Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Tina Fey’s Menstrual Musings

January 31st, 2012 by David Linton

Tina Fey, true to her reputation for being feisty and transgressive, tells two amusing menstrual tales in her recent bestselling book, Bossypants.


The first is, appropriately for a “tell all” memoire, about her menarche.  The story, familiar to thousands of other women, relates how her mother gave her a “first period” kit from the Modess company that contained two pamphlets, “Growing Up and Liking it” and “How Shall I Tell My Daughter,” and pretty much left her on her own.  Fey’s humor derives largely from exaggeration and in this case she compares the Modess box stashed in her closet to a Freddy Krueger nightmare figure lurking in the dark: “Modessssss is coming for you.”


She goes on to describe the moment of the period’s arrival when she was ten years old and performing in a choral concert.  She claims that her surprise was not so much that she got her period but that the fluid wasn’t blue as she’d been lead to expect from TV ads.


The second, and more interesting, story is about how as a writer for the long-running TV series, Saturday Night Live, she managed to get the Kotex Classic sketch on the air.  Fey refers to it as “my proudest moment as one of the head writers of SNL.”  (The anecdote was also published in the March 14, 2011 New Yorker.)  The ad parody has become an SNL classic in itself and an indispensible inclusion in any discussion of the history of menstrual references on television.


The Kotex sketch is a send-up of the trend at the time for nostalgia sales pitches such as the Coke Classis campaign.  Written by Paula Pell, it features women proudly flaunting their Kotex belts and bulging sanitary napkins, even in a swimming pool and while wearing low cut, tight evening wear.  A man in the ad comments approvingly, “Them  girls are Old School!”


Fey describes how the men at the studio who had to approve the scripts balked at selecting it.  Their resistance was eventually overcome once the women explained the exact nature of the unfamiliar menstrual technology and how it was worn.  As Fey puts it, “They didn’t know what a maxi pad belt was.  It was the moment I realized that there was no ‘institutional sexism’ at that place.  Sometimes they just literally didn’t know what we were talking about.”


Beyond the fascinating behind-the –scenes access that Tina Fey’s book provides to the working of an influential TV show – and lots of other settings as well – she has also offered a glimpse of the menstrual social gap, the chasm of ignorance that separates women and men when it comes to understanding even the most rudimentary details of menstrual management.  In this case she was able to educate the men and succeed in producing a memorable – and perhaps even liberating! – piece of TV comedy.

State of the Uterus, Living Well with Chronic Illness, Blogging While Female, and More Weekend Links

January 28th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Menstrual Moments in Modelland

January 25th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Jaime Hough


Tyra Banks wrote a young adult fantsy novel. And it’s a NYT bestseller. The book, titled Modelland, is about the journey of one awkward-looking girl who is whisked away to a magical boarding school which trains girls to become supermodels with superpowers, known as Intoxibellas. It’s kind of like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter revolved around modeling and was a battle between conventional and unconventional beauty rather than good and evil.

But I’m probably making it sound bad and it’s not, really. Modelland is the story of Tookie de la Crème,1 a girl unnoticed by her classmates and mostly ignored by her family, whose life is turned upside down when she is recruited for Modelland. The reader follows Tookie to and through her first year at Modelland as she, along dozens of other girls, trains for the chance to become one of seven Intoxibellas, supermodels with superpowers, in her graduating class. At Modelland Tookie makes her first real friends while becoming embroiled in a mystery involving the school’s headmistress, known as the BellaDonna, and the world’s mysteriously missing foremost supermodel, Ci~L.2

I read Modelland because I was curious and because I have long been fascinated by the public persona of Tyra Banks. What can I say? We all have our guilty pleasures. Most of Modelland is, for the most part, what you would expect, especially if you’re familiar with Tyra’s moneymaker, America’s Next Top Model. However, I was completely surprised by the fact that Banks chose to use menstruation as a key plot device to develop Tookie’s character. Below are excerpts from the book dealing with menstruation and my brief analysis of how these menstrual moments [MMs] function in the novel and could potentially function for the intended reader.


MM1: Not Yet A Woman

Menstrual Moment One comes near the beginning of the book when Tookie has just come home from her day at school and the readers are being introduced to her dysfunctional family. In particular, we’ve just met Tookie’s younger, dumb blonde little sister, Myrracle.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Myrracle said, frustrated. “I’m on my periodical right now! It makes me forgetful!”

