Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

The Eternal Feminine: Focused, Goal-Oriented, Practical, and Loving

April 30th, 2012 by Paula Derry

Visiting colleges became part of our repertoire of family trips back when my daughter was a senior in high school.   We visited many schools to get a sense of the range of possibilities that existed.   As was typical, Vassar offered a tour of the campus for groups of prospective students and their parents, led by tour-guides who were undergraduate students.  Vassar’s tour had one unique feature.  An original campus building, which dated to the post-civil war era, had an exceptionally wide hallway.  This, we were told, was because the all-woman student body needed to be able to walk back and forth repeatedly in the halls in their wide skirts, as part of a college program in physical fitness. Vassar, founded on the idea that the education of women should equal that of men, had a program of physical culture to offset criticisms that the school was endangering women’s health by educating them.

Sheila Rothman describes Vassar’s history in her book “Woman’s Proper Place,” published by Basic Books in 1978.  The common wisdom in the second half of the 19th century was that people have a limited amount of biological “vital energy.”  Rothman (p.24) quotes a contemporary physician:  ”Woman has a sum total of nervous force equivalent to a man’s” but the force is “distributed over a greater multiplicity of organs…The nervous force is therefore weakened in each organ…it is more sensitive, more liable to derangement.”  Menstruation and pregnancy were times of special danger, when the demands on her system were greater and the possibility of physical and mental disorder increased.  Menstruation was a time when women were irrational, even insane.  Caution, however, was always called for, as when intellectual activity or other exertion used up nervous energy.  Thus, when Vassar was founded, a program was put in place to overcome women’s predisposition to illness through a structured environment and programs of physical exercise.  Later, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae conducted a survey to provide research evidence as to whether female college graduates were normal.

Image by Thiophene_Guy // CC 2.0

Back in the Vassar of the present, our student tour guide wondered:  “How could anyone believe anything so silly?” It’s true that we no longer talk about a “vital force.”  Yet, broad generalizations about the nature of women and reproductive physiology continue to exist that have an air of plausibility, based today on a different scientific language, one of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other players.   Not very long ago, menopause was defined as an “estrogen deficiency disease” that had a uniquely powerful effect on health.  Heart disease was a disease of civilization for men and a disease of the ovaries for women.   The idea that the menstrual cycle destabilizes women’s minds, creating mood and intellectual changes, continues to exist.

One of my favorites is the idea that women are somehow receptive, loving, and self-denying because of their maternal role, which is somehow mediated by estrogen.  Thus menopause may be said to be a time that women regain the ability to focus more on themselves, liberated from a physiological preparedness for reproduction and its needs.   Pregnancy is a dreamy time when women are moody and unable to think clearly.

Sure, mothers are receptive, loving, self-denying, but they are also many other things.  I love being a mother.  My relationship with my daughter has been powerful, unique, and wonderful.  However, I know that a mother who is lost in a dreamy connectedness to her child or reflexively puts her child before herself can’t do everything she needs to do.   A mother is emotionally connected to her child but also must be an individual who perceives the child accurately, as a separate person, in terms of the child’s motivation and perspective, in order to provide both a sense of connection and the mirroring needed for a child’s emotional development.   Further, children misbehave, make mistakes, and must be taught all kinds of things; mothers must have clear-headed, pragmatic, problem-solving skills.

Sometimes we read works by evolutionary theorists and others that presuppose prehistoric women were sort-of-like housewives, dependent upon men for food and safety.  This overlooks the fact that women were the gatherers in hunter/gatherer societies, providing a significant amount of the family’s food.   Over the course of history, women were potters, weavers, cooks, doing all kinds of necessary work.   Women with leisure to devote themselves primarily to childrearing must have historically always been a minority.  Would women have survived, or would their children have survived, if they were muddle-headed when pregnant or menstruating, or ruled by their hormones rather than tasks that needed to be done?

