monday 2009 (I did photos):

    And here’s the red collar town page, if you’re interested:

  4. Heather D says:

    My question is: then what would companies do with perimenopausal women who have irregular periods? The assumption behind these workplace policies would be that every woman would menstruate at regular intervals (and if she asked for too many bathroom breaks on weeks that should not be her cycle weeks perhaps she could be written up or denied these breaks???). Isn’t this a pretty bad assumption first of all, and second, could a policy like this ever be written for women of different ages/life stages? The whole thing just seems completely ridiculous to me, and definitely defines women as menstruating regularly (and therefore presumably also between the ages of probably their late teens and late thirties only….

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