Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

How Donald Trump learned that #periodsarenotaninsult

November 12th, 2015 by Breanne Fahs

Bleeding on Donald Trump’s Face

Trump-in-bloodRecent events in the political circus of the Republican party have highlighted Donald Trump’s disdain for women and his overwhelming tendencies to embarrass himself and his “party.” In an interesting twist of events, menstrual cycles have started to play a major role in how women are rebelling against Trump’s unbridled misogyny. After suggesting that Fox News pundit Megyn Fox asked him difficult questions because of her menstrual status (“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes…Blood coming out of her wherever.”) during the Republican debate on August 6, 2015, reactions were swift and full of feisty menstrual rebellions. Women from across the country wrote op-eds and fumed openly on the air, in print, and on social media about these archaic beliefs that women’s menstrual cycles invalidated their legitimate claims to difficult questions or angry/aggressive responses to misogynistic public figures. Women on Twitter started live-tweeting their menstrual updates to Donald Trump. For example:

@realDonaldTrump – on the third day of my period AND still a functioning member of society! Who knew?! #periodsarenotaninsult.

Sarah Levy, an artist from Portland, made a menstrual painting of Donald Trump’s face entitled Whatever. Women clearly wanted their menstrual cycles in his face, on his face, boldly and decisively fighting back against the shaming of their menstrual cycles.

This incident reminded me of the power of menstrual activism in its many forms. Relying on mockery, menstrual art, information conversations, feminist responses on social media, and satire, women made it clear that they will not tolerate attacks on women for their menstrual status, especially from blowhards like Trump. Each of the tactics they used has its own merits, logics, and successes. I am especially fond of the power of women reminding the world that millions of women are currently menstruating, that bloody vaginas are sitting in the room right now. The live-tweeting technique in that sense seemed especially poignant. I have written many columns here about the importance of “outing” one’s menstrual status; in the case of live-tweeting periods to Donald Trump, these “outings” serve as a powerful reminder of the presence of menstruating women and the power of their collective voices.

Similarly, menstrual art is, I think, inherently rebellious and should be considered a key expression of menstrual activism.  Using menstrual blood to create (and in this case, to demean, mock, trivialize, insult, and laugh at Donald Trump’s buffoonery) underscores the power of “going public” with the private or abject fluid that women are supposed to keep secret and unseen.  Levy’s painting, a browning, gooey reminder of women’s menstrual graffiti—our presence on your presence—is wonderfully subversive and grotesquely clever. As we celebrate menstrual activism this month, let’s remember that it has many iterations and many faces (and, in some cases, enjoys bleeding directly onto Donald Trump’s face).

Breanne Fahs is an Associate Professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, where she specializes in studying women’s sexuality, critical embodiment studies, radical feminism, and political activism. She is also a clinical psychologist specializing in sexuality, couples work, and trauma recovery.

Two or three things I know for sure (about menstruation)

August 19th, 2014 by Breanne Fahs

On June 7, we posted a video of slam poet Dominique Christina performing a poem combating men’s shaming of women and their menstrual cycles. In the “Period Poem,” which she dedicated to her daughter, Christina encourages women who are confronted by men’s negativity toward menstruation to bleed, and bleed, and bleed on everything he loves. It is a fierce, bold, rebellious poem that has garnered much attention on social media, which received upwards of 6 million “likes” when it later appeared on Facebook. There is something magical and inspiring about menstrual art—poetry, paintings, songs, stories. For myself, who most often addresses menstruation in academic work—mired in journal edits, statistics, interviews, and such—I am in awe, somehow, by the similar themes that art, activism, and academia all address around the topic of menstruation.

