Part 4: Period Suppression

Forty years ago, women saw the Pill as a way for to gain crucial control over their family planning and attain the time and energy for life pursuits beyond labor, delivery, and child care.  According to USA Today, the FDA approved the first birth control pill to stop women’s periods indefinitely in 2007. If this sounds strange or scary to you, you may be interested to know that about half the women in the studies dropped out due to irregular and unscheduled bleeding and spotting that could last for four to five days, for the first year, that replaced their scheduled menstruation.  It’s like our bodies are trying to tell us something…. what.. could.. it.. be??  There are other pills on the market too that are designed to shorten monthly periods to three days or less or down to only four times per year.  Sarah Haskins has a great piece on birth control being sold as period control.

 

According to the Canadian Women’s Health Network, the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research stated simply that “menstruation is not a disease… [F]urther research on the potential health risks and long-term safety of cycle-stopping contraception is still needed,” particularly addressing the “impacts on adolescent development, since young women and girls are a target audience for cycle-stopping contraceptives… These contraceptives do not only reduce or eliminate menstrual bleeding, [they] also suppress the complex hormonal interplay of the menstrual cycle. The impacts of this cycle on women’s health are not completely understood.”  The Society noted that “it is also important that research address the social, psychological and cultural implications of menstrual suppression, as well as the biomedical effects.” They remain concerned that pharmaceutical campaigns used to market cycle-stopping contraception depict the menstrual cycle as abnormal, undesirable, unnecessary and even unhealthy. Messages telling us that processes associated with women’s bodies are “defective or need to be medically controlled can lead to negative body image, especially in young women.”  This is reminiscent of the fact that fat hatred, and other oppressions resulting in extreme eating disorders, can also lead to period suppression.  In these cases, it’s a pretty strong sign from the body that things are not ok.

 

Medical sociologists and feminists have questioned the need for a pill like this for most women who don’t bleed or suffer intensely during their periods, pointing out that it’s a normal life event, not a medical condition! Why medicate a normal life event if we’re not sure of the long-term effects?  [Please note: This is absolutely NOT meant as a critique of hormones used in FTM transitions that result in period cessation.]  Hormones in birth control pills can cause deadly side effects like blood clots and stroke.  No doubt, the pill has been a huge life-saver for many women who have so much to manage and not having to deal with a hemorrhaging, painful period on top of it all is useful.  AND… ultimately, it’s entirely likely that women wouldn’t have such rough time if we weren’t dealing with stress, environmental toxins, chemically-altered and non-nutritious “food,” psychological and physical trauma, and other things that we manage daily.  Our bodies tell us a lot of things that we aren’t able to respond to generously.

 

It’s interesting to note that our culture doesn’t tend to associate the end of periods with a lack of femininity in women.  Yet, a vasectomy seems to threaten masculinity so much that men don’t tend to opt for this low-risk, hormone-free, highly effective method of birth control.  It seems normal and acceptable that women’s bodies be put at risk to disrupt the cycle that produces life, to even out any moods that are inconvenient, and to tackle pain and discomfort that could be eased through other less destructive or preventative methods.  It has become so normal to control, manage, and regulate bodies for acceptable femininity that even the most harmful and unnecessary products or procedures are everywhere.

 

It’s hard not to recognize the economic possibilities of convincing 52% of the population that something their bodies do every month needs to be “fixed” with continuous pharmaceutical intervention.  And we thought disposable menstrual products were lucrative…!  We are told that menstruation is not medically necessary, that women shouldn’t have to suffer nausea, bloating, cramps, headaches, and depression.  But I can’t help but wonder where the studies and funding and education are that teach people how to reduce these symptoms through non-processed/toxic food, rest, heat, massage, and other forms of practical, ongoing care routines.  There’s very little money to be made and control to be gained from people knowing how to take care of themselves and each other.

 

“I believe that women regaining confidence through the explicit demonstration of their cycle and its powers in life could move from many conflicts within themselves into a female-defined world.  This would create a marvelous crack in the armor of patriarchy, and might help us all to break through to a world where being female will be a delight and a powerful lever of change.” – Asphodel P. Long (feminist theologian)

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Part 3: Herstories of a Menstrual Nature

One way to subvert society’s shaming is to break the silence on menstruation and let our stories flow!

 

Our moms and grandmas remember the enormous and uncomfortable pads that used to be connected with safety pins, hooks, tabs, suspenders, or built into the underpants themselves!  You can look those up on the Museum of Menstruation.  Self-adhesive pads were only available after the 1970s.

