Guest Post by Jen Lewis
Beauty in Blood Presents
Ms. December: Tree
Cycle: January 2013 – Cycle #2
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Photographer: Rob Lewis
Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research
Since my upcoming book about menstrual stigmas and the symptothermal method of fertility awareness is getting close to launch, I thought today’s blog post would be the perfect opportunity to provide a short excerpt for your reading pleasure. I’m excited to help debunk some menstrual myths and break some menstrual stigmas, and I hope you enjoy this little taste of what’s to come:
Menstrual advertisements and commercials are quite possibly the biggest contributors to modern menstrual stigma. I know what you’re probably thinking: “Menstruation ads are everywhere! How could they possibly create stigma?” While it’s true that television commercials, billboards, and other types of advertising are riddled with menstrual messages, they aren’t the type of messages we should be sending or receiving.
The first big qualm I have with menstrual ads is the strange blue liquid we always see in tampon and pad commercials. Watch as we pour this weird blue stuff on this pad to show you how absorbent it is! What the heck is that, anyway? Maybe that stuff is accurate for Smurfette, but that’s definitely not what my menstrual blood looks like! Part of the reason we find the idea of using a red liquid in these ads so revolting is that their use of this odd blue stuff makes us uncomfortable with the liquid that is actually absorbed by these products. One of the other major problems of advertising with this mysterious liquid is the message we’re sending to young people. When I was a kid, of course I remember seeing these ads, but I couldn’t have begun guessing the purpose the products actually served. When young girls see their first fateful stain, panic ensues. Many of them, like myself, may not even realize the purpose pads and tampons serve until they experience Menarche, or their first menstrual period.
Not only do ads never show anything that even slightly resembles blood, but I have yet to see an ad or commercial released by Tampax, Playtex, or Kotex that makes use of correct terminology. Words like “vagina”, “menstruation”, and “endometrium” (the scientific term for menstrual blood) are glaringly absent from product ads. And yet commercials and ads for products like adhesive bandages and antibiotic cream are riddled with bloody knees and scraped elbows. Beating around the bush about an event like menstruation that will play such a prominent role in women’s lives isn’t doing us any good.
I made a trip to the public library in search of some resources to use for this very book. I knew I wanted to find books or journal articles about menstruation, but I wasn’t sure where to begin looking. Luckily, most libraries come complete with a handy computer that informs you of the sections in which you’ll find certain topics. As I was approaching said computer, a woman who worked at the library insisted on helping me with my computer search. Being that she had a lot more experience with this than myself, I happily accepted her help. She asked, “What topic are you searching for?” to which I replied “menstruation”.
She looked at me a bit funny, which, at this point in the game, I was used to; people tend to get uncomfortable when this particular subject is mentioned. Then she asked, “That’s a period, right? Like…what a woman gets?” Upon hearing this question, I figured that, like many people, maybe she was hoping she misheard me so she would be spared an uncomfortable conversation. “Yes ma’am, it is,” I said. It wasn’t until I saw her struggling to spell the word that I realized she had not misheard me. Sure, not everyone is great at spelling, but when I began chatting with her about the topic, it quickly became apparent how little she really knew about it. Eventually we got everything figured out, but I found myself extremely distraught by the fact that an adult woman had such a poor understanding of menstruation. But it wasn’t her fault. In a society where it’s beyond taboo merely to utter the word, it’s no wonder so many know so little.
Another of the many problems with menstrual advertising is the way companies design and advertise their products. Advertising that calls a product “virtually undetectable” (Kotex) or claims that the product is designed with a “discreet wrapper” to ensure “discreet protection” (Tampax) is toxic. One of the only goals this sort of advertising achieves is making women feel as though they must hide the fact that they are menstruating. Plug it up, and don’t you dare tell anyone about it. Why is it made to be such an embarrassing thing? This doesn’t make the menarche experience any easier for young girls. They are told that menstruation is a huge life event: “You’re a woman now.” And yet every message they see and hear tells them to do everything they possibly can to hide it.
Hi, everyone. My name is Jennifer; I’m the author of the upcoming book Menstruation Revelation and CEO and co-founder of Groove: “the simplest cycle tracking and fertility charting app available.”
Menstrual stigma is something every woman has experienced, whether we realize it or not. The results of this stigma are evident: a girl’s embarrassment about her very first menstrual period, a woman trying to hide the box of tampons in her grocery basket, or the constant worry that we might spring a leak and reveal the fact that we’re menstruating. This stigma is perpetuated by the messages—subliminal or not—that we encounter. These messages manifest as product ads, product design, and cultural and religious practices, among others. We may not take notice of these things, but they change the way we think. I believe—along with many other amazing women who post to this blog—that it’s time to stop looking at menstruation as a filthy occurrence that must be suppressed and regulated. It’s time we educate the members of our stigmatizing society (men and women, boys and girls) about reality.
