Yucky, Dirty, Goo and Mess: Rupturing Anti-Menstrual Discourse

By Roksana Badruddoja

I. The “Curse”: The Evil Within!

Scholars in the social sciences, especially feminists, have put serious effort in clarifying the nature and extent of women’s participation in various cultures. At the core of such socio-cultural studies, biological processes are considered integral contributors to women’s social status. Notably, menstruation or menarche has long been subject to symbolic elaboration in a wide variety of cultures. The “rules of conduct” prescribed to menstruating women and those who come in contact with them have placed menstruation on the foreground of sociological studies of taboo and symbolic pollution.

The idea that women, our bodies and the secretion of menstrual blood are sources of contamination is widespread. Women in New Guinea are banished to a tiny shelter on the outskirts of the settlement during menstruation (Gilmore, 2001).[1] Similarly, Bhandari and Najar (2017) report the sequestering menstruating women from their families in a chhaupadi/menstrual hut in rural western Nepal (despite a 2005 court order). Egyptian feminist El Saadawi (1980) points out menstrual women cannot be “cleansed” through water purification rituals until the end of their cycle.[2] The pollution discourse[3] is brought to life in an episode—“Bad Moon Rising” (Season 4, Episode 22)—of the American television show Everybody Loves Raymond (May 8, 2000). A shot opens with Raymond warning his friends (who are watching football) to stay out of Deborah’s way. He says, “she’s feeling, you know, hormonal [emphasis added].” Raymond’s dad chimes in, “oh, the evil within [is visiting].”[4]

Douglas’ (1966 [2001]) notion of “symbolic pollution” is invaluable here. In her seminal Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Douglas defines pollution as “…essentially disorder… it exists in the eye of the beholder…In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying, we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea” (p. 2).[5] In other words, “uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained” (p. 53). Pollution is something that breaches classifications and is anomalous or ambiguous. Fundamental to Douglas’ analysis of pollution and taboo is the cultural coding of a substance as a pollutant based on the shared cultural perception of that substance as anomalous and dangerous to the general symbolic socio-cultural order. In short, pollutants are always coded as “dirt” and symbolize “matter out of place”.[6]

My own menstrual or moon experiences do not fall far from the pollution narrative. I remember my first period; I was eleven (and visiting my great maternal aunt in Philadelphia). My mother purchased “special underwear” for me to use during my menses. I was prohibited from praying and partaking in other religious events during my period. At the age of twelve, the women caretakers in my life made it clear to me I was no longer innocent and pure—I had the ability to become pregnant—and I must conduct myself in an “appropriate manner”. I was instructed to limit my contact with boys and men moving forward. Beauvoir’s (1952) words are apt here: “The menses inspire horror in the adolescent girl because they throw her into an inferior and defective category. This sense of being declassed will weigh heavily upon her” (p. 316). The message I received is periods are a private and a shameful event, and one that poses limitations on girls and women.

What are the lessons we can learn from these cross-cultural/spatial and temporal illustrations? Certainly, the multitude of cultural interpretations helps to robustly organize women, their bodies and menstruation as “dirty” and “dangerous” to established social order. In this paper, I demonstrate how women, our bodies and menstruation are positioned as symbolic pollutants (across time and space). Here, I seek to review the wide body of literature—gender, biological/medical, psychoanalytic, and socio-anthropological discourses—indicating women, our bodies and menstrual blood are defined as pollutants. Next, I articulate the pollution metanarrative by using menstruating women in contemporary capitalist America as a case study. That is, I use menarcheal women in the U.S. and their consumption of menstrual and hygiene management technologies produced by companies like Procter & Gamble with brands like Tampax and Always to reconstruct the pollution metanarrative. Finally, I highlight a normative heteropatriarchal schema—androcentricism—or a “rigid” cognitive environment that must exist in order to view women and our bodies as requiring control and menstruation as “evil”. Ultimately, I hope to challenge menstrual myths and reclaim menstruation.

 II. The Feminine Body as Taboo: Anti-Menstrual Narratives

Anti-menstrual narratives—menstrual blood and menarcheal bodies are contaminating—are articulated in biblical-based folklore[7] as well as scientific and medical discourse. Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1952) examines the ways in which women and our bodies are represented and assigned social meaning. In recognizing the body as a situation rather than an object, Beauvoir states,

It is not merely as a body, but rather as a body subject to taboos, to laws, that the subject is conscious of himself and attains fulfillment—it is with reference to certain values that he evaluates himself. And, once again, it is not upon physiology that values can be based; rather, the facts of biology take on the values that the existent bestows upon them (p. 40-41).

Kissling (2006), in Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation, writes here, “biological facts are largely irrelevant; it is existence that defines woman” (p. 4). Beauvoir’s theory of woman as Other explains how the category “woman” is defined and differentiated only in terms of her relationship to man or androcentric ideology. She points out,

Just as the penis derives its privileged evaluation from the social context, so it is the social context that makes menstruation a curse. The one symbolizes manhood, the other femininity; and it is because femininity signifies alterity and inferiority that its manifestation is met with shame (p. 354).

Kissling (2006) translates this as, “[b]ecause man defines himself as human, as Subject, and woman is relative to man, she is Other” (p. 3). Steinem (1978), in her groundbreaking article If Men Could Menstruate published in Ms. Magazine, demonstrates menstruation would be celebrated if it were part of men’s bodies. Beauvoir continues to speculate on a woman’s identity as “Other” and her alienation from society as partly derived from her body. She writes about the “female” menstrual body:

On the day she can reproduce, woman becomes impure; and rigorous taboos surround the menstruating female…since patriarchal times only evil powers have been attributed to the feminine flow…menstruating women can ruin crops, destroy gardens, kill bees…and if she touches wine, it becomes vinegar; milk is soured” [emphasis added] (p. 148-149).

