Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Media all over “end-the-tampon-tax” advocacy

January 30th, 2016 by Laura Wershler

As U.S. advocacy to end the “tampon tax” on all feminine hygiene products continues, Democratic politicians, including President Obama, dialled up the media conversation about the issue as 2016 got underway. Here’s a January timeline:

This tampon art piece might be considered a luxury item, but the real thing is not. Special Edition Playtex by Danielle Hogan, 2006. Used with permission. daniellehogan.com

This tampon art piece might be considered a luxury item, but the real thing is not. Special Edition Playtex by Danielle Hogan, 2006. Used with permission. daniellehogan.com

Jan. 5, 2016, Michele Gorman, NewsweekCalifornia legislators seek to end “tampon tax” on feminine hygiene products

Jan. 7, 2016, Josh Barro, The New York Times, The Latest Sales Tax Controversy: Tampons

So why shouldn’t tampons get the same tax break as other necessities? It’s a question that’s been debated in legislatures around the world, with tampon tax cuts adopted in Canada and rejected in France last year.

Jan. 8, 2016, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon,  Time to end the tampon tax: Sales tax on feminine hygiene products unfairly penalize women

But while arguments over what makes something a necessity are open to debate, arguments over a fee that only affects one segment of the population are not. That’s what makes the sales tax unfair. And that’s a price women don’t deserve to pay.

Jan. 8, 2016, Sarah Larimer, The Washington Post, The ‘tampon tax,’ explained

It’s an issue that’s gaining more and more attention around the world. Canada’s tax on feminine hygiene products was lifted over summer, after thousands signed an online petition on the matter. In Britain, a few women staged a “tampon tax” protest while on their periods last fall.

Jan. 20, 2016, Sade Strehlke, Teen VogueWatch YouTube Star Ingrid Nilsen School President Obama on the “Tampon Tax”

As Ingrid and our president point out, however, periods are not optional for most women, and we shouldn’t be burdened with an extra charge when it’s that time of month.

President Obama sheepishly admitted that he doesn’t know why states tax tampons, but he suspects “it’s because men were making these laws when those taxes were passed.”

“I don’t know anyone who has a period who thinks it’s a luxury,” Ingrid responded. President Obama agreed, and said his wife, would probably agree with her too. “It’s something that’s part of our everyday lives, and is crucial to our health as women,” she continued.

Jan. 26, 2016, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, The NationWhy Are We Paying Sales Tax on Tampons?

Jan. 28, 2016: Haley Snyder, Huff Post PoliticsThere Will Be Blood–So Long As There Is Inequality

For a woman making decent money, a simple tax on tampons may be unnoticeable, but for someone who is poor who spends a larger percentage of her money on tampons, a “small” difference may strip away her ability to afford a product entirely.

Jan 28, 2016, Kerry Close, Money (Time Inc.), The Tampon Tax Could Finally Be Eliminated in These States

At home, there’s hope for women who live in the majority of states that still somehow consider tampons a luxury. The issue has been getting a lot of press lately, with even President Obama admitting he doesn’t understand why the tax exists.

When asked this month by YouTube personality Ingrid Nilsen why tampons are considered luxury items in so many states, the president replied, “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.

Meanwhile, the Change.org petition (No Tax On Tampons: Stop Taxing Our Periods! Period.) launched by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and Cosmopolitan magazine needs just over 6,000 more signatures to reach the 50,000 mark.

Canadian Laura Wershler, SMCR member and editor-in-chief of re:Cycling, was proud when the Canadian parliament agreed unanimously to lift the federal tax on femcare products in mid-2015. 

Menstrual Health Education: How and why to make it better

January 28th, 2016 by Editor

Peggy Stubbs and Evelina Sterling advocate for comprehensive menstrual education

For nearly forty years, the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research (SMCR) has been promoting the perspective that the menstrual cycle is central to girls’ and women’s overall health. But this connection seems to be nearly invisible to the public, and even in the public health arena. A recent informal, but telling, series of Internet searches reveals that many agencies provide minimal or no information about the menstrual cycle. This information deficit was discussed at SMCR’s June 2015 conference in a session offered by Evelina Sterling, Heather Guidone, Diana Karczmarczka and Peggy Stubbs.  For example, the menstrual cycle is not listed in the Healthy People Goals, and so is not seen as a priority by groups such as the CDC. Instead, the prevailing attitude seems to be that other public health issues are more important and that, beyond basic biology and management, girls and women (and boys and men) don’t need to know much more about the menstrual cycle. Menstruation, from menarche to menopause, is not presented as an integral component of women’s health. Menstruation is not associated with long-term health and wellness, nor is it considered as relevant to the experience of specific illnesses, disabilities or mental health conditions.