Even rat mothers must continue to feed themselves, retrieve pups if they wander off, and engage in other instrumental tasks or their young won’t survive.  Being a human mother involves love, receptivity, psychological maturity, thinking skills, and practical competence, neurons as well as hormones.

The Medically Unnecessary Transvaginal Ultrasound and other Weekend Links

April 28th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

KOTEX IS IN THE HOUSE! (or, Is the House?)

April 27th, 2012 by David Linton

Despite occasional efforts by manufacturers of menstrual pads and tampons (the giants of the menstrual-industrial complex – thanks, President Eisenhower) to present period-positive images, they still seem unable to resist representing menstruation as an undesirable, embarrassing phenomenon. Women, particularly teens, are expected to grin and bear it as best they can while enduring their monthly misery.  Consider a recent example.

A few weeks ago, the small college where I work received 12 large cartons from a firm called Brand Connections, which apparently specializes in managing promotional campaigns that involve providing free samples of products.  Each carton contained 72 box-like items made up to look like thick text books but with a cover that closely resembled a copy of Teen or Seventeen magazine.  In large letters on the spine and front are the words, “GET REAL.”  The instruction sheet in each carton included warnings that the contents “may not be suitable for children” and that selling the items rather than giving them away “may result in civil and/or criminal prosecution.”  And, in bold type, the page states, “This box contains FREE House of Kotex samples!”  The college authorities were directed to, “Please hand out the House of Kotex samples to your Universities [sic] female students for their enjoyment.”


However, the contents of the package itself were a bit more ambivalent about any connection between menstrual products and enjoyment.

The box opens to disclose, on the right side, two plastic pouches, one white containing a pad and a panty liner, and one black containing a pad, a wipe and a tampon.  On the left, emulating a feature popular in teen girl magazines, is a six item quiz in which girls are asked to choose favorite shoes, lip gloss colors, eye shade, date wear and weekend entertainment.  The sixth item, “Being on your period is. . .” provides the following choices:

  1. the worst
  2. not so bad
  3. part of life
  4. super annoying

If one picks 1. or 4., one is directed to the black pouch; if one chooses 2. or 3., the white pouch is for you.

The cartons were placed around the campus at strategic locations for young women (or curious young men) to pick up the packets.  One enterprising student rifled a few dozen of the tampon packs to store up a stash of her preferred product for the next few months.

Though the cover photo of two smiling young women and the slangy headline references to bonding, fun, and sharing, as well as the playful references to popular items inside created a sense of happy girlhood, the non-so-subtle way the period was described unfortunately reinforced the nuisance trope that is so deeply engraved in young women already.

Readers are invited to propose alternative options to the last question in the menstrual quiz.

Searching for Good News about Menopause

April 26th, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

Lately I’m fed up with the kinds of articles and news items that cross my desk (or computer screen) about perimenopause and menopause. So much of the news on this midlife transition seems negative. I hear about the new treatments for (unbearable) hot flashes or a new movie saying how terrible menopause is (remember my blog entry on Hot Flash Havoc? That movie is still getting a ton of press for better or worse). The most neutral reports seem to be about lifestyle changes (exercise, diet, quitting smoking, etc.) women can make to lessen “problematic” symptoms.

So, I’m starting to wonder: Is there any purely good news about menopause? Any news that will make women feel good about their midlife transitions?

To answer my own question, I typed “good news about menopause” into google, bing, and yahoo search engines. Readers of this blog should try it themselves. Type it in and see what you get.

When I typed this phrase into different search engines, right away the same sorts of news articles described above popped up. There is “good news” for menopause “sufferers” who want to try out new medical treatments for menopausal symptoms (you too can lessen your hot flashes!), “good news” that menopausal women can reverse aging (read: aging is bad!), “good news” that perimenopausal women can change their diet, “good news” that women can take supplements that will make sex better after menopause, etc. In my opinion, most of these articles have a negative undertone – that menopause is something to be suffered and endured and disliked overall. While these articles might be offering solutions to make life better, the underlying message is still that this life stage sucks for women. There were few exceptions to this, but the exceptions are worth mentioning. For instance a blog about the wisdom and freedom that women can find at menopause did pop up, as did another “menopause goddess” blog that gave a much more positive spin to this midlife transition. I personally wish I had seen more items like the latter two. For me, most of the “good news” that popped up is not so good.