From Industrialization to Urbanization: The Formation of the Feminized “Other”

Following in Beauvoir and Steinem’s footsteps, Flax, along with Bordo and Rosenfield, articulate the formation of the feminized Other within the context of industrialization and urbanization. Flax (1993), in Disputed Subjects: Essays on Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Philosophy, outlines how processes of industrialization and urbanization structurally differentiated private life from public life. Under the domestic form of production, the family performed a variety of economic roles. In the transformation from domestic to factory production, the economic activities were moved from the family to the factory. Economic and familial activities became separated into two institutions rather than lodged in one and familial and economic functions became highly segregated (Flax, 1993). Additional changes occurred through structural differentiation, namely, the public sphere became increasingly independent and separate (Flax, 1993) followed by specialized divisions of labor (Durkheim, 1933; Rosenfield, 1999). Moreover, the education of the young moved from the home to institutions and social mobility became based more on educational and occupational achievements rather than on birth.

As industrialization and capitalism advanced, the emphasis on individualism and rationality became more acute. Reason, the hallmark of control, was defined in opposition to the natural world, which was marked by emotion and desire, or the irrational (Rosenfield, 1999). In this way, Rosenfield (1999), in Splitting the Difference: Gender, the Self, and Mental Health, argues major conceptual distinctions or contrasts were made and the mind was split off from the body. Bordo (1993), in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, shares with us the “mind” became associated with intellectuality and values traditionally deemed positive, and the “body” became associated with the flesh, instinct and values traditionally disparaged. Such distinctions fit with the public/private split; the mind governed the public sphere of production and bodies, emotion and desires ruled the irrational private sphere. Gender was plainly linked to the split; reason became associated with “male” and emotion with “female”. Rosenfield asserts,

Masculine character was attached to the power of reason, and its counterpart was the feminization of emotion. A cult of feminine domesticity validated the assignment of women to the private sphere…and that children required their mother[s]…Conceptions of femininity thus accentuated the association of women with the private sphere of domesticity and consumption, carrying primary responsibilities for caretaking and emotion work, and possessing related characteristics of nurturance, sensitivity, and emotional expressiveness. Ideals of masculinity came to associate males with the public sphere of production and the consistent characteristics of assertiveness, competitiveness, and independence (p. 211).

The association between women and reproduction and their placement in the devalued private realm heavily influences our view of menstruous[8] women and their value (or lack thereof) in “productive” public life.

Scientific Knowledge as Authoritative Knowledge: The “Bad” Female Body

Spawned by the Enlightenment, the power of spiritual belief declined and the authority of medicine rose. Biblical references and folklore, which support cultural myths about the polluted nature of women and their bodies (menstruation is one of the nine curses God assigned to Eve for the Fall), no longer held the same integrity as scientific knowledge. With the increased social realization there was physiology involved in body functions, women (primarily middle-class) quickly flocked to physicians for information and advice (Brumberg, 1997). The medical model was (and still is) highly influenced by the private/public split. The medical/biological model is an androcentric and nomothetic one (Martin, 1989, cited by Britton, 1996) (and prescribes the primary role of reproduction to women).[9]

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a theory of bodily energy guided medical thinking about physiologic functioning (Harlow, 1986). The theory held the body subsisted on a fixed amount of energy and the energy demands of the female reproductive system, namely the uterus, was in conflict with the energy demands of the central nervous system.[10] For women, overuse of the brain or sustained muscular effort denies the uterus its necessary energy, causing it to malfunction.

In the late 1920s, “scientific” studies “revealed” menstrual discharge exerted a “menatoxin” and axillary sweat during menstruation was toxic (Ashley-Montagu, 1926). Further studies discovered the presence of the bactericidal trimethylamine (cited by Ashley-Montagu, 1926). And in the late sixties, Janowsky et al. (1966), in The Curse – Vicissitudes and Variation of the Female Menstrual Cycle, expressed women are a danger to society each month and, therefore, require restraint. As a solution (to the “social problem” women present), Janowsky et al. proposed reducing the frequency of the menses in women, thereby reducing the pathological aspects of menstruation. In For Her Own Good, Ehrenreich and English (1978) reveal according to the “psychology of the ovary”, women’s entire personality was thought to be directed by the ovaries, and any abnormalities—from irritably to insanity—were traced to some ovarian disease. They write,

The notion of the female body as the battleground of the uterus and the brain led to two possible therapeutic approaches; one was to intervene in the reproductive area – removing ‘diseased’ organs or strengthening the uterus with bracing doses of silver nitrate, injections, cauterizations, bleedings, etc. The other approach was to go straight for the brain and attempt to force its surrender directly. The doctors could hardly use the same kind of surgical techniques on the brain as they had on the ovaries and uterus, but they discovered more subtle methods. The most important of these was the rest cure…  The rest cure depended on the now-familiar techniques of twentieth-century brainwashing- total isolation and sensory deprivation. For approximately six weeks the patient was to lie on her back in a dimly lit room. She was not permitted to read. If her case was particularly severe, she was not even permitted to rise to urinate. She was to have no visitors and to see no one but the nurse and the doctor (p. 131).