Menstrual product companies fill a public health gap by providing menstrual education materials to schools.

Menstrual product companies fill a public health gap by providing menstrual education materials to schools.

The public health gap in menstrual education has been filled by menstrual product manufacturers whose materials are used in many schools and whose online presence is influencing what girls first learn about menstruation. While menstrual management is of great importance, and while we applaud recent efforts by some product manufacturers (e.g., Kotex) to address and try to reduce menstruation stigma, so much more could and should be done to help girls and women learn about how the cycle serves as a “vital sign” of health, as opposed to what too many consider a normative but inconvenient at best, debilitating biological necessity.

We think a coalition of biomedical public health and psychosocial researchers promoting menstruation as a vital sign, and countering one of today’s most facile conceptions of menstruation—that it is a lifestyle choice—can do much better.

While we appreciate there are many public health issues relevant to girls’ and women’s health, we believe it is time for menstruation to take center stage, to be more broadly considered in relation to women’s lives and well-being. SMCR researchers and others have long promoted a comprehensive, lifespan approach to menstrual education, one that is both broad and deep, and features the interconnection of its biological and psychosocial aspects. This means addressing the connections between our biology and what we (both as individuals and as a culture) think about it and do about it.

This means moving beyond a nuts and bolts approach to menstruation, whatever the age group, not forgetting to include boys and men in our efforts. This means that all educators—family members, teachers, public health workers, product manufacturers, health care providers and the like—should strive to learn about and convey how the cycle influences well-being. This means consulting not only the latest biomedical research but also the treasure trove of social science research on the topic. Educators can begin with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) 2015 paper (1) on using the menstrual cycle as a vital sign in the education of young girls and adolescents. AGOC researchers have also provided guidelines for health-care providers about how to take a menstruation history and how to help parents convey information about menstruation to daughters (See Hilliard, 2014) (2). In addition, educators should study the many papers and presentations by SMCR researchers and other scholars to learn how psychosocial aspects of the cycle can impact such things as self-image and sexual-decision making. (e.g., Stubbs, 2008; Erchull, 2002, 2015; Johnston-Robledo, Stubbs & Walch, 2013) (3).

Our challenge is to make collective and collaborative use of this material, thereby helping the public to think about menstruation—from menarche to menopause—as a window into well-being instead of an experience simply to put up with. Providing full disclosure about the cycle, weaving its complexities into education programs without overcomplicating or unnecessarily alarming audiences, will require ongoing work. But knowledge is power and girls and women deserve nothing less.

1. Committee Opinion No. 651. (2015).  Menstruation in girls and adolescents: using the menstrual cycle as a vital sign. Obstetrics and Gynecology,  126:e, 143-146.

2. Hilliard, P.J.A. (2014).  Menstruation in Adolescents: What Do We Know? and What Do We Do with the Information? Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 27(6), 309-319.  doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2013.12.001

3. Stubbs, M.L.  (2008). Cultural perceptions and practices around menarche and adolescent menstruation in the United States. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1135, 58-66.

Erchull, M.J., Chrisler, J.C., Gorman, J.A. & Johnston-Robledo, I. (2002). Fact or fiction: A content analysis of educational materials about menstruation. Journal of Early Adolescence, 22, 455-474.

Erchull, M.J., & Richmond, K. (2015). “It’s normal…Mom will be home in an hour”: The role of fathers in menstrual education. Women’s Reproductive Health, 2, 93-110.

Johnston-Robledo, I. Stubbs, M.L. and Walch, A.  (2013). Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies. Menstruation.  www.oxfordbibliographies.com

Margaret L. (Peggy) Stubbs is a professor of psychology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, and a member of re: Cycling’s editorial board. Her areas of expertise include psychosocial aspects of menstruation; attitudes towards menstruation, pubertal development; and menstrual education throughout the lifespan. 

MENSTRUAL MISCHIEF: South Park Meets Judy Blume

December 31st, 2015 by David Linton

Note: Inspiration for the following observation came from research and writing done by a former student of mine, Bob Newman, whose thorough analysis of the menstrual elements in adult TV cartoons is the source of the critique.

