- “Now with wings!” Check out what tampons might look like, if they were designed by today’s Republican party, as imagined by SNL.
- Emily at Autostraddle made her own period playlist after hearing one in a movie. Commenters have added more songs.
- The Lunette blog offers suggestions for teens using a menstrual cup for the first time.
- High school students in New York are able to get the morning-after pill (also known as Emergency Contraception, or E.C.) from school nurses. Meanwhile, California’s governor signed a new law this week that will make contraceptive access for all a little easier, as registered nurses will be able to “to dispense drugs and devices upon an order by a certified nurse-midwife, a nurse practitioner, or a physician assistant while functioning within specified clinic settings”.
- Are you tired of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina? Pretty much everyone else is: The Feminist Hate-Read Book Club Reads Naomi Wolf’s Vagina. For take-downs of the bad science, see here and here and here.
- Todd Akin, of Legitimate Rape and the Magic Uterus fame, isn’t doing so well at making it up to women voters. In an interview this week with the Kansas City Star, he said his opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, had been aggressive and not very ladylike in their recent debate.
The other day, I was talking with a friend about menstrual synchrony (y’know when your cycle syncs up with your roommates, friends or co-workers), and how it stood out for her as a moment of sisterhood-solidarity, of girl-bonding, in the midst of the usual competition among women at work, and for men…[sigh]…but not there.
Not when it came to menstruation. This was our experience. Men can’t be a part of it, not directly.
And, the thing about synchrony: it’s kind of like a biological validation of sisterhood, a reminder that chicks need to stick together.
I just wanted to share that.
Cervical fluid, the sticky/creamy/stretchy/slippery substance produced by the cervix is arguably the most important substance on earth. Without it, the human race would be shortly extinct, yet not many people even know what it is. This is unacceptable, and you and I are going to change this.
In case you don’t know, Cervical Fluid plays a vital role in helping women get pregnant, avoid pregnancy, and figure out health issues, yet its name has remained merely a description. Cervical fluid is too important to be forever described but never properly named.
Cervical fluid is incredibly valuable. Without it, life as we know it would literally cease to exist. Fertile cervical fluid keeps sperm alive once it is inside the vagina. It provides nutrients, a hospitable alkaline environment, and aids in transportation. Cervical Fluid helps the sperm survive, sometimes for up to five days, while waiting for an egg to be released. Cervical fluid is like a soccer mom, providing snacks, protection, and transportation to the sperm, while they are on their way to the big game. Without her, there would be no game, and getting pregnant would be virtually impossible without outside intervention.
And that is just ONE of the many ways cervical fluid makes our lives richer. It also tells an awful lot about the state of a woman’s hormones, which can play a key role in many health issues.
OK, so we’ve established that cervical fluid plays a vital role in the continuance of the human race, not to mention women’s health. But with just a description for a name, we are faced with an intractable communication problem: unnamed bodily substances have a particular propensity to make people uncomfortable, and currently many people get scared off or grossed out by cervical fluid’s various descriptive identifiers.
You’ll hear it referred to as “Cervical Mucus”, “Vaginal Discharge”, “Vaginal Mucus”, and the slightly less gross-sounding “Cervical Fluid”. It’s not fair. What if semen was called “Testicle Mucus”, or “Penile Discharge”? Imagine if saliva was called “Oral Mucus”, or “Mouth Discharge”? It’s not, for a reason! Even feces gets its own name! You don’t often hear it referred to as “Solid Anal Discharge”. Each of these substances has an important role to play in the health of the human body, and hence, they have been given names, not just descriptions, so that we can acknowledge and understand them.
This quote from The Simpsons episode The Principal and the Pauper illustrates my point:
Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you called ’em stench blossoms.
Homer: Or crapweeds.
Marge: I’d sure hate to get a dozen crapweeds for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy.
Homer: Not if they were called scumdrops.
You get the point. Something can be lovely and beautiful and wanted, but if you call it by an unappealing name, no one is going to give it a chance.