“It’s period, not periodical!” Tookie growled.

Myrracle smirked. “How do you know? You haven’t even gotten yours yet!”

Tookie turned away, her face flooded with heat. Myrracle never resisted the urge to reminder her that she had gotten her period already, even though she was two years younger.3


MM2: Menarche

In Menstrual Moment Two Tookie has just spent her first night at Modelland and is about to start her first day of classes. We follow her as she prepares for class.


Disoriented, Tookie stumbled into the large, sterile-looking community bathroom. As she did, a dull pain shot through her legs, hips, and stomach. She doubled over, feeling as though she was about to vomit. Perfect, she though. I’m sick on the first day of school. . .All at once , every single girl in the bathroom doubled over in pain, gripping her stomach and back just as Tookie had. . .Tookie shut her eyes, wincing again with another pain. “Piper, my back and tummy are killing me!” she whispered.

Piper shrugged. “Join the club, Tookie. Every new Bella started menstruating at the exact same time this morning.”

“Wait. What?

“You’ve never heard of menstrual synchrony, or the dormitory effect?” Piper asked. “Menstrual synchrony is a theory that suggest that the menstruation cycles of women who cohabitate-think army barracks, female penitentiaries, convents, and university dormitories—synchronize over time. It usually takes months for the alignment to occur but her at Modelland, it seems to have happened in twenty-four hours.”

“But I’ve never gotten my period before this,” Tookie whispered.

“Well, Tookie, looks like you’re a woman now,” Piper said.

Tookie was about to protest—there was no way she was any more womanly today than she had been the day before—but all of a sudden, she felt that perhaps something in her had changed. Those abdominal pains made so much sense, after all. And that certainly made them more bearable—for once, she felt normal, like everyone else.4



MM3: Menopause, Modelland Style.

Menstrual Moment Three comes shortly after MM2 when, after the first class, a statue of the school’s headmistress (who is seen in person only once a year) tells the girls that they will no longer have periods.


The BellaDonna continued. “This cycle you had this morning will be the last period you will ever have . . . for the rest of your lives!”

There was silence. Turned heads. Questioning looks.

“We want no excuses for you missing class or shoots or shows, so Modelland is ridding you of the pain and suffering of your menstrual cycles and cramps forever,” the BellaDonna masthead explained. “You will each have the ability to procreate as you reach adulthood but no more periods. Period.”

The Guru beamed at them. “Isn’t that grandissimo?”

Almost everyone cheered, although Chaste looked strangely forlorn and confused, clamping her mouth shut and biting her bottom lip nervously. And Tookie felt another kind of cramp in her stomach . . . one of loss and regret. I finally reached womanhood, she thought. I finally got something that Myrracle has teased me about so much. And now it’s gone.5

Do You Trust Women?

January 23rd, 2012 by Chris Bobel

Do you see the connections between menstrual health awareness and reproductive justice?

At re: Cycling, we sure do, because being critical of how menstruation is regarded (and managed)—from menarche forward—is one way we loosen the social control of women’s bodies.

My body, my choice, my whole life long.

And that’s exactly what reproductive justice is about—fighting for everyone’s access to affordable, quality reproductive health care of their choosing. That’s a fight to get behind, not the stupid “War on Women” advanced by certain presidential hopefuls (Hello Rick Santorum).

We are excited about this creative campaign organized by The Trust Women/Silver Ribbon Campaign, a coalition of 42 national and local organizations (the Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights (BACORR), Catholics for Choice, NARAL-ProChoice California, Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific, and SisterSong/Trust Black Women.

The campaign takes aim at “extremist politicians elected with a mandate to fix the current economic crisis instead chose to divert the public’s attention with policy battles about these private decisions.”

So why are our legislators and presidential candidates hell-bent on denying access to basic health care services –including contraception and abortion?

Really, why do we let them get away with this?

In San Francisco, The Trust Women/ Silver Ribbon campaign is literally taking the message of reproductive justice to the streets by flying banners—colorful, clear and decisive—all over the city. The banners are more than a defensive operation in the battle against women’s autonomy; they seek to end the offensive by reminding us that most Americans are, after all, pro-choice.

The banners read:

  • Her Decision, Her Health
  • U.S. Out of My Uterus
  • Fix the Economy, Support My Autonomy
  • Reproductive Rights are Human Rights
  • San Francisco is Pro-Choice

That’s all very good, you might say, but I don’t live in San Francisco.

