Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Cover story in New York Magazine questions The Pill

November 30th, 2010 by Giovanna Chesler
The Pill makes the cover of NY Mag

The Pill makes the cover of NY Mag

Rare is the feature on women’s health from a magazine hip to New York City’s nightlife, dining, arts and entertainment.  Within the past two months alone the magazine featured articles on the Julie Taymor Spiderman play, Jimmy Fallon and John Stewart. Not what one might consider provoking and thoughtful. Yet this week’s issue arrived with a juicy six page article titled Waking Up From the Pill that asks readers to consider the side effects of hormonal birth control.

The author begins her journey at a 50th anniversary celebration for the Pill, hosted by a pharmaceutical company, for “a couple-hundred bejeweled women in gowns” who toast to the Pill’s gift of reproductive freedom for women.  But author Vanessa Grigoriadis notes a stunning social side effect of hormonal birth control – that women are waiting to conceive, particularly women in New York who “have shifted their attempts at conception back about ten years. And the experience of trying to get pregnant at that age amounts to a new stage in women’s lives, a kind of second adolescence.” She adds that this period is marked by anxiety and obsessions.

Interestingly, Grigoriadis elides information on the Pill’s physical side effects like increased risk of blood clots, strokes, decreased sexual drive and the like, and focuses only on the social side effects. Perhaps fearing a lawsuit, her language strongly connects infertility solely to durational use of the Pill that lingers beyond a woman’s natural reproductive age. “The Pill didn’t create the field of infertility medicine, but it turned it into an enormous industry. Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.” Be sure to read on.

Blood on Screen: Red Moon

August 2nd, 2010 by Giovanna Chesler

Red Moon: Menstruation, Culture and the Politics of Gender may have crossed your path as The Moon Inside You (its original title prior to 2010 its current distribution through Media Education Foundation). It is a film that has enjoyed wide release, with exhibition on French television and inclusion in an EU showcase of films that circulated last year. The broad exhibition strategy of Red Moon is fitting; it has a casual, heartfelt and humorous style that should appeal to many.

The purpose of Red Moon, as articulated by the filmmaker Diana Fabianova in voice over, is to answer this question: “At any given time, 25% of the female population is menstruating. Invisible. Discreet. Why is this normal, biological function taboo? There must be some deeper meaning.” There are problems with this statistical framing device – 25% is an over inflated number that eliminates girls and post-menopausal women as “females”. It also glosses over females that do not menstruate because of gender transformations and amenorrhea. Outside of this statistical malfunction, there are a few other facts provided through voice over which are not supported by specific research or attributed directly to any menstrual researchers. However, beyond these slights, Red Moon has great potential to make a taboo subject approachable.

As it begins with man-on-the-street interviews, the film seems to have interest in addressing men as equally as women. Through interviews with researchers who have written about menstruation in the 80’s and 90’s, the film attends to menstrual taboo historically and highlights menstrual suppression as an issue to address within patriarchy. There is a fantastically creepy interview with Elsimar Couthino, famous for inventing Depo Provera, Norplant and for writing Is Menstruation Obsolete (the book that launched millions of suppressed periods.) In his interview Couthino believes that women should have no more than one period in her lifetime and he likens menstruation to pending death: “First of all, menstruation is incompatible with life and nature, because an animal cannot survive bleeding longer than a few minutes in the forest. Blood, the smell of blood (he sniffs) attracts the predators. This one is bleeding. She is going to die.” Fabianova comically cuts to a hooting owl, waiting for your blood.

Fabianova is critical of pill-popping mentality and finds it better to challenge the negative view of menstruation, and silence around it, rather than do away with the period altogether. While she provides some examples of solutions to painful PMS (a belly dancing class delights, for example) the film does not directly address dysmenorrhea and severe menstrual challenges which have become justification for suppression in the first place. It does however, remind menstruators on hormonal birth control that the blood you see is a fake-period.

