Menstruation — It’s Not Like Anything Else

Communication, Menstruation

I got a bit snippy with a new reader in our comments recently. I didn’t mean to, and I sure hope I didn’t drive anyone away from re:Cycling.

But after 20 years of studying, writing, talking, and reading menstruation research, I’ve grown weary of certain predictable responses when people learn the subject of my work. Chris Bobel sometimes talks about the “You study WHAT?!?” reaction, but that’s not the one that triggers my snark response.

Photo by K Connors

What grates my cheese is when someone listens respectfully for a moment or two to the elevator speech version of my latest article or talk, and then says something like, “Well, why should people talk more about menstruation? It’s not like I go around talking about my bowel movements all the time. It’s a natural function, too, it’s just private, yadda yadda, end of discussion. Period.”

No. Not end of discussion.

I’m so, so tired of this comparison. It’s not about ‘they’re both natural and they’re both private’. Menstruation is shamed and vilified because women do it. I turn, once again, to Simone de Beauvoir: “the blood, indeed, does not make woman impure; it is rather a sign of her impurity” (p. 169). That is to say, menstruation does not make woman the Other; it is because she is Other that menstruation is a curse.

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. (1952, p. 354)


httpv:// One only need take a quick look around to see differential treatment of body functions. Are manufacturers of toilet paper trying to sell you TP based on how shameful it is to poop? Consider those dirty-ass bears in Charmin ads telling you to “enjoy the go”– a marked contrast from femcare ads.

Is the average time from onset of pain in bowel diseases to diagnosis eleven years because people think pain with bowel movements is normal or because physicians and/or family members think you’re exaggerating how much it hurts? Compare documented endometriosis research.

Plus, people do talk about bowel movements. All the time. They talk about how particular foods affect their digestion. They excuse themselves from meetings and social gatherings to use the bathroom, sometimes saying why in euphemistic terms, sometimes in coarse and graphic language. The older they get, the more they do it.

This is not merely about what’s ‘natural’ or ‘private’. It’s about women, and about who counts and what matters. Women count, and menstruation matters.

Occupy Your Period

Activism, Menstruation


The Occupy movement is about equality. Its primary aim is to create a more just world economically, but socially, too, for economic justice and social justice are inextricably linked. The specific focus of each local group may be somewhat different, but Occupiers share a distrust of corporations and financial institutions and concern for erosion of democracy. Globally, this movement suggests another world – another way of doing politics – is possible, as protesters visualize and plan for one.

If you think the Occupy movement has been lying low since they were kicked out of Zuccotti Park last fall, you’re wrong. They’re still going strong, helping New York and New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy. Occupy Sandy is a coalition from Occupy Wall Street,, and Another off-shoot of Occupy Wall Street started the Rolling Jubilee, a project that buys debt for pennies on the dollar and abolishes it, instead of collecting it. It’s basically the people’s bailout.

If we want to see a new way of menstruating – open, without shame, like Chris wrote about earlier this week, with honest talk Heather has called for, without the the moral panic Breanne’s students reported at NWSA— we must Occupy Menstruation. Even the parts we hate. I like to think all of re:Cycling is part of the Occupation, along with #periodtalk and others who break the silence.

And it wouldn’t hurt if we followed Max’s example above, and protested the economic injustice of it as well.

Brassieres and Red Ribbons

Art, Language, Menstruation

Guest post by Karina Billini

In the beginning of my college career, I was given powerful advice: “In every class you take, apply your craft. Challenge it and challenge yourself.” From gay studies to Child Development, I have taken the opportunity of higher education to explore myself as a writer. So there I was in my last semester as an undergrad, taking the most spoken about course at Marymount Manhattan College—Social Construction of Menstruation. As a theatre and creative writing student, I haven’t had much explicit exposure to the social construction of menstruation. Yes, I have been exposed to it through Always commercials and even the opinions of my female friends, but never within my craft. The only thing I have been exposed to that is relevant to menstruation is The Vagina Monologues, which is not really much. Plus, I had NEVER stumbled across any menstruation-themed poetry. So, when my class was presented with the rubric for our final project, I decided to put together a poetry collection of menstruation-themed poetry and yes, even write my own for the very first time.

I have always liked a challenge, particularly one that deals with the legitimacy of my craft. In the academic world, poetry has always been seen as flowery. Many fail to acknowledge it as a potent social commentator. Poetry is not just about the aligning of words for lovely rhythm and vivid imagery, but to provoke the minds of its readers and be the voice for the growing unheard. Poetry allows the preservation of the human experience and all its aesthetics that can sometimes be drowned out by the stiff language and observations of theoretical work. For example, the poetry of Audre Lorde really spoke for women of color who were, at that time, written into invisibility within the mainstream movements for woman’s rights. I think about Langston Hughes’ poetry and how it beautifully and explicitly illustrated the struggle of African Americans. If poetry can help illuminate the menstrual experience and possible attack some of its negative social constructions, why isn’t there more menstruation-themed poetry? Why is it that when I Google menstruation-themed poetry, the results are so scarce? Why haven’t I written any poetry on menstruation?

As a female playwright and poet, I thought I wrote explicitly on the woman experience. I have dramatized attacks on gender inequality, given birth to strong female protagonists, and poetically sculpted what I thought woman should be. I have even let my readers become Peeping Toms to my womanhood, allowing them to read my struggle with the power dynamics of love, sex, money, and education. However, I never wrote about the major factor that played in all my experiences as a woman: my body. As I decided on my final project to be a collection of menstruation-themed poetry, I realized that I never wrote about this phenomenon that had such a tremendous impact on my shaping as a woman.

