In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Chris Bobel originally appeared October 1, 2012.
Okay. Enough. I gotta say something.
Because I am committed to various efforts to reclaim the menstrual cycle as a vital sign and subvert the dominant narrative that menstruation is obsolete and/or a badge of shame, many people assume my periods are all drum circles, red jewelry and a week-long love affair with my Diva Cup.
More insidious still is the pervasive assumption that thinking differently about our cycles necessarily points to LOVING our cycles. As if there are ONLY two choices on the menstrual menu: I’ll have the Obsolete Shaming Nuisance or My Cycle is Womb-alicious. That doesn’t work for me as I suspect it does not work for others. There’s a whole lot of territory between refusing to see menstruation as meaningless OR as proof positive that my body is unruly, out of control, and a source of deep-seated shame AND embracing my menses as the Sine qua non of my gender identity or the gift that keeps on giving, about every 28 days.
I gotta ask: can’t I resist the shame and still find the monthly uterine shedding a royal pain in the vagina? Because, dear reader, that’s how I feel about MY menstruation. Most of the time, I really hate my period.
I am a heavy bleeder– a seven full days of gushing, clotting, and without fail, staining usually both my sheets and my underwear. My period is a week of carrying an extra pair of underwear with me in my backpack, sleeping on a towel (that always bunches up and makes me miserable as I try to find a comfortable sleeping position) and scrubbing stains out of my underwear.
I do not celebrate my flow during my menses. At the same time, I am grateful that my body is signaling All Operations Normal and Functioning. Yes. I AM appreciative of the reminder to practice self care, to slow down, to pause…. but I rarely do, if I am honest. Truth is, even in the context of all this gratitude for what my body is doing to keep me healthy, I groan when Aunt Flo comes a-calling.
But admitting that has not come easily because I am privy toan awful lot of menstrual talk (on this blog and in the wider world) and the two OPTIONS ONLY discourse is pervasive. You either hate it (shame on you for shaming on you) or you love it (Fool. Join the 21st century!). See?
My point is simple. Let’s not trade one dogma for another. Messages on either pole fail to listen to women and instead, PRESCRIBE how we should THINK about our embodied experiences. Some menstruators DO welcome their periods and find ways to celebrate them. Some menstruators spend Day 1 on the floor of the bathroom, clutching the rim of the toilet. Some menstruators are damn grateful to see bloody panties as a signal of Not Pregnant or Right on Schedule and then pretty quickly shift into dogged management mode. Some menstruators _________________ (your experience here).
The different menstrual world I want is a bigger one, one shaped by a more (not less) pluralistic menstrual discourse that makes the way for as many menstrual attitudes are they are menstrual experiences. This stuff is personal and individual and yet, because of FemCare ads, industry-sponsored menstrual education in schools and increasingly Big Pharma’s awkward melding of high tech body meddling so that women can menstruate like their Paleo ancestors, it is hard to hear our OWN voices over the din.
Here’s my voice: thanks for the free monthly wellness check but I wish it were not so much work. But I will be damned if I will whisper that I need to change my pad or be seduced by a slick ad campaign that enlists me as a paying research subject. I just need better pads (longer, anyone?) and maybe a terry cloth fitted sheet. And someone to do my laundry.
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Heather Dillaway originally appeared October 28, 2010.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the words we use when we’re talking about menstruation or reproductive experiences more generally. I’ve been noticing lately that we use the word “waiting” quite a bit. I have a friend who is “still waiting” for her menstrual cycle to be “normal” again after her second child, and several other friends who are either “waiting” to figure out whether they will get pregnant, “waiting” to be done with their pregnancies, or “waiting” before they can have their last and final kid. I just had my basement waterproofed and one of the basement repairmen told me that his wife had been “waiting” ten months to get a menstrual period and that they were worried about her (this is information he volunteered after I told him I studied women’s health). I started thinking more about how the menopausal women I interview always talk about “waiting” to figure out whether they are really “at menopause,” or “waiting” to figure out if this is really their last menstrual period. Or how so many girls/young women who are sexually active are “waiting” to get their periods so that they can be relieved to know they are not pregnant. Or how women with painful periods, endometriosis, or migraines are waiting until those days are over each month. What does all of this reproductive waiting (waiting for menstruation, waiting for menstruation to be over, waiting for pregnancy, waiting for birth, waiting for menopause) mean?
