Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menstruation as a sensory and aesthetic experience

June 28th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

Public domain photo // Wikimedia Commons

I recently attended the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference in New York and left the conference with some rekindled inspiration about the importance of seeing menstruation as a shared experience of feminist embodiment. Moreover, after leaving the conference this point was repeatedly driven home by conversations with people who did not attend the conference. One of the most common reactions I have gotten when discussing the SMCR conference was, “Are there enough people studying that to warrant an entire conference?” Somehow the “unmentionable” aspects of menstruation translate for various audiences into surprise that a reasonably large group of people would want to study it. My response is that SMCR brings together people with disparate interests that collide around a solidly feminist understanding that embodiment matters. How we experience our bodies, and the shame and empowerment stories that surround them, informs not only self-understanding but our perceptions and knowledge of systems of oppression. Never have I participated in a more wholly and unapologetically feminist conference; even the National Women’s Studies Association, by comparison, often shies away from showing its feminist politics so blatantly or celebrating its feminist sisterhood so openly. The conference delivered an opportunity to think deeply about feminist embodiment, with the menstrual cycle as its primary target.

My partner and I left New York a few days after the conference to fly to Florida for a few days of swimming in the warm Caribbean waters along the coast of Ft Lauderdale and Miami. We had run around New York for a week by then, dashing from place to place in the chaotic and intense tumble of the city, our heads full of culture and our feet aching. By the time we arrived in the humid, balmy South Florida sun, we needed some repair, some sleep, some time to do a whole-lot-of-nothing. (The SMCR conference bag, doubling as a beach bag in Florida, got some long, long stares.) On our final day of the trip, we had an evening flight back home so we decided to spend the day in the ocean and head straight for the airport for what turned out to be an unusually terrible flight—completely full, broken air conditioning, no food or movie, and seated in the back row next to lines of antsy passengers waiting for the restroom. I remember standing in the smelly tiny box of the airplane bathroom (by then drizzled and perfumed with that familiar mix of urine, water, and toxic cleaner smell) reflecting on the importance of our sensory and aesthetic experiences. Shifting from New York to Florida had transitioned us from the provocative but grueling concrete StairMaster of New York (complete with peeling ceilings in the subway) to the soothing peacefulness of bath-water oceans. To then enter the nasty sensory assault of that airplane provided quite a jolt to the senses.

With menstruation on my mind, I wondered, then, if a major motivation for convincing people to use alternative menstrual products is simply that it creates a better sensory and aesthetic experience. Mainstream tampons and pads seem a lot like metaphorical airplanes—unintuitive, wasteful, uninspired, bland, and meant to leave us with no sense of individuality or humanity. For me, switching from years of using tampons to instead using funky, super comfortable, eco-friendly Lunapads created the opportunity for a better sensory experience—as they were physically more comfortable and created no unpleasant smells—and aesthetic experience—as they added a bit of individuality and uniqueness to the experience by having visual appeal. Reusable pads also eliminated the problem of worrying about clogging toilets with tampons, filling trash cans with ugly wrappers, and carrying a pile of products along on trips and vacations. For me, Lunapads created a bit of much-needed peace with my menstrual cycle.

At the SMCR conference, two students of mine—Stephanie Robinson-Cestaro and Jaqueline Gonzalez—presented a workshop there on how to “sell” a new menstrual narrative, that is, how to convince reluctant people to try alternative products and ditch mainstream FEMCARE products. (They created an organization called M.A.R.C.—the Menstrual Activist Research Collective—designed to help distribute alternative literature and encourage new coalitions of young activists.) We constantly strategize about how to talk about and recruit women to take the plunge and try “weird” products like sea sponges, DivaCups, and reusable pads. In addition to the important political and environmental dimensions of such a decision, I would add that alternative products typically create a more sensual and aesthetic experience. We should care about this. Our menstrual cycles deserve as much care and attention as do our other “private” rituals—bathing, sleeping, grooming, and so on. When we treat our bodies well, and stop managing our cycles with crappy, cheap, potentially harmful products, we connect better to ourselves and the world in general.