To borrow a title from Dorothy Alison, here are two or three things I know for sure (about menstruation):

(1) First, the disgust directed toward women’s bodies serves as a powerful regulatory force to direct, contain, control, and denigrate women’s bodies. By eliciting disgust, we can summon people’s sense of outrage, moral judgments, visceral reactions, and “irrational” fears and funnel them toward a particular target. I continue to be amazed at how disgust about menstruating women (and, specifically, menstruating vaginas) permeates popular culture, social media, news media, and informal interactions. My research on disgust and menstruation has found that people find menstruation more disgusting than nearly any other bodily product or bodily occurrence. A recent pilot study I conducted found that this normal, healthy monthly cycle weighs in as more disgusting than open wounds, diarrhea, used diapers, and vomit. Dominique Christina’s response to the “dummy on Twitter” that dissed his girlfriend for starting her period during sex is tapping into this same phenomenon. Disgust is dangerous, and it connects powerfully to the undercurrents of misogyny in this country.

(2) Resistance to men’s shaming of menstruation is everywhere, hidden in simple acts of rebellion all over the world. Whether through poetry, art, the refusal to use commercial menstrual products, the impulse to fight back against the idiocy that permeates online culture, the commitment to love one’s body no matter what, the embrace of cycles and changes in the body, the refusal to be silent or unseen, the desire to connect to other women, the communication with daughters and grand-daughters about their cycles, and in a thousand other simple and elegant and (often) hidden ways, women resist the bullying, misogyny, and shaming of menstruation all the time. We can and should expect such resistance.

(3) Menstruation is no trivial subject. We are taught, as women, that our concerns, thoughts, fields of study, feelings, and attitudes are trivial, silly, not relevant, not important. (The journal, Trivia: Voice of Feminism, exists to combat this very assumption, publishing some of the most engaging and interesting feminist creative writing around). Menstruation is no exception. We learn very early that our menstrual cycles are either wholly invisible or targets for ridicule and misogynistic humor. And yet, what could possibly be more powerful than women’s reproductive capacities, their ability to bleed and give birth? Where are political, social, personal, cultural, and institutional intrusions more keenly felt than in women’s decisions about, and relationship to, their menstrual cycles? There is much at stake in resisting the stories we are told about our bodies, and, as I have too often found in my own work, doing so can make people frothing-at-the-mouth angry. My prediction: the more we continue to resist and fight back against menstrual shaming—whether through art, activism, or academia—the more clear it will become that menstruation is far, far, far from trivial.

Traces of Feminist Rage

April 18th, 2014 by Breanne Fahs

In the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting quite a lot about feminist rage, in part because I recently participated in a panel at New York University about feminist rage with philosopher Avital Ronell, American Studies scholar Lisa Duggan, and performance artist Karen Finley. In celebration of my new book, the first-ever biography of Valerie Solanas entitled Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) (Feminist Press, 2014), we came together to think deeply about feminist rage and how anger has a place within feminist thought, pedagogy, and practice. Avital Ronell lit up the room with an analysis of devastation versus destruction, drawing on Heidegger, Lacan, and Derrida, while Karen Finley performed feminist rage by imagining the interplay between a homeless woman on the subway and a punk hipster girl. The evening was topped off by an appearance by Valerie’s friend, Ben Morea, who slammed the university for its elitism and said that Valerie hated universities and wanted nothing to do with them—a rage-filled riotous evening indeed!

Valerie Solanas wrote a manifesto that has continued to perplex, inspire, and enrage its readers. She blatantly expressed rage toward both men and “Daddy’s girls” (and some argue that her rage was more directed toward the latter than the former); Valerie wrote in her 1967 SCUM Manifesto, “The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM—dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have freewheeled to the limits of this ‘society,’ and are ready to wheel on to something far behind what it has to offer—and nice, passive, accepting, ‘cultivated,’ polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls, who can’t cope with the unknown; who want to continue to wallow in the sewer that is at least familiar, who want to hang back with the apes; who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by, with a big strong man to lean on and with a fat-hairy face in the White House” (63-64). Not insignificantly, while simultaneously declaring SCUM a “state of mind” and the manifesto a “literary device”—raising questions about whether Valerie understood this work as absurd satire or whether she believed it completely—she strode into Andy Warhol’s Factory and shot Andy Warhol and two of his associates on June 3, 1968 largely because she felt assaulted as an artist and a writer. In a little known fact, she also left a paper bag on Andy Warhol’s desk before she fled the scene that contained another gun, an ice pick, her address book, and a Kotex pad.

