One afternoon in September, I stood in the centre of Madrid’s Mayor Plaza, taking in the architecture, street performers and café tables, fat with calamari rolls. And then I felt it; a gut-wrenchingly familiar gushing sensation. My fantasies of an afternoon in the sun evaporated. I grabbed a handful of napkins, hid in the corner of the Plaza and stuffed the paper bundle down my trousers. Positioning my handbag carefully behind me, I hurried back to my hotel. I could feel blood trickling down my thighs; in minutes, it would seep through the last pair of trousers I had packed.
My afternoon of sightseeing had become a battle against my body; a flustered, shameful rush away from a light, public space to the dark safety of my private room. I recognised the ridiculousness of the situation: menstruation is an experience shared by half the population of the planet. Yet there I was, self-conscious and clammy lest anyone notice. I thought, too, of all the women on earth who don’t have the luxury of a private room or a handful of napkins; who are unable to attend school, and excluded from many social and cultural activities simply because they bleed.
Menstruating women share a history of being shamed, shunned and isolated. To understand why, we need to look at how periods, and women’s bodies, have traditionally been framed by influential, patriarchal belief systems, including medicine, science and religion. The negativity found therein, moreover, is embedded in the language and metaphors of menstruation and the female body, now and in the past.
‘If a woman has an emission, and her emission in her flesh is blood, she shall be seven days in her [menstrual] separation, and anyone who touches her shall be unclean until evening’ – Leviticus
Most major belief systems, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, place restrictions on menstruating women. Leviticus 15:19 and 24 states: ‘if a woman has an emission, and her emission in her flesh is blood, she shall be seven days in her [menstrual] separation, and anyone who touches her shall be tamei…[ritually unclean] until evening.’ Followers of the Qur’an regard menstruation as ‘an impurity’, often banning menstruating women from religious and social practices. In the Christian tradition, menstruation and pain in childbirth was God’s punishment when Eve tempted Adam. This is the origin of ‘the curse’, a term still used for menstruation.
In European popular culture, there are many slang words for periods, few of them positive. One study found more than 5,000 words to describe periods. Some geographical and cultural variation was noted among the 90,000 respondents. People from the Czech Republic were 96% likely to use period slang as compared to 39% of Bangladeshis; 93 % of Indonesians were likely to avoid going out when menstruating for fear of discovery, but only 25% of Australians. And while 50% of respondents from Spain were comfortable discussing their periods with men, 88% of Japanese women were not.
There was, however, remarkable similarity in the tone used. English respondents suggested Aunt Flo, Bloody Mary, Code Red, The Blob and Shark Week; while the French included La semaine Ketchup (ketchup week), VHS (vaginalement hors service), Les chutes du Niagra (Niagra Falls). And in German: Die rote pest (the red pest) and Besuchvon Tante Rosa (a visit from Aunt Rose). Women who are experiencing menstruation are emotionally unstable with unavailable bodies: ‘PMS-ing’, ‘On the Blob’ or ‘Out of Service’. This is not empowering terminology. The numerous jokes about menstruation depict periods as a disruptive force that lessens women’s intellectual capacities, and reduces them to their biological function.
Both period shaming and reducing women to their bodies is endemic in the British education system. At my secondary school, menstruation was covered in a Biology lesson on reproduction. A flustered male teacher sent the boys out of the room (they had a talk about masturbation, a subject not deemed relevant to girls). Our ‘period talk’ was followed by a ‘sanitary protection’ talk, in which an equally red-faced Home Economics teacher wordlessly handed out Tampax samples.