In all of these instances of reproductive waiting, waiting seems a negative connotation and that seems to stem from the fact that we do not feel in control or in charge of this reproductive time. When I think of the other situations in which I might use the word “waiting”, the same holds true. I tell my kids to “wait their turn” and they don’t like it. And none of us really like waiting in line. Fast food restaurants, frozen dinners, and ATM machines are all in existence because we don’t have time or don’t like to wait. Phrases that we use like “worth the wait” also connote negativity about waiting. So, I finally looked up the actual definition of waiting. Depending on which online dictionary you visit, definitions of “waiting” include: “pause, interval, or delay,” “the act of remaining inactive or stationary,” or “the act of remaining inactive in one place while expecting something.” While some of these definitions do not automatically lend themselves to negativity, waiting is defined mostly as a passive activity that we are forced to participate in, perhaps against our will.
All of this makes me think further about whether women really dislike the waiting or the time that comes with menstruation or other reproductive experiences, and whether women really feel out of control as they engage in their experiences. Is this just a word we use or are we really impatient about menstruation and reproduction? When I think about alternative words that are sometimes used, like “tracking,” other words seem much more agentic in that they put women back in control of their cycles and other reproductive experiences. So, is it just the word “waiting” that has the negative connotation or is that word signifying some larger impatience that we have about reproduction these days? I have a colleague who writes about the “inconveniences” of reproduction and how, in so many ways, we try to avoid the reproductive waiting or reproductive uncertainties we face. For instance, instead of waiting to see when a baby is born, we might plan a c-section so that we can know when we’ll get that baby. Or, now we’re told that if we’re “waiting” more than 6 months to get pregnant that we should probably start taking fertility drugs to shorten our wait or get rid of some of that uncertainty. Or now we can find out that we’re pregnant a couple weeks after conception instead of waiting to see whether we menstruate a few weeks later. We attempt to cut out some of those reproductive waits these days. Menstrual suppression is at least partially popular because then women won’t have to be surprised by their periods or wait to know what bad day their period might fall on.
I think perhaps we do need to be more conscious of the words we use to describe our own and others’ reproductive events. Is “waiting” the correct word to use? Is “tracking” a better word to use because of the agency/active control it implies? Is “experiencing” a broader, less value-laden word to use? What do we really mean when we use these words?
This month an important Sage research journal, Menopause International, “the flagship journal of the British Menopause Society (BMS),” changes its name to Post Reproductive Health. The Co-Editors of this journal are quoted in talking about this name change:
“Women’s healthcare has been changing dramatically over the past decade. No longer do we see menopause management only about the alleviation of menopausal symptomatology, we also deal with an enormous breadth of life-changing medical issues. As Editors of Menopause International, we felt that now is the time for the name and scope of the journal to change; thus moving firmly into a new, exciting and dynamic area. We wish to cover Post Reproductive Health in all its glory – we even hope to include some articles on ageing in men. Our name change is a reflection of this development in scope and focus.”
This name change may seem very insignificant to most people but, for me, a change in name signifies major steps in conceptual thinking, research practice, and (potentially) everyday health care. While I have some problems with the new name (I’ll get to those in a minute), the idea that menopause researchers and practitioners are beginning to see menopause as part of a broader life course transition is phenomenal. It signifies the willingness of many in the business of studying and treating menopause to think more broadly about reproductive aging. It also indicates that many now understand that menopause is not necessarily the “endpoint” of or “final frontier” in one’s reproductive health care needs. Perhaps it also means that we might acknowledge that perimenopausal symptoms are more than single, isolated, “fixable” events and that they may be related to larger, long-term bodily changes. The very idea that “post reproductive health” is important is one that I support and advocate, and I see this as evidence of the realization that there is life after menstruating and having babies. What’s more, the re-branded journal seeks to include research on men’s health too, perhaps signifying that researchers and practitioners acknowledge the sometimes non-gendered aspects of “reproductive” or “post-reproductive” health. Everyone needs health attention, no matter what their life course stage.
What I can still critique about the name change, though, is that the new name of this journal suggests that menopause and other midlife or aging stages are thought of as “post”-reproductive. In my opinion, it is really that we live on a reproductive continuum, that we are never really “post” anything, that prior life stages always continue to affect us and that there are not strict endpoints to the menopausal transition in the way that the word “post-reproductive” might suggest. Reproductive aging as a transition could take as much as 30 years or more, and women report still having signs and symptoms of “menopause” into their 60s and beyond. According to existing research our “late” reproductive years begin in our 30s and don’t end until….what? our 60s? our 70s? The word “post-reproductive” suggests an “end” that maybe doesn’t really exist ever. Here is a link to an article I wrote on this idea of the elusive “end” to menopause, and I think it is important to think about how the word “post” may not be the best way to describe how we live our midlife and older years. We may still have “reproductive” health needs way into our 70s, 80s, and beyond, so how can we think of ourselves as “post” anything?