That Valerie left a menstrual pad on Andy Warhol’s desk has stuck with me as a curious point for several years while working on this book. Did Valerie merely forget the paper bag accidentally (implying that she may have been currently menstruating and needed the pad in a practical sense)? Or, did this twinning of the gun and menstrual pad signify something larger about her particular brand of rage? Both objects connect deeply to the spilling/shedding of blood; maybe Valerie used the menstrual pad as a conscious imposition of, or symbol around, her feminist rage. Perhaps Valerie meant to remind her victims that women and guns remained bound together, that SCUM would corrode the world with their own menstrual blood.

In any case, the whole incident (and subsequent reactions people have had to the shooting and to Valerie’s anger) made me again reflect on how much distance women often try to put between themselves and their rage. Women generally shy away from their own anger, both as individuals and as a collective force, and this has serious consequences for the advancement of feminist politics. We live in a culture adept at blocking, disallowing, suppressing, and discouraging women’s anger and rage; women know this deeply and often only feel entitled to express rage during their menstrual cycles (a “socially-acceptable” alternative). Women’s respectability and “proper” femininity often hinges, in fact, on denying anger altogether. Perhaps our reactions to Valerie (both our celebratory impulses and our tendencies to reject and discard her) occur because Valerie represents the rage and anger women themselves sense but cannot express or accept within themselves. Ultimately, there must be a place for rage in the contemporary landscape of gender politics and feminism; whether our menstrual cycles serve as a “cover” for it, or whether we just let it rip (in the words of Ti-Grace Atkinson), rage serves a necessary role in challenging oppression and fighting back against the prevailing powers that be.

On (bull)shit and menstrual solidarity

October 18th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

As a point of contention and as a reaction to my previous claims that women should more often engage in “menstrual outing,” some critics have responded by saying that disclosing one’s menstrual status is similar to women disclosing that they have just urinated, defecated, or vomited. In my November 2012 column called “Menstrual outing, menstrual panics,” here are some of the responses I got when advocating that women openly discuss menstruation:

  • “to announce it to strangers to me, is intrusive toward them on my part, and just seems to lack social grace”
  • “But just as I don’t discuss bowel movements in public, or talk about the fight my parents had last night with my co-workers, I have no desire to shove the fact that I’m menstruating in anyone’s face. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s also just not interesting to anyone – why should they care? I don’t care to know when they’re sweating, or having urinary incontinence, or struggling with loose bowels, unless of course someone needs my help or sympathy.”
  • “Are we going to share bowel movements too?  I’m not ashamed of my bowel movements. Doesn’t mean I have to post it all over facebook”

In response to some of these comments, Elizabeth Kissling rightly noted that the difference between menstruation and bowel movements often revolves around the level of shaming. Femcare ads routinely try to sell products based on the shameful qualities of menstruating, while toilet paper ads rarely employ such strategies. Endometriosis diagnoses lag because doctors do not believe women about their symptoms of pain, while problems with digestion and colon issues promptly receive medical attention (unless, of course, you’re poor). And, Kissling added, “people do talk about bowel movements. All the time. They talk about how particular foods affect their digestion. They excuse themselves from meetings and social gatherings to use the bathroom, sometimes saying why in euphemistic terms, sometimes in coarse and graphic language. The older they get, the more they do it.”

Building off of this, I will admit that this discourse of “menstruation = shit” has started to bother me more and more. As Kissling argued, people do talk about using the restroom in graphic language all the time. We consider it adorable and normative for older people (and even some younger people) to talk about eating fiber, “cleaning their drains,” and feeling joyful when they can successfully poop. I could never imagine menstruating women routinely doing the same and discussing their periods in such (joyous, prideful) detail. Admitting that one is menstruating, or needing to take care of changing a tampon/pad or cleaning up after dribbling blood on the floor, is rarely an occurrence that people can or will discuss. As some of our critics noted, it “lacks social grace.” But why it lacks social grace is a far more interesting topic, as the routine construction of women’s bodies as always disgusting, always failing, always excessive, and always subpar deserves more attention.

