Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

#MenstruationMatters to Newsweek

April 21st, 2016 by Laura Wershler

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?

Newsweek Cover_Apr-2016

Pursuing menstrual justice for women in prison

February 11th, 2016 by Editor

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.

Truth & Perception, 2015, by Menstrual Designer Jen Lewis and Photographer Rob Lewis. A class-action lawsuit challenges the degrading treatment of female inmates forced to remove pads and tampons in front of fellow prisoners during strip searches.

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!

Exploring menstrual shame, embodiment, and the parameters of premenstrual distress

May 26th, 2015 by Editor

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.


Strekkja (stretch, flexible) Original artwork by Magdalena Margrét. Used with permission.

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.

Premenstrual Distress:

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).

Media Release and Registration for the SMCR Boston Conference on Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice: Human Rights Across the Lifespan.

Your Moment of (Menstrual) Zen

September 9th, 2014 by David Linton

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.)

Is Menstruation A Disability

September 4th, 2014 by Elizabeth Kissling

re-blogging re:Cycling

In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Elizabeth Kissling originally appeared November 19, 2009.

I think few people would consider menstruation per se a disability, with exceptions for menorrhagia and unusually painful periods. But I’ve been reading a bit in the field of disability studies lately, for both professional and personal interest, and starting to think about disability differently. I’m currently reading Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body and finding it especially powerful and provocative.*

She writes of disability as social construction; that is, disability cannot be defined solely in biomedical terms but must be considered in terms of a person’s social, physical, and cultural environment. A person is disabled when they live in a society that is “physically constructed and socially organized with the unacknowledged assumption that everyone is healthy, non-disabled, young but adult, shaped according to cultural ideals, and, often, male” (p. 39).

A feminist philosopher by training, Wendell points out that feminists have long sustained criticisms that the world has been designed for the convenience of men and male bodies.

In many industrialized countries, including Canada and the United States, life and work have been structured as though no one of any importance in the public world, and certainly no one who works outside the home for wages, has to breast-feed a baby or look after a sick child. Common colds can be acknowledged publicly, and allowances are made for them, but menstruation cannot be be acknowledged and allowances are not made for it. Much of the public world is also structured as though everyone were physically strong, as though all bodies were shaped the same, as though everyone could walk, hear, and see well, as though everyone could work and play at a pace that is not compatible with any kind of illness or pain, as though no one were ever dizzy or incontinent or simply needed to sit or lie down. [p. 39, emphasis added]

It is this physical structure and social organization that causes much of the disability in our society. Similarly, it is the physical structures and social organization of my culture that make menstruation a problem and a secret. I’ve written about some of this before (and SMCR members probably also see Emily Martin’s work echoing here), but was reminded of this issue in a recent conversation with a reporter about attitudes toward menstruation.

The journalist wanted to know if perhaps menstruation was kept hidden just because it’s private, rather than shameful. I asked her to think about the ways our society structures work that compel us to keep it private and secret. For instance, how easily can you find menstrual products in your school or workplace when you need them? (There’s a tampon dispenser in the women’s room in my campus building, but the sign has read EMTY for the all the years I’ve worked there.) I also spoke with her about a terrific study by Tomi-Ann Roberts and her colleagues about attitudes toward menstruation, in which a research confederate dropped a hair clip in one scenario and a tampon in another. Dropping the tampon led the research participants to offer lower evaluations of the confederate’s competence and decreased liking for her; they even displayed a mild tendency to avoid sitting close to her. This suggests that women conceal menstruation for good reason – to avoid appearing disabled.

Prejudice against menstruators is similar to prejudice against people with disabilities, particularly in judgments about competence, intelligence, and strength. Many disabled people do their damnedest to pass as non-disabled to avoid these same judgments. And in most of North America, people who menstruate do their damnedest to conceal their menstruation, because our physical and social structures are configured in ways that make it disadvantageous to menstruate.

Is menstruation a disability? No, but it surely is perceived as one.

*I also recommend FWD/Feminists with Disabilities blog for trenchant analysis of disability and intersectionality and Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity as a good introduction to disability studies.

‘Well, there is plenty of blood, but none of it’s bad’

September 1st, 2014 by Elizabeth Kissling

re-blogging re:Cycling

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 Defense of Hating My Period

August 25th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

re-blogging re:Cycling

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.

Two or three things I know for sure (about menstruation)

August 19th, 2014 by Breanne Fahs

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.

Save the Date! The Next Great Menstrual Health Con

June 16th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

No Snack, Just Tampons

April 24th, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

I was flipping through the May 2014 issue of Working Mother Magazine the other day and landed upon a small article about a working mother’s recent “faux pas”: on a “crazed morning” she accidentally packed her bag of tampons in her 7-year-old son’s camp bag and took her son’s snack to work with her. Not only did this mistake leave her son without a snack for the day but also with an “inappropriate” item in his camp bag. The article, titled “The Big Switch,” told of this mother’s horror when she realized that she packed tampons in her son’s camp bag. It told of the constant agony and mortification she felt in just thinking about what might happen at school if anyone found the tampons in her son’s bag. She called her friends and they laughed, offering no advice. She braced herself for the end of the day but, when the end of the day came, she found out that her son had received a special treat of Oreos at school because he had no snack. Her son arrived home happy and unphased. The story ends without us finding out whether the son ever even realized that he had tampons in his school bag. We are also left to think, “Phew, disaster averted.”

Mothers naturally make mistakes all of the time (indeed, it’s maybe one of the things we do best!). However, this mistake was high stakes because it challenged an important social norm: a concealment norm. Women should not let anyone know that they menstruate and they should definitely not involve and/or show kids the evidence. This mother worried for her son’s potential willingness to “share” his knowledge of the tampons in his bag among his friends. She envisioned moments within which everyone at camp would know that she had packed tampons in her son’s bag and was concerned about potential repercussions. This mother worried that camp counselors might even call Protective Services if they found out about the tampons in her son’s bag, and that other parents might find out and complain as well. She knew there could be real consequences….but there weren’t consequences. In fact, in the end, this mistake seemed trivial. Perhaps the son saw the tampons and didn’t think they were a big deal, or perhaps he never saw them.

When we go against concealment norms and “show” to others that women/moms menstruate, we realize exactly how powerful those concealment norms are. This mother spent an entire day on the edge of her seat, unable to engage in her paid work, worried about what would happen to her son and to her because of this mistake. She thought about all of the possible problems and solutions, and engaged in quite a bit of emotional work trying to deal with the fact that she had made this mistake. This illustrates exactly how much work women invest in the concealment of menstruation, how much time and energy it entails yet also how fragile concealment is over time. Women must continually engage in concealment (and also be ready to do damage control) to make certain that menstruation can remain hidden.

This is also a story about how working mothers are constantly negotiating whether they are “good” mothers. This mother provides lots of excuses for why the “big switch” happened – everything from having deadlines at work to being a single mother. Thus we see another set of social norms at work as well in this story: social norms about who is a “good” mother. According to our social norms, there is only one kind of good mother at the end of the day: the mother who does not make mistakes. How silly is that? The ending of the story even seems to suggest how silly these motherhood norms might be, because the son turned out just fine — tampons didn’t hurt him, nor did his lack of snack.

In the end, this small story is just one more representation of the tightropes that women walk, and the impossible demands that social norms place on women. Let it be known that women menstruate and that mothers make mistakes. No social norm has the power to discount those facts.

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.