Chris Bobel, PhD (Urban Studies, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee), Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies, University of Massachusetts—Boston
When and/or why did you join the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research?
I gave a paper at a conference and in the Q &A, someone suggested I contact Elizabeth Kissling who was doing similar work. In her gracious and generous reply to my email, Liz told me about SMCR, urging me to join and attend the next conference. So I did. I felt like I found my tribe—like-minded feminist scholars, activists and others who saw the value in studying menstrual health while so many of my colleagues just did not ‘get’ it. I remain eternally grateful for this community.
How did you become interested in doing menstrual cycle research?
It grew out of my interest in alternativity and micro-level social change. I had written a book (based on my doctoral dissertation) about what I called ‘natural mothers’—many of whom cloth diaper, co-sleep, breastfeed beyond the second year, homeschool, etc. I thought I had heard about most of the DIY approaches to home and body care. But I was wrong. At the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival one summer, I attended a menstrual activism workshop (Ax Tampax presented by the now defunct Montreal-based Bloodsisters). Here, I learned how menstrual health and menstrual care are fundamentally political and deeply feminist issues. I learned how we actually have OPTIONS to care for our menstruating bodies. I felt like I had glimpsed a rich and wonderful world of new activism and I had to know more. That began a 7-year period of study that resulted in my book New Blood, the first book-length study of menstrual activism. When I wrote that book, I had no idea how much the movement would grow and spread. I worried I was chasing something relatively small, fringy and inconsequential. But now we are seeing the mainstreaming of menstruation across the globe!
Which researcher or paper influenced or inspired you to pursue research in this area?
When I accessed SMCR, I met Phyllis Mansfield, Joan Chrisler, Alice Dan, Ingrid-Johnston-Robledo and Peggy Stubbs—and I read their work and realized how much important scholarship on menarche, menstruation and menopause existed. I was impressed by the spot-on feminist critiques of cycle-stopping contraception—a really helpful model of calling out the manipulation of science against women’s best interests. And I was drawn to Liz Kissling’s work. I learned a lot from her book Capitalizing on the Curse, a smart analysis of how the insidious marriage of capitalism and misogyny plays out on women’s bodies.
What are the primary areas of your menstrual cycle research?
Menstrual activism—which is moving at breakneck speed. I am fascinated by the body as a site of resistance, which gives rise to so many interesting and provocative interventions. But I am also interested in well-meaning activist efforts that sometimes lose their way, especially in the global development space.
Where can visitors to our blog read about your work on menstruation?
Most of my published work is archived here.
What is your current research or work in this area?
I am working on a book based on my fieldwork and textual analysis of 40+ menstrual hygiene management (MHM) initiatives in the global south. I am wrestling with how many of these campaigns, while benevolently motivated, may in fact construct an overly-simplified consumerist approach to a complex set of issues. And these ‘fixes’ may, ironically, ultimately accommodate rather than resist menstrual shame and secrecy.
How has the field of menstrual cycle research changed since you entered this area?
It has grown and diversified, but let me just address the huge growth in interest in menstruation.
People across sectors—journalists, NGO founders and staff, social entrepreneurs, funders, state agents, and scholars—are finding their way to this issue. I wish I could put my finger on why NOW menstruation is having its moment. There’s been scholarship, there’s been activism, but it is now getting attention. Is it because of social media? Is it new products on the market? Is it related to cultural shifts to challenge the gender binary? Part of the socially media-enabled capacity to see activist potential in EVERYTHING? The newest wave of seeing the political in the personal? Probably a bit of all of the above?
But why not sooner? I think marginalization of the research is the consequence of the devious brilliance of menstrual stigma. We don’t research what we don’t know much about and we don’t know much about what we are find dirty, shameful, inconvenient. I think there has been, until recently, a self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance breeding shame and shame breeding ignorance that we are now interrupting. I just hope we don’t cede this movement to the product makers. The menstrual revolution won’t be meaningful if all we end up with are better products in hands that already have them and commercial products in the hands of those who currently use rags. What we need much, much more is an attitudinal shift. If we don’t challenge the very idea that menstruation is shameful, no product in the world, no latrine, no disposal system, no puberty health curriculum, will substantially and durably change the lives of menstruators.
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