In stark contrast, however, to these claims of similarity between menstrual blood and other bodily fluids and functions, I have become increasingly curious about the notion of menstrual synchrony and why so many women want to believe in menstrual synchrony despite controversies about its existence. For example, even though menstrual synchrony might not exist, women still want to feel in solidarity with other women via cycling together, a topic my research group and I have recently taken up in a research article. This notion that women want to say, “I menstruate together with my roommates/sister/mother/friends” also contradicts the notion that menstrual blood is just like other bodily fluids. Never do we hear women talking about being in solidarity with other women’s defecation and urination habits. The reason for this, I argue, is that women fundamentally understand the stigma surrounding menstruation; claims of menstrual synchrony might help them to fight back against this stigma and shame, using experiences of menstruation to enact practices of political solidarity, alliance, and resistance. This is something to celebrate indeed!

A matter of semantics

August 23rd, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

“Not Tonight. Aunt Flo Is Visiting.” // T-shirts from Zazzle

Language has an uncanny ability to contain the trappings of power. I have recently become increasingly irritated by the way that the phrase “bullying” has come to overshadow the politicized, identity-based nature of homophobia. Somehow, CNN, Glee, and other major networks can cover topics like “bullying” in full force—with news report specials, lots of glittery advertising, bunches of white kids posing on playgrounds, and even a new documentary about the subject—without actually having to say that the “bullying” behavior mostly targets gay, lesbian, bi, and queer teenagers. These teens are “bullied” as a form of identity-based harassment and persecution, yet no one wants to talk about homophobia (or racism, or sexism, or classism). Instead, “bullying” becomes the rallying-cry that everyone can rally around, stand firmly against, and decry as a problem, all while forgetting that the characteristics of the victims are eerily similar. The show So You Think You Can Dance recently staged a dance number about bullying and never once mentioned that bullying typically targets gay teens. (The show also rarely addresses how many of the male dancers must remain closeted in order to gain approval and “votes.”)  If the (depoliticized) term “bullying” can stand in for “homophobia,” it makes me wonder what else we erase through the project of simple semantics.

The cultural lexicon surrounding menstruation also seems particularly prone to erase many aspects of the menstrual experience. “Aunt Flo” and “that time of the month” stand in for “menstrual” and “period.” The words “menstrual cycle” rarely appear in any popular media, including television, magazines, and movies. Women themselves, in locker rooms, workplaces, schools, and within the home, often refer to their periods as mysterious occurrences, referring to their menstrual cycles in obscure terms (“I don’t feel well today” or “I have woman problems”). What does this obscurity do, politically, I wonder?

It reminds me of so many female experiences of the body—masturbation, fatness, and even teachings about the vagina. Girls learn from an early age to call their vaginas silly names (“ya ya,” “hoo hoo,” “down there”), just as grown women have no shared language to talk about masturbation. Compared to men, for example, women’s masturbation has a mere handful of shared slang terms, while men have a nearly inexhaustible list of phrases that commonly signal their masturbatory habits (“choking the chicken,” “jerking off,” and so on). Women also learn to hide real discussions of fatness, thinness, and bodies. The phrase “I feel fat” stands in for “I feel bad/ugly” while a self-referential expression of “I am fat” elicits reactions that suggest that the woman is self-deprecating. Mere descriptors become engendered with negative connotations. Women’s bodies are erased, rewritten, and obscured by language.

I think there is much power in considering the language we use to describe our menstrual cycles. How can we infuse the descriptors around menstruation with language of empowerment and self-love? How can we imagine menstruation differently, expanding the circle of who menstruates and what it means? And, most importantly, how can we see the erasure of menstruation as a sibling of many other erasures around women and their bodies? I have seen countless adults—men and women—stumble over their usage of menstrual language. Let’s throw out words and phrases like “bullying” and “that time of the month” and instead go for the jugular. Bullies are most often HOMOPHOBIC. Women BLEED. MENSTRUATION matters.

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.