It is likely, at least for women who grew up from 1970 onward, that the most widely known menstrual reference in popular culture is Judy Blume’s path breaking 1970 kid-lit novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (For men and the general public the most widely known is probably the 1974 novel by Stephen King, Carrie, and its several film adaptations.)

southParkMore recently, the venue in which menstrual details appear most frequently is surely the long-running TV series, South Park. As befits a program whose very raison d’être is the evisceration of social taboos, received wisdom, cant, and established beliefs (not to mention a random selection of celebrities and customs), menstruation has repeatedly come in for its share of attention. So it is no surprise that Trey Parker, one of the series’ creators, would write a script that brings together the well known Judy Blume novel with menstrual taboos and ignorance in the Season 3, Episode 16 show titled Are you there God? It’s me, Jesus.

Readers familiar with the famous novel will recall that, among the many pubescent concerns they have, the girls in the book are anxious to the point of competitiveness about getting their periods, the crucially important indication that they are becoming women. They gossip and even fib about who “got it” first, and important story elements concern their school viewing of a menstrual education film and shopping for menstrual products. With this in mind, the South Park episode offers what might be seen as a raunchy version of Gloria Steinem’s essay, If Men Could Menstruate. It starts off this way (script slightly edited for length):

CARTMAN: You guys!  You guys!  Guess what?

KYLE: What, fatass!?

CARTMAN: I’ve become a man! I started puberty, you guys!

STAN: No you didn’t!

CARTMAN: Yes! I really did.

STAN: How do you know?

CARTMAN: Well, because yesterday I got my period.

KYLE: You got your what?

CARTMAN: My period, you guys.  You see, there comes a time in every child’s life when they grow up and nature takes its course by having you bleed out your ass for a few days every month.

STN: You’re making that up! (women enter from behind Eric) Miss Aliton, what’s it mean to get a period?

MISS ALITON: Well boys, ah-I don’t think I can tell you.  Ah-

STAN: Please, it’s important.

MISS ALITON: It’s when puberty hits and you bleed, you know, down there.

KYLE: Holy shit, dude! Cartman’s right!

CARTMAN: Well guys, I’m afraid I won’t be able to hang out with you on New Year’s Eve.  I have to hang out with the older crowd because now, I’m ma-ture.  I got my period, and you guys didn’t.  I got my period, and you guys didn’t.

STAN: Dude, Cartman can’t hit puberty before us.

KYLE: Well, maybe we’ll get ours soon, too.  I’m gonna go and see if I’m bleeding out my ass.

It turns out that the reason for Eric Cartman’s condition is a stomach virus that causes rectal bleeding; however, all of the boys are so envious of Cartman’s new status as a pubescent young man that the rest of the episode is spent charting their anxiety at not also having blood coming from the ass and trying to find out what a period is and how to deal with it.  One of the boys, Kyle, even lies about bleeding so he can have the status that it bestows.  And the “Margaret” of the show becomes Stan who goes about his days asking adults to explain to him what “getting your period” means, only to be met with confusing or evasive answers.   The adult who is usually the most helpful in explaining the mysteries of adulthood to them, Chef, sings a song about the period but it is of no help in dealing with Stan’s fear of being left behind his menstruating friends.

Again echoing a scene in Are You There God?, the boys go shopping for menstrual products only to become even more confused when faced with the plethora of products that line the shelves of the store. Kenny, the boy who gets killed in every episode, tries to follow the directions for tampon use and inserts it in his anus, causing him to eventually explode as he fills up with feces.

Finally, Stan becomes so frustrated in trying to get an explanation of what the period is and why he has not yet gotten one himself that he prays to Jesus for an answer. But Jesus, being a man after all, is of no help either. Finally, God intervenes and answers Stan’s questions as well as telling him that Cartman really has a virus and Kyle is faking.

The program accomplishes several of its satiric intentions by creating a parody of Judy Blume’s novel and at the same time laying out the various ways the menstrual cycle continues to be a taboo topic that children have a natural curiosity about but that adults turn into a dark mystery, particularly for boys. I wonder how the designers of health education curricula and lesson plans would feel about showing this piece in tandem with the usual corporate sponsored “Becoming A Woman” videos that are the major source of sex education in most schools.

Menstrual Pop Music: Singing the period blues

December 28th, 2015 by David Linton

Since re:Cycling launched in 2009, we’ve posted often about how film, TV, advertising and literary productions reference menstruation. However, one popular mass medium seems to have generally avoided addressing the cultural and personal presence of the menstrual cycle: popular music. But, there are a few exceptions worthy of note.