The biological determination of female subordinance and of male dominance was used to devalue a woman’s worth in the workplace. Drawing on the bodily energy theory, biological and medical experts argued the mental activity required in industrial labor would overwork women, draining energy away from the reproductive organs (Harlow, 1986). A 1920s study proposed discomfort or pain during menses made a woman employee less efficient (Sturgis, 1923).[11] The biological deterministic medical model (un)comfortably bleeds into the popularity of Seasonale[12], the extended-use contraceptive introduced in 2003.

The medical model argues periods are dysfunctional, but menstrual incapacitation is a myth! In the early seventies, Berry and McGuire (1972) found a number of women reported “symptoms”, such as mood swings and/or stomach cramps, which began and/or desisted at other times in the cycle, such as at ovulation and during flow. They also discovered a great variety of “symptoms”, which involved almost any bodily system and fluctuated in intensity and duration from cycle to cycle. In an earlier study, subjects were unable to provide a list of usual “symptoms” (Brush, 1938). Darga (1981), in The Cultural Model of the Menstrual Cycle, finds the reported incidence of PMS varies from 5 to 95 percent of American girls and women who menstruate, and PMS is perhaps the only medical syndrome defined by more than 150 different symptoms! Shostak (1981), in Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, demonstrates in some cultures there is no such thing as PMS![13] Harlow (1986), Englander-Golden et al. (1986) and Seward (1944) further show menstrual incapacitation is a popular stereotype and the menstrual cycle had little effect on women’s ability to work. The “first shift” of public responsibilities coupled with the “second shift” of private or domestic responsibilities plays a larger role in female absenteeism (Hochschild and Machung, 1990). Dan and Leppa (1988) concede absenteeism, sanitary protection and mood swings are strongly influenced by social institutions and contextual/environmental influence. Drawing on the literature, we can begin to suggest that PMS is a social construction.[14] Yet, Darga (1981) shows women reported symptoms that are expected at certain times of the cycle rather than their actual experiences.

While “hysteria” has been removed from medical diagnostic texts, I argue it has not been removed at all. Rather, it has been replaced by the term “premenstrual syndrome” or PMS. Stein and Kim (2009), authors of Flow, demonstrate the “discovery” of PMS in 1953 closely follows the American Psychiatric Association’s removal of hysteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1952. Maines (2001), in The Technology of Orgasm, shows us female hysteria was a common medical diagnosis that was used to understand women’s health issues in the 19th century.[15] The symptoms included faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble.” Maines informs us that medical literature in the 19th century described hysterectomies or admitting women to an insane asylum as possible remedies. Stein and Kim (2009) prompt me to ask, was what was historically called hysteria a simple product of systematized oppression? Might I suggest “hysteria” has been renamed and rebranded as “premenstrual syndrome”, a condition as difficult to diagnose and define as hysteria once was?

Menstruation continues to be seen (and experienced) as a disruption to a woman’s “normal” emotional and bodily functioning. The medical model continues to illustrate the influence of cultural attitudes of physicians and researchers towards women (and girls), especially menstruous women, by pathologizing psychogenic factors and labeling them with terms such as “primary dismenorrhea” and “PMS”. Medical literature insists on exemplifying a correlation between emotional disturbances and changes in behavior in women with different phases of the menstrual cycle. The point is, popular cultural stereotypes are bestowed with scientific validity and medical attention and, in turn, reinforce cultural myths about women and menstruation.

Medical ideology viewed menses as a normal biological function in the eighteenth century to a form of sickness in the nineteenth, paralleling the change in the status of middle-class women from important agents of economic growth to economically superfluous entities (Lander, 1988). Before the Enlightenment, the polluted nature of the female body was supported by Biblical literature and folklore. With the Enlightenment and urbanization, the idea of the “bad” female body became ingrained in scientific thought, solidifying the notion that women’s bodies are poorly designed and not equipped to participate fully in public life as “fact”.

Fear, Intolerance and Disgust: (Re-)Drowning Ophelia

In the field of psychoanalysis, several formulations hypothesized the observed increase in sexual desire during the menstrual cycle led to a revival of Oedipal wishes. Menninger (1939) writes, “The envy of the male cannot be repressed and serves to direct her hostility in two directions; she resents the more favored and envied males while secretly trying to emulate them, and at the same time she hates and would deny her own femaleness” (cited by Berry and McGuire, 1972, p. 84). Menstrual blood may provoke ideas of genital injury and reactivate old childhood sexual conflicts, fears and anxieties, including masturbatory guilt and castration anxiety.[16] Other research emphasizes the connection between menstruation and reproduction. Deutsch (1944) suggests each period serves as disappointment at not being pregnant, and menarche may also evoke fears associated with the anticipation of pain during defloration and childbirth. Esposito (1966) argues physical symptoms, such as dysmenorrhea, are psychosomatic and may be related to neuroticism, which can be ameliorated by psychotherapy (cited by Berry and McGuire, 1972). Chadwick (1932) suggests the mother’s uncleanliness and bad odor during her menses can create reactions of disgust in the daughter (cited by Delaney et al., 1976). The most influential psychoanalytic literature concerning menstruation views this process as a “monthly neurosis” fraught with fears of castration, maternal revenge, anal repulsion and lost children (Freud, 1961)![17]

Yucky, Dirty, Goo and Mess: “Aunt Flow Is Here!”

Even though menstruating women are no longer believed to make flowers wilt or baked bread to collapse, socio-cultural and anthropological studies continue to support negative attitudes, stereotypes and superstitions towards menses.