In Praise of Cycles

May 3rd, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

As a professor and therapist, I see many people come through the door who struggle with a variety of feelings they identify as problematic to their lives: depression, anxiety, mania, suicidal thoughts, panic, grief, anger (and so on). We are taught, as therapists, to see the cycles of mood as an inherent problem—something indicative of a “mood disorder,” something to keep high alert about, to monitor, to control, to consider medicating. While I do not deny the existence of some cyclic mood disorders—where people experience “episodes” of severe negative feelings or intense anxiety that cause notable distress—it does seem problematic, both within and outside of therapy, that people so often consider cycles detrimental.


Ad poster for Cycles Gladiator by Georges Massias, 1905
Public domain

Never is this disdain of cycles more evident than in people’s descriptions of women’s menstrual cycles as inherently troubling. Women feel more moody, less energetic, more bloated, angrier, less sexual, hungrier, more tender (and men, too often, quickly hurl these cyclic changes into women’s faces as an insult). This bothers women, they say, because they like to feel “normal” (that is, emulating men who supposedly lack emotional and physical cycles). But, isn’t the fundamental nature of things quite…cyclic? Nearly everything that comes in cycles has benefits, teaching us that the world is non-static, ever-changing, always in flux. The changing seasons (even here in Phoenix, where the seasons move from pleasantly warm to unbearably hot) signal the onset of new weather patterns, shorter or longer days, and necessary difference. Growing up in the West, I have heard East Coast and Midwest people lament the loss of changing seasons when they move to California or Arizona—they want the rhythms, pace, and visual scenery that accompanies the traditional four seasons existence.
We are creatures that crave cycles, I think. Academics rely on the ebbs and flows of the academic year to guide their work, pausing in the summer and over the holiday break for some much-needed rest before starting again each school year with full gusto. College professors’ job satisfaction is among the highest in all professions, alongside computer programmers, who overwhelmingly set their own hours, and physical therapists, who have more autonomy than most American workers. (Cross-culturally, European workers generally report more happiness as well, as Europe generally recognizes the cyclic nature of life by offering extended vacation time, paid maternity leave, and generous sick pay.) More and more American companies have started giving employees period “sabbaticals”, acknowledging that larger chunks of time to shift focus, relax, start a new project, or travel will earn company loyalty and will markedly increase job satisfaction. The monotony of the year-round 9-5 job with little vacation time and, more importantly, no cycles of work and play, creates the most havoc on people’s lives. Shift workers who disrupt the natural cycles of their bodies—staying up all night, sleeping all day—have poor life expectancies, substantially higher risk of at least six different kinds of cancer, more heart attacks, and far poorer health outcomes as a result. Even those who take anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication—perhaps to lift them out of their low moods or panicky states—often report feeling apathetic and robotic as a side effect, missing, it seems, the cycles of mood they once had.

I would argue that the disdain for cycles, the need to convince people that they should never feel too sad nor too happy, the loathing we seem to direct toward the menstruating body, the insistence that people work themselves to death without breaks or cyclic expenditures of energy, results from the dangerous fusion of patriarchy, capitalism, and the pharmaceutical industry. The dogged insistence that people must always be happy, must work until they drop without ever taking time to fully rest, must always “manage” the cycles of their bodies (for example, losing their “baby weight” right after pregnancy, controlling menstrual blood, forcing themselves to work following a death in the family, clocking in the same hours year round), reveals a deep-seated disavowal of cycles as fundamental to human life. Cycles matter—they reflect the truths women have always known, the necessity of change and movement, the power of the body to teach us about the world and, perhaps, to undermine the institutions that deplete and eradicate the natural cycles of human life in favor of sexism and profit.

Menstruation according to Apple

March 14th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

Screen shot from GP International LLC

The repetition of all-things-pink=all-things-related-to-women’s-health has started to seriously irritate me. First, we had pink containers for birth control pills, followed by the pink repackaging of Prozac (renamed Sarafem) to treat “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder” (PMDD).” Then we dealt with the reductive and ferociously popular pink ads, logos, banners, and yogurt containers of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation. Next came special dye that “restored” women’s so-called natural pink color to their labias (“My New Pink Button”), reminding women (especially women of color) that their brown and grey and flesh colored labia are not…pink enough? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the most popular menstruation apps for the iPhone and iPad—Period Tracker, iPeriod, Period Diary, and Monthly Cycle—have a similarly pink, flowery, and “girlie” vibe. Anything designed for women’s bodies apparently has infantilize women by looking like Strawberry Shortcake and Barbie, regardless of how adult we may get. But my issues with these apps do not end there.