It’s not surprising that nearly all of the musical menstrual references located so far are songs by or performed by women. Consider the following four examples:

puddledive_largeThe earliest sighting so far is by the founder of Righeous Babe Records, a leading feminist artist, Ani DiFranco, on her 1993 CD titled PUDDLE DIVE. The track’s title, Blood in the Boardroom, gives a good idea of what’s in store. The lyrics  depict a scene that thousands of women in corporate settings may have experienced, or at least dreaded the possibility of having to deal with. The character in the song is the sole woman at a meeting with a room full of male executives. She unexpectedly gets her period, leaving a stain on the boardroom chair as she leaves the meeting in search of a tampon. The only woman in sight is a secretary in whom she confides in a moment of menstrual bonding. Though the secretary expresses sympathy for the “hassle” she’s dealing with, the singer sees the stain she has left on the chair as a symbol of her women’s power:

it ain’t no hassle, no, it ain’t no mess
right now it’s the only power
that I possess
these businessmen got the money
they got the instruments of death
But I can make life
I can make breath

 

A year later (1995), an aspiring young singer named Monica released MISS THANG, a CD with a track titled Don’t Take it Personal (just one of dem days.) In keeping with the tone of the rest of the album, the song has an adolescent longing, even whiny, quality, and the producers clearly thought that this cut had potential for getting air and club play as they included two different mixes of it. Though the lyrics do not make a specific reference to the singer’s cycle, the implication of the words carry the notion that she is having an uncomfortable period and that the boy who she is feeling testy towards should just wait it out until it’s no longer “one of dem days.”

Another young woman who had already achieved a good deal of attention and success in her career, Mary J Blige, released NO MORE DRAMA in 2002 containing a track simply named PMS. She introduces the song by directly addressing the women who might be listening stating, “I wanna talk to the ladies tonight/About situation I’m pretty sure y’all be able to relate to.” However, the song then quickly takes a turn and actually is addressed to men:

So don’t even look at me
See I don’t wanna hear your problem
Cause I’m having some of my own
I know it was not your fault
That I’m feelin down
I just wanna be left alone

The lyrics proceed with a virtual catalog of menstrual-related problems and discomforts backed up by a chorus of women who intone “PMS, PMS, PMS” in a dirge like incantation. At the end the singer returns to addressing the women listeners with a disheartening lament:

if you understand, understand where I’m comin from
Sing along, PMS
This is the worst part of everything
The worst part of being a woman is PMS
Give me a break, give me a break

The song takes a thoroughly negative, even catastrophic, view of the impact of having a menstrual cycle and the style of the delivery matches its depressing darkness. In contrast, a few years later country music star Dolly Parton produced an examination of the same subject in PMS Blues, which is widely available on a number of internet sites reflecting the fact that she commonly includes it in her performances at various venues. And though the gist of the song is similarly negative about the dire impact of PMS, there’s a tough amusement in the delivery and style of the approach that makes audiences cheer Parton both for having the temerity to openly perform a piece about the menstrual cycle as well as for displaying the strength and moxie to live through it and come out as spunky and tough as her persona suggests.

But, for contrast, consider a few lines by the Hip-Hop star, Eminem, the only male I’ve yet found to mention anything menstrual. In 2002, the same year that Mary J Blige’s PMS was released, Eminem released one of his most important CDs, THE EMINEM SHOW which includes a cut titled Without Me. The song is in the common category of male boasting about one’s own power and brilliance, in this case along the lines that the entire world of Rap music has been suffering due to his absence as he has had to deal with some legal problems. The frequent refrain is “It feels so empty without me.” The passing menstrual detail suggests profound male ignorance about the actual process of the menstrual cycle, though it is an attempt to use a reference to women’s reproduction in a way that grants it creative power.

Are menopause stereotypes still selling?

December 26th, 2015 by David Linton

The holiday season brings plenty of opportunities to celebrate as well as to reflect on our lives, our society, and the state of the world. So, here’s an opportunity to reflect on the state of the menstrual ecology, a look back at a post from three years ago, published on Aug. 6, 2012. This piece was about a book that, as the copyright page states, was “Published by Hallmark Books, a division of Hallmark Cards, Inc.” The publication date was 2008 and it was also credited to a company called Celestial Arts which still lists it in their catalog. However, it does not currently appear in the Hallmark online catalog and it is impossible to tell if any Hallmark stores still carry it. Which brings up some interesting questions. Has Hallmark dropped the product and, if so, why? Have they become more period and menopause positive – or at least less negative?  What prompted the publication of such a negative view of women in the first place? In any event, even the publication history of a trivial item such as this can yield insights into much larger issues and attitudes. That’s what makes studying the social construction of the menstrual cycle such a constantly fascinating topic.

HALLMARK – When you care enough to send the very . . . ??

