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February 13, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Secret Women’s Business


Published by Farrago 2010

There’s no way to broach the subject politely so I’m just going to jump right in there: how often do women talk openly with a mixed-sex audience about their periods? I would wager not as much as semen and ejaculation is mentioned. If you disagree, have a look at how the two subjects are treated in the public sphere; the film There’s Something About Mary, for example, treats ejaculatory fluid as so mainstream that it bases one of its most famous jokes on a useful application for it.

Indeed most mainstream pornography can arguably be read as a kind of homage to male ejaculation, as if the woman is some kind of canvas for the male masterpiece. But is menstruation, an act just as natural and necessary for reproduction, treated with the same kind of openness? Can we look at the shredding of the uterine lining in the same way as the expulsion of semen from the testicles? And if not, why can’t we?

On the site menstruation.com.au, writer Nikki Sullings argues that, historically speaking, the dominant standards for normality have misconstrued menstruation as an aberration in health, as a kind of sickness. This is based on the fact that ‘it is normal for a man to be able to function unimpaired mentally and physically every day of the month unless he is sick.’When women were subjected to this yardstick, their monthly menstrual cycle failed them miserably and as a result, the menstrual cycle was pathologised as a form of illness, and it is a misconception with a long history. There is plenty historical evidence, particularly in the realm of cultural superstitions, to suggest that the connection between menstruation and weakness did not die with the men who first believed in it.

There are, for example, a plethora of cautionary tales about the negative aura of women having their periods. One superstition from Southern Portugal (Vila Branca) suggests that a menstruating woman who has a ‘fixed gaze’ or stare set on pork being prepared for eating could cause it to spoil.  Others tales include the suspicion that menstruating women could cause the fruit or vegetables they were canning to spoil. Menstruating women could turn wine sour, stop bread dough from rising, and cause hunted animals to scurry away from the scent of blood. (Interesting, then, that women have remained ‘in the kitchen’ for as long as they have.) These are just a small selection of menstruation taboos—there are a plethora of cultures that have their own superstitions about the monthly female occurrence that they perceive as ‘dirty’ or ‘weakening’. Even the modern-day terms relating to tampons and pads—‘hygiene’ products, or even ‘sanitary pads’, for example—suggest a certain element of dirtiness connected to menstruation, and with that, shame. There are many terms besides these that suggest that menstruation is a kind of sickness to be treated with drugs and the help of medical men.

A book on menstruation entitled Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, links the removal of the term ‘hysteria’ from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1952, to the introduction of the term ‘pre-menstrual syndrome’ in around 1953. Is this a coincidence, or was the highly-suggestive ‘hysteria’ of women just replaced with a more medical-sounding term? Culture, as you may have guessed, plays its part in confirming that women who are about to have, or are having their period, are more likely to be temperamental.

In her psychological overview of premenstrual syndrome, Linda Riven argues that ‘attitude may play an important role in the symptomatology and severity of symptoms’, and that ‘expectation [of premenstrual syndrome] was shown to have a clear influence on symptom reporting’. Women, then, who engaged in society’s perception that pre-menstruation and menstruation was a time of weakness were more likely to believe that menstruation had a negative impact on their lifestyle. From this perspective, it’s understandable that the chance to reduce or abolish menstruation until procreation came as a welcome relief to women.

When the birth control pill was released in the early sixties, its creators decided to include a week of ‘withdrawal bleeding’ to simulate menstruation. This was intended to reassure women who may have feared pregnancy and simulate the regular menstruation for reassurance. But 40 years on, health advocates such as Dr. Leslie Miller, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Washington in Seattle (and creator of the site noperiod.com), argues, ‘withdrawal bleeding is not needed, so why have it?’

Medically speaking, there are some benefits to a menstrual cycle. A natural menstrual cycle includes two weeks where women experience significantly reduced blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes in their reproductive years, as well as decreasing the risk of spontaneous abortions and even infertility. But on the other hand, regular periods may increase the risk of anaemia, migraines, endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. This partially explains why the contraceptive pill is such a popular choice for women, as it eliminates the cycle almost completely. New contraceptive pills such as Seasonale, for example, can ensure women only have their period four times a year.

But why have women even come to recognise menstruation as such a hassle? It may be that reducing the occurrence of menstruation is desirable because it is more convenient and reduces ‘mess’. But if that’s the case, why hasn’t a pill been invented to allow men to orgasm without the ‘messiness’ of ejaculation? Surely this is just as much of an unclean element of the reproductive experience, so why are just women’s bodily fluids to be banished from the public domain?