Having used Period Tracker now for several years as a way to predict my period, I am most familiar with its particular brand of what it means to menstruate. Much like the messages featured in advertisements for pregnancy tests—which emphasize women’s longing for pregnancy and their sheer and utter joy when finding out the news of their pregnancy—Period Tracker also frames the purpose of the app as a sort of fertility monitoring tool even though reviews of the app suggest that most women use it to do what the title says: to track periods. The assumptions that women want to become pregnant extend into many features of the app: when a woman ovulates, flowers appear on the otherwise-barren tree, reminding her that she should get it on with a sperm provider; during menstruation, the app starts a “countdown,” allowing women to tick off the number of days they have “endured” their cycle; green dots appear for the days women can get pregnant; and, finally, the app features a tool where women can track “intimacy.” (Apparently, the word “sex” is too gauche for the world of period tracker apps, leaving “intimacy” as a code for sexual intercourse).
Further, Period Tracker has a variety of built-in ways to attach menstruation—and the menstrual cycle in general—to shame and negativity.

The app allows women to track a variety of symptoms throughout their cycle, but every single one of these has negative connotations of pain and misery. Acne. Backaches. Bloating. Bodyaches. Constipation. Cramps. Cravings (Salty). Cravings (Sweet). Dizziness. Spotting. Headaches. Indigestion. Insomnia. Joint Pains. Nausea. Neckaches. Tender Breasts. In the list of moods one can track, the first two listed are ANGRY and ANXIOUS. Period Tracker also alerts women to the start date of their period, but it does so by referring to it as, simply, “P” (implying that, if someone saw that we had a period start date alert on our phone, it would shame us). (Note that the app, iPeriod, has similar features, as they call sex a “love connection,” allow three options for mood—normal, sad, and irritable—and construct pregnancy as the ultimate goal of tracking the menstrual cycle.)

All this emphasis on pregnancy, menstrual negativity, and the “monstrous” symptoms of PMS obscures the fundamentally important (and feminist!) work of tracking one’s menstrual cycle for positive and decidedly non-fertility reasons: most obviously, to anticipate our period’s starting date, but less obviously, to understand and track the body’s rhythms, to actively avoid pregnancy, to know ourselves more deeply, to appreciate our cycles, to better predict menstruation and how it coordinates with our schedules, to accurately assess whether we have experienced a drastic change in our “normal,” to track a female partner’s cycles, to signal the start of menopause or irregular cycling, to keep an eye on heavy periods versus light periods, and to feel more in tune with our bodies (among others).

Why can’t a period tracker allow women to celebrate the menstrual cycle or see the arrival of menstruation as joyous or positive? Why can’t we track positive bodily changes like “Increased Libido,” “Elevated Mood,” and “Heightened Sensitivity”? I want a period tracker that dumps the hot pink color, the swirling flowers that only bloom during ovulation, the adamantly pro-pregnancy angle, the sex phobic language, the heterosexism, and the shaming of women’s menstrual cycles in favor of a radically reimagined, positive, celebratory mode of menstrual charting. Knowing what our bodies are up to has long roots in our feminist past—let’s find a way to have our technology reflect that!

Death to the Menstruators!…by Dragon!