During Trust Women Week, January 20-27, the campaign is staging a Virtual March (with  MoveOn)—a time for reproductive justice supporters to express their support online.

So go here and take action.  Let’s end the War on Women.

Bleeding at Work, Pubic Hair, Cervical Cancer, and other Weekend Links

January 21st, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

The pill, reduced period pain and the ongoing delusion

January 20th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Is there a woman over the age of 18 anywhere who doesn’t know that taking the birth control pill can make her periods lighter and less painful? Most women know this, but not many know why. The news stories swirling around a new study about the pill and period pain will not enlighten them.

Photo credit: Ceridwen, Creative Commons 2.0

A 30-year longitudinal Swedish study has finally proved the worth of what is accepted practice in North America and Europe: the prescribing of combined oral contraceptives (COCs), or birth control pills with synthetic estrogen and progestin, to treat painful periods known clinically as dysmenorrhea.

Of course, pharmaceutical companies that manufacture COCs are probably eager for this research, as prescribing the pill for dysmenorrhea is still an off-label use in the U.S. (unlicensed use in the U.K.). Pill manufacturers may be able to use this finding to lobby the FDA (or equivalent agencies in other nations) to approve the pill as treatment for menstrual pain, leading to increased sales and insurance coverage. Perhaps that’s why news media have been treating this discovery as breaking news.

Take this headline: Yes, the Pill CAN ease the agony of period pain: Scientists confirm what millions of women already know, or this one: The pill ‘does ease period pain’, or this one: Combination oral contraception pills cut menstruation pain, or, really, any of these.

You can read the abstract of the study by Swedish researchers Ingela Lindh, Agneta Andersson Ellström and Ian Milsom, published this week in the journal Human Reproduction, here: The effect of combined oral contraceptives and age on dysmenorrhoea: an epidemiological study. The conclusions are simple: “COC use and increasing age, independent of each other, reduced the severity of dysmenorrhoea. COC use reduced the severity of dysmenorrhea more than increasing age and childbirth.”

Forget the age factor for the purposes of this discussion. The fact that COC use reduces the severity of dysmenorrhea is not astounding. This is old news. So says Dr. Steven Goldstein, an obstetrician/gynecologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, quoted in a USA Today story:

“The study results are not surprising. It’s gratifying to see researchers documenting scientifically what practitioners have been seeing for a very long time. The amount of discomfort from a woman’s period with a combination birth control pill is a fraction of what it is without the Pill. There is a diminution of pain from the Pill.”

What is astounding is what Dr. Goldstein, and other OBGYNs, didn’t say in responding to the study. That the reason the pill reduces menstrual pain is because the synthetic hormones in the pill shut down a woman’s own menstrual cycle. The “period” women experience when on the pill is technically known as a “withdrawal bleed,” brought on by seven days of placebo pills. While it feels like a period to menstruators, it is not the same physiologically as the period they experience when NOT on the pill. That’s why it doesn’t hurt as much.

The point is, the pill is too often credited with regulating the menstrual cycle. It does no such thing. The pill does not regulate any woman’s menstrual cycle; it supercedes it. This research, and the many news stories that reported it, once again ascribe power to the pill – this time the power to cut menstrual pain. This is an incomplete truth.

Alongside Scientists Exploring Why Women Menstruate

January 19th, 2012 by Alexandra Jacoby

I read a blog post about a paper (that I have not read). The post is “Why do women menstruate?” by PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, blogging at Pharyngula. The paper is “The evolution of menstruation: A new model for genetic assimilation: Explaining molecular origins of maternal responses to fetal invasiveness.” by Emera D, Romero R, Wagner G.

I’m not a scientist and don’t routinely have access to papers like these. Usually, by the time ideas raised  in them reach me, they would be solid-feeling facts, authoritative and done — not inspiring questions and wonderings that I can pursue in my way.

They might be about the products that were developed in response to, or as a side-effect of the research, or maybe I’d hear about newly discovered dangers to my health.

Rarely, do I get to be in on the “why.” To think about the story of it–my body–alongside the scientists when they are exploring what might be the origin of, or deciding factors in, why we are the way we are. As human bodies.

(So, thank you, internet. Thank you, bloggers).