These contraptions were so horrible, it’s no wonder girls and women dreaded their periods.  We’ve heard stories like this one: No one talked with her about her period when she was young, so she got it in school and bled all over the desk seat.  She got up to hand in some papers and the female teacher didn’t even say anything to her.  When she realized, she had to run to her locker to put on her jacket then go to the washroom to deal with it all by herself.  Or this one: Having to make up excuses about not being able to go swimming with everyone else for 2 weeks and feeling worried they would figure out why she couldn’t go.

 

It’s taken our whole lives to alienate us from our bodies, so it will take time to reacquaint ourselves and learn how to be the experts of our own experiences, responding in ways that feel right and good. Inga Muscio, author of the book Cunt, says, “[B]y the time we’re twelve or so, society has convinced the vast majority of women that it is in our best interest to remain incontestably oblivious to our bodies outside the realm of tormenting ourselves into reflecting a certain standard of physical beauty.”  Inga describes her own experience of learning about periods in school, where the girls were separated out from the boys (heaven forbid boys learn anything about female anatomy) and brought in for “the talk” about “becoming a woman.”  First of all, one single thing that your body does should not determine your gender identity.  Lots of women don’t bleed every month: Trans women, post-menopausal women, high level athletes.  And second, what kind of effect does it have on a group of people constructed by society to know that when they enter that identity, it is through a horrible awful event that you just have to deal with by yourself and never talk about.  Inga talks about having to watch a video that told girls to keep spotlessly clean because menstruating girls tend to stink up the room if they’re not completely at one with personal hygiene. The video also told girls that any pain or discomfort they might feel, resided in their heads and had been collectively imagined by womankind for thousands of years.  How could you not grow up feeling dirty, inconvenient to others, angry or disconnected from your body. Or alone.

 

When I  was 11, my mom sat me down and told me about getting your period.  She explained about pads and tampons.  I got my period at camp that summer and one of the cool girls told me that I could talk to her about it if I wanted.  When I told my mom I’d gotten my period, she bought me a woman’s symbol that we put on a necklace together.  When we found out about organic non-bleached cotton tampons, we bought those instead.  And when I joined my university’s women’s centre and found out about the menstrual cup nearly 10 years later, we went out and got one of those.  I can’t even begin to understand how much this insulated me from misogyny, but I know the impact this had on me and my relationship with my body was profound.  I look forward to doing the same for my goddaughter!

 

Women have different ways of honouring the fact that they’re on their monthly cycle.  Some need quiet and stillness, others need friends, or food, or baths.  If we actually had the space to do the things our bodies are asking for during these times (instead of working in offices or factories or taking care of children), we likely wouldn’t feel grumpy or anxious or sad.  We might actually stop feeling negativity towards a bodily ritual that so profoundly and routinely reinforces how spectacular the human body is and it’s power to make life.

 

In the totally-life-changing book, The Red Tent, Anita Diamant wrote:

“The great mother whom we call Innana gave a gift to woman that is not known among men, and this is the secret of blood. The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth – to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain. They imagine we suffer and consider themselves lucky. We do not disabuse them.

In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks — for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood.”

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Part 2: I Am Woman! Hear Me … LOL?

By Vanessa Lever

 

For two weeks I have been working on a promotional campaign for Kotex (pads and tampons), travelling to various college/university campuses and giving out free samples. That’s right, standing out in public offering free pads and tampons like this:

Needless to say, I am no longer ashamed to utter those words to strangers in public.  PADS! However, I am ashamed to say that working on this campaign has brought to light two rather unfortunate female outlooks.

 

OMG! A Fashion Mag!

First of all, the samples were in discrete (yet huge) boxes made to look like fashion magazines with “samples for you and your bestie” inside.

 

I think it’s great that the company thought of an under-the-radar way to package samples so that you don’t have to carry around an obvious box of feminine hygiene products all day, but is this what we’ve come to? A ditsy teenage magazine cover with a glam quiz on the inside to decide which Kotex products are right for YOU? A): who cares? And B): why this silly juvenile magazine? Is that what they think women relate to best?

 

Our target demographic for this promo was college women, not pre-teens, but everything pointed to the latter. “What’s your go-to eye candy colour? Which trend would you wear on a first date?” These are quiz questions contained inside the box for women to answer. Ladies attending post-secondary should be considered mature, intelligent women who don’t need an excess of exclamation points and smiley faces in their literature!!!! Yet these silly tamp samps ;) seem more likely to speak to a 13-year-old girl obsessed with Bonne Bell lip gloss and impressing the older boy across the street with her budding bosoms. OMG ;D ;D.

 

I’m just saying that a plainly branded box would have sufficed. Don’t undermine these ladies’ intelligence with fab quizzes and gratuitous slang.