January 17th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

During my more rugged travel experiences, I have often found myself confronted with the formidable task of facing the limitations and boundaries of my physical self. While in India, for example, I often had to contemplate the dilemmas of drinking water (and therefore needing to pee in places where “clean restrooms” did not exist) or becoming dehydrated. (This problem kills malnourished children in developing countries while it merely poses an embarrassing inconvenience for those with generally good health.) On another trip, I had become ill and had vomited violently for two days, leaving my body empty of calories and unable to climb up a sizeable hill to see a grand historical fort. Halfway up that hill, my normally spunky and determined self had a revelation about my newly reimagined relationship between food and energy.

photo taken by Breanne Fahs

On a trip to Indonesia, I had the opportunity to visit Komodo Island, home to the infamous Komodo dragons. My six-year-old nephew informed me (gleefully) that these creatures are extremely dangerous and kill people and animals by biting them, allowing multitudes of mouth bacteria to infect the body, and watching them slowly die. The dragons can then follow around the dying animal and consume their corpses them once their prey is left defenseless and paralyzed with bacterial infection. Before arriving on the island, our guide told us similar stories about the dangers of the Komodo dragon: There is no “anti-venom” equivalent for Komodo dragons and, as such, people die every year by accidentally trekking alone or mistaking Komodo for another Indonesian island. The death of unsuspecting tourists happened often enough that park rangers must now escort guests on the island as a mandatory safety measure. Precautions of every sort must be taken.

Just prior to arrival, excited for the chance to see Komodo dragons in their natural habitat, I received a notice in my room saying that menstruating women could not step foot on the island of Komodo and that only non-menstruating women could enter the island. The notice also informed visitors that people with wounds could not visit the island (though it did not specify the type and size of wound it was referring to), and visitors could not wear any red coloring on their clothing or backpacks. Komodo dragons have a particular combination of aggression, keen smell, bad eyesight, and bloodlust.

As a critical feminist, I initially refused to believe the reality of the caution against menstruating women, imagining that it must be yet another method of excluding women from “men’s” activities like trekking, hiking, and exploring the island. Did these cautions simply represent a repackaging of the “menstrual hut” idea? Would menstruating women actually inspire attacks? Did menstrual blood have a particular “scent” that differentiated it from other kinds of blood? What about women who lived on Komodo Island? How could resident Komodo women protect themselves? Was the ban yet another sexist maneuver to control women and their bodies? Inquiring about this “menstrual ban”, I learned that the dragons can smell blood for up to five miles, and, lacking the ability to discern their “dying” prey from menstruating women, could mistake menstruating women for dying animals and kill them. A series of attacks on menstruating women have been documented on the island, leading the rangers to warn menstruating women that they must not come near Komodo dragons under any circumstance.

My next thoughts focused on the actual disclosure of women’s menstrual status. Typically, few strangers in the U.S. feel entitled to ask women about menstrual status. Would the park rangers actually ask women about their menstrual status? Could a menstruating woman who lied about her status put the group at risk? When I started inquiring about this further, I found that discussions about Komodo Island presented one of the only contexts I can remember when menstrual status could be discussed across genders, ages, races, and cultures, as the notice of warning inspired the group to discuss menstruation openly in ways I had never personally witnessed before. Over dinner the night before our arrival in Komodo, the group I was traveling with discussed menstruation critically, frankly, and in unusual detail. Even though the discourse included (somewhat traditional) notions of “protecting women”, it also provoked the group to consider some of the questions I had asked about the cultural and gendered aspects of menstrual disclosure. Getting “comfortable” with the topic was not an option for women young enough to menstruate, as they had to openly disclose their status regardless of whether they would prefer to keep it secret. Never before had any of us confronted the idea of “security personnel” who would confirm whether we were currently menstruating (a subject that provoked more serious consideration of TSA intrusions on people’s personal lives as well).

Photo by Scott Ellis // Creative Commons NC-SA 2.0

Once on the island, walking among the trees and dusty landscape behind our ranger who carried only a large stick with a forked end, my childlike glee at the Indiana Jones-like qualities of the adventure superseded my fear of Komodo dragon attack. When we finally found the dragons, lazing about in clusters near a spot in the late afternoon shade, I felt a twinge of gratitude that my body had decided not to bleed that day. In my “normal” life, battling the stereotypes and secrecy that surround menstruation, confronting the shame and silence women face about their menstrual cycles, this newfound idea of menstruation as a kind of animal communication felt like a welcome diversion. Menstruation as danger, as physical threat, as something that could put oneself or one’s travel mates in jeopardy seemed unusually exotic, bizarre, and informative. Even more interestingly, the ability to discuss menstruation so openly with such a unique mix of people, under such strange circumstances, provided the opportunity to attach menstrual status to adventure and to remind myself that the narratives we as Americans have about menstruation do not yet reach around the globe.