"The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures" by William Hunter, Public domain.

This paper (as I understand it via the Pharyngula post) focuses on the conflicting interests of the relationship between a fetus and the woman carrying it: the fetus acting for its survival and development, and the woman as agent for her life, health, and the ability, should she want to, to carry more pregnancies to term.

The research notes a difference among mammals who spontaneously initiate the process of building up the uterine lining, regardless of whether there’s an implanted embryo (like us, with our monthly-ish menstrual cycles) and those who build up the lining only when triggered by an embryo, and asks why do we do this? Why not wait until you need it?

The answer seems to be because you won’t be ready if you wait. Maybe it’s like having guests over last-minute. You might have food and drink enough for all, but you might not. And, you might have stuff laying around that is more personal than you want guests to see. Or, maybe it’s all fine enough. Last-minute is frequently doable, but it’s better to be prepared. Prepared gives you options. Prepared gives you a chance to make it really comfortable and welcoming. Prepared sets you up to have the experience you wanted to have.

Women menstruate to be body-ready to handle the situation of pregnancy in the context of their whole lives, and their family’s whole life.

The monthly preparation of the uterine lining establishes optimal conditions for the relationship, the active give-and-take, between woman and fetus. And, while there are conflicting interests in this shared space of blood and nutrients, I see it as like any relationship between any things living — on a continuum of interaction between self-expressing creatures, cells or trees. There are intricate, elegant processes taking place to make it all happen. There is preparation and desire on both parts — blood, nutrients, and soil, air and water being exchanged and used up among us. There are points of contact, expected and understood, or surprising, or painful, or deadly. We’re in it together for better or worse. All of our relationships are active. Everything is interrelated and contingent and based on routines and cycles. On those we build, change, evolve…

I think only we are impatient about it — want it done  faster, with less work and no mess. The stuff of life is messy, though.

For me, when I understand the purpose of the mess, the effort required, the time and attention, become meaningful — I am able to recognize participants (rather than adversaries), to value the work we do and remember the vision and desire that infuse it all.

Figure Girl Fertility

January 18th, 2012 by David Linton

Guest Post by Lianne McTavish — University of Alberta

(aka Feminist Figure Girl)

While working out at the gym yesterday—something I do on a daily basis—I felt a strangely familiar pressure in my lower abdomen and noticed that it was protruding, despite the strong elastic of my Lululemon pants. ‘Oh I know what is going on,’ I said to my fit workout partner. ‘I am getting my period!’ She too was bloated and crampy, and we wondered if our cycles had synchronized during strenuous sets of wide grip chin ups and heavy dead lifts. Deciding that we were probably romanticizing our ovarian activity, we stopped talking and returned to our tabata-inspired drills, grunting out 50 burpees. Life was good.

Feminist Figure Girl poses in competition (Used with permission)

I was pleased with my body and its potential fertility, which made me feel younger than my 44 years. Just a few months ago I thought I might have entered menopause, though without any accompanying symptoms, except for amenorrhea. I had stopped menstruating while training and dieting for a bodybuilding competition. After being promoted to full professor at the University of Alberta, writing a couple of books, and publishing numerous articles, I needed a new challenge. Already a dedicated gym rat, I decided to enter a bodybuilding competition, doing so as a form of research. I began reading feminist theories of embodiment and cultural accounts of weight lifting, hired an established diet coach, took posing lessons, and learned how to walk in high heels. I entered a local contest in the category called ‘Figure,’ which favours muscular physiques with wide, capped shoulders, broad upper backs, and well defined quads, but requires a softer appearance than traditional forms of bodybuilding. Adopting a beauty pageant aesthetic, the exclusively female participants in Figure—known colloquially as ‘Figure girls’—wear blinged out bikinis and four-inch high plastic shoes while performing mandatory four-quarter turns to display every angle of their bodies to a panel of judges. I wanted to know why women found such contests empowering, even though these events might initially seem both oppressive and sexist. I also wanted to experience what it felt like to compete.

One physical result was the loss of my period. Six months before my show I had weighed 145 pounds and had my body fat carefully measured at 17%, but when I hit the stage at the Northern Alberta Bodybuilding Championships on June 4, 2011, I was 118 pounds and had only about 6% body fat. During that diet-down phase I had ceased taking birth control pills because the estrogen could soften my body, at odds with my goals. Although I used alternative forms of contraception, I feared that they would be less effective and began taking monthly pregnancy tests. The single blue line on the plastic stick was a relief to me, replacing the role of menstrual blood by providing visual evidence of my non-pregnant state.