With this said, however, I still am very happy to see the current name change of the journal, Post Reproductive Health, because I believe it signifies a very important change in the right direction, and I hope to see many more moves like this as we contemplate what midlife and aging health really is.
Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta
When I read Chris Bobel’s recent post about silent menstrual suffering, I was instantly drawn in. Although her experiences are independent of my own, this particular experience felt familiar, as though I was reading a story about my own life. I can close my eyes and instead picture myself in her place. I can hear my silence. I can feel my frustration mounting. It made me wonder why I, and many others, feel compelled to hide the menstrual suffering. After all, we rarely hesitate to utter complaints of a cold, a poor night’s sleep, a stomachache, a headache, an injury, a hangover.
I’m menstruating. I’m hurting. I’m late to a meeting. I’m not fully engaged in a conversation. I leave work a little early. I am not feeling at ease. I am exceptionally in tune with my emotional state. And people are noticing that something is off. Eager to make excuses, I open my mouth to displace the blame that has no doubt been cast upon my character. But reactions to my secret race through my head, so I choke down the words. I, like Chris, suffer in silence. Why?
This is a question I was asking myself for days after reading her piece. Why do I–why do we–remain silent?
Is it because of the jokes? The jokes about PMS, menstruation, emotional instability, and “that time of the month” that are so casually and readily fired off at the sound of a woman who speaks with confidence? Maybe I won’t be taken seriously if people know that I’m menstruating. Maybe the quality of my work will be questioned. Or maybe it will be my competence, intelligence, or character.
Is it because of the media and its portrayal of women as objects meant for pleasure and servitude? As something to be controlled by men? Would the mention of menstruation hinder this oh-so-carefully crafted image? Perhaps my menstruating status would get in the way of my objectification. Surely I wouldn’t want that.
Is it because of a society’s past filled with male dominance and female domestication? Where the only true power is male power? Is it the legacy of female obedience and male ownership? Of female weakness and male strength? Maybe I only want to speak out about my suffering simply because I am too weak to suck it up. Have I been conditioned to feel weak?
Is it because of our unattainable standards of beauty? The expectations of wrinkle free and blemish-free skin, a super-model body, and perfectly-shaped breasts? Perhaps I’m not beautiful enough or perfect enough when I am menstruating.
Is it living in a society that undervalues, and often trivializes, the accomplishments and experiences of women? Is my menstrual pain not familiar enough? Is it not painful enough? Is it not real enough to be worth mentioning?
Yes, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why we give into the “silent suffering,” as Chris called it. As conscious and as critical as I am of our society’s flaws, I cannot fully escape the overwhelming force of the words, the images, the actions, and the inactions. We cannot escape them until we defeat them. I feel a great sadness for the younger generations of women. I feel as though I have failed them. If I, as an adult woman, fall victim to our social pitfalls, then what hope do they have? Where does that leave them? We must break the silence. Next time, I will not be silent.
Will you join me?
According to a recent piece in The Times, a reputable English newspaper, symptoms are demeaning AND feminine. More specifically, the article reports on the prostate cancer experiences of Sir Michael Parkinson, or “Parky,” a famous British talkshow host. Parkinson reveals his harrowing experience of getting prostate cancer treatment and its “grueling” side-effects. While the treatments worked, they apparently produced menopause-like symptoms (hot flushes and weight gain) that reminded him of “how women feel when they are going through menopause.” Parkinson is quoted directly as saying, “In a sense you become a woman. I’m getting fitted for a bra next week!” The reporter goes on to say “he’s joking but he’s also deadly serious.” The “menopausal” symptoms that Parkinson had during his prostate cancer treatments are also described as “demeaning” in the same paragraph.
Parkinson is a major public figure in the UK, with significant media influence. I’m certain that this article was read by many as a result, and it makes me wonder about the far-reaching impact of the negative characterizations made about both women and bodily symptoms in this article. When I read this article, I find the equation of symptoms and femininity problematic, for lots of health conditions that produce bodily changes and sensations are not only experienced by women. Experiencing a hot flush or hot flash, while often attributed to menopause, is not menopause-specific all of the time. You can have hot flushes from exercising hard, from the flu, from medications that treat a range of diseases, or when you’re embarrassed. You can have weight gain at midlife (or any time of life for that matter) for a variety of reasons unrelated to menopause. Both the equation of women with symptoms and the definitions of symptoms as negative and “demeaning” show exactly how little progress we have made in eradicating gendered ideologies that harm us. Women are equated with their bodies and seen as lesser than men because of this equation. Men are supposed to be able to rise above their bodily functions, signs, and symptoms and live the life of the mind. Thus, when men experience a symptom they must rid themselves of it because, oh, the horror, they might be “like women” if they have to pay attention to their bodies at all. Research studies show quite often that women are ignored by doctors when they report a long list of symptoms and are not given the treatments they need to ease those symptoms as much as men are, because doctors learn to assume that women are just overreacting. Symptoms are not real if reported by women, studies suggest. Yet, when men experience symptoms and report them they are treated for them more often, especially when they report things such as pain. I interviewed a woman once who told me that “symptoms are always negative” and I wonder if that is partially because of the equation of symptoms with femininity and women’s bodies.