I think about the perimenopausal or menopausal women who might be looking for “good news” about their life stage and I wonder what they might be looking for. If you are perimenopausal or menopausal and you’re reading this, what “good news” are you looking for? And how do you feel about the “good news” you’re getting?

Marilyn Monroe’s Ovaries, Crazy Things Gynecologists Say, and other Weekend Links

April 21st, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling


“Lives will be saved” – the FDA decision not to ban Bayer’s birth control pill

April 18th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall


Photo by Monik Markus // CC 2.0

How many of us read the inserts included in a packet of pills? How many decide not to take the pills on the basis of the information enclosed?  The rapidly reeled-off list of side effects stated at the end of a televised advert for a new drug has more comedic value than serious consequence to most. If we do have doubts, many of us will rely on the reassurance of a doctor, and then take the pill anyway.

I recently wrote a piece for Ms. Magazine Blog outlining the FDA reappraisal of top-selling oral contraceptives Yaz and Yasmin. It was discovered that drugs such as these containing drospirenone held a significantly higher risk of causing blood clots. Research by the FDA and other bodies suggested this conclusion was definite, while research funded by the pharmaceutical company behind these billion-dollar products, Bayer, suggested the opposite conclusion to be true: that there was no increased risk evident. A team of experts, some of which had financial ties to the company, voted against having the pills taken off the market when presented with the question of whether the risks of taking these pills outweighed the benefits.

Bayer is facing 11,300 lawsuits from women who have been seriously injured and family members of women who have died after taking one of the company’s bestselling hormonal contraceptives. They have settled the first 500 addressed with a total of $110 million in payouts. When discussing this process with a lawyer representing many of the women I was told that Bayer would do anything to avoid a trial wherein the full spectrum of their marketing strategies would be revealed.

The FDA came to the decision to add into the insert included with these drugs a statement of the discovery of “conflicting” research that suggested the pills had a higher risk of causing blood clots  (up to three times higher) – acknowledging the discrepancy of the research funded by Bayer and giving it equal standing as that performed by other bodies including the FDA itself.

Prior to this decision being announced a number of women’s health groups got together to write a letter to the FDA asking that they look again at the question put to the board of experts. They argued that the correct comparison for the board to consider would be between drospirenone-containing contraceptives and other oral contraceptives, and not between Bayer’s drugs and unwanted pregnancy. In the final sentence, they remarked that they believed that “lives will be saved” if the pills were no longer on the market. They met with the FDA and one representative asked that the FDA strongly reassess its acceptance of Bayer-funded research. Another asked that the drugs no longer be prescribed and that the FDA “get back to the arc of history and progress that protects women while supporting their contraceptive needs.”

The new labeling will state the “conflicting” findings and advise that women speak to their doctor if concerned. The official statement on this decision, relayed through the media coverage, reminded women that when compared to pregnancy the risk of development of a blood clot was insignificant. They also asked that women currently taking the drugs not stop doing so. Despite the FDA studies suggesting the blood clot risk is particularly high for women under 30, the statement compounded the understanding that the issue is only relevant to those over 35,  those overweight, those that smoke, and those with relevant medical history.

Is this additional text in an insert enough? Cynthia Pearson of the National Women’s Health Network has given an unqualified no as her response to the decision.  If no is the answer, then what needs to happen next? At this time I’ve seen no coverage outside of news reports that has shown the response of the wider feminist, or just female, community.

When I heard that the FDA was asking for a comparison between pregnancy risks and the risks of Yaz and Yasmin, and that the women’s health groups were calling for, in their letter to the FDA, a comparison between these oral contraceptives and other brands not containing drospirenone, I immediately wanted to know why the comparison was not between using these pills and not using them — as in using other forms of non-hormonal contraception with similar effectiveness. This would produce the biggest gap, and put the statistics in starker relief.