Now, I personally LOVE cervical fluid. It has taught me a great deal about my fertility and my health. It’s a crime that this stuff is not more not widely popular. I posit that if cervical fluid had a more euphonious appellation, people would be more interested in hearing, talking, and reading about it. Which would lead to understanding and wider acceptance. This Quest to name Cervical Fluid has broad-reaching social implications. With wider understanding and acceptance of this most sacred substance, women would own their fertility again. The sense of panic and confusion that many women experience when thinking about their reproductive health would diminish and eventually vanish. There would be fewer unplanned pregnancies and more wanted pregnancies. More wanted pregnancies would lead to happier families and, ultimately, a happier world! For the betterment of women everywhere and the world at large, cervical fluid needs a name of its own!
I propose we give cervical fluid a name within six months. I will be working towards this goal. If you want to help, please leave your thoughts about this and your suggestions for cervical fluid’s new name in the comments below. Together, we’ll make history.
I was fuming. My Twitter feed had alerted me to a free online course called Contraception: Choices, Culture and Consequences. I opened the link to find this course syllabus:
- Week One: Introduction to Contraceptive Care
- Week Two: The Menstrual Cycle
- Week Three: Long Acting Reversible Methods
- Week Four: Hormonal Methods
- Week Five: Barrier Methods
Regular readers will know what I think is missing from the syllabus: Fertility Awareness Methods. I emailed course instructor Jerusalem Makonnen from University of California–San Francisco to ask about this omission. I was delighted by her response. She will be including information on Fertility Awareness Methods in Week 5, with Barrier Methods. It was an oversight. Makonnen wrote, “I have been teaching a Contraception course at UCSF School of Nursing for the past five years and it has been a topic that is fully integrated and taught to nurse practitioners and midwives.”
I wish I could say that Fertility Awareness Methods of birth control are “fully integrated” in all sexual and reproductive health clinics and organizations across North America. I have advocated for their inclusion throughout my volunteer and work career in this field, including 19 years on the boards of Planned Parenthood affiliated organizations in Canada, and as a writer on women’s health issues. I believe that full contraceptive choice must include information, support, and training to use Fertility Awareness Methods effectively and confidently.
For more than 25 years I’ve been urging the mainstream sexual and reproductive health community to include FAM in their service delivery. While it might be discussed as an option, with some helpful information provided, the means to learn and use the method is rarely made available to clients. I consider this to be a serious error of omission, an unacceptable failure to provide access to an effective birth control method.
The facts are these: FAM works and many women want to learn how to use it. They buy books and seek out skilled instructors to learn from. They share information online. Thousands are downloading apps to their smartphones to track their menstrual cycles. You could almost say FAM is trending. So why are women who don’t want to take drugs or insert devices to prevent pregnancy receiving such little support and service from established providers of contraceptive care?
There are no valid excuses for sexual and reproductive health clinics and educational organizations NOT to offer FAM instruction to clients, either through trained in-house staff or in collaboration with certified FAM instructors. At the very least, they should have referral programs – regularly evaluated – for women seeking instruction in the method.
To return to the course syllabus above, I can’t help but suggest that Fertility Awareness Methods should follow Week 2: The Menstrual Cycle, since FAM is all about learning how to observe, chart, and interpret menstrual cycle events. This would be the logical progression. But for now, I’ve stopped fuming and am just relieved to know that the free online course Contraception: Choices, Culture and Consequences is going to include instruction on FAM. This means more women will have access to accurate information about these methods.
In the video explaining the course, instructor Makonnen notes that half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. It’s quite likely this percentage could be lowered just by teaching girls and women the key principles of fertility awareness. When it comes to women’s sexual and reproductive health, body literacy is a good place to start.