In fellow Re:Cycling blogger Chris Bobel’s recently released book New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, she focuses on the type of menstrual activist stylings akin to Red Moon. In short, feminist spiritualism, according to Bobel, is a narrowly focused mode of menstrual positivism that essentializes the idea of womanhood through menstruation. The movement typically appeals to middle class white women and identifies menstrual change through the self. In feminist spiritualism, political action is limited to the individual menstruator or to the girls the menstruator is encouraged to educate. Red Moon treads in this territory throughout as interviewees speak to menstrual energy, the preciousness of menstruation, and the spiritualism in bleeding. The film ends with this logic as a nude woman walks through city streets, dropping red blobs that spring new trees to life through CGI effects. In voice over we hear about the filmmaker’s changed subject position: “I no longer fight with my hormonal clock, because it is she that reminds me once a month that I have a personal, intimate connection to nature and the universe.” It’s too bad the film narrows its final message to the individual, rather than reflecting on some of the broader work done throughout, like connecting negative menstrual associations to patriarchy, and demonstrating how certain menstrual practices harm the environment and our wallets. Overall, Red Moon is a conversation starter that requires additional reading to supplement its message.

Adventures in Menstruating cycles through New York

April 14th, 2010 by Giovanna Chesler
Sarah Thomasin at Bluestockings, photo by Chris Bobel

Sarah Thomasin at Bluestockings

Last Sunday evening, at the Lower East Side bookstore (and feminist Mecca) Bluestockings, Chella Quint attempted to begin her 5th installment of a performance built from her zine Adventures in Menstruating. However this piece, Here’s The Science Bit, was quite rudely interrupted by Mother Nature, in tweed, presenting a pink and red wrapped box. Mother Nature who typically appears in Tampax adverts, exclaimed “It’s your monthly gift!” Chella seemed pleased to accept it. This confused the woman. “But…but, she stammered. It’s your monthly gift?!” Chella reminded her that she was quite happy taking it, thank you very much, and proceeded to open up the box (wondering why boxes are a running theme in fem care advertising.) For the next hour, as the paper flew and big red bows zoomed around the room, the gifts kept coming from Chella and co-performer, Sarah Thomasin, now donning lab coats.

Chella (a contributor to this blog) and Sarah’s writing on the fem care industry is spot on. Since 2005, they have produced the zine and now a blog which attempt to poke and prod the hawkers of pads and tampons out of their shameful marketing strategies. This evening they re-examined ads from the 1950’s for Zonite, a douche so powerful yet “safe to tissues” (??!) and Modess, a menstrual product pre-wrapped (i.e. disguised) in plain brown packaging. Of course, as Quint pointed out, the only other product to be wrapped in this manner were bombs.

Chella Quint and Sarah Thomasin

Chella Quint and Sarah Thomasin

In another hilarious bit, Quint played a Mooncup while Sarah proclaimed “I’m a tampon!” They argued back and forth of their varying abilities to collect and discard menstrual blood. However, The Tampon had to leave the conversation mid-sentence, only to be replaced by another Tampon who had not been part of the initial conversation with Mooncup. This happened thrice over (though of course, this would happen thousands of times over in a 10 year period, the typical lifetime of a menstrual cup, wherein the average woman would cycle through approximately 2,750 tampons.)

Adventures in Menstruating on S.H.A.M.E., photo by Chris Bobel

Adventures in Menstruating on S.H.A.M.E., photos by Chris Bobel

To combat the side effect of pop culture’s representations of menstruation, S.H.A.M.E. (Shame, Horror, Ads/Media, Erasure) Quint presented a takeaway for the evening – The Stain. The latest in fashion, Stains are red felt blobs akin to blood stains which you adhere to the front of your clothing (at your crotch) or at the back side. As Chella and Sarah presented their gift they praised the product “The best defense against stains is a healthy dose of shamelessness!” Several attendees wore their stains out the door, proudly walking down the street impervious to shame-induced fear and carried forth the overall feeling of Adventures in Menstruating – high brow and low brow at the same time.

The IUD Makes a Comeback?

April 9th, 2010 by Giovanna Chesler

copper IUDIn our pill popping economy, the go-to option for long term birth control has, since the late 1970’s,  been the pill. In the 1970’s the copper IUD (Intrauterine Device) fell out of favor after recalls, cases of infection and cases of sterilization. However, this recent Newsweek article, The IUD Reborn by Meredith Melnick suggests that the IUD is on the rise. The article cites both ParaGard (the copper IUC) and Mirena (the hormonal IUD by Bayer) as making comebacks, building from a Virginia Commonwealth study that “surveyed women with clinically defined “high-risk” sexual behavior (one third had documented histories of sexually transmitted disease), and found that modern IUDs do not increase the rate of pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility among women who have multiple partners or contract STDs. Some of the study’s data suggested that the Mirena actually protects against STDs by causing an overproduction of cervical mucus, which can act as a barrier to pathogens.”