There is too much dependent on the FDA not acknowledging the efficacy of non-hormonal contraceptives or admitting that research funded by the pharmaceutical company producing the drug is not reliable. These were for some years the most popular oral contraceptives. It is important that it is believed that there truly is an “arc of history and progress that protects women.”

Even the women’s health group representatives appear to understand this as a blip in an other uninterrupted history of outstanding service. To my mind, such behavior by the FDA should raise some serious suspicions of their motivating force. They advise that women should discuss this with their doctors – doctors who probably know less than I do, due to time constraints, inclination, as well as doctors that could well be directly or indirectly benefitting from backing Bayer.

When Menstrual Talk Comes Home

April 16th, 2012 by Chris Bobel

For the last decade or so, like so many others who read and write for this blog, I have been researching, reading and writing about how we think, talk and act (out) about menstruation. My particular interest is the various interventions that some brave activists make to disrupt the dominant narrative of menstruation.

But this post isn’t about my work or even the work of others. Not exactly.

This post is about my daughters and what sometimes happens when my work comes home.

In 2006, when my oldest daughter  was 13, we had one of many Mom-initiated short talks about her approaching menarche in the (of course) car. Posing as a super nonchalant mom, I casually asked:

ME: So what do you think your period will be like?

HER: I will hate it.

[GULP…I was grateful she could not see her feminist mother’s face completely cave in]

ME: Why do you think so?

HER:  All my friends hate theirs.

Later that year, her first period. My daughter did not share this with me, rather, I “discovered” this new development on my own. That evening, after we talked, she agreed—none-too-cheerfully—to a dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, but we were not permitted to discuss “the event.” The next day, I set the kitchen table with candles, tea and her favorite dessert—just for the two of us—and I presented her with a lovely bag to store her menstrual supplies (that I am pretty sure she never used).

Getting her ears pierced

Photo by Aaron Conaway // CC 2.0

We had decided, years before, that when she began menstruating, she would get her ears pierced. So we went to Claire’s and did the deed, but again, no fanfare—just a mom taking her teen daughter to get her ears pierced.

From that point forward, we rarely talked about her menstrual experiences, though I tried and failed several times.  For example, I suggested she try cloth pads (and why), but she was not the least bit interested

When my book on menstrual politics came out, my daughter  was 16. She and 4 of her friends, all dressed in red dresses, circulated trays of  menstrually-themed (read: red) appetizers at my book party. The party favors, the decorations, and the conversation were all highly MENSTRUAL, and I heard no titters, detected no blushing between my girl and her pals.

So did my daughter HATE her period, after all? Maybe not, but she, the child of a feminist committed to challenging the dominant cultural narrative of menstruation, became a girl, who, at best, managed her period. And I wanted better for her.

Today, my second daughter is 8.  She is 9 years younger than her older sister.

Since she could talk, she has called attention to my period. When she glimpses me changing my pad on the toilet  (yes, we have an open door policy), she typically remarks:

“You are having your period, Mama.”

“Yes, Honey, I am.“

She speaks as if her first period might be any day. It could be, but I doubt it. Her trajectory toward puberty seems to be moving at a pretty average clip.

She is very excited about getting her ears pierced when she begins menstruating. She loves wearing stick on earrings and clip ons; this is a girl enamored with ear bling. But she has never once asked if she could get her ears pierced BEFORE her menarche, even though several of her friends have theirs pierced now. I think she likes the link between menarche and ear piercing, seeing it as an established rite of passage.

She asked me the other day why I don’t use a Diva Cup, because, after all, she said, “They are less wasteful.”

I don’t know how to explain my girls’ contrasting reactions to their anticipated menarche, and I can’t easily predict how my youngest will actually experience her menstrual life (when the day comes, will I find her panties half hidden in her room too?) But I will admit that I was feeling like I had done ‘something right’ with Girl Number Two. Until….

