With the military’s history of suppressing minority groups, its new effort to conceal and terminate menstruation comes as no surprise. Hopefully, the menses will be able to come out of the closet soon enough.
I recently wrote a paper about menstruation in the military and was excited to see this recent post at re:Cycling. Researchers have suddenly become sensitive to the “devastating” effects of menstruation on women in combat and training, citing a potential link to iron-deficiency, among other things. (Might I add that, while the article identifies menses as the culprit, the actual data suggest no correlation between the loss of menstrual blood and the low iron levels of the participants.) Researchers have also conducted studies and interviews to determine the level of difficulty menstruation adds to a variety of physical activities and expose reported difficulty in obtaining, storing, transporting, changing, and disposing of “sanitary products” (Note the hygiene-promoting terminology). These reports have indicated a significant struggle with menstrual management, giving grounds to the military’s new encouragement for women to use continuous oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) to “temporarily” induce amenorrhea.
What’s happening here is not simply a conquering of the menses but an overpowering of women as a whole. The article about iron deficiency says it best, with its opening paragraph explaining the biological disadvantages of women: women’s lower levels of physical strength, inferior aerobic performance, and a number of other physical and mental “shortcomings” that include the ability to menstruate. It states, “the physical differences between genders in the military setting should be minimized as much as possible” (866). They’re not trying to make women more comfortable by stopping their periods; they’re using men to set the physical and mental performance standard for which women must strive. The failure of women to meet this standard lies in their very biology; the study directly blamed their femaleness as the source of this imbalance. It’s not, “Stop menstruating because it will help you.” It’s, “Stop menstruating because it will get you that much closer to being a man.” Oh joy.
The misogyny embedded within this move toward menstrual suppression does not discount the results of the studies; menstrual management poses a serious issue for most military women! In addition to the difficulty reported in transporting, obtaining, and storing products, another article relayed the troubling results of interviews from women of the Air Force, Army, and Navy regarding personal hygiene and field menstrual management.4 These interviews told of highly unsanitary bathroom facilities in combat environments, lack of privacy for the use and changing of menstrual products, and bathrooms that rarely contained receptacles for disposing of the products. The women reported collecting used products in Ziploc bags to either bury them in the secrecy of night or to keep them in their luggage until they returned to the U.S. Because of the hot, moist climates inhabited during deployment; the heavy, reused, and unwashed clothing; and the frequent lack of water or time to wash up, the interviewees reported constant awareness and humiliation surrounding menstrual odor. Most of the women also admitted hesitancy toward utilizing the clinic for menstrual health issues because they were made to feel that their menstrual symptoms were not worthy of care. They also reported that gynecological exams were excluded from their general deployment health examinations.
Instead of using continuous OCPs to prevent this natural biological process, better solutions could be found in a more positive attitude toward femininity and more humane conditions for menstrual management. These solutions lie in time allotment during training and deployment for menstrual product use, allowances for transportation and storage of products, better access to menstrual healthcare and products, more frequent gynecological exams, better education about the many different options for non-hormonal contraception and reusable menstrual products, and more sanitary conditions about which women can change and dispose of menstrual products. In English, if menstrual management is problematic in the military, don’t terminate menstruation, but give women a means through which they can better “command” their cycles. (Because, not to pull a Gloria Steinem, but if men menstruated, the armed forces would totally provide them with unlimited tampons and Midol free of charge, and conduct research on the physical and mental benefits of the menses to support male superiority during their time of the month.) Women provide many great assets to the military, and their menstrual cycles should be allowed to join the service, too. Make menstrual love, not war.