The menstrual advocacy movement splashes red all over the cover of Newsweek’s upcoming April 29, 2016 edition. The story by Abigail Jones–The Fight to End Period Shaming is Going Mainstream–published online April 20, 2016, continues the mad rush of period stories that prompted Cosmopolitan to declare 2015 the “year the period went public.” Chris Bobel, President of the Society for Menstrual Research, is quoted briefly in the Newsweek piece. For Chris’s cogent analysis of the recent spate of period positivity check out her Nov. 15, 2015 re: Cycling post: Will this 2015 menstrual moment make room for all bodies?
A Feminist Psychological Scientist’s Musings on Evidence-Based Menstrual Justice Advocacy
By Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD
My research explores the relationships between sexual objectification, self-objectification and negative attitudes toward women’s bodily selves, including menstruation. Currently, I am working with a civil rights law firm to provide an expert report to a judge in a case involving dehumanizing, degrading treatment of incarcerated women during strip and body-cavity searches that happen each time inmates return in busses from outings to doctors appointments or court hearings. These searches are conducted en masse, in large groups, and female deputies often demean the naked women, who must bend over and spread their labia, during the procedure. Menstruating women must remove their soiled pads or tampons in front of the entire group. Many have been seen bleeding down their legs onto the concrete floor of the bus depot drop-off location, next door to the jail itself, where these searches are conducted. The class action suit cannot eliminate the procedure itself (which is legal and will remain so), but seeks restitution for women who have been traumatized by the way the procedure is conducted.
I have been asked to provide a “gender specific analysis” of how women, particularly, feel about exposing their bodies in this way. Over and over again, as I draft and edit my report, which cites countless scientific studies as well as philosophical approaches on objectification, self-objectification and women’s reproductive health, I find my feminist moral compass wavering. As I attempt to explain that the majority of women feel ashamed and even disgusted by their naked physical bodies, and especially by their genitals and by their own menstruation, that women make comparisons to other women’s bodies, that women rarely if ever appear naked or share their menstrual status in front of one another, as they must do here, and that states of self-objectification in women can lead to poorer cognitive functioning, I find myself wondering: Am I reinforcing and even perpetuating negative attitudes and emotions around menstruation that ensue from objectification and self-objectification? Am I essentially blaming these jailed women for reacting the way they do to the strip search procedure?
It would be easier to stick to publishing in academic venues, where I can hide behind the purely descriptive voice that social research in the “big name” journals requires. But I’m committed to a new persona in the latter part of my career as an evidence-based menstrual justice advocate. And so as I work on this report, I console myself by focusing on the potential this work has for making a significant impact in real people’s real lives in several very concrete ways. First, should we win this class action lawsuit, it would mean restitution for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of women who have been traumatized by this dehumanizing procedure, many of whom reported that it felt to them like sexual assault and was one of the worst experiences of their entire lives. Second, in addition to payment to victims, the case may further force reform in the system so that the conditions under which future jail inmates undergo the procedure would be improved. We are asking that the searches no longer be conducted in a group setting, and that deputies be trained to give clear instructions and be monitored to cease verbal abuse of the inmates during the procedure.
The third, more general way this case might be enormously impactful is in setting a precedent for getting judges and courtrooms to accept the expert testimony of researchers. When I was contacted by the law firm to serve as an expert, I hesitated to say yes, feeling ill-equipped for such a role. The lawyer told me that the judge in this case is not sympathetic to these women, and that they need me to convince him that the inmates’ experience during the procedure is indeed different from being naked with other women in a spa or locker room. He is reportedly shocked to hear that very few if any women insert or take out their menstrual products in front of one another in such settings. I know that lawyers make frequent use of clinical psychologists for their expertise, and in fact the firm sent me the expert testimony reports of three clinicians working with them on the case. But as a researcher, this is not my kind of writing, nor my kind of evidence.
As I contemplated whether I was up to the challenge of taking this case, I contacted a cognitive psychologist friend of mine for advice. She has served as an expert witness in many court cases involving eyewitness accuracy. Her’s is one of the rare few areas, she told me, where research psychologists are respected as experts. She advised me to take the case because, she said, we psychological scientists need to be heard in courtrooms. We are armed with data that ought to be considered in cases like this one. So I carry with me the added hope, beyond restitution for the actual women affected, that I can change a judge’s mind with feminist psychological science. And if my report can be taken seriously by this judge, then perhaps that will open the doors of other judges’ courtrooms to other researchers like many of you reading this post, armed with data, working toward reproductive justice. Imagine that!