In an anthropological study conducted in 1996, Britton uncovers from an early age, women (and men) learn negative images of menstruation. Some of the respondents state the following in regards to their first period: “Although I knew about it, I was quite frightened” (p. 648); “It was awful; I wondered if this was it or not because it wasn’t very heavy” (p. 648); and, “I thought I wanted to die. I didn’t want to go on, it was awful. I didn’t like it at all, it was the longest week of the month” (p. 648). Words used by the women to describe menstrual blood included, “‘yucky’, ‘dirty’, ‘goo’, and ‘mess’” (p. 648). The limited excerpts illustrate a consuming fear and intolerance of menstruation. Moreover, the idea of pollution is bound up with connotations of dirt, mess and uncleanliness, which are associated with menstrual blood by women (and men). The respondents suggest menstruation is a humiliating physiological process that must be concealed.

Other patterns surrounding menarche include rites of passage (Whisnant and Zegans, 1974; Golub, 1983), seclusion (Britton, 1996), health and hygiene (Brumberg, 1997) and sexuality and reproduction (Whisnant and Zegans, 1974; Logan, 1980). Whisnant and Zegans (1974) and Logan (1980) uncover that Americans tend to ignore the affective importance of menarche; there are no formal customs to mark it and no obvious change in the girl’s social status follows. This means there is no clear temporal splitting between the “self-before-period” and the “self-after-period”. Most people around her will not even be aware a life-changing event has occurred. In general, mothers tend to frame menarche within a health and hygiene framework rather than a maturational stage involving sexuality and reproduction (Brumberg, 1997). Logan (1980) asserts the use of sanitary products, cleanliness procedures and subtle methods of concealing the presence of menstruation draws attention away from the emotional impact of the event. Meaning, we are teaching our daughters how to “manage” their periods in order to avoid embarrassment and feelings of self-consciousness. It is not surprising several euphemisms for menstruation have emerged among men and women, e.g. “to fall off the roof”, “Aunt flow is here”, and “I’m going steady with George”. The euphemisms convey the negative attitudes about menstruation, such as imposing limitations (Joffe 1947; Ernster, 1975; Koff et al., 1977, 1981). Both men and women express that menarche means loss of certain freedom: an inability to be “as carefree”, “pretend that she was little” and “do what she wanted when she wanted” (Koff et al., 1981, p. 53).

Clearly, women, our bodies and menstrual blood are depicted as dangerous and offensive, leading to social exclusion. As the literature demonstrates, a multitude of stories across space and time exist to explain the placement of women, our bodies and menstruation in the symbolically impure category.

III. Reviving Oedipus: The Rigid (Androcentric) Mindset

The proclivity to perceive clear distinctions, such as “good” versus “evil” or “every day” and “not-so-everyday”, is characteristic of a “rigid” mind-set (communal/cultural and individual) (Zerubavel, 1991). Most distinctive is the rigid mind’s commitment to mutual exclusivity, e.g. pollution versus purity. Items may not belong to more than one category; no gray area may exist (e.g. male versus female and sweet versus salty). Second, the rigid mind does not allow any “contact” between the “segregated islands of meaning” (Zerubavel, 1991). Each mental entity must preserve their “insular character”. In short, the rigid mind cherishes clear-cut distinctions among entities and in turn abhors the ambiguous.

Ambiguity presents a serious threat to this classificatory structure, and such anxiety provoked by the “intermediate” often leads to the development of taboos (e.g. chicken as the main course and strawberry for dessert, home segregated from the workplace, intersex and Jim Crow laws). Ambiguous entities have the ability to “contaminate” insular and mutually exclusive entities—pollution/purity construct—and purity is the antithesis to ambiguity. Here, “avoiding the unclean is essentially avoiding the unclear…an attempt to preserve the mental ‘purity’ of a rigidly classified universe” (Zerubavel, 1991, p. 37). The rigid mind detests bodily discharges precisely because they are both part of the body and the environment. Meaning, bodily discharges challenge our image as an insular self, distinctly separate from our environment.

The menstrual woman plainly defies the rigid mind’s need for a body as a “closed” container. Consider the following sanitary napkin advertisement (Coutts and Berg, 1994): “The surface is covered with thousands of tiny holes. These little holes first draw moisture through, into the pad. Then, they trap the moisture there and help keep it trapped. Far away from the surface of the pad. And far away from you” (185). Menstrual blood has the ability to breach the “natural” bounds of the body that contain it, and its elimination is regular and predictable while uncontrollable. All forms of human blood excretion can be considered a pollutant but menstrual blood is especially so because its flow is not random and accidental. Britton’s (1996) respondent shares, “It is different blood, it has got an odour (sic). It is not the same as other blood. Somehow it is messy, something you want to avoid contact with. But if you had a cut on your leg, you would deal with it” (p. 648).

Fisher (1973) contends denial of the self as a body is more difficult for women than it is for men because menstruation is a repeated and uncontrollable escape of blood from a bodily orifice, and a woman must somehow integrate this recurrent experience into her body concept. The predictable excretion of menstrual blood eschews the mental divide between the self and the environment: the body “melts” into its surrounding and disintegrates as a distinct entity by rupturing the self/breaking the body’s boundary. Menstrual blood challenges the highly integrated conception of the self by weakening one’s ability to control the body. In this way, menarcheal women and menstrual blood occupy not only an in-between status (transitional pollution or marginality), but the body and blood have the potential to be permeable, “leaking” into jeans or a bikini bottom. With each moon cycle, the threat of ejection is present.