Most women have had the unfortunate experience of realizing that they have started their periods at an inconvenient time or place, without proper “backup,” having to rely on (clunky and sporadically available) tampon dispensers in public restrooms. When driving across the country last month, I stopped near Albuquerque at a small gas station and entered the unisex restroom frantically searching for a tampon machine. Instead, I found a large, brightly-colored condom machine fastened prominently on the wall that featured four options: “ribbed for her pleasure” condoms, extra-large condoms, packages of lube, and a “grab bag” of “sexual surprises.” A nearby wall above the toilet seat featured a prominent sign: DO NOT FLUSH FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS DOWN THE TOILET OR IT WILL CLOG OUR SYSTEM. Feeling unusually irked by this duality—the cheery availability of (men’s) safer sex products and the utter disdain for women’s menstrual products—I reflected on the bigger problem of this gendered bathroom dilemma: Women’s bodies—leaky and troublesome—are too often constructed with the context of disease, contamination, and unhygienic fixations. Men, on the other hand, receive props for their “leakages” as humorous, fun, playful, and sexy. (I recently realized how rarely menstruation is treated with humor or fun when I felt an uncommon joy at bleeding into my black and blue skull-and-crossbones reusable Lunapads).
I loathe the term feminine hygiene for a host of reasons. At its most benign, the term gives vague descriptors for what women use to manage their menstrual cycles, giving additional cultural momentum behind the general refusal to deal with nuance and specifics of a menstruating vagina (or vaginas at all, frankly). When stores, advertisements, and signs evoke feminine hygiene, they suggest, linguistically, that the words tampon, pad, or cup seem scary. The phrase feminine hygiene implies “products to keep the unkempt, unruly, unhygienic, dirty, unsanitary, bloody vagina in check,” rather than simply stating the actual terms for what women use. (It also needlessly genders the already-gendered process of menstruation). Why not use a less pejorative phrase like menstrual products? The bizarre throwback to the 1950s represented by the continued use of feminine hygiene has serious trickle down effects on people’s attitudes about menstruation, as Elizabeth Kissling’s 2006 book, Capitalizing the Curse, showed that people still feel palpable anxiety about purchasing menstrual products in the store or discussing menstruation openly. Many people do not even know the term menstrual or menstruation as commonly understood words. I blame feminine hygiene for this.
Second, by framing menstrual products as products devoted to cleanliness and management of otherwise “vile” bodily fluids, feminine hygiene products get placed near products of excrement like diapers and incontinence merchandise in the store. A typical sign will read: “Feminine Hygiene, Diapers, Personal Care” in these aisles of the grocery store. Years ago, a student of mind visited over 25 grocery stores and pharmacies and found that nearly every single store placed tampons and pads directly beside diapers. The use of hygiene here links menstrual blood with feces, urine, and products that infantilize women and their bodies. It also implicitly links the feminine (another bizarre word that is rarely attached commercially to anything besides menstrual products) with women needing to clean their own and others’ messy bodies.
My third concern about feminine hygiene is that we don’t fully understand the history of the (d)evolving phrase. As Andrea Tone found, feminine hygiene once referred to birth control rather than menstrual products. A 1933 advertisement in McCalls for Lysol’s feminine hygiene products read:
The most frequent eternal triangle:
A HUSBAND…A WIFE…and her FEARS
Fewer marriages would flounder around in a maze of misunderstanding and unhappiness if more wives knew and practiced regular marriage hygiene. Without it, some minor physical irregularity plants in a woman’s mind the fear of a major crisis. Let so devastating a fear recur again and again, and the most gracious wife turns into a nerve-ridden, irritable travesty of herself.
Translation: Use feminine hygiene (birth control) if you want to avoid your wife turning down sex because she’s scared of pregnancy. Over the next twenty years, it later transitioned from a reference to birth control into a reference for female douches (An ad touted: “There are some things a husband just can’t mention to his wife!”) and finally into a phrase about managing menstruation. Why this feminine hygiene phrase has stuck with us so forcefully, and why we insist on vague and unspecific terminology for menstrual products, relates directly to broader discourses of panic around, and ignorance about, women’s reproduction, menstruation, and vaginal health. Just ask Todd Akin.