One might hope the situation had improved since 1982, but education remains woefully inadequate, even in Britain. Girls (usually not boys) are taught a basic biomedical model: each month the uterine lining thickens and becomes vascularized in case an egg is fertilised. If it is not, the unused blood is released as a period. There is seldom discussion of the psychological, social or cultural contexts, of the constituents of period blood, of the different cycles girls might experience, or how cycles can differ between girls. A 2010 report found that menstruation was a routine reason for non-attendance at school in the UK. Lack of education and support for menstruating girls is clearly not just a ‘developing world’ problem. And it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many people share their concerns on Netdoctor:
‘On the second day of my period I found something very strange on my sanitary towel. It gave me such a fright and I’ve been worrying since. It’s difficult to describe – it was about 7cm long, had the texture and look of skin, although slightly more rubbery … I’m too scared to go to the doctors (I suffer with panic attacks) – but I’m also scared that something has fallen out of me that shouldn’t have… honestly im still freakin out because i dont know why it came out or if its supposed to come out!!! (Jessa123)’
‘I’m thirteen and i think one came out of me today. I was scared! do I even have a womb yet?! I thought it was a worm or something! (Kim_Wes123)’
‘The lining rips away from the wall of the uterus and gets discharged with blood, certainly sounds painful… just another gross thing us girls have to put up with in life. (JeaninLA)’
‘Yhoooo thanx a lot ladies abt these comments for the past 15 yrs worried that maybe i wont hv kids because of this flesh thing that came out during my periods whn i was 19 yrs old im now relieved n thanx to uncle Google (nox)’
From a 13-year-old girl to a 34-year-old woman, these users shared doubts and uncertainties about menstruation. The descriptions are violent: the lining ‘rips away from the wall of the uterus’, with periods being ‘just another gross thing us girls’ have to put up with’. On Twitter, @PeriodPainProblems created a pie-chart dedicated to ‘What Goes Through My Head When I’m On My Period’: a fractional slice of which represents: ‘It’s okay, it’ll be over in a week or two’ with the rest meaning: ‘F*** MY F***ING LIFE WHY THE F*** AM I GIRL [sic] F*** YOU MOTHER NATURE YOU B****’. Against this messy, rage-filled backdrop of body- and menstrual-hatred, Google, with its repository of knowledge, is depicted as a knowledgeable male guide: ‘uncle Google’.
What is apparent in discussions of periods, from the classroom to the Internet, is that menstruation is seen as an unsavoury but necessary part of womanhood, which is necessarily linked to reproduction. There are actually hormonal options for stopping menstruation entirely, though few women take them up. And this narrowly biomedical interpretation of menstruation, like many taken-for-granted stories of the body, is sexist. I have written elsewhere about the absence of female pleasure in discussions of the anatomy, and of the post-Darwinian interpretation of the survival of the fittest that values the racing sperm in conception, rather than the attracting uterus. This is a model, incidentally, that simultaneously reinforces the idea of male sexuality as an unstoppable force, and women as passive recipients for male desire.
It is important to recognise the inherent gendering of scientific categories and discussions. There is nothing inevitable or transparent about the ways we talk about the body; they are the product of dominant ways of seeing at particular historical moments. Victorian medics were convinced that menstruation weakened women, providing evidence of their biological and spiritual inferiority. Women were already regarded as hysterical because of their ‘wandering wombs’ that caused havoc with women’s mental and physical health. Walter Heape, the anti-suffragist and Cambridge zoologist, drew attention to the terrifying spectacle of menstruation, that left behind ‘a ragged wreck of tissue, torn glands, ruptured vessels, jagged edges of stroma, and masses of blood corpuscles.’ Echoing the users of Netdoctor, Heape imagined menstruation as a terrible, debilitating disorder.
Isn’t it extraordinary, given the fact that the average woman menstruates for 3,000 days during her life, that there is no symbol for menstruation?
Discussions of periods also built on economic languages of production in the industrial age, with women’s bodies as baby-making factories: profitable or unprofitable, depending on their ability to produce. If conception is the optimum result of the menstrual cycle, menstruation is failed production. The tissue lost during menstruation becomes ‘debris’. Early pregnancy failure is a ‘blighted ovum’, a womb that opens up too soon, an ‘incompetent cervix’. The social meaning of menstruation takes on different emphases throughout a woman’s life. At an individual level, the menopause marks a transition to a different sort of life, but in narrowly biomedical terms, it signals her lack of reproductive competence, and her social and sexual irrelevance.
The digital age has opened up new technologies to address the menstruating body. Products like the ‘Flex’ build on the menstrual cup and promise ‘mess-free sex’. More than 200 million people have downloaded menstrual cycle apps. Yet most link menstruation to reproduction, advertising fertility services and advising on peak times for conception. And isn’t it extraordinary, given the fact that the average woman menstruates for 3,000 days during her life, that there is no symbol for menstruation? There are, after all, emojis for everything from crystal balls to sushi, from faeces to tears. The charity Plan International UK has campaigned for a period emoji to allow people to communicate more openly. Nearly 55,000 people voted. The winner? A pair of white pants, decorated with two drops of blood.