The reality I’m talking about includes the many benefits of the menstrual cycle: menstrual blood has the potential to assist in the research of regenerative therapies; practicing fertility awareness is a highly effective, natural form of contraception; pinpointing the fertile window can help couples achieve a desired pregnancy; tracking physical changes caused by hormones can help women achieve a speedy diagnosis of many reproductive disorders. Not only must we enlighten, but we must also provide the tools, like my book and the Groove app, to help people realize those benefits.
I have seen first-hand the effects of a sub-par menstrual education. I saw it at age 11 when I was embarrassed by my new status as a “woman,” which was only made worse by the teasing I encountered for now having to carry a purse to the bathroom at school. We have seen it in the high teen pregnancy rates in states across the US that refuse to adopt a comprehensive sex education curriculum. We see it when words like “PMS” and “time-of-the-month” are thrown around when women speak their minds. And we see it when “hippie” stereotypes are placed on women who practice fertility awareness.
This enlightenment must start from a young age. We must start from a young age so that girls aren’t so traumatized and ostracized when experiencing a major life event like menarche. We must start from a young age so that boys are sensitive and understanding towards girls who are going through these changes. We must start from a young age so that young people will have the comprehensive knowledge necessary to make intelligent decisions about sex when that time comes. Many might argue that this topic is “inappropriate” for young minds, and I would reply that the power of education is all too often underestimated.
In a speech that the incredible Malala Yousafzai gave to the UN, she said: “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.” If this is true, imagine the power of many children, many teachers, many books, and many pens. Whether that education is in mathematics or the intricacies of the menstrual cycle, I—like Malala—believe that education will pave the way. Education is powerful and must be affordable by all if we hope to see change. That’s why Menstruation Revelation will be available for download free of charge from Groove’s website. I hope my free book will be the first of many about menstruation.
Menstruation Revelation and Groove are about so much more than they appear at the surface. It’s time that our society take full advantage of the technologically advanced age in which we thrive. The transfer of information has become instantaneous and so the potential to educate on a massive scale has never been greater. At Groove, we want to design, create, and distribute technology and ideas that help us break out of the current paradigm to create a society full of women who are truly free: free of stigma, free of social and corporate pressure to conform to an unattainable ideal, and free of the need to suppress a part of themselves. We are a passionate bunch of people working on an important problem, and I hope that our contributions will play a role—however small—in this revolution. This revelation. This menstruation revelation.
Last month, I returned to California after my friend Owen and I rode our bicycles from San Francisco to New York City. We rode 4,624 miles through 12 states over 3 months. We carried our essentials (about 70 lbs, bikes included), met hundreds of people, received incredible amounts of kindness, and talked a lot about periods.
I am a spokeswoman for a project called Sustainable Cycles—I rode from town to town, facilitating discussions about menstrual products. Women, men, people, bookworms, students, graduates, clinicians, mothers, teenagers, environmentalists, bicycle enthusiasts, passers by—we all gathered to talk about the cost (~$2000 over a lifetime), waste (~260 lbs of trash), and content (synthetics, pesticides, & dioxins) of conventional pads and tampons. I carried a slew of products with me—a pad, a tampon, a cloth pad, sea sponges, and menstrual cups—to show, and we created a space where any question could be asked and any story be shared. Each event was a space for open, honest, and unashamed conversation about anything menstruation-related. As party favors, people who wanted to make ‘the switch’ from disposables left with a new menstrual cup.
Owen and I had never done a long-distance bike trip before, but by now we’re pretty good at it. Our farthest day was 123 miles from Cleveland, OH to Erie, PA; the longest stretch without services was 84 miles in Utah; our tallest summit was 11,400 feet in Colorado; and we only ran out of water once (which was enough) in Nevada. I organized discussions along the way using public library computers and fast food restaurant wifi. At night we stayed in parks, campsites, at friends of friends places, with online hosts, and with random strangers we met in bike shops. I found people all across this country to be incredibly giving and hospitable. We were treated to countless meals, showers, beds, laundry, great conversations, and all kinds of support. If I had a nickel for every time I was told, “this is your home”, I could buy all 30 jars of peanut butter we consumed.