Concurrent sessions on Saturday, June 6th explore unique cultural experiences of menstruation and delve into the parameters of premenstrual distress at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston.
Culture and Embodiment:
Menstruation and objectification in an Icelandic context
Herdís Sveinsdóttir, University of Iceland
The aim of the study is to describe objectification among Icelandic women and how it relates to menstrual attitudes, women´s body consciousness and health behavior. Participants were 320 women aged 20-40 years drawn from the Register of Iceland in fall 2013. Findings regarding disordered eating and objectification will be discussed.
Shame, secrecy, or celebration: Experiences and constructions of menstruation across cultures
Alexandra Hawkey, Centre for Health Research, University of Western Sydney
Through qualitative interviews this study aims to reveal culturally specific experiences and constructions of menstruation with migrant women from a range of backgrounds, in Australia and Canada. Analysis of the data highlights a range of themes including, cultural silencing; celebration of the girl to women transition; and menstrual rules.
Black Women, Red Tent: Doing Blood Work and Recovery of Black Girlhood, Spirituality and Ritual Exclamations for Black Girl Periods
Sevonna Brown, Williams College
This project invites black women to explore their relationships to their menstruation and their bodies more holistically through a consideration of blood, spirituality, and monthly ritual. This conversation-making and interactive study anticipates collective issues of shame, survival, birth, infertility, sexuality and disease. The research inquiries desire to find Black women in their own Red Tent in celebration of their own bodies, reproductive mysteries, traumas and triumphs.
Psychosocial factors associated with Premenstrual Syndrome
Ina Rosvall & Sandra Ekholm, University of Lund
Inspired by critical feminist research the association between PMS and psychosocial factors was studied using 1320 responses to a web survey. 33,9% of the total variance in PMS could be predicted, emphasizing the importance of social norms, family structure and relational factors over hormones in the understanding of premenstrual distress.
Sarafem Redux: PMDD, Antidepressants, and Big Pharma
Shannon M. Peters, Madeline Brodt & Lisa Cosgrove, University of Massachusetts
Industry-facilitated approval of antidepressants was used to justify inclusion of PMDD in the DSM-5. We provide data on industry funding of clinical trials of antidepressants for the treatment of PMDD, discuss the consequences of these commercial ties, and discuss the role of implicit bias in psychiatric research.
Evaluation of the relative efficacy and mechanisms of a couple-based intervention for Premenstrual Syndrome through a randomised control trial
Janette Perz & Jane Ussher, Centre for Health Research, University of Western Sydney
120 women took part in a randomised controlled trial comparing one-to-one and couple psychological therapy for PMS, in comparison to a wait list control group. Whilst women in all three conditions reported reductions in premenstrual distress and improvements in coping, women in the couple condition reported significantly greater reductions in distress post-intervention.
Measuring the Syndrome: An Introduction to the Measurement of Premenstrual Distress Disorders
Marie Hansen, Long Island University Brooklyn
This presentation will cover the history of the scientific measurement of Premenstrual Disorders and will explore the way in which these disorders are measured by researchers today. Included will be an analysis of two widely used scales: Premenstrual Tension Syndrome Observer Scale/ Self-Rating Scale (PMTS-O/SR) and the Daily Record of Severity of Problems (DRSP).
Every night Jon Stewart closes his DAILY SHOW with the sentence, “And now, your moment of Zen,” which is usually followed by a clip of some cable news program in which people say dopey or inane remarks. The purpose is to remind viewers of just how much stupidity is out there and the target is commonly self-inflated pundits on the FOX or CNN system.
Tuesday night, September 2, the clip consisted of a young woman reporting on a new line of underwear while holding up a pair of panties and saying, “Our underwear is actually functional; it’s fantastic for moms, and believe it or not it’s actually great for that time of the month. I bet you didn’t expect that.” A reaction shot includes a stuffy looking man who seems to hesitantly accept the fact that, since the show is about the “modern man” that means they’ll have to learn to tolerate “period talk” on TV news and consumer programs.
Is this a peculiar form of progress or just another adolescent period joke? Should we enjoy our moment of mockery of those up-tight men who are so-not-hip, unlike us Comedy Central fans? Or is the real joke on Jon Stewart and his producers for thinking that someone else making a casual period reference is something to poke fun at?
(Note: to watch the brief menstrual moment you will probably have to wade through an ad and a plug for the show itself.)
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Elizabeth Kissling originally appeared September 29, 2009.