Hallmark greeting cards and related trinkets have long exemplified wholesome, up-tempo, Norman Rockwell-styled sentimentality, often packaged in clichéd verses and trite images of puppies, kittens, flowers, babies, sunsets and other references guaranteed to elicit a smile, a tear, or a warm glow. However, as rude humor has spread its influence, expressed most vividly and viciously in celebrity roasts and the Comedy Central show, Tosh .0, Hallmark was not to be left behind. A visit to the racks of cards, books, and novelties at your local card shop reveals a wide variety of snarky items offering cheap shots at a wide variety of groups, hobbies, and practices.

Menopause001Among them are several items that attempt to poke fun at what are thought to be characteristics of women in some stage of the menstrual cycle, notably PMS or menopause. Setting aside the fact that the items perpetuate the common misuse of the term  menopause when what is meant is perimenopause, consider a small book presently on sale titled, Not Guilty by Reason of Menopause.

HallmarkIt is comprised of more than 50 pages, organized in double-page spreads, each of which offers a completion to the phrase, “You might be menopausal if. . .”

A few examples will suffice:

“. . . you think about the ‘til death do us part line in your wedding vows a little too often.”

“. . . you tell all your children they’re not your favorite.”

“. . . when your husband proposes a romantic vacation, you suggest ice fishing.”

Collectively, it amounts to an anthology of mean-spirited nastiness with little redeeming humor. Women are depicted as crazy, stupid, vicious, obese, and every other negative stereotype imaginable.

And with each insult women are expected to smile sweetly at being the butt of a bad joke. Of course, to express outrage or even mild annoyance with these sorts of put-downs is to risk of being accused of lacking a sense of humor or, worse yet, of being “politically correct,” the favored dismissive term of those who demand that their repugnant values are somehow benign or lacking in impact or intent.

We’ve come a long way from the days of 1910 when Hallmark was founded and especially from 1944 when the company adopted the slogan that is still theirs today, “When you care enough to send the very best.” In this case one might ask, “The very best of what?”

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

Marketing menstrual products to tweens raises concern

December 23rd, 2015 by Editor

Guest Post by Victoria Velding

On a recent trip to the U by Kotex box store I came across U by Kotex for Tweens. It seems this product has been on the market for a number of years, but since I don’t frequent the femcare aisle on a regular basis, I only recently discovered it. Immediately I took issue with its messages. What concerns me is not the existence of the product (that in itself is an entirely separate conversation), as certainly those of the tween age menstruate and need to have products available for their use. No, what I take issue with is the packaging and marketing of the product—the obvious exploitation of the consumer, the mixed messages it sends, and the body and self-esteem issues it exacerbates.

The box itself is a classic example of how marketers attempt to attract the tween consumer: glitter, bright colors, and “cutesy” designs. Must we cover everything in glitter just to designate it as for tweens only? The box is also covered in hearts and stars, a theme I would later discover is represented on the contents inside the box as well. The U by Kotex products are notorious for being packaged in a variety of colors (red excluded, of course). When the U by Kotex line was introduced, the brand sought to change the conversation about women’s health and challenge menstrual stigma. I was not surprised to see the tween version offered in multiple colors, nor did it surprise me when I researched the product online and discovered the wrappers also have hearts and stars on them. The designs cleverly resemble drawings from a young girl’s notebook. The U by Kotex website even describes the pads as having “vibrant colors with cool patterns” as if that is going to get a tween girl excited about menstruating! What really surprised me, however, was that there are hearts and stars on the actual pad. Designs! On the pad! Do you know what else has designs on them? Infant diapers.

U by Kotex-PadMenstruating is often seen as a rite of passage, and menarche, as Janet Lee ascertained, represents the heterosexualization of young girls. By taking this rather adult concept and adding designs to the packaging and actual product, Kotex is infantilizing the tween consumer and, in a sense, the act of menstruating. Pads, like infant diapers, are intended to absorb bodily fluids, and these pads, just like infant diapers, come with cute designs on them.

While I was immediately drawn to the glittery package labeled “tween,” it was actually the words in smaller print—“protection for smaller sizes”—that really drew me into the product and caused me a bit of concern. I couldn’t help but think of myself and my tween niece when I saw this. As a tween, I did not require, nor does my tween niece require, a pad that presumably offers less surface area of protection than an adult pad. Tweens want to fit in, to be accepted, to not draw too much attention to themselves. How might a tween feel when she can’t buy the product designed specifically for her age-group because her body is not the size Kotex has deemed it should be? There is a bevy of research on girls and women and body image issues, with many describing the pressure to adhere to society’s idealized conception of the thin female form. Must the slightly larger than “average” tween be made to feel bad about herself, or not “normal” because she needs to use the same femcare product as her teen sister or mom, and not the same one as her tween friends?