I hope this copper IUD resurgence proves true, for the device has been so tainted that obtaining one sometimes proves quite a feat of strength on the part of the client. Not only might one have to ask for a non-hormonal IUD by name (“I’ll take ParaGard, please. No, the copper one.”) you may need to explain why you are choosing this device (“Birth control at a fraction of the cost, normal ovulation, 99.2%-99.9% effective, etc.”) In my experience, and in the cases of other recent IUD recipients, we needed to coach our gynecologists through the process of insertion. A friend who obtained an IUD this week reported to me that, while in stirrups waiting for the procedure to begin, she noticed her gynecologist reading the instructions on the package. She asked him if he knew what he was doing and he said, with some degree of uncertainty, “Oh yes. They’ve just changed the packaging.” My own gynecologist admitted that she needed to re-read the packaging as well for she inserts less than one IUD per month at her hopping New York City clinic.

IUDFinally, to get coverage from an insurance company, in some cases you must convince them to cover the device (of course, this is if you are lucky enough to have insurance.) Conversations may go something like this: “No. I cannot buy a copper IUD at the drug store and bring it to my gynecologist. I must order it directly from the company and they ship to the gynecologist. And yes, you WILL reimburse me for this charge.” Then, they may not reimburse you, and in that case I recommend putting up a fight. Mine included writing a letter laying out the costs of other birth control options. “My gynecologist prescribed this device to me as a safe, non-hormonal contraceptive that is effective for 10 years. I will not need hormonal pills for those 10 years and will not incur additional expenses based on failure of a hormonal product. If you calculate the savings you accrue, based on my choice to use a non-hormonal IUD, it is quite significant.” Needless to say, I received the check in the mail two weeks later without apology.

Thankfully, while IUD questions and problems arise, there are helpful discussion boards like IUD Divas. As with hormonal birth control pills, you are still at risk for contracting STD’s. Condoms, dental dams, gloves and the like must still be part of any non-monogamous sexual practice. But this is an interesting development and it will be followed here. For, as with the diaphragm, inexpensive birth control options seem to fall far out of favor when there are expensive pills to be swallowed en masse.

Blood on Screen: The Runaways

March 23rd, 2010 by Giovanna Chesler

Last July we posted photos from an unnamed film set where Dakota Fanning stood, ready for camera, with blood running down her thighs and a blood stain on the back of her skirt. Were these menstrual markings or the next era of horror film misogyny? The answer can be seen in the newly released film The Runaways, a drama about a 1970’s all girl rock band fronted by Cherie Currie (played by Dakota Fanning) and guitarist, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart.)

Here, menstruation is a framing element, as the film begins with a screen sized image of a red blood drop falling to the pavement. Cut to Fanning wiping blood from her thigh in disbelief. Her sister, Marie rushes her to the bathroom to attend to their first period, for Marie whines “Everything happens to you first!” Cherie packs her undies with paper towels, ties a sweatshirt around the stain, and in stunned disbelief of what has just transpired, tags behind her sister and her sister’s creepy dude date. He leers at her, “You’re a woman now.”

Later that evening, Cherie crops her hair, paints a David Bowie red streak across her face, and begins to come into herself. Becoming a woman in this film, does not include being soft and desirable for boys. Rather, menarche signifies entrance into glam rock iconography.

As Cherie meets up with Joan, and the two launch The Runaways, Cherie’s early entrance into womanhood seems to have come too soon. Still a child, Cherie is pushed into the front of a stage and asked to groan into a mic about her bursting sexuality in the song Cherry Bomb. The demanding manager, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), yells at her to give more to the song “This isn’t woman’s lib. It’s woman’s lib-ido.”

In the coming weeks on tour, Cherie will partake in her first kiss, first sip, first line, first pill – revealing how womanhood has not “dropped” upon her. It arrives in waves through her choices, or her inability to make them. And there is still more growing to do.