Apropos of Chris’ most recent post, the video of Serena Williams’ new ad for Tampax just popped up in my RSS feed. You can check it out at right.
I’m so torn on this. I’m pretty certain that this is the First. Time. Ever. that the word “blood” has been used in an ad for menstrual products. Do you know what a huge step forward for body acceptance and menstrual literacy that is? When I was growing up in the 1970s, pads were advertised by showing how well they absorbed BLUE fluid. (So were diapers, by the way.) Kotex was the first company to use the color red and the word “period” in ad campaign less than ten years ago. So there is a part of me that is delighted when Catherine Lloyd Burns, playing Mother Nature, smiles slyly and says, “Well, there is plenty of blood, but none of it’s bad”.
I also enjoy seeing a powerful woman say that she isn’t afraid of menstruation, and shown succeeding athletically while menstruating. Kinda reminds me of when Uta Pippig won the Boston Marathon while menstruating.
But the core message and most troubling element of this entire “Mother Nature” campaign is the idea that menstruation is the gift nobody wants. Can’t P&G (and Kotex, and every other femcare advertiser) just promote the damn products without promoting shame and body hatred? Women will buy menstrual products without being told that periods should make them feel “not so fresh”. In fact, the ads might be more compelling if they emphasized the absorbency of the product and treated menstruation as a fact of life, rather than a secret disaster. Just spare us the blue fluid, please.
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.
On June 7, we posted a video of slam poet Dominique Christina performing a poem combating men’s shaming of women and their menstrual cycles. In the “Period Poem,” which she dedicated to her daughter, Christina encourages women who are confronted by men’s negativity toward menstruation to bleed, and bleed, and bleed on everything he loves. It is a fierce, bold, rebellious poem that has garnered much attention on social media, which received upwards of 6 million “likes” when it later appeared on Facebook. There is something magical and inspiring about menstrual art—poetry, paintings, songs, stories. For myself, who most often addresses menstruation in academic work—mired in journal edits, statistics, interviews, and such—I am in awe, somehow, by the similar themes that art, activism, and academia all address around the topic of menstruation.
To borrow a title from Dorothy Alison, here are two or three things I know for sure (about menstruation):
(1) First, the disgust directed toward women’s bodies serves as a powerful regulatory force to direct, contain, control, and denigrate women’s bodies. By eliciting disgust, we can summon people’s sense of outrage, moral judgments, visceral reactions, and “irrational” fears and funnel them toward a particular target. I continue to be amazed at how disgust about menstruating women (and, specifically, menstruating vaginas) permeates popular culture, social media, news media, and informal interactions. My research on disgust and menstruation has found that people find menstruation more disgusting than nearly any other bodily product or bodily occurrence. A recent pilot study I conducted found that this normal, healthy monthly cycle weighs in as more disgusting than open wounds, diarrhea, used diapers, and vomit. Dominique Christina’s response to the “dummy on Twitter” that dissed his girlfriend for starting her period during sex is tapping into this same phenomenon. Disgust is dangerous, and it connects powerfully to the undercurrents of misogyny in this country.
(2) Resistance to men’s shaming of menstruation is everywhere, hidden in simple acts of rebellion all over the world. Whether through poetry, art, the refusal to use commercial menstrual products, the impulse to fight back against the idiocy that permeates online culture, the commitment to love one’s body no matter what, the embrace of cycles and changes in the body, the refusal to be silent or unseen, the desire to connect to other women, the communication with daughters and grand-daughters about their cycles, and in a thousand other simple and elegant and (often) hidden ways, women resist the bullying, misogyny, and shaming of menstruation all the time. We can and should expect such resistance.
(3) Menstruation is no trivial subject. We are taught, as women, that our concerns, thoughts, fields of study, feelings, and attitudes are trivial, silly, not relevant, not important. (The journal, Trivia: Voice of Feminism, exists to combat this very assumption, publishing some of the most engaging and interesting feminist creative writing around). Menstruation is no exception. We learn very early that our menstrual cycles are either wholly invisible or targets for ridicule and misogynistic humor. And yet, what could possibly be more powerful than women’s reproductive capacities, their ability to bleed and give birth? Where are political, social, personal, cultural, and institutional intrusions more keenly felt than in women’s decisions about, and relationship to, their menstrual cycles? There is much at stake in resisting the stories we are told about our bodies, and, as I have too often found in my own work, doing so can make people frothing-at-the-mouth angry. My prediction: the more we continue to resist and fight back against menstrual shaming—whether through art, activism, or academia—the more clear it will become that menstruation is far, far, far from trivial.