Apparently our society still can’t handle the sight of a bit of blood…if you forget about the increasing amount of violent images, sexualised or otherwise, pervading our screens. That type of blood doesn’t count, but apparently menstrual blood is too much for our innocent eyes. If you want proof, look more closely at the next feminine hygiene advertisement that pops up on your TV screen. If they’re anything to go by, women spend most of their time during their periods frolicking on the beach, going shopping with good-looking girl friends and wearing tight, white clothes with a confident, carefree smile. And as Age writer Nina Funnell points out, ‘only women between 18 and 26 menstruate’ in these ads, thereby ignoring a whole generation of women who buy feminine hygiene products. Funnell’s article, entitled ‘Enough with the euphemisms on women’s body parts’ includes a video clip of a Kotex ad, which parodies the advertising world’s depiction of a woman during her period. The ad features a woman describing her relationship with her period, with some insightful observations: ‘the ads on TV are really helpful, because they use that blue liquid and I’m like “oh! That’s what supposed to happen!”’

Yes, girls, menstrual blood is blue. If the ads are anything to go by, blue liquid is what women get during menstruation. Rape, murder, sodomy, torture, these are all things that can be classified as watchable in Australia, but menstruation and its by-products are still hidden under a veil of euphemisms in mainstream media.

A telling sign of the media’s silence on the subject is evident in its treatment of the topic; when reviewing a collection of anthologies about first periods entitled My Little Red Book in 2009, writer Abigail Zuger entitled the article ‘In the Open at Last, a Secret All Women Share’. While the book shows progress on the topic is being made, clearly women still don’t feel as though menstruation is a subject that can be openly discussed. But when the public domain continues to bury the menstrual period in euphemisms such as ‘hygiene’ products, blue liquid and dancing on the beach, why would women feel as though the subject is acceptable for public discussion? Women are supposed to be ‘out and proud’ about their periods, but it’s still an experience linked with shame, and this, in many ways, can be connected to the way that the media does (or doesn’t) deal with menstruation. The result is the suggestion that menstruation continues to be perceived as an embarrassing secret shared by all women, which does nothing to progress open discussion of a subject that affects every healthy woman in the country. 

The movie Superbad (2007), for example, demonstrates the continued shame of menstrual blood in the public and within mainstream media. One of the main characters, Seth (played by Jonah Hill), dirty dances with a woman at a party. She unknowingly has her period and leaves a bloody mark on his jeans. When Seth sees the stain, he is mortified to discover it’s ‘period blood’, while other party-goers openly mock him about the fact. It’s not the blood itself that is mortifying; it is the reason for the blood’s presence that disgusts him. If the woman had accidentally cut her hand and bled on him, would Seth still have been as mortified?

Menstruation may seem like an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but this was once the case with sexuality, promiscuity, mental illness, AIDS and abortion. Ignoring it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect millions of women, all of whom encounter a plethora of negative perceptions and superstitions surrounding the experience. Mainstream media has a lot to answer for, but it has also been influenced by centuries of attitudes which have reinforced the menstrual cycle and menstruation as a weakness; an illness even. This continued when the pill offered women an opportunity to get rid of the experience completely, cementing the idea that menstruation was a nuisance, and not a natural occurrence. The problem now is for women to decide what has influenced their perception of their body’s natural cycle, and to ascertain how they would prefer to address it. Secret women’s business is not so secret anymore.

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2 Comments

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  1. Prexus Swyftwynd / Feb 13 2011 5:13 PM

    I must admit though, when a guy begins to ask questions or speak openly about periods, we definitely get those “weird looks” or “words of disapproval”… it’s a tough world out there for guys who are trying to get to “open grounds” on menstrual-related matters. We need both males and females to be open to facts about menstruation. The comfort needs to exist both for women, who can pass on anecdotal or as a source of realistic menstrual-information because there are still many women who are uncomfortable on the subject of their own bodies/periods. Also, men need to be more receptive to information about menstruation and not only absorb “facts” they hear from ‘the guys’ or less credible sources.

    • Siobhan Argent / Feb 13 2011 6:53 PM

      All very true; I think it’s a matter of ‘de-grossifying’ menstruation, and then perhaps men in general might be more inclined to acknowledge their curiosity about it. I think it’s more about this ‘de-grossification’ than anything; it will most likely benefit everyone and fit into the wider stigma surrounding some sexual activities (and in particular, perhaps also help young people feel more at ease about asking questions about their bodies).

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