Next, the rigid mind is anxious to separate the masculine from the feminine, and the cognitive need to separate the two generates the specific normative proscription of “the masculine public sphere” versus the “feminine private sphere”. Therefore, the negative social meaning of menarche not only takes place in a world divided into filth/purity, but it also takes place within a gender divide. The divide is vastly compounded and complicated by a rigid social system that sets the category men in power over the category women (Laws, 1990). Women have the ability to “contaminate” the gap between the self and the environment, and hence, within a rigid mind-set, menstrual women may be categorized as “impure”. (It also assumes all women menstruate, which is not the case, e.g. menopausal women, transgender women, pregnant women, women with reproductive organ variance, etc.) For the menstruous women, it is not until her skirt, short or pant is stained with blood that she and others realize the “boundary between women and society” (read as male) (Luke, 1997). Involuntary public ejection of feces, urine and sperm on clothing is also disgusting and embarrassing. However, menstrual blood is a purely “feminine” discharge with no male counterpart (e.g. vaginal fluids versus ejaculation), and the “threat” of menstrual staining exists on a monthly basis for the menstruating woman. Within androcentric ideology, menstrual blood is in opposition to the clean and tidy requirements of the modern/masculine public sphere and the menstrual body, which is often “female”, is devalued in comparison to the non-menstruous “male” body. The androcentric world-view assumes women are poorly designed compared to men and women’s bodies are in need of constant control. Menstruation is a “problem” for women because it disrupts their “normal” emotional and bodily functioning. I am suggesting menstruation is a “problem” for women because it is a problem for men!

The cognitive phenomenology Zerubavel offers fosters the construction and maintenance of mutually exclusive categories such as pollution versus purity and the subsequent organization of events: A “rigid” “cognitive-normative grid” (Davis, 1983) or ethos that divides the world into the “pure” versus the “impure” and the “valued-male dominated-rational mind-public sphere” versus the “devalued-female dominated-emotional body-private sphere”. Hence, we uncover a complex menstrual management system, which is bound in the processes of capitalist production and consumption (Kissling 2006). I argue American women are encouraged to conceal their “imperfect” bodies and transmit the allusion of “impermeability” by preventing blood from flowing out of the body.[18] Various “technologies” are created to help women conceal their regular and uncontrollable blood flow. Delany (1988), in Mortal Flow: Menstruation in Turkish Village Life, writes, “the fact that a woman is not self-contained and self-controlled but is instead open is interpreted as a sign she must be socially controlled and closed, or covered” (p. 82). This ideology seems to be a prime directive for companies that produce “feminine” products.

IV. Menstruation and the Neo-Liberal Economy: “Feel Fresh, Dry and Confident”!

Similar to Wolf’s (2002) notion of the “beauty myth”, constructing menstruation as a problem creates the possibility of a consumer market for solutions. Kissling (2006) calls this “capitalizing the curse” or “commercialization of the curse”. In our postmodern era, a woman’s relationship to her menstrual cycle is mediated through consumerism. Remedies for the “illness” of menstruation are bought and sold, as are means of coping with the “hygienic crisis”. The feminine hygiene industry, which is less than one hundred years old, annually exceeds $2 billion in American sales (Kissling, 2006).[19] Here, inserting menstruation into a medical model allows us to define menarche as a medical event, and a pathological one the pharmaceutical industry has developed products to “treat” menstruation and its effects (by doing so, the industry clears a profit[20]) (see Kissling 2006). The point is that advertisements and other publicity for menstrual products have become part of the public discourse about menstruation. Today, a menstrual woman can buy into a set of technologies that will help her to “manage” her menses, and the discourse of freshness is a key theme in what I identify as a “purification ritual”, an indispensable feature of the contemporary menstrual management system. I maintain menstruating women, especially in neoliberal consumer-oriented U.S., are strongly encouraged to “manage” their menses by using the discourse of “freshness” as a purification technique.

Historically, prized feminine virtues include neatness, order, dainty, sweet, clean and caring (Brownmiller, 1984). In this context, vaginal discharge and odor may be “ultra feminine”, traits that are severely devalued. Massengil, Summer’s Eve, Secret, and other brands develop products that “control” by “freshening” women’s natural body odors. They emphasize “freshness” as the desirable state, which is attainable only through use of feminine hygiene products. New Freedom Anyday urges women to use their panty liner to “…feel naturally clean, feminine and fresher than before”, Carefree’s tag line for its panty liners is “Feel Fresh Everyday, Think Pink, Carefree”, and Meds tampons inform women “because life doesn’t come packaged in hygienic little bubbles, Meds do” (Luke, 1997). Freedom, peace of mind, and independence (with no disruptions) are other themes included in the complex menstrual management system (Coutts and Berg, 1993). Commercials often demonstrate the absorbency benefits of sanitary napkins and tampons and supplement the demonstration by an explanation of “lock away cell” technology. In commercials with central characters as professional women, she is successful because she uses feminine hygiene products to help her feel “fresh and confident” (Luke, 1997). If we use these items, the protagonist assures us we will feel “fresh, dry and confident”, and we will remain hygienic throughout our menstrual cycle (Luke, 1997). And, we can continue to be “fresh” even after we are not menstruating by using panty liners. Panty liners allow women to control their femininity–i.e. vaginal discharge, spotting and odor–on a daily basis, similar to Goffman’s (1967) “face work”.

The discourse of freshness maintains the idea that menstruation is a secret affair and must remain invisible to the public eye. Summer’s Eve offers numerous products to control and conceal pre- and post-menstrual vaginal odor. Luke (1997), in The Gendered Discourse of Menstruation, points out the message is women need to be “cleansed” in order to fit in the public sphere (and for male consumption). Women are “spoiled, stale, worn, used” prior to using menstrual management products. Luke contends advertisements conflate freshness with a moral condition. Douglas (1966 [2001]) supports Luke by arguing blood is seen as a part of women, as a boundary between women and men, and a boundary between women and society. The underlying message is menstruation is “non-fresh, a wet and messy affair”.