The issue, however, concerns not only overweight tweens, but also petite adult women. U by Kotex for Tweens might actually be the perfect size for some adult women, women who have difficulty finding products in their sizes that are not intended for children. Must we continue to infantilize these women by offering “protection for smaller sizes” that is adorned with hearts and stars?

While a pad for “smaller sizes” may be needed, I question Kotex’s approach to specifically targeting the tween consumer. Girls are taught that menstruating is part of growing up, yet a product intended specifically for their menstruating body has elements that are strikingly similar to an infant’s diaper. Tweens are at a confusing time in their lives, experiencing social, emotional, and physiological changes. The mixed messages sent by this product line are only exacerbating their confusion about what it means to grow-up, to menstruate, and to be a girl.

Victoria Velding is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University. Her research interests include tweens, gender, and sexuality.

Novel approach to the menstrual cycle: State of Wonder, Part 3

December 19th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

This post was originally published at re:Cycling on March 27, 2015. 

State of Wonder–Part 3: Wondering about menstrual cycle misconceptions in a fictionalized theory for extended fertility

In Parts 1 and 2, I wondered why author Ann Patchett chose not to include information about menstruation, femcare products and birth control that, logically, would have enhanced her novel’s inciting premise—lifelong menstruation and fertility—while retaining the literary integrity of State of Wonder. I believe just a few sentences could have accomplished this.

Now, I wonder about the menstrual cycle misconceptions that underpin Patchett’s proposed explanation for the extended fertility experienced by the Lakashi tribe.

The reader learns with Dr. Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, that the Lakashi women continue to menstruate, ovulate, conceive and give birth into their 70s because they regularly chew the bark of Martin trees found in the Brazilian rainforest. The bark is so effective there are no post-menopausal Lakashi.

The women chew the bark once every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant, because the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. The researchers, led by Dr. Annick Swenson who has been studying the Lakashi for decades, observe the women chewing the bark and collect cervical mucus swabs to monitor their estrogen levels. They dab the swabs on slides for “ferning.”

“No one does ferning anymore,” Marina said. It was the slightly arcane process of watching estrogen grow into intricate fern patterns on slides. No ferns, no fertility.

Dr. Saturn shrugged. “It’s very effective for the Lakashi. Their estrogen levels are quite sensitive to the intake of the bark.”

Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle: Used with permission from Geraldine Matus, Justisse Healthworks for Women

Patchett perpetuates the myth that fertility is all about estrogen. Actually, fertility is dependent upon the cyclic ebb and flow of estrogen and progesterone. As the graphic illustrates, estrogen rises in the pre-ovulatory phase, peaks, then drops dramatically just before ovulation occurs. Post ovulation, estrogen continues to be produced but its effect on cervical mucus is suppressed (no ferns) by the substantially higher level of progesterone which acts upon the endometrium in preparation for pregnancy.

It would make more sense for the Lakashi to chew the bark more often during the pre-ovulatory phase but be repulsed by it post-ovulation as progesterone rises. How neat would that have been? The researchers could have pinpointed ovulation in their study subjects. Oddly, ovulation is not even mentioned.

Furthermore, if intake of the bark raises estrogen levels, chewing the bark every five days would interfere with the post-ovulatory rise of progesterone, throwing the hormonal interplay of estrogen and progesterone required to achieve and support a pregnancy out of whack.

Another issue: Marina is told that by chewing the bark “her window for monthly fertility would be extended from three days to thirteen.” What does this really mean? According to the scientific principles underlying the fertility awareness method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy, the fertile phase starts when fertile-quality cervical mucus is first observed and ends when three dry days have passed. The bark would increase the fertile quality of the mucus and the number of days fertile mucus occurs pre-ovulation, thereby increasing the chances for conception. But sperm can only survive five days, kept viable by the mucus that locks it in the cervical crypts until an egg is released. And that egg will remain viable for only 24 hours. Timing of intercourse still matters. The extended fertility explanation in the novel does not suggest the Martin tree bark has any effect on these accepted reproductive factors.

Am I being too picky? Perhaps. State of Wonder is, after all, a work of fiction. But I expect a seasoned novelist to have researched basic menstrual cycle facts so as not to pose an explanation for extended fertility that doesn’t pass scrutiny. Had Patchett consulted with a menstrual cycle expert, perhaps an SMCR member, she might have imagined a much more plausible scenario. In the actual book I read, there were no acknowledgements to those she may have consulted on the subject.