About two weeks ago, I injured my foot. Like many accidents, it was stupid, quick, and avoidable. A heavy storm door was swinging shut, I somehow didn’t get out of its way, and it sheared open the back of my left foot, behind the ankle. Luckily, I didn’t cut an artery, the Achilles tendon, or any other tissue that would have caused a crisis or long-term problem. However, I did end up with eleven stitches and orders to stay off my feet for over a week.
If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. During my enforced inactivity, I surrounded myself with projects I had not had time for. The reverse appliqué hand sewing I had started in a class last summer but never finished. A creative writing project I had hoped to do. My long-neglected Native American flute. Yet, as the days wore on, I found myself increasingly unable to do much more than stare into space, watch TV, or do a bit of sewing. It was hard to focus my attention and to concentrate; I felt an increasing paralysis of will to initiate and sustain activity. When I did walk around, using crutches to keep weight off my foot and to avoid flexing the ankle, I felt easily fatigued and vaguely ill.
I did also do some reading, and happened upon a recent re-evaluation of a book by Oliver Sacks called “Leg to Stand On”. Sacks, a neurologist, had written the book in 1984 after he broke his leg in a traumatic accident. He found, to his surprise, that his injury resulted in important changes in his body image. In the early part of his recovery, his leg did not feel like part of him. Although he couldn’t feel or voluntarily move the leg, and couldn’t even remember moving it in the past, it could move in response to music. He later discovered that his experience was shared by other patients. In the re-evaluation, authors Stone, Perthen, and Carson suggest that Sacks’ problem was functional (i.e., psychological not physical). Sacks, in response to their reevaluation, suggests that activity and sensation in the periphery—that is, arms and legs—is intrinsically involved in how the central nervous system organizes information, experience, and cognitive function. That is, the mind and entire body are interconnected.
There are many ways in which physical experiences other than injuries have broad systemic, mind/body interconnections. If we have a fever, we’re not surprised if, in addition to our stomachs hurting or our heads throbbing, we feel wonky, unable to concentrate, distressed. Illness is a whole-body experience. Many years ago, I had an amniocentesis. The doctor told me I could go about my business after he finished the procedure, but a nurse said to me that many people felt they needed some rest. Indeed, after having a large needle penetrating my abdomen, which felt, irrationally but unmistakably, like an invasion of body boundary, I did feel shaken and like I needed to recupe. Even my husband, a physicist, a very nice but definitely not a touchy-feely kind of guy, felt invaded by a large needle penetrating his body to take a bone marrow sample.
So it is with uncomfortable experiences associated with the menstrual cycle. Menstrual cramps, hot flashes, and menstrual migraines are not isolated symptoms occurring in far-out or isolated body parts. If we have menstrual cramps, we may be tensing our entire body, our abdomens may feel like invaded strangers rather than like parts of ourselves, the cramps may have specific meanings about who we are, our lives, or the meaning of pain or discomfort. If I have menstrual migraines, I may wonder why people don’t show me more sympathy and help me, or I may want to keep my headaches secret. Not always, but often, menstrual cycle experiences, like many other experiences, are holistic, mind/body phenomena.
Sacks, O. (2012). The Central Effects of Peripheral Injury. Journal of Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry, vol. 83, p. 868. Downloaded from www.medscape.com/viewarticle/769178.
Sacks O. (1984). A Leg to Stand on. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Stone, J., Perthen, J., & Carson, A. (2012). ‘A Leg to Stand On’ by Oliver Sacks: A reappraisal: The diagnosis reappraised—functional paralysis? Journal of Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry, vol. 83, pages 864-867. Downloaded from www.medscape.com/viewarticle/769177.
To follow Alexandra Jacoby’s recent post about talking more about menstruation (especially about the things we’re not allowed to talk about), I’m finally going to write about something that has been bothering me for a long time. Here it is:
Why don’t we talk about the important variations in our menstrual cycles?