 

Come On Man, Everylady Is Doing It

It was also annoying to see how many ladies (we’re talking college-aged women) were ashamed to take a free sample when we told them what they were. A lot of girls left giggling or shying away – especially if they were with guys – when offered the pads and tampons. I was under the impression that by the time you are in university, you are well aware of the fact that, as a woman, you menstruate and that it’s perfectly normal – healthy even! Men should be aware of this too. If your girlfriend is a cis-gendered woman and NOT pregnant then she probably menstruates. Surprise! And thus, ladies require some type of product to manage. Not all that different from needing toilet paper or deodorant.

 

So come on girls, let’s just be proud of periods and take the free stuff. And if your boyfriend asks what’s in the box, tell him “PADS AND TAMPONS!  YEY!”

 

Vanessa is a stand up and sketch comedian, actor, and writer residing in Vancouver, BC.  Read more about and from Vanessa at vanessalever.com. 

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Part 1: Cultural attitudes towards menstruation and PMS

Kitty has a nosebleed, on the rag, aunt dot, aunt flow is coming for a visit, falling to the communists, closed for maintenance, my little friend, surfing the crimson wave, bleedies, at high tide, my moon cycle, moon time, that time of month, friend from the red sea,the curse…  There are many names for menstruation that are reflective of our culture’s attitude towards the period. “The curse” is perhaps the most telling as it defines the period as a horrible affliction rather than a natural part of a woman’s monthly cycle. Instead of celebrating women’s cycles we are taught to resent menstruation and even feel ashamed of it.  This blog is an effort to de-stigmatize the period and celebrate the female body.

 

Our culture tells us that menstruation is something shameful that needs to be hidden. In fact, our periods are a taboo! Not only that but menstruation and everything around it (read PMS – premenstrual syndrome) are medicalized and pathologized- a problem that needs a “fix.” But having a period is a part of many women’s experience so why are our periods and moods surrounding them viewed in such a negative light? Why all this talk about periods being unnatural, dirty, diseased? This certainly harkens back to patriarchy and its obsession with degrading women and our bodies. If we no longer believe in ourselves, see ourselves and our bodies as having value then it is that much easier to control us.

 

Patriarchal religious beliefs have been used to shame women and our bodies. It is pretty much a universal belief today, in the world’s largest religions, that during menstruation a woman is “unclean” and needs to be purified. For example, the Bible says in Leviticus that menstruating women are unclean for 7 days. Anything they touch will be made unclean and that men should not have sex with a woman on her period lest he become unclean as well.

 

Feminist Jewish Talmudic scholar, Judith Hauptmann, has studied these rules for women and it’s fascinated to see that she points out the need to understand these rules within the context of the first chapter in Leviticus. This first portion addresses the issue of male impurity and cleanliness. Imagine that!  Apparently, after a man has an emission of semen, “…he shall count off seven days for his cleansing, wash his clothes, and bathe his body in freshwater; then he shall be clean.”  So why did these cleanliness rules survive, and even develop, over time for women and not for men?

 

In the Victorian era Menstruation was medicalized and pathologized. Victorian doctors labeled menstruation a debilitating illness under which women were said to be “unwell or out of order.” Not only did Victorian doctors believe that menstruation was a condition, but they believed that during menstruation women were mentally incapable of being rational and working. The British Medical Journal, of January 1875 said, “At such times, women are unfit for any great mental or physical labour. They suffer under a languor and depression which disqualify them for thought or action.”

 

These days we hear a lot about PMS and all the problematic ways women behave when we are bleeding. Our moods have been pathologized to the point that they get called a syndrome – a cluster-fuck of “symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease, psychological disorder, or other abnormal condition.” It’s incredibly offensive that our moods are being likened to a psychological disorder! But ignore us, we’re probably just irritated because we’re on the rag…

 

But menstruation was not always seen negatively. In ancient spirituality (and in many indigenous belief systems today), menstruation was viewed in a positive light and women were believed to be connected to the moon because of our 28 day cycle. The moon was sacred and worshipped as a feminine deity and was chief to all other goddesses and gods. As Asphodel P.Long, Feminist Theologian, writes “The Triple Goddess is available to us in all sorts of symbols, records and illustrations. She was the source of growth, fertility, and change; and in her waning and dark side, she represented the mystical power of death and rebirth. Her twenty-eight days cycle was observed as the same cycle as that of women’s menses; menstruation was thought to be linked to the moon, and in many languages the words for both are the same. Thus women were thought to be connected with the great and mysterious power of the moon.” So menstruation has not always been viewed as unclean but rather as powerful and sacred.  How great would it be if our culture started to shift in the direction of celebrating women’s cycles in this way?

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