My period had not returned three months after my competition, though I had gained about 15 pounds by eating larger amounts of healthy, high protein food. I was training just as hard at the gym; indeed I was lifting much heavier weights. During a routine physical in September, I reluctantly told my sensible-shoes doctor that I had not had a period in quite some time. ‘If I have already gone through menopause,’ I exclaimed, ‘it’s the bomb and I say bring it!’ ‘Oh no,’ she chuckled, ‘most of my athletic female patients no longer menstruate. Plus, you are only 44 and can probably squeeze out a few more eggs.’  Horrified by this news I cried out: ‘No, no more eggs!’ I had been hoping to wear the crown of sterility for the rest of my life.

Still, I was happy when my period finally returned a few months ago. In part, this response was related to my fear of aging, or ‘drying up.’ This conception of growing older stems from the early modern period (1350–1750), when blood was the most important bodily humour and its fluid movement was valued. As a specialist in seventeenth-century French visual culture and medical history, I knew that during the early modern period menstruation had been considered integral to being a woman, and to sexual desire. It was positively linked with fecundity, health, and youth. Periodic bleeding was understood as a necessary expulsion of corrupted blood, providing women with health benefits that men sadly lacked. Male bodies had to resort to random nose bleeds or swollen hemorrhoids to achieve cleanliness. The overwhelmingly negative connotations of les règles are modern, but the early modern response to menstrual blood was in fact ambivalent, with the womb sometimes described as a sewer that collected and expelled dirt.

Such ambivalence continues in contemporary western culture, and is certainly present in the bodybuilding subculture. The absence of menstruation is an accomplishment for some competitors, proving that a low level of body fat has been reached.  Its return marks the off-season, proving that muscular dedicated women are still ‘female’ after all. The menstrual cycling that occurs in bodybuilding is thus open to interpretation, potentially linked with gendered identity, but also a sign of having overcome supposedly feminine weaknesses. In the end, I learned a lot about my body and the contemporary performance of gendered identity by entering a Figure competition. I also learned that menstruation is a cultural performance linked with gender and sexuality and that it can be simultaneously desired and dreaded.

Childhood abuse and menarcheal age

January 17th, 2012 by Chris Hitchcock

Last month I wrote about menarcheal age in Ethiopian girls, and that food insecurity leads to a delay in the onset of menstruation. This fits with the general response of the reproductive system to energetic stress – low energy leads to suppression of the hypothalamus, which interferes with ovulatation and, in stronger cases, with menstruation itself.

But, it would seem, not all stressors are the same. Over the past decade or so, a series of studies have shown that, unlike food shortages, the stresses of childhood neglect, abuse, and even the absence of a father tend to accelerate rather than delay puberty.

So how do researchers understand the effects of these different types of stress during development? The leading hypothesis is an evolutionary one, based on something called life history theory. The theory is that there is a tradeoff between reproduction and survival. Early energy put into reproduction comes at a cost of long term survival, and delayed reproduction may result in no reproduction at all unless the chances of surviving are good. This can be used to understand different life history strategies such as weeds (early reproduction, short survival) versus trees (later reproduction, longer survival). It can be used to look at different strategies within a species. And it can also be used to look at a contingent strategy within a species, one that is expressed in different ways depending on the circumstances.

In the case of humans and abuse during development, the argument is that abuse, neglect and the absence of a father all indicate more adverse conditions, in which long-term survival is less likely, and accelerated reproduction is favored.

There is good reason to be cautious when assessing evolutionary arguments about humans, especially when sex and reproduction come into the story. However, in this case the data are persuasive. Here are a few links to articles that have addressed the topic:

Childhood abuse and early menarche: findings from the black women’s health study.

Childhood sexual abuse and early menarche: the direction of their relationship and its implications.

A life history assessment of early childhood sexual abuse in women.

Sexual trajectories of abused and neglected youths

Age of menarche: the role of some psychosocial factors.

Retro Tampon Commercial — Playtex Deodorant Tampons

January 16th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Tampons were so empowering in the ’80s.


Note also the brief, fine print warning about Toxic Shock Syndrome. It’s apparently important that you read the other warning.

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.