I am certain that it was difficult for Parkinson to undergo treatments for his prostate cancer. I also know that hot flushes and weight gain are never comfortable for people, especially when they seem uncontrollable. BUT, when we go on to support the characterization of symptoms as “what women feel” and then in the next breath say that those symptoms are “demeaning,” we head right into reifying gender ideologies that harm every single one of us. Men should be able to notice changes in their bodies without feeling “feminine.” We should recognize bodily symptoms as part of both health and illness that everyone experiences. And women should not have to be defined only by the fact that they go through certain reproductive transitions that include symptoms. I know Parkinson is perhaps from a generation that might still be holding tightly to gender ideologies that do not make much sense for the contemporary world, but I hold the reporter responsible for some of the characterizations made in this article, too. It is 2014, and aren’t we supposed to be more progressive than this? Because you experience a hot flush you should be fitted for a bra? In the YouTube video that appears along with this post, Parkinson himself admits “men are silly about their health.” I’ll say. But comments reported in the recent Times article go way past being silly.
A few years ago, in response to an article of mine on menopause, an editor encouraged me to think of women’s reproductive lives as “recursive”. Little did he know how much his comment would affect my thinking about women’s lives and life in general. Recursiveness is a common sense concept, but something we don’t often think about. But, especially in light of the “new” year and the sense that we all hold that we are beginning 2014 as if we have a clean slate, I decided to blog here about recursiveness. This is very relevant for anyone thinking about menstruation and menopause, which is why I write about it here.
If you look up the word “recursive” in a dictionary, you find this as one of several definitions:
“of, relating to, or constituting a procedure that can repeat itself indefinitely…”
— re•cur•sive•ly adverb
— re•cur•sive•ness noun
If you think about reproductive events like menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, childbirth or anything else, we often think of them one at a time, almost in isolation. But, they’re not isolated at all and many of them have a tendency to repeat because of the cyclical nature of all life processes. In addition, reproductive events are tied to each other in meaning and we think of them only in relation to what comes before and they only mean things in relation to what other events meant to us in the past or what situations we are dealing with in the present. Thus, potentially when two menstrual periods or other reproductive events occur, we might tend to think of them similarly, approach them similarly, and/or compare them even when they could be very different, because the first experience colors the second and beyond. To think that we might approach each reproductive event as it comes as something new and unrelated to past events or experiences is almost silly, for the past always colors our perceptions of things even if it shouldn’t. Likewise, if we think of 2014 as a brand “new” chunk of time that represents a blank slate, we are also fooling ourselves (perhaps we do so knowingly though). We can make different decisions or act somewhat differently if we’d like, but we approach 2014 with our past in mind and potentially may repeat our attitudes and behaviors in the future automatically. Even if we live different experiences in the new year and very purposely separate ourselves from past attitudes and behaviors, we might think of our new attitudes and experiences in relation to other past experiences, making attitudes and behaviors recursive in meaning at least (even if our newer experiences are not the same as in the past).
I have written here about similar themes in the past, and I do really like thinking about the recursiveness of our experiences. My brother is a forester and farmer and always talks about nature’s cycles and tendency towards repetition, but I think we can think about recursiveness in much broader terms than that too. Recursiveness is a powerful idea and it makes a lot make sense in the world. It doesn’t mean we can’t experience things differently over time. Thinking about transitions like menopause makes us realize that things (like menstruation or fertility) are definitely not the same over time and maybe stop repeating and cycling. But, in our minds, we might expect things to repeat indefinitely (and therefore emotionally wrestle with the physiological changes we experience because we don’t expect change). Previous experiences might repeat in the identities we continue to hold dear or in the ways in which we think about reproductive transitions or any other changes in our lives, even when the experiences themselves change.
As we approach this new year, I propose we acknowledge recursiveness as a real thing.
Happy new year, everyone.
For me, that’s always the question.