Finding spaces to talk about menstruation in its own right and not as linked to fertility is important – and not only to avoid biological reductionism. The presumption that menstruation equals fertility and womanhood excludes women born without wombs as well transgender woman. It also alienates those living with amenorrhea, an absence of periods, which affects around five per cent of women. At the opposite end of the scale is menorrhagia, or ‘abnormal uterine bleeding’, another ‘dysfunction’ of menstruation. As a result of menorrhagia I was losing a pint every two weeks, rather than the ‘average’ 3-4 tablespoons a month. Abnormal uterine bleeding is traditionally treated by surgery, rather than personalised, holistic approaches. This reductionism is one of the problems in scientific medicine, that regards women’s bodies as functional parts, rather than complex psychological, physical and social beings. Indeed, the overuse of hysterectomy is increasingly subject to criticism.
These challenges to traditional medical authority are significant, and arguably part of a historical trend. The sexual abuse of women is currently highlighted by the #metoo movement. Although this phenomenon started out as a specific response to misogynistic Hollywood culture, it has expanded to include many areas where women experience inequality and injustice, including medicine and health. We might argue that #metoo is a powerful culmination of more diverse historical struggles against the patriarchal oppression of women’s bodies and experiences.
Since the 1970s, and more intensely since 2000, the shaming and silencing of menstruation has been subverted. Feminist artists initially made periods visible. Judy Chicago’s ‘Menstruation Bathroom’ (1972), showcased a bin filled with used sanitary towels. In the 1990s, Tracy Emin casually disposed of used tampons in ‘My Bed’ (1998), described as ‘a violent mess of sex and death’. Interestingly, it is only the used tampons that Emin later admitted to feeling ‘embarrassed’ or ‘queasy’ about. In 2015 Kiran Ghandi, a Harvard Business School graduate and professional drummer, ran the London marathon while menstruating, and without using tampons or pads, to highlight menstrual stigma.
The Stockholm metro, known for its artistic displays, displayed images of menstruation by the graphic artist Liv Strömquist in 2017. In the same year, the #BloodNormal campaign won the right to use red rather than blue fluid in menstrual product advertising. This significant win demystifies the idea and image of period blood, and marks a shift towards normalizing menstruation. It also connects to the #periodpositive campaign.
Not everyone is happy that periods are becoming more visible. When the Canadian student and artist Rupi Kaur uploaded photographs of herself lying in bed to the social media platform Instagram, her images were censored. Instagram is filled with young women’s bodies arranged in beds, usually in a submissive or sexualised, objectified manner, as Kaur observed. Yet in her work, a patch of menstrual blood is visible on Kaur’s trousers and on her bedsheet. Before backing down under user pressure, Instagram argued that Kaur’s photographs were against community guidelines. Critics called her work shameful, ‘disgusting’, or ‘immodest’ and ‘just not nice to look at’.
How can women’s blood, shed monthly in some form by millions of women, be a matter of censorship? The artist’s Marc Quinn’s casts of his head, made from eight pints of his blood (and reproduced every five years to chart his degeneration with age), are exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery and respected as exemplars of modern art. Why the disconnect? What makes Quinn’s bloody head superior to Ubeda’s blood-stained pads? Silvana Sáez, the Director of Educación at the Corporación Municipal de Valparaíso (Cormuval), suggested that the reason was both personal and political. In an interview with the predictably outraged Daily Mail – who, presumably ignorant of Sáez’s identity and qualifications, called her simply ‘a visitor’ to the Ubeda exhibit – she suggested that ‘male blood is celebrated for being brave while ours is a shame. This won’t change until we release our body as the first stage of political struggle, repression and male power of centuries.’
‘Releasing the body’ means, perhaps, reframing menstruation as a powerful political symbol, rather than a narrowly biological part of being female. This means understanding the positioning of women’s bodies as an object of science, and as the ways that knowledge about the body has historically been gendered. There is not enough space here to talk about the creation of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. PMS is used both as an empowering label to acknowledge menstruation’s physical and mental impact, and a hystericising label to reduce women to their biology.
This double bind has profound, practical impact. Over 83% of antidepressants prescribed in the United States are given to women, often in response to a diagnosis of PMS. Clearly there is more to be said about the gendering of medical diagnoses and the lack of interdisciplinary research into PMS, which has been linked in some studies not to biological but to cultural factors, including sexual abuse in childhood.
Women deserve better education about menstruation, medical science that is invested in women’s holistic health, more appropriate metaphors to describe menstruation, and greater awareness of its changing character (or absence) over the course of a woman’s life. Most women, reliant on generic terms like ‘Light’, ‘Regular’, ‘Super’ or ‘Super Plus’ stamped on the back of menstrual products, are not aware what constitutes abnormal or excessive bleeding, let alone their average blood loss, or what periods reveal about their overall health. We need less shaming, and more talking. Period.