In puberty our periods are all over the place, sometimes light, sometimes heavy, sometimes crampy, sometimes not.
If we have babies and have vaginal birth, we can bleed on and off for over a month and it’s totally normal.
Even in a normal month, we can have spotting for a day in the middle of the month.
Sometimes our periods are shorter or longer than normal, seemingly for no reason. (Although there’s probably always a reason.)
Then you hit your late 30s and – boom! – your periods might get heavier, or come faster. I was at lunch the other day with a friend and we started talking about the “late 30s gush” (her phrase, I can’t take credit). How come nobody talks about that when it’s totally normal?
As you age, it’s normal for periods to get shorter or longer or heavier or lighter, and even to come at different times than they did before.
Some women have terrible cramps and PMS, some don’t have any pain or bloating or other signs.
Some women who use hormonal birth control methods (e.g., the Pill, the Patch, Depo, etc.) don’t even know what their “normal” periods would be like and, rather, get used to whatever normal is on that method. Some menopausal women don’t even know they’re officially menopausal since they’re still on birth control or another hormone therapy (thus, don’t know whether they would have had their last menstrual cycle by now).
What we think of as a “heavy” period in puberty is different from a “heavy” period in young adulthood or midlife. Our definition of “heavy bleeding” changes as we experience the variations in our own menstrual cycles.
Some people are comfortable with pads, some with tampons, and some with menstrual cups. Some use a combination of all three. All of us switch what we use across our life course.
The meanings of monthly menstruation are variable too. If you’re trying not to conceive, it is welcome. If you’re trying to conceive, it’s unwelcome. If you’re not thinking about fertility at all, you could be indifferent, positive or negative about your period when it comes. If you have a disability or you are older or younger you might feel very different about menstruation. Perhaps your culture allows you to rest during menstruation and that could be good or bad for you. Perhaps you hide it, perhaps you don’t, perhaps you don’t want it on vacation but you do want it before vacation. Perhaps you do want your heavy days on the weekend, perhaps they come in the middle of the week (or vice versa). Bottom line, every month we could all feel differently about it.
Some people hit menopause in the early 40s, some not until their late 50s or even early 60s. Yet still totally normal.
Even if you have a partial hysterectomy, you could still get signs of your monthly cycle even if you aren’t officially bleeding.
And our own “normal” (what we are accustomed to) inevitably changes as we go through our life course, and we are often caught off guard by the menstrual experiences we have (as Alexandra discusses in the blog post I mention above).
How come we don’t have more conversation about this, when ultimately it would help all of us?
About a year ago I was talking to my own nurse practitioner about this and she admitted it would have been helpful for her to know what variations to expect in her own cycle. She, too, would have like to know about how menstruation would vary over her life.
So, who wants to talk to me about menstrual variations? Who’s ready? I’m ready…
If ever there was a woman in history deserving of more attention, certainly Hypatia of Alexandria is one. Not only was this fifth century (CE) scholar a noted mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher (her father, Theon, was the last head of the Museum at Alexandria before the city was sacked and the famous library went up in flame), she was also, according to ancient texts, a bit of a menstrual activist.
The story goes that one of her male students had developed a crush on her and, rather than showing respect for her intellect, expressed his romantic desire. She rebuffed him by exposing her bloody menstrual rags and accusing him of base lust.
AGORA, the 2009 film starring Rachel Weisz and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, does a good job of depicting Hypatia’s intelligence as well as her beauty. (It is a big feature film, after all.) And though the trailer for the film does not include the menstrual scene, the full film itself does do it justice by showing how the teacher used her menstrual rags to refute a young man’s presumptuous overture.
I think AGORA is an under-appreciated film on many levels, not merely for its menstrual forthrightness. Hypatia and Rachel (in the biblical book of Genesis) are the only two women I know of in classical history who boldly confronted the menstrual taboos and they deserve our respect. AGORA helps bring one of these women to a contemporary audience.