I loved State of Wonder for all it’s literary complexity that goes far beyond the details related to the menstrual cycle that I have wondered about in this 3-part series. But it’s been fun to explore how one novelist wrote about a subject I am intimately familiar with and to suggest how she might have done it differently.

Thank you Ann Patchett. Here’s to more menstrual mentions in literature.

Laura Wershler is a veteran sexual and reproductive health advocate and writer, SMCR member, and editor-in-chief of re:Cycling.

Novel approach to the menstrual cycle: State of Wonder, Part 2

December 17th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

This post was originally published at re:Cycling on March 6, 2015.

State of Wonder–Part 2: Wondering about missing femcare products and birth control references

In State of Wonder–Part 1, I mused as to why, in a novel revolving around the extended menstruation and fertility of the Lakashi tribe, only the menstrual cycles of the Brazilian women being studied are made visible to the reader. Why does author Ann Patchett ignore the menstrual cycles of the novel’s protagonist, Marina Singh, or the other female research scientists? If they are eating the tree bark responsible for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, their menstrual responses should be of interest to the author.

Failure to mention the scientist’s cycles points to another puzzling omission. There is no reference to menstrual-care products the women would have required while living in the rainforest for years at a time. There was opportunity to do so because a few key scenes are set in the store where research leader Dr. Annick Swenson buys all the provisions for the camp.

Marina must visit the store immediately upon landing in Manaus because the airline has lost her luggage. She has no clothing, no toiletries, none of the necessities for daily living. Why does she not purchase, visibly to the reader, tampons or pads? If not on her first trip to the store, then on her second as she prepares to leave for the remote research camp with Dr. Swenson? She obviously will need such supplies as her weeks in Brazil progress, and the timing of her cycle, as deduced by this reader, suggests she needed them while in Manaus or shortly after arriving at the camp.

I think Patchett’s reason for leaving out this menstrual-related information was not literary, but rather socio-cultural in nature. She tastefully shares the intimate details of the Lakashi women’s menstrual cycles, but can’t find a way—with even a few sentences—to convey this aspect of other female character’s lives? (Exception: Dr. Swenson, whose experiences I avoid mentioning to prevent plot spoilers.) Did she try? Did she resist? If so, why? What a missed opportunity. Marina’s interior dialogue makes it clear she is a still-menstruating woman wondering if motherhood will be in her future. How easy it would have been to use Marina’s need for tampons as a segue to consideration of her fertility.

Which brings me to another menstrual-related omission in the book. There is no reference to the birth control methods used by Marina and one of the female scientists who lives in the research camp with her husband.

Drs. Nancy and Alan Saturn are part of the research team in Brazil. Nancy is eating the bark, enhancing her fertility. Pregnancy is not an objective for this couple; they must be using contraception. The pill would be contra-indicated—a double whammy of exogenous estrogen provided by the pill and the Martin tree bark could have negative consequences. Condoms would break down in the heat. A Mirena IUD might not be at odds with the estrogenic bark, which has another critical medicinal effect the researchers are eager to access. Maybe a copper IUD? A diaphragm? Abstinence? Does it matter? Perhaps not, but why not be daring and tell the reader anyway? Surely the author must have asked herself these questions.

And what about Marina’s choice of birth control? At 42 she is in an intimate relationship with a much older colleague, the man who sent her to Brazil. Contraceptive use is implied but the method is, yet again, invisible. One can assume it was non-hormonal and not an IUD because of what happens at the end of the novel. But why not write one or two sentences along the way to convey this information? Isn’t this what good writers do, litter clues as a novel progresses to set up what happens later?

Ann Patchett chose not to mention the femcare products and birth control methods her characters used in her novel State of Wonder. I can’t help wondering: why?

Laura Wershler is a veteran sexual and reproductive health advocate and writer, SMCR member, and editor-in-chief of re:Cycling.

Novel approach to the menstrual cycle: State of Wonder, Part 1

December 14th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

As re:Cycling explores media representation of the menstrual cycle, we’ve chosen to republish a three-part series I wrote about how author Ann Patchett uses the menstrual cycle as a major plot devise in her novel State of Wonder. Part 1 was originally published on January 22, 2015.

State of Wonder–Part 1: Wondering about missing menstrual mentions in literature

In her novel State of Wonder Ann Patchett explores, among many broad themes, the question: What if there were a drug women could take to extend menstruation and fertility into their seventies? Not evident on the dust jacket, this storyline grabbed the attention of this menstrual cycle advocate.

Set mainly in the jungle of Brazil, the novel revolves around the decades-long research of Dr. Annick Swenson who has kept the location and progression of her research secret from the drug company funding her work with the fictional Lakashi tribe. When a male scientist sent by the drug company to find Dr. Swenson and deliver a message is reported dead, Dr. Marina Singh, a research pharmacologist, becomes the second emissary charged with finding Dr. Swenson and assessing her progress towards the promised drug.