Sustainable Cycles is small, it’s young, and it is one of the most amazing projects of our time. I happened to stumble upon it earlier this year as I was brainstorming about how to fund my cross-country cycling adventure. I found a blog about two young women who bicycled from Seattle to Los Angeles in 2011, hootin’ and hollerin’ about menstruation and giving away free menstrual cups as they went. Toni and Sarah were “sparking a grassroots movement toward more sustainable approaches to menstruation” and, armed with almost 300 cups donated to them, started Sustainable Cycles. A satisfied cup user myself, I contacted them, began to fundraise, received 90 cups generously donated by DivaCup, and on May 4, 2013 began spreading the gospel as I pedaled east.
Most of the people we encountered were supportive and surprised by the project. I got anywhere from a pensive “Um…that’s interesting…I’ll tell my wife” to a passionate “Thank you so so much for doing this”. The purpose of this bike ride is to combat the shame and taboo that keeps us silent and ignorant about issues surrounding menstruation. It is about calling attention to the environmental, economic, and health impacts of conventional products and creating a space where people can question exactly what they support with their dollar, be it Tampax tampons or cut-up T-shirts. It is about sharing knowledge and empowering each other; everyone is invited to the discussion, no matter what they do or do not use. I see menstruation as a phenomenon that connects us despite race, color, gender, socioeconomic status, language, ethnicity, culture, ability, education level, shape, size, etc. It is a conversation we do no have often enough. During my three months on the road, I held discussions in all of the states I pedaled through, gifted cups to interested persons, and met a lot of people I otherwise may never have. Like a professional taxidermist in Nevada, a man in Nebraska who’s first and last name are exactly the same, and a solo bike tourist who became our dear friend.
I believe in this project. It promotes bicycle travel, it organizes a space for unfiltered discussion about menstruation, it instigates people to research what products they use, and it creates a community that can chat about exactly how to get a menstrual cup in (and more importantly—out!). It questions why there isn’t more research on the fragrances, chemicals, and materials in the products we use so close to our bodies. And it promotes fun. Almost every day I felt that “I am alive!” feeling—though I can tell you that biking against the howling wind through a hot and sandy desert is the opposite of a good time. This trip taught me that water is precious, stretching is good, cleanliness is close to godliness, and a roof over my head is a luxury.
Many menstrual enthusiasts have become so invested in the menarcheal stories of adolescent girls, we can easily miss some intriguing film scenes that depict males’ experiences with blood as they make a difficult transition in their lives. While semen is often cinematically constructed as funny, menstrual blood remains offensive onscreen. The most well-known of these is, of course, in Greg Mottola’s raunchy cult classic Superbad (2007).
Seth (Jonah Hill) is struggling with his imminent separation from his best friend as the pair prepare to venture into college next fall. At a house party, a fellow partygoer asks Seth, “Were you dancing with some chick in there?” When Seth confirms this and slowly realizes the truth surrounding the red stain on his pant leg, he begins to tremble and dramatically dry-heave and says, “Oh fuck. Oh my god. Oh shit. I’m gonna fucking throw up. Some one ‘perioded’ on my fucking leg?! What the fuck do I do? This is so disgusting!” As amused partygoers begin to circle him, viewers even hear, “That’s a fucking ‘mangina,’ man!” Seth, then, is effectively feminized by his peers who assert their privileged positions as non-menstruators. The event attracts attention and draws a crowd, and the scene is intended to be one of comical emasculation. What’s interesting is also the fact that agency is attributed to the gyrating girl, as she “periods” on Seth, and he then feels victimized by the crime.
A female bystander asks Seth if he needs a tampon and pulls one from her purse; this targeting also contributes to Seth’s emasculation, along with his “mangina.” Seth’s female status effectively negates her own, and she is temporarily unburdened from the restrictions of menstrual etiquette. Simultaneously, however, this scene depicts menstruation as a sort of weakness, a queerness, and a mark of inferiority. It is also noteworthy that the edited television version of this film omits the closeup shot of the red stain on Seth’s pants, while blood induced by violence flows gratuitously on numerous cable channels. Seth’s public menarche also illustrates his inner turmoil as he copes with the trauma of his best friend “abandoning” him to attend a different college.
In a way, Seth becomes a product surrogate as the scene concludes with a large bloodstain on his pants. Because viewers fail to see blood even in menstrual product commercials on television, it’s especially alarming for some viewers to encounter a woman menstruating onto a man’s pants and leaving a conspicuous mark—Seth’s scarlet letter as it were, rather than hers. Seth bears the shameful mark of menstruation, and he chooses to segregate himself from others, as they flock to him with their camera phones. In this scenario, while Seth represents the otherness of menstruation, onlookers are drawn to him rather than repelled. Because menstruators are queer, these hidden bleeders are conditioned to linger on the periphery, never admitting what is truly taking place within their bodies. In this particular film scene, Seth is queered and then chided for publicly exposing his queerness. His inability to hide the large, red stain exemplifies his sense of powerlessness in a subculture of young adults who have already suffered and forgotten this necessary pain. This stripping of adolescent masculinity is akin to the pregnancy scare narrative as the rejection of motherhood, and thus femininity.