The spokesperson in a Kotex commercial advocates using Kotex tampons to avoid having our periods “show up” in unwanted places, such as in the “middle” of our “jeans” or a “hot date”. Always takes pride in its “extra absorbency” feature, which guarantees “no leakage”. In the Kotex advertisement, menstrual blood is juxtaposed against the capability to have fun and Always positions menstruation against comfort and security. Here, a woman’s “normal” (and required) state of freshness, cleanliness, dryness and pleasantness is “soured” (temporarily) by menstruation. The media circulation of the freshness narrative directs us to a central theme in the prevalent discourse used to understand women and menstruation: Women lack autonomy over their own bodies and women’s bodies are “out of control”, requiring male supervision.

The ultimate impermeability technique is the tampon. The tampon—unlike medications to control PMS, products to control odor, and slim sanitary napkins for discrete use—prevents vaginal blood from flowing outside of the body. It allows a woman to control vaginal excretions, giving a woman’s body the allusion of impermeability and the opportunity to participate in athletic events, such as swimming. She can control her bodily discharges and participate in social life without interruption (like men).[21] The tampon allows women (along with men and non-menstruous women) to evade cognitive awareness of the menstrual experience. Coutts and Berg’s (1994) respondents share: “Best of all, I never feel like I have my period. And that’s a great feeling” (p. 184); “[It’s] inside of you. So you never feel it or see it” (p. 184); and, “I couldn’t feel it and no one else could see it” (p. 184). Tampons are designed for ultimate concealability and can be discreetly discarded. The same respondents reveal: “Was it ever small! About the size of a lipstick” (p. 184); “More discreet than ever before…On your dressing table. In your purse. Or anywhere. Because only you’ll know what’s inside” (p. 184); “What’s neat is that everything, even the applicator, just flushes away!” (p. 184); and, “Even the applicator just flushes away. So no one ever knows I have my period” (p. 184). The excerpts implicitly suggest that cognitive awareness of one’s period is associated with negative and positive feelings depending on one’s ability to restrict awareness of the self as menstruating.

There are a number of expansions of “feminine” hygiene products over the past decades to help “manage” menstruation privately (for ourselves) and publicly (for others). Midol is marketed to menstrual women to alleviate cramps, back pain, headaches and anxiety. Always capitalizes on women’s concerns about being able to see the sanitary pad through clothing and hear the pad rustle while waking. Sanitary napkins have become slimmer and smaller so women can discretely carry them in their pockets or wallets and they are hardly visible through clothing. Stayfree’s new tag line for their ultra-thin pads is “leak…the four-letter word”. The ultimate obstacle is sporting activities; fear of leakage supposedly prevents menstruous women from participating in physical activities (abstinence from high school sporting events is a sign a girl is having her period). Always comes to the rescue with their revolutionary technology of “wings”. In this context, the idealized woman is one who engages in public life without a trace of her menstruation. A woman’s menstrual cycle should be invisible at all times in order to engage in public life with men and other (non-menstrual) women. We women can prevent permanent marginalization by “managing” our uncontrollable menstrual blood along with our body odors and psychogenic ailments. Evolving feminine technology has allowed women to have their periods discreetly or to prevent blood from leaking out at all. The extra-absorbent and extra-slim maxi-pad prevents the self’s inside to merge with the outside publicly, and the ultra-slim tampon totally prevents the self to merge with the environment, thus maintaining the experience of the world as made up of “discrete islands of meaning”.

Contemporary discourses of menstruation continue to reflect and reinforce woman’s Otherness. Kissling (2006) aptly writes “[m]essages about shame, secrecy, pollution and Otherness lurk below the surface even in seemingly progressive messages” (5).[22] Treneman (1989) demonstrates how advertisements for maxi-pads and tampons sell shame. Ads appear to break menstrual taboos by highlighting menstrual management while endorsing concealment (Treneman, 1989). Meaning, menstruation is taboo yet publicized at the same time, e.g. Kotex’s neon packaged maxi-pads. Treneman (1989) finds in advertisements for “feminine protection”, the products are rarely shown in bathrooms, the room they are usually kept and used in; they are never shown in or after use; and blood is never shown or even mentioned. Such ads and their rules help to perpetuate the secrecy and shame surrounding menstruation. Kissling (2006) writes, “[t]he very term feminine protection, used only in advertising, implies menstruation is something that women (or their clothing) must be saved from” (5). While Wolf (2002) shares that consumption both constrains and empowers women, Kissling (2006) argues these attitudes are exploited to enhance corporate profits. While menstrual counterculture (e.g. DivaCup), promotes alternative, i.e. holistic, views of menstruation, the solutions remain through shopping (see Kissling, 2006).