Finding Dr. Swenson is a formidable task, but when she does Marina eventually learns the complex botanical explanation for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, as well as the justifiable reasons why the research location has been so scrupulously protected.

This literary novel, a satisfying read, powerfully renders the mystique of the Amazon jungle, conveying both the wonder and trauma Marina experiences there. For an insightful review of State of Wonder I’d recommend Lydia Millet’s. This series of posts is not a review, but rather commentary on the niggling details related to the extended fertility storyline. Spoiler Alert: Some plot points will be revealed.

After a few weeks in the jungle—the timeline is fuzzy—Marina is invited by two other female researchers to the grove of Martin trees where she observes Lakashi women of all ages scraping tree bark with their teeth, a practices she is told that begins at menarche and is the key to their lifelong fertility.

Marina learns the women chew the bark every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant; the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. She is told also that although the women don’t all come to the grove on the same five-day cycle, they’re menstrual periods are “pretty much” synchronous so the researchers “get a few days off every month.” That is, days off from observing them in the grove while taking pin-prick blood samples and collecting cervical mucus swabs to monitor estrogen levels that Dr. Swenson has taught the Lakashi to do themselves with Q-tips. Dr. Swenson’s research team charts and studies every cycle of every menstruating girl and woman.

The researchers tell Marina they also chew the bark and invite her to try it. Here is where, in a story that speaks intimately about the tribal women’s menstrual cycles, I wondered why Patchett did not include even one sentence to acknowledge when Marina had her last period. (At 42 she has thought about her fertility and her prospect of having a child someday.) Because she scrapes the bark one assumes she isn’t menstruating, and she’s been in Brazil long enough–weeks spent in Manaus before getting to the jungle–to have had at least one period. Where is she in her cycle? This matters because of what happens later in the story. So, since menstruation is integral to the novel, why not mention it? And why don’t the other female researchers mention whether their cycles, too, have synchronized with the Lakashi’s?

In most novels, probably too many, the menstrual cycles of female characters are invisible unless they figure prominently in the plot. It made no sense to me that Patchett chose to make Marina’s cycle invisible. Even if readers can deduce this missing information, surely this is the wrong novel in which to require us to do so. Again, I ask, “Why?”

Laura Wershler is a veteran sexual and reproductive health advocate and writer, SMCR member, and editor-in-chief of re:Cycling.

Donald Trump wasn’t the first to get in trouble over menstrual talk

December 10th, 2015 by David Linton

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s snarky remark about how the journalist Megan Kelly spoke to him at the Republican candidates’ debate on Aug. 6, 2015. And the news is dominated by stories about how social media are reshaping every aspect of our lives, not to mention the proliferation of web sites of various kinds that explore various aspects of the menstrual cycle and promote new and well-established products.

Nearly five years ago re:Cycling reported the story of how media hacking and news coverage converged in such a way as to besmirch the reputation of one of the most highly placed members of the British Monarchy–Charles, Prince of Wales–by disclosing a casual reference he made to a menstrual product. As we explore menstrual media references this month, it seems worthwhile to take another look at this story, originally published on this blog on Aug. 29, 2011:

Menstruation, Prince Charles and The Biggest Hacking Scandal

charles_tamponIn light of the recent scandals over the phone and email hacking practices of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper editors and reporters it is surprising that there has been so little mention of the fact that the most scandalous, damaging and far reaching hacking story associated with Murdoch centered on menstruation.  The only thorough review of the links between the current story and the earlier one appears in a detailed piece in The Sun-Herald from Sydney, Australia, July 31, 2011.

I have previously written about the incident here and elsewhere, but in light of the current coverage it deserves a fresh look.

In brief: in 1989, a time before either cell phones or email were commonly available (hard to believe there was such a time!), a phone hacker recorded a phone sex exchange between Prince Charles and his then-lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles in which erotic mention was made of tampons.  Three years later the full transcript of the conversation was published in an Australian women’s magazine, New Idea, and a world-wide scandal ensued.

Now, nearly 20 years after the story broke, it is about to come back into play as further investigations proceed into the illegal hacking activities of the Murdoch media empire.  Perhaps we will finally learn how much was paid for a menstrual story that humiliated the Royal Family, who the hackers were, and who authorized its purchase and publication.

And, from a Menstrual Studies point of view, its longevity reflects the deep fascination that the menstrual cycle continues to hold for the general public.

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

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