Menstrual “Outing,” Menstrual Panics

November 16th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

Last fall, as a women and gender studies professor, I taught a course called “Psychology of Gender” where I decided to include an experiential activist assignment that asked students to form groups and engage in some sort of menstrual activism. The instructions asked students to choose some aspect of cultural attitudes toward menstruation that they wanted to improve (e.g., pharmaceutical labeling of “PMS” and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, men’s negativity toward menstruation, shame and silence around menstruation, problems with conventional menstrual products, and so on) and design a simple intervention that could enact change either on campus or in the community. As I had never assigned this before, and I had no idea what would happen, I had no clear expectations for how this would turn out, though I had a hunch that students would encounter some resistance and pushback for this work.

Photo used with permission

My students created a series of innovative projects and set out in earnest to challenge negative attitudes about menstruation. One group designed labels with accurate information about menstruation, and they then put these on a variety of menstrual products that they distributed on campus. Another group made fliers and signs that warned passersby about the dangers of conventional tampons; they also handed out information about Lunapads, Gladrags, Divacups, and other do-it-yourself products. A third group made buttons that read, simply, “Real Men Buy Tampons”, and handed these out to men on campus, while a fourth group went into gas stations and created makeshift “need a tampon, take a tampon” boxes near the cash registers. A fifth group challenged negativity about menstrual sex by holding signs near the streets bordering campus that read, “Honk if you love menstrual sex,” and a final group dressed a woman in white pants (with a notable red stain on her pants) and filmed her as she walked through a local mall.

The results of this “experiment” yielded some fascinating clues about the culture of menstruation today, ones that have far-reaching implications for those of us who may think menstruation is, well, “out of the box.”  While students certainly encountered many positive reactions (e.g., men who eagerly and proudly wore their buttons; women who appreciated the “free stuff”; people who praised the students for their bravery), they also dealt with a surprising amount of negative backlash. Students faced verbal harassment and “police presence” on campus while handing out tampons. Signs were removed from the cafeteria by administrators because they would “disrupt” student appetites. The woman walking through the mall faced stares and snickers (and, on one occasion, a group of teenage boys called her names and told her she was “disgusting”), though few people notified her of her “accident.” Most interestingly, however, the group that held signs about menstrual sex actually triggered a reaction from a local state representative, who started a full-blown menstrual panic by calling the office of the President at the university and demanding to know why students would engage in this sort of “obscenity” (humorously, she mixed up “menstruation” with “masturbation” in her description).

Photo used with permission

Without going into too many details of what followed after (we have a book coming out soon called The Moral Panics of Sexuality that includes a chapter about this “menstrual panic”), this entire project made me reflect on a few aspects of activism we too often forget: first, it takes very little to incite panic about menstruation; second, students can make a big impact in small ways, which makes menstruation an ideal site for pedagogical discussion and activism; and third, even the mere mention of menstruation is itself a radical act. This latter point has gotten me thinking about issues of disclosure and visibility about menstruation, particularly among our more like-minded feminist allies. What if we simply started to violate the silent stigma around menstruation by disclosing that we were menstruating today? I have a group of students (Jax Gonzalez, Stephanie Robinson, and Marisa Loiacono) who presented this idea last weekend at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Oakland, California. Their claim? That simply saying I am menstruating today can radically upset discourses of silence and shame about menstruation, while also holding us accountable for how we put our bodies on the line in feminist activism.

I am menstruating today. A simple statement that has the potential to undermine and upset the most basic assumptions about menstruation: that it will remain invisible, silent, secret, “managed,” “maintained,” and certainly undisclosed in public. With this in mind, and in honor of these fantastic students, I encourage you to try this. “Out” yourself as menstruating, not just to your family/partner/loved ones, but in a public sense. See what happens. It is, after all, the simple rebellions that create the most panic.

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.