Bravery and Intellect Over Easy: Scrambled

March 12th, 2010 by Giovanna Chesler

(This post also published at the blog g6pix.)

I’ll try not to sound too fan-girlish here as I write about the documentary Scrambled: A Journey through PCOS by Randi Cecchine, but admittedly, it is a difficult task. For in this film, which chronicles Cecchine’s struggle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, we meet a filmmaker brave enough to show us, wart-hairs and all, the challenges inherent in this disease embodied. She does so with humor, with information, and with space for personal reflection.

As Cecchine and the health practitioners she speaks with share, PCOS is a condition that affects 8% of women but that goes under-diagnosed. Though largely undetected in the women who have PCOS, the first sign of something wrong is the absence or change in the menstrual period. According to Cecchine’s participant Dr. Geoffrey Redmond, an endocrinologist who has studied female hormone problems for over twenty years, PCOS generally shows up during puberty or shortly during the menarche period. In his interview, he argues that a delay of fifteen years in diagnosis typically occurs because “people who care for teenagers are typically not clued into this condition.”

In popular rhetoric on menstruation and menstrual suppression, there are many voices who have argued that having a menstrual period is unnecessary and should be done away with through hormonal birth control regimens (for example, Lybrel, Depo-Provera and Seasonale.) These drugs are often presented as choices to girls and young women close to menarche. Scrambled serves to intercept this discourse by demonstrating how the cycle becomes a sign of imbalance and illness. This film reminds us of the value of attending to the menstrual cycle. In Cecchine’s case, as in the case of the many women she interviews in her film, the lack of a period is a personal introduction to the disease.

Cecchine works with a light yet serious tone. A visit to Harry Finley’s Museum of Menstruation underscores the connections between menstruation, body awareness and PCOS. Yet we are able to marvel and smirk at Finley’s collection of menstrual advertising and decades old menstrual protection products which now live in his basement. As her lived investigation continues, Cecchine meets up with the Polycystic Ovarian Association (PCOSA) at their conference. There her film does remarkable work, as it invites the viewer to join in the conversation. In the scenes around the conference, we see how this film works to invite fellow PCOS women into the information Cecchine has gleaned. Though knowledge will not cure one from the illness, certain techniques shared in the film (like limiting carbohydrate intake) will result in reduced symptoms.

In the recent release of the film, which is self distributed, Scrambled is a two disc set. The first disc includes the documentary, but the second disc is chock-full of informative interviews on a variety of topics. Cecchine profiles Redmond along with many other health workers practicing western, eastern and alternative medicine who speak of the options for treatment. These include diet alterations, drug regimens, psychotherapy, acupuncture and others. In this disc, Cecchine provides the tools for a viewer with PCOS to address her syndrome through many methods. By providing information in this manner, Scrambled becomes a guide and a tool for holistic health on a personal level.

But these treatments comes at an expense. Here Cecchine’s humor bubbles up again when she shares the different techniques, like hair removal, pills, acupuncture treatments and their resulting costs. Yet, the feeling that comes afterward: “Priceless!” Bitingly Cecchine reminds us that being a patient also involves being a consumer. Therein she complicates these treatments as choices and necessities simultaneously.

Cecchine’s work follows in the tradition of Judith Helfand’s Healthy Baby Girl (1997) which, also in the first person and with humor, tells the story of Helfand’s illness with cervical cancer at the age of 25 (Helfand’s illness was the result of her mother, and mothers like her, taking the drug DES.) But Cecchine’s work also maintains experimental qualities, akin to those in the tradition of Su Friedrich’s similarly themed The Odds of Recovery (2002) which leave space for reflection by the viewer. In Scrambled, a score of tonal hums and drones, clicks and zaps create these necessary moments for reflection. In these spaces a viewer may consider her own wellness or wonder whether she knows her body enough to identify the signs of PCOS. Cecchine encourages an empowered understanding of one’s body, making Scrambled a tool for education and insight. Be sure to (order and then) watch with your notebook in one hand and the pause button in the other. There is much to take away here, but no better lesson than the importance of listening to one’s body.