Gross is a decision. It is a judgment based on a set of values derived from a particular perspective. And because of this slipperiness, some things are more widely deemed GROSS that some other things.
Readers of this blog are well aware that bleeding lady parts often end up in Grossland. And they end up there more often than other body parts doing their body part thing. So why is this?
It’s been a busy few weeks in Grossland— dizzying days upon days of seeing the obvious contradictions embedded in what we, as a culture, deem gross and what we see as just- bodies- being- natural-bodies. Sometimes these bodily functions are FUNNY and other times only mildly yucky, but still okay to talk about.And sometimes, in the case of menstruating bodies, we are socialized to keep the whole thing quiet and hidden.
My most recent trip to Grossland began with the uproar over the newly-released (and nearly sold out) American Apparel masturbation-period-vulva T shirt flap. The flap just barely died down when Kristen Schaal’s brilliant satire (on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) delivered a bit on the proliferation of sexy Halloween costumes for women. In it, Schaal suggested that women “take it to the next level … get everyone thinking about sex (by) dressing up as the place where sex happens!” (and in walks a 6 foot high vulva! With Stewart-as-straight-man remarking “I don’t know if we can show that….” )I love what she did there, but the piece is not ONLY funny for its feminist take down of the hypersexualization of women’s bodies. The costume is outrageous because it is gross, right? “Sexy Vagina” (vulva, of course, more accurately, but this is not the time for anatomical correctness) is funny because who-in-their-right-mind-would dress-up-like-that? That’s disgusting. Welcome to Grossland.
Petra Collins, the 20-year-old artist commissioned to produce the t-shirt image for no-friend-to-women retailer American Apparel gets this (even if her check was written by a corporate entity who could care less about the social message she has in mind). Collins speaks compellingly about the objectification and containment of women’s bodies that her work endeavors to challenge. And she reports that the controversy swirling around a line drawing of a hand stroking a menstruating (and hairy!!!) vulva was “awesome” because
“it totally proves my point…. that we’re so shocked and appalled at something that’s such a natural state—and its funny that out of all the images everywhere, all of the sexually violent images, or disgustingly derogatory images, this is something that’s so, so shocking apparently.”
And appalled we are! One commenter on a TIME article about the t shirt controversy remarked: I….would equate her imagery with a straining rectum expelling a painful, post-digestion steak dinner.” And there it is. We can’t seem to have a menstrual moment without someone rushing in to equate menstruation with defecation. Liz Kissling has taken it on. Breanne Fahs has, too, more recently, but we still haven’t gained much traction in showing that
1) menstruating and pooping are not the same thing, and even if they were,
2) menstruating IS more shamed than pooping
Menstruation is gross (throw in masturbation and pubes to make it really beyond the pale) because we say it is. And those that hasten to compare uterine-lining shining with expelling feces are missing the fact that while the processes do overlap in some ways, we are NOT, culturally speaking, as hellbent on silencing the poop (or the farts and certainly not the piss) as we are the menses. and why is that? Perhaps it it matters who is doing the business. I assert that it ain’t no coincidence that bleeding LADY parts are the Grossest of Them All.
To wit, I submit the following:
A colleague put the new film Movie 43, a blend of edgy and puerile vignettes acted by a star studded ensemble cast, on my radar. The film includes the segment: “Middleschool Date” (written by Elizabeth Shapiro. Elizabeth: If you are out there, will you be my friend?).
Amanda (Chloë Grace Moretz) discovers she just got her first period and tries to hide it, but when Nathan (Jimmy Bennett) sees blood on her pants, he panics and kicks immediately into naïve crisis mode, abetted by his older brother, Mikey (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who races around the kitchen in search of suitable plugs (he produces a purple kitchen sponge at one point and a Swiffer© mop. Painfully ignorant Nathan is sure Amanda is wounded…lethally. Then When Dad (Patrick Warburton) enters:
Mikey, hysterical: Nathan’s date is on her period for the first time and she is bleeding EVERYWHERE!
Dad: …ugh…disgusting…I mean…congratulations.
Soon, Amanda’s Dad (Matt Walsh) arrives. He is disgusted by periods too, of course, and says so, though under his breath.
Ultimately, Amanda takes control by normalizing the situation and calling out the craziness (“I am just a regular seventh-grade girl getting her period and it really sucks that I had to be in front of you idiots”). Amanda and her disgusting leaky body leaves and order is restored. Dad plays “pull my finger” with Nathan who admiringly praises his Dad’s resulting “epic” fart and Mikey announces he is off to take “a massive dump” to the thumbs up of little brother.