Whether this obscure subplot arrives as the tragic result of grinding gone wrong or men sticking tampons up their noses—as in Channing Tatum’s character, Duke, in Andy Flickman’s 2006 comedy She’s the Man—cinematic depictions of “the curse” destroy its status as taboo and serve as a paradigm shift, in this case, of masculinity its cultural relationship with the menstrual cycle.
Last year the FDA made the decision to keep the birth control pills Yaz, Yasmin, and Beyaz on the market despite controversy over corporate corruption of the review process.These drugs are back in the spotlight.
The French health minister has called for doctors to stop writing prescriptions, 2,000 lawsuits against Bayer launched in Canada last month, and Marie Claire Australia dedicated five pages to an in-depth feature about the side effects, instigating an investigation by the country’s top current affairs show Today Tonight.
Bayer has gone about settling the 13,000 lawsuits in the US out of court, likely with the hope of keeping the details of confidential files regarding marketing techniques and research out of the public eye. Unperturbed by mounting reports from women of the myriad health issues caused by their products, the company launched Yaz Flex in Australia at the end of 2012. The first oral contraceptive on the Australian market presented as being for the purpose of preventing periods, Yaz Flex comes in a digital dispenser that records how many pills have been taken and alerts the user when she’s missed a dose. There are enough tablets to allow for just three breaks a year. In the US in April the FDA, equally unperturbed, ruled that pharmaceutical company Activis can start selling generic versions of Yaz, providing a low-cost version of what has been the most expensive oral contraceptive of recent years.
The feature in Marie Claire Australia generated 300+ comments on the magazine and television show’s Facebook pages. Many of the commenters were women who had developed blood clots when taking these brands. Some had made the connection at the time and others made the link only as a result of the coverage after months or years of not knowing why they had endured the injuries. Some of the women were presently experiencing the symptoms of a blood clot mentioned in the show and made the decision to stop taking the pill as they typed.
The piece was written by a long-time member of the Yaz and Yasmin Survivors forum and balances interviews with women who suffered the serious physical side effects with those who have been victim to the serious psychological side effects. I’m among those who experienced a long list of negative physical and psychological effects when taking Yasmin for more than two years and it was this forum that prompted me to stop taking it.
Monash University in Australia is one of the few facilities to have undertaken research into the correlation between birth control pills and depression. Professor Jayashri Kulkarni found that women on the pill were twice as likely to experience depression, anxiety, and mental numbness (known as anhedonia). The Yale Daily News reports that in the wake of her research receiving a little media attention Dr Kulkarni received more than 300 emails from women “clearly describing when they went off the pill that they felt subjectively more happy. The anhedonia, for example, disappeared, the irritability disappeared, the sense of poor self esteem disappeared”.
She is now focusing her attention on researching what she believes to be the particular psychological impact of the Yaz brands, those pills containing the synthetic progesterone drospirenone and low-dose synthetic estrogen.
Although there is no direct-to-consumer advertising in Australia these brands of pill gained popularity there just as they did in Europe and Canada. It is interesting to note that Marie Claire US ran an article in 2011 titled ‘The New Super Pill’ that named Yaz and Yasmin as the latest, greatest “no-acne, no-bloat and pms-be-gone” pills that also allow you to “shorten your period”. The pages of magazines such as Marie Claire in the US are usually scattered with adverts for Yaz and Yasmin, the NuvaRing, Nexplanon impant, and Mirena IUD. The print and television commercials often play on the same insecurities reflected and bolstered by the majority of the women’s magazine articles.
Articles with headlines like that of the Marie Claire Australia piece, “Bitter Pills: The Birth Control With Deadly Side Effects”, are usually accused of scare-mongering women off the pill unnecessarily despite the fact that reactions suggest they might well be saving lives. Generally women who decide they don’t want to take one brand are presented with another — and how many women know Yaz Flex, Yaz, Yasmin and Beyaz are 99% similar in composition and won’t just be shifted among the four? Judging from the comments responding to the piece, women who decide they are done with birth control pills are likely to be offered a Mirena IUD, implant, or Depo shot, all of which hold their own set of deadly and life-shattering side effects.
Women commented on the Facebook pages that they had made an appointment with their doctor only to be told not to worry and keep on taking their pills. Yet more remarked on their anxiety over stopping taking them as the article described the difficulties women experienced after they came off. Among women sharing doubts over whether the implant or shot should be their next choice, one woman asked:
“What other safer alternatives are there to birth control pills then?”