The Eco-Vag: Natural Lubricant with Umbra

February 12th, 2010 by Giovanna Chesler

Umbra Fisk is a character developed at Grist TV (and performed by Jennifer Prediger) who brings a surprising smile to a movement more familiar with a Green grimace. Her Ask Umbra videos appear often enough to remind us how to bike to work safely or enlighten us on growing food in your apartment.  In her latest video, she describes how to make lube from flax seed. As she explains, personal lubricants are loaded with petrochemicals that one might otherwise find in brake fluid and antifreeze. The recipe is as quick and easy as her messages and welcome humor. Thanks Umbra for bringing on the Omega 3’s and helping us all avoid “Toxic Hoo-Ha Syndrome.”

Blood on Screen: MENstruation

November 4th, 2009 by Giovanna Chesler

I often hear women state that men would be uncomfortable if they overheard our discussion of menstruation. Many women work to keep men out of the menstruation conversation. But… surprise! Men are ready to participate. And very often, I hear men say that they want to learn more about menstruation. In studies by Jane Ussher and Jane Perz they found that women in lesbian relationships that are more egalitarian, empathetic and satisfying have different PMS experiences than women whose male partners misunderstand their PMS symptoms. That is partially because their lesbian partners understand the experiences of menstruation, even if they do not share the same symptoms. Imagine, straight ladies, if a male partner were also aware of your PMS symptoms through the information you impart? And that through this conversation and hopefully, through different behavior on his part, you could potentially change your PMS experience?

Or…what if he understands those symptoms through his own experience?! Last year, Angelique Smith, then a student at Marymount Manhattan College in a course called Social Construction and Images of Menstruation (co-taught by David Linton and myself) made MENstruation. This video was inspired by Gloria Steinem’s 1978 Ms. Magazine article “What if Men Could Menstruate?”. As Smith asks her participants Steinem’s question, “What if men could menstruate,” their answers  reveal much about cross-gender consciousness.  It screened as part of the Blood on Screen series at the Spokane SMCR conference.

Blood on Screen: The most popular title for menstrual artwork is…

October 14th, 2009 by Giovanna Chesler

A Period Piece

The third film in the Blood on Screen series is Camille Holder Brown’s award winning A Period Piece (2005). I know of at least two other films and one sculptural artwork that use this title. Yet despite the ubiquitous pun, each work has an equally clever take on the cycle (other Period Piece films include a music video by Zeinabu Irene Davis (1991), a documentary by Jennifer Frame and Jay Rosenblatt (1995,) and this installation by LaThoriel Badenhausen which was presented at the SMCR Conference in 2009.)

Camille Holder-Brown’s piece of the cycle is a fictional film portraying the awkward experiences of Sionne, a girl about to begin menstruating. From her earthy sex-ed teacher who gushes about the beauty of the cycle, to her friends and classmates at different stages of menstrual acceptance, to her mother who warmly and carefully introduces her to menstruation, A Period Piece is filled with menses-positive imagery. But Sionne’s overriding fear and her association of menstruation with shame clouds most of the film.

While this negative menstrual imagery may be viewed as harmful to educating girls about the cycle, I see this film as realistic. Though we’d like to believe that all girls are open to seeing their periods and their bodies as positive and beautiful, this is far from the case (see years of Carol Gilligan’s work if you need a refresher on this fact.) A Period Piece greets many girls where they are at and it can work to begin a conversation with a young girl who is unable to open up to a well-meaning elder. Please contact production company Cinemomma directly for your copy and watch the trailer here:

Blood on Screen: Truth or Dare

September 23rd, 2009 by Giovanna Chesler
Truth or Dare (Francois Ozon, 1994)

Truth or Dare (Francois Ozon, 1994)

Surprisingly this isn’t a post on Madonna, but another media artist interested in gender: Francois Ozon. His short film Truth or Dare (1994) welcomes us into the inner circle of four teenagers engaged in the game. As the two boys and two girls challenge each other with “Action” or “Verite” they address and trangress every taboo (sex between children, boys kissing boys, AIDS, girls fondling girls.) Yet one taboo will trump them all!

View a scene from the film here:

As with most of his work, Ozon manages to engage in taboo with sympathy and emotion. He crafts films that are intimate, inviting the viewer to imagine their own sexual transgression. Screenings of Truth or Dare make a room of viewers squirm and titter with delight as they partake in the pleasure of watching this naughty game. Menstrual activists may not know whether to cheer or boo at the end. That is, of course, Ozon’s wish.

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.