V. Challenging Menstrual Myths: Reclaiming Menstruation

I have argued the medical establishment encourages us to interpret our (unpleasant) symptoms as signs of dysfunction and advertisements about menstruation—informed by medical science—are targeted towards cleansing and concealment processes, i.e. contemporary menstrual management system. Swan (2017) voices, “The tyranny of patriarchal religions…has made it so that women have been demonized as original sinners. And, thus, everything associated with womanhood has been linked in with that original sinning. … Women’s periods are seen as dirty, unclean and sinful.” Historically, menstrual product advertisements’ depictions of menstruation and menstruating women framed menstruation as women’s problem that required pragmatic attention; while today, in contrast, contemporary portrayals of menstruation in advertisements is something which must be virtually denied. Kissling (2006) argues it is acceptable to discuss menstruation in limited ways, such as complaining about menstrual symptoms, mocking menstruating women or helping to sell something related to menstruation. And, advertisements tell us a single repeating story, we are lacking power and products will restore our lost power. The intention is not to restore power because menstruation is interpreted as either an illness to be managed or a hygienic crisis to be cleaned up and hidden (see Kissling, 2006). Taking Beauvoir, Wolf and Kissling’s positions to heart, we can robustly argue our interpretation of menstruation—how we see, understand, think and feel about menstruation—is an androcentric one. I am reminded here of Beauvoir and Butler’s words: Beauvoir (1952) poignantly writes in The Second Sex, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (p. 301) and Butler (1990), in Gender Trouble, shares, “becom[ing] one’s gender in a cultural context in which one is not, really, free to become much of anything else” (p. 257). To become a gender involves not merely submitting to a cultural situation but also creating one. In popular menstrual discourse, women are sold products that will “liberate” us from the perceived bonds of menstruation. These cultural texts about menstruation reinforce and help create negative attitudes toward menstruation, women and our bodies (see Kissling, 2006). Indeed, how a society engages with menstruation reveals a great deal about how it views girls and women and our bodies.

The ideas of pollution, purity and period management etiquettes provide a gateway in which to examine inequality, social control, group solidarity, morality and the status of girls and women. Gendered bodies are marked within the realms of tradition, religion and science, and the menstrual management system is merely one system by which gender, inequity and control are reified. I have attempted to unpack how the contemporary menstrual management system functions and serves to dehumanize girls and women, further engaging with our bodies as dirty and dangerous to established social order. Indeed, we detest the “feminine” body and menstrual blood, the “hatred” is consistent over time and space and we witness various traditional and contemporary “etiquettes” to “manage” menstrual bodies. By better understanding the cognitive environment that fosters the ideas of pollution and purity and the grouping of events into such opposing and mutually exclusive categories, we can deconstruct menstrual myths. We can move towards a cognitive model—away from the oppressive androcentric medical model—that allows girls and women to reclaim and redefine menstruation and establish new positive customs and etiquettes, e.g. moon ceremonies[23]. Hence, in this paper, my agenda vitally includes reclaiming menstruation as a menstruator. I support all menstruators and my relationship to my period is informed by a pro-vaginal secretion perspective. I embrace periods for what they really are: the power of the Divine Feminine. My moon cycle represents the seasonal cycle of Mother Earth, the inevitable natural cycles of life, death and rebirth. Menstrual blood communicates to us the reality of what is going on in our bodies and lives. Our blood offers us information about what might need to be eliminated and incorporated for a greater state of well-being. Periods are not dysfunctional, menstruation is not an illness and girls and women are not dirty!


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[1] Men often hang their food in net bags suspended from walls so that menstruating women cannot pass above them (Gilmore, 2001). And a woman remains polluted to a degree when she is no longer menstruating because “vestiges of her blood remain beneath her fingernails and in the crevices of her vagina” (Gillison, 1993, cited by Gilmore, 2001, p. 5).

[2] Leading proponents of gender equity Mernissi (1987) and Ahmed (1992) alleviate the symbolic boundaries of pollution surrounding menstruous women by advocating “pollution” does not apply to the woman but to the menstrual blood, and the restriction is to intercourse with menstrual women and not to other forms of intimacy. Additionally, any kind of un/controlled bodily secretion–such as regurgitation, feces, urine, discharge, etc.–by both women and men prevent either from observing religious practices until they have engaged in purifying rituals with water.

[3] Buckley and Gottlieb (1988) argue it is overly reductionist for pollution theory to assume social organization is a result of and vehicle for patriarchal action. The concept of pollution cannot be applied universally in understanding the menstrual woman and her relationship to society. For instance, Syrian Orthodox Jewish women express deep ambivalence while some Welsh women feel positive about their periods (Dorman, 1980). Impermeable boundaries, such as seclusion due to menstruation (e.g. menstrual huts), can be experienced as a spiritual state affording women protection from “outside” influences. Such “restrictions” may also serve as a breeding ground for solidarity and the means of ensuring women’s autonomy, influence and social control. Menstrual seclusion may be the only time a woman may be allowed to step away from her prescribed private sphere duties, such as childcare.

[4] South African shamans seeks to heal three major causes of illness and misfortune: ancestral illnesses, illnesses caused by witchcraft and those due to “pollution” or ritual impurity, such as menstruation and miscarriage (Lambrecht, 2000). In certain Jewish texts, women associated with reproductive blood, either in menstruation or after childbirth, are singled out as carriers of a taboo substance (Branham, 1998). A variety of rules concerning male regulation of menstrual blood–pollution–surfaces in biblical scholarship, Greek mythology and medical literature. In Leviticus, the term “sick” is a euphemism for a woman during menstruation and menstrual blood was seen as a pathological condition best cured by impregnation (Hanson, 1993).

[5] Douglas articulates three major pollutions: 1) danger pressing on external boundaries 2) danger from transgressing internal lines of a system and 3) danger in the margins of the lines danger from internal contradiction. The first form of pollution refers to “outside forces” that may be contaminating, e.g. the flu virus invading the body. The second refers to “internal forces”, such as incest, which serve to solidify moral behavior. The third type of pollution can be demonstrated by the experiences of adolescents and teenagers, who are no longer children but not yet adults. They engage in various rites and rituals, e.g. obtaining a driving license and graduating from high school, and within certain constraints, e.g. curfew, before being initiated into adulthood. Douglas offers a fourth and pollutant, one that is used strictly for renewal or reaffirmation “of life” because purity is highly uncomfortable, leading to contradictions or hypocrisies, e.g. the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. As a case in point, consider the impeachment process and the inauguration of a U.S. president and vice-president, respectively.