11 responses to “Menstruation as a sensory and aesthetic experience”

  1. Ashley Annis says:

    I’m planning on teaching an “eco-fy” your cycle class sometime in the future, and I LOVE the idea of adding these ideas to the class. So beautiful–thank you!

  2. I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for the great write up. I really enjoyed Stephanie and Jaqueline’s workshop, and it gave me considerable inspiration for elements to incorporate into the Well Woman Workshops I am offering in my local community! I love sharing my enthusiasm for alternatives to commercial disposables and getting women excited about the potential they have to reclaim the power of their periods! It really can be so much better!

  3. As per my comment below, I’d love to know if eco-fying your cycle would include rejecting hormonal birth control?

  4. A couple of your statements really resonate with me except in my mind these ideas also refer to use of hormonal birth control. In my forthcoming book I argue that rejecting hormonal birth control is an act of resistance against oppression and holds the potential to reconnect us with the world and each other. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  5. Jay says:

    A couple of very loosely related thoughts…

    On sensory experience. Those who are autistic and who menstruate can find the experience of tampons and disposable pads far more of a problem because of sensory issues (heightened senses and awareness of these sensations, along with this sensory input making it harder to function). But even then many autistic people still continue to reject ‘alternative’ options that may be more comfortable, because despite autistic people not being as receptive to social norms we still internalise menstrual taboos.

    On comments regarding hormonal birth control. Interestingly those who are biologically female on the autism spectrum can see radical changes to their autism symptoms throughout their menstrual cycle – ebbs and flows in senses, anxiety, etc. In a very real way our hormones effect our mind and in turn our bodies, it makes me wonder how hormonal birth control effects those on the spectrum…and whether studying ASD women on and off the pill could more clearly demonstrate the effect of the pill on women in general.

  6. Lisa Leger says:

    Talking abut the sensual/sensory experience of menstruation, here’s an excerpt from The Cottage, a short story I wrote to make menstruation sexy (featured in my presentation at the SMCR conference “Are Vampires Squeamish About Menstruation or Is It Just Us Humans?”).

    When we got back, I felt heavy and swollen. I checked my diva cup to find it half-full of nice bright blood. He’d probably be interested in seeing this, but usually waits for the second cup when the flow is really fresh. I hesitated about calling him in because I like a bit of privacy when I can get it. I cackled, “heeheehe, consider it a blood sacrifice,” as I dumped the teaspoon worth like a witch casing a spell on my sink. I rinsed my cup and laughed at myself, “silly me, a scientist has no business meddling with the life force,” I scolded into the mirror as I wiped down the sink. The cup slid around real slick when I put it back in and twisted it into place. My fingers came out bloody and I knew he’d smell it no matter how much I washed. I was definitely feeling crampy and congested by then. “Its officially Day One” I announced when I got back to the kitchen and he nodded from the island where he was whipping up my next meal; a colourful salad and salmon filet.

  7. Thanks for that, an element that I guess I have taken for granted the sensuousness of loving the blood… On the issue of Hormonal birth control, control being the operative word there, I find that very few women can make it to me, as a menstrual educator of the last 14 years, unless they have. It’s like I can’t even exist in their world till that initial rejection has taken place. For an act of rebellion it is!! YAY for there being more than enough women with this focus for there to be a society of Menstrual Research. Looking forward to working with the Menstrual Activist Research too!!!

  8. One other thing that strikes me reading this post is the suppressive impact of hormonal birth control on the senses. When I came off after ten years it was my sense of taste, touch and smell that immediately felt changed and heightened. The first sign of the affect of the drugs on my body long term. I have spoken to women who’ve described coming off as coming out “from behind a veil” and going from “living in black and white to color” – saying the world looked and felt brighter, closer, and they less detached and numbed.

  9. Katherine Jenkins says:

    Thanks to all of u in the field of menstrual studies for doing this important work!

  10. […] excerpt above is shared with permission from the post Menstruation as a sensory and aesthetic experience by Breanne Fahs. Read the full post at re:cycling, the blog for the Society for Menstrual Cycle […]

  11. Ashley Annis says:

    Yes! 100%. I am also working on my fertility awareness educator certification and am always in favor of women rejecting hormonal birth control–for all the reasons mentioned in other comments.

Readers should note that statements published in Menstruation Matters are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.