It’s a scientific fact: Our culture gets weird about bodily fluids. I mean, everybody pees, and yet someone’s programmed an entire website to show people the least awkward way to do it in public. But when you take a look at the intersection of biological discharge and gender, stuff starts to get real tricky, real fast.
I’m talking, of course, about menstruation.
When poet and photographer Rupi Kaur posted a set of photos to her Instagram that artistically represented period stains and the menstrual cycle, the site removed them under the mind-bendingly strange claim that the images violated their “community guidelines.” Now, here’s just a quick sampling of what does not violate said guidelines: Blood in other forms. Objectification of women. Actual human feces. But something that a majority of the uterus-bearing population goes through numerous times a month? Blocked immediately. Twice, in fact, until a justifiably pissed-off public convinced Instagram to reverse the decision.
So what’s behind our period panic? Why do we face our monthly endometrial adventures with shame, averted eyes, and a prayer that the cashier doesn’t ask us questions when we surreptitiously approach the counter with a box of tampons?
Well, unfortunately, none of this is all that surprising. After all, the shadowy aura around the menses isn’t exactly new.
Folks have been having periods since the dawn of time — or, at least, since the dawn of the uterus — and have been more or less going about their business ever since. From innovative early tampons made from papyrus (Ancient Egypt) or rolls of grass (equatorial Africa) to this fantastic pad / hip-suspenders combination, sanitary products aren’t new kids on the block. It makes me weirdly happy to think that while men were arguing over whether the earth rotated around the sun or not, women were just casually inventing the tampon. Like, no big deal.
As far as public discourse is concerned, though, there’s a pretty clear pattern. The cringe. The shudder. The “hum loudly and pretend nothing is happening.” And depressingly often, the “let’s pathologize the shit out of your menses.”
I’m not here to call out the Judeo-Christian treatment of women across the ages, but we get to pathologizing menstruation literally in Chapter Three of the Old Testament. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version: Serpent tempts Eve, Eve succumbs, and then God comes thundering in with her punishment. “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception / In pain shall you bring forth children / Your desire shall be for your husband / And he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3.16, NKJV) Well, there’s female inferiority, patriarchy, and dirty taboo menstruation, all in one quaint little quatrain. No wonder we don’t chat about periods much, with a history like that.
It’s not just Biblical tradition, either — most major religions have considered menstruating folks inferior or impure. The Jewish rabbinical tradition historically considered a menstruating person “ritually unclean” for seven days, and everything they touched was thought to be defiled. Hindu tradition prevented menstruating people from entering temples or participating in religious ceremonies. Though the Koran contains few mentions of periods, some interpretations have prevented Islamic women from interacting with their male relations while menstruating. There’s no religious monopoly on period panic here — all sorts of theisms have hopped on the bandwagon. Equal opportunity stigma, if you will.
Let’s leave religious custom aside for a second, though. Secular culture has been all about equating periods with mental illness, up to and including the most awesome and completely non-oppressive time for the feminist movement ever: the Victorian Era. Around the mid to late 1800s, hyper-reliable doctors Lawson Tait and Sir Henry Maudsley thought — no, really thought — that changes in women’s behavior and emotions during their periods were symptomatic of “menstrual madness.” (If anyone wants to start a band called Menstrual Madness, I’m in, by the way.) And Tait and Maudsley weren’t alone. A sparkling gem of Victorian medical literature, written by one Dr. Chase, proposes the following highly scientific case study:
“I knew a young girl, who had not been instructed by her mother upon the subject of [menstruation], to be so afraid of being found with this show upon her apparel [i.e., menstrual blood] … that she went to a brook and washed herself and her clothes, took cold, and immediately went insane.”
Well then. Case in point.
While “menstrual madness” isn’t thrown around as much as it used to be, the current stigma around periods really isn’t so far off. For us, PMS becomes an excuse to stigmatize and dismiss menstruating bodies. How many times have we heard this tired old excuse? “Whoa, she’s bitchy today. Must be that time of the month.” And the extension is easy to follow: Menstruation causes irrationality, anger, and unpredictable behavior about 70 days out of the year, on average. So how can we trust women with any sort of political or social power?
This plays conveniently into the false dichotomy of the rational masculine and the emotional feminine. Men do politics, philosophy, STEM careers, rational thought; women do family, interpersonal skills, public relations, feelings. Men are externally facing and make things happen, while women are introspective and have things happen to them. Men control their impulses and behave rationally, and women cry at Lifetime movies while eating chocolate.
We see this happen constantly, especially when a women tries to assert herself in masculine-dominated discourse or displays (even justifiable) anger. We saw it when Bill O’Reilly cited the downside of a potential Hillary Clinton presidency as “the PMS and the mood swings.” That’s even putting aside the fact that menstrual cycles do not affect mood or behavior nearly as much as people think they do.
From news pundits to advertisements, the drugstore aisle to the movie screen, periods are represented as mentally debilitating, shameful, and embarrassing. They’re smelly, gross, unpredictable, confusing, and ultimately dangerous. The quintessential example is Stephen King’s Carrie, though there are untold others. (This episode of Popaganda from Bitch featuring the folks from The Crimson Wave discusses just this issue, for my fellow podcast enthusiasts.)
How many times have we all cringed through a preteen TV show where spilling your backpack full of tampons is the height of middle-school embarrassment? It works because it resonates. We’ve all folded the pad into our sleeve and nervously asked to go to the restroom, hoping no one saw. We don’t bat an eye at the boy who scraped his knee and bled through his jeans, but make it a woman and move the stain slightly north, and suddenly it’s a catastrophe.
The point is, a bodily function is transformed into another means of silencing us. It’s turned into a “secret problem” that we’re meant to deal with as quietly and subtly as we possibly can. It’s used as proof of our unreliability, our dirtiness, our less-than status. It justifies self-consciousness and embarrassment, and turns our bodies into traitors who stab us in the back every 28 days. That shame is two thousand years old. It’s insidious.
And it’s time to push back.
Newsflash: Periods happen. Every month my uterus goes full-on Lady Macbeth, and so do many other uteruses around the world. Let’s get cool with that.
Change starts with us. It means shattering the stereotypes and tired tropes around menstruation.
It means ditching the narrative of our periods “making us women” — a formulation that completely erases trans women, women with medical conditions preventing them from menstruating, and older women on the other side of menopause.
It means rejecting the cutesy, ashamed euphemisms for our periods. No more “visit from Mother Nature.” No more “Aunt Flo.” No more “riding the crimson wave,” which to be honest has always reminded me more of the Alabama football team than anything my body does.
It means recognizing the stigma inherent in those mysteriously vague ads with women doing yoga in all-white clothing, advertising sanitary products without ever using the word “period.” And it also means celebrating ads that do it right, including HelloFlo’s “Camp Gyno” spots, or the Always ad actually showing blood instead of that weird blue laundry detergent-like liquid.
It means not calling our periods disgusting or surrounding them in silence. Yes, I’m asking you to talk about periods with your friends. You’ll probably survive it.
Because guess what: Periods happen. They’ve pretty much always happened. Barring any sci-fi innovation, they’ll probably continue to happen. So let’s learn how to make peace with our menses, for all our sakes.