[6] In the context of pollution, a public symbolic system or rituals of purity has the functional goal of maintaining and protecting social order from disruptive or “impure” forces. Douglas writes, “rituals of purity and impurity create unity in experience…an attempt to create and maintain a particular culture, a particular set of assumptions by which experience is controlled” (p. 153). Furthermore, “the only way in which pollution ideas make sense is in reference to a total structure of thought whose key-stone, boundaries, margins and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation” (p. 54).

[7] In Leviticus, Verse 15, we learn about the social status of menstrual women: “And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean. And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. And whosoever toucheth any thing that she sat upon shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. And if it be on her bed, or on anything whereon she sitteth, when he toucheth it, he shall be unclean until the even. And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean. And if a woman has an issue of her blood many days out of the time of her separation, or if it run beyond the time of her separation; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness shall be as the days of her separation: she shall be unclean. Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her separation: and whatsoever she sitteth upon shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her separation. And whosoever toucheth those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even” (Hanson, 1993, p. 20-28).

[8] MS Word’s “Spelling and Grammar” tool offers “monstrous” as a word replacement for “menstruous”.

[9] In Guyton and Hall’s (1997) Human Physiology and Mechanisms of Disease, we learn sexual and reproductive functions in females are divided into two major phases: preparation of the body for conception and the period of gestation. The male reproductive function has three subdivisions: spermatogenesis (formation of the sperm), performance of the male sexual act and regulation of the male sexual functions by various hormones. Clearly, the frame maintained here is one of an “inactive” egg and an “active” sperm. This narrative parallels the gendered public/private divide placing value on men’s bodies and labor while women’s bodies and labor are devalued and unseen.

[10] Perhaps we should engage in a discussion about premature ejaculation too!

[11] Research from the late forties and fifties provided supporting evidence (see Harlow, 1986).

[12] Barr Laboratories, the manufacturer of Seasonale, commissioned a 250-person sales force in late 2003 to promote the drug to physicians and healthcare providers (Kissling 2006).

[13] In critiquing Shostak, di Leonardo (1998) argues such anthropological works has long been a vision of American modernity, highlighting political and economic inequality between the U.S. and geographical areas marked as “Other”. di Leonardo underscores Shostak’s representation of Nisa’s life as “old world” and the “good old days”, which is in opposition to contemporary U.S. and modernity. Here, Nisa is part of world marked by an “intact traditional value system” characteristic of our “prehistoric ancestors”. Shostak writes, “women’s status in the community is high and their influence considerable” (di Leonardo, 1998, p. 146). Shostak develops a picture of an egalitarian society where !Kung women are sexually liberated, a model for western feminists to follow. The point here is di Leonardo’s critique supports the idea PMS is a concept constructed within a capitalist U.S. framework where women’s bodies are understood as poorly designed.

[14] Might I additionally suggest that with the wide variety of “PMS” symptoms—food cravings, headaches, bloating/feeling gaseous, constipation or diarrhea, clumsiness, less tolerance of noise and light, confusion, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, lethargy, mood swings, loss of sex drive, edginess/anxious/tense, sadness, sleep problems, forgetfulness—that boys and men have PMS too!

[15] Maines’ central argument–Victorian physicians routinely used electromechanical vibrators to stimulate female patients to orgasm as a treatment for hysteria–is contested in the peer-reviewed literature (Lieberman & Schatzberg 2018; see also Meyer and Fetters 2018).

[16] Stephens (1961) asserts in societies with extensive menstrual taboos, the intensity of castration anxiety felt by men is positively correlated.

[17] Feminist psychoanalysts explain the negative valuation of menstruation by asserting men have created a whole range of social institutions, including the patriarchal family, in order to assert and reinforce the weak connection of the male to his own offspring and to bring reproductive power under male control (Laws, 1990).

[18] I would additionally argue while we are uncomfortable with menstrual blood, simultaneously, we are also uncomfortable with women not menstruating if they are not pregnant!

[19] The figure is underreported because it does not include sales of OTCs or prescription medications for menstrual pain or PMS. The number also does not reflect the monies spent on advertising for any of these other menstruation-related products.

[20] In its first few months of availability, physicians wrote $8 million worth of prescriptions for Sarafem, the antidepressant treatment for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) (Kissling, 2006).

[21] Graham (1985) points to the fitness industry: Women are bombarded with media messages to eliminate all our body fat. Loss of excessive body fat means a woman’s menstruation cycle also ceases to exist.

[22] In Fabianova’s (2009) documentary Red Moon, we witness these pervasive patterns as being natural and undeniable.

[23] Spiritual teacher Teal Swan’s (2017) calls on us to move away from our attitudes of periods as shameful. Swan encourages us to include the following celebrations in our lives to honor the natural cycle of our lives: Gather with women monthly to share wisdom and be in quite presence with other women or hold collective monthly moon ceremonies honoring menstruation and femininity. Swan also offers ways in which we can honor and show reverence to our menstruation and alert everybody we are on our moon by purchasing jewelry we wear during our menstruation as an emblem (amethyst, moonstone, garnet, bloodstone, ruby, red jasper, carnelian and turquoise are some of the stones that energetically support menstrual health). Yoni paintings are yet another one of Swan’s offering; we can create paintings by using our menstrual blood. Or, we can use our menstrual blood to fertilize our gardens.


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