The other day, she asked me: “What happens if my period starts when I am in school?”

I realized that with all the menstrual talk in our house, she still did not really know what to expect. She was afraid her period would start and her pants would flood. She said she wants to start carrying a pad around in her backpack “just in case.” I didn’t hear excitement in her voice. No, I heard anxiety.

This got me thinking about her many comments about starting her period. When? When? When? And she’s just 8.

I worry that the menstrual culture we’ve grown inside our home may have inadvertently burdened my little girl. It seemed to have a different effect on her sister. With my oldest, Mom-as-menstrual-warrior seemed to steel her against engagement with her menstrual self. With younger daughter, I wonder if it has made her anxious. Is the menstrual culture  at home creating a richer context for my youngest to understand her changing body? Or are my fears justified? In a menstrual-shaming society, does more -than- average attention to the big M actually backfire and create worry? After all, when she walks out our front door, who–out there–is going to affirm her?

Sync Your Cycle, Bleach Your Vulva, Lose Your Virginity, and More Weekend Links

April 14th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Top five reasons not to talk about the menstrual cycle

April 12th, 2012 by Alexandra Jacoby
hand-mirrors and notebooks this morning

hand-mirrors & notebooks this morning

In last month’s blog post, I was thinking through why we weren’t supposed to talk about our bodies, and by the end of the post, it did seem to me that talking about our body-lives was a normal, sensible, useful, appropriate —just a big yes— thing to do.

And, then it got quiet.

Not just you.

I got quiet.


…here’s why —

  1. I should know this already! — my body, right? — how it works. Recently, a friend asked me [politely] how come we have a Society for Menstrual Cycle Research? Don’t we already understand how it works?
  2. Too personal — not everything in my life is public material [even if we’re friends].
  3. You’ll use it against me — you’ll stop listening when you don’t like what I have to say and chalk it up to that time of the month, or my being on the rag — rather than talking through when we disagree, or when my opinions are strong.
  4. It reminds everyone that I’m that other [messy] body type. And, I just want to be normal.
  5. Too busy — I have projects in the works, people waiting, emails to reply to, and what I’d really like is a vacation! Why do I need to be talking about this, too? I mean if everything’s working ok, what is there to discuss?

I just re-read last month’s post. When I wrote it, I thought I was writing it for you.

Turns out, I wrote it for myself.

I am uncomfortable in this conversation. Not always, and not always for the same reasons.

And, less so, having told you that…

What about you?

Shit I Say

April 10th, 2012 by David Linton

Guest Post by Alexandra Epstein

A series of videos on YouTube have taken stereotypes to a whole new level.  Not only is ‘Shit Girls Say’ sexist, but it has created an empire of homemade ‘Shit (insert proper noun here) Say’ videos stereotyping hundreds of categories. To name just a few, “hung over girls,” “Asian moms,” “boyfriends,” “hot girls,” “fat girls,” “single girls,” and of course we cant forget about “girls who are on their periods.”

In this two-minute video, this girl seems to suffer from every social construction created pertaining to menstruation. From her constant longing for chocolate, to her feeling as if she is dying, to her mood swings, this girl over exaggerates all of the symptoms she claims to have.

The point of this video is to get a laugh, I know. So why be so harsh? It’s funny, right? The typical menstruating female is supposed to watch this and say “oh my God, I do that too! Haha!” However, not all women experience menstruation in the same ways. This generalization of how women act while they are on their periods is only reinforcing the stereotypes that men gain their information from and that so many women are trying to fight every day.

I have a proposition for someone. I want to see a new “Shit Girls Say on Their Periods” video. Only I want this video to portray a woman who embraces menstruation. I want to see a woman feeling extra creative, or extra in touch with herself, or even extra sexual. Why does this video have over a million hits? As a society we need to start changing the way people think about menstruation.

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.