Why haven’t I? Why was I so brave and comfortable to allow my readers into the playground of my bed and the fallen country of my broken heart…..but not menstruation? Why was it second nature for me to script words like “sex” or “fuck”, but not “menstruation” or “vagina”? After all, I had spent most of my childhood waiting for my first period and will continue to revolve my calendar around my cycle for the rest of my menstrual life. I had secretly pocketed away my menstrual experiences in the manner that I slip neon-colored pads into my purse’s interior pocket. I had done it for the same reasons: 1) learned/inherited embarrassment and 2) maintenance of “lady-like” appearances (whatever that means). I was not writing, but being written, shaped, and formed by these societal norms.

For those reasons, I provided my writing friends and myself with the writing prompt to write a menstruation-themed poem. I placed the prompt on Facebook and encouraged my friends to let their inspiration guide them; I wanted them to write the good, the bad, the ugly….as long as it was honest. As expected, I did get a lot of immature (uneducated) responses to my prompt via Facebook. One individual exclaimed, “Dear god” while another individual asked me what kind of “school” did I go to. However, I had a stronger positive feedback. My writing friends, both male and female, were excited and willing to take on the prompt. I even had one friend who already had written a menstruation-themed poem prior to my prompt. When the prompt’s due date came along, I was handed extraordinary work that captured hot topics on menstruation that was covered in my social construction class. To my surprise, my fellow writers wrote about various things in regards to menstruation without ever really receiving a menstrual education. They questioned menstrual myths, promoted menstrual sex as the highest level of intimacy (which my female poets were so excited to discuss with me!), illustrated menstruation as a celebration of womanhood, and even employed lunar references. In the end, my writers expressed to me that this prompt has inspire them to continue writing menstruation-themed poetry.As for myself, I also completed my first menstruation-themed poem ever. Honestly, I don’t think I would’ve been fully ready to write if I hadn’t taken a class on menstruation. I now understand the advice that was given to me in the beginning of my college career. When I finally understood how heavily socially constructed menstruation was and how I was very much embedded in it, I learned how much responsibility I had as a writer. With menstruation and any subject, I have the responsibility to challenge their stereotypes, create new (positive) ideologies, and open up MINDS! Now educated, I have regained the power of my pen. Armed, I now have the duty to write menstruation out of invisibility. However, I must be honest about my menstrual experiences within my work. Not everything I write on menstruation will be hyper-positive or hyper-negative. In Brassieres and Red Ribbons, I speak about my menstrual experience. I get really strong and painful periods. On the first day of the month, I have extremely painful cramps that lead to fainting spells. And I always seem to get sick at the public bathroom at work! Brassieres is about that experience. Menstruation is illustrated as an obstacle in Brassiere, but it’s also an opportunity for the speaker to escape the chaos of adulthood and be alone with her body. This moment of menstruation allows her to finally let go of the superficiality of life and finally be naked (literally and figuratively.) Being educated in the social constructions of menstruation has done the same for me; it has provided me newfound nudity and liberation as both a woman and poet. Freed, I wrote this poem.


Brassieres and Red Ribbons

by Karina Billini

You are naked.
Hunched over in a bathroom stall—
your legs,
snow white and skinny,
stick out
just as Dorothy’s nemesis did
under that conjured-by-red-shoes house.

There’s no place like home.

You can’t afford
the forty-dollar cab drive
or another sick day
so just as before,
you cash out
your mother’s advice—
attempt to master mind over body
by fantasizing
of the last moment
your body was pre-menstrual.
You were twelve.

You stop caring
when cramps break
the seams of your trousers,
the buttons from your blouse,
and unstraps your brassiere
more skillfully
than any man has
in the playing field of your bed.
And for once,
the lights are on
and you don’t mind your nudity.
Your work clothes
are wrinkled and damped
by foreign liquids outlining
the floor’s teal tiles—
purposeless like feathers
during a bird’s wing moult.
You can’t make flight.

Only pain clothes you,
thick like tweed in late August—
You wipe away streams
from your swollen breasts
and remind yourself
you are your body’s keeper.


You wait
for the revolt to be over,
watching the blood
like red ribbons
you tied around your ankle,
six years old and secretive—
your mother
once discovered
and chopped up,

Why do you want to be a woman so fast?

FemFresh Fails — and we think it’s Funny!

Advertising, FemCare, Humor

Here’s Chella Quint, of Adventures in Menstruating, with more ad busting and shame busting. For even more, see her post at Ms. blog.

Chella Quint is just back from delivering a TEDx Talk, ‘Adventures in Menstruating: Don’t Use Shame to Sell’, link coming soon!

You’re Taking WHAT Class???

Activism, Communication, Menstruation

Guest Post by Alexandra Epstein – Marymount Manhattan College.

how school helped me come out of the menstrual closet

Finally, the time had come where I was choosing my classes for my senior year of college. I had finished my required courses to complete my social work minor, and with only a few required courses left until I complete my psychology major, I had lots of room to choose electives! What to take though? Maybe an art class? Or what about a science class? As I scrolled though my options online, something caught my eye. “The Social Construction and Images of Menstruation”. Honestly, anything to do with the social construction of anything is good in my book, so without even thinking much about it, I registered.

Day one in class, it hit me; I was in a class completely focused on the idea of how menstruation is viewed by society. I was a bit taken aback. As a woman, I had grown up “dealing” with my period, but I had never actually thought about it, or what it meant to me as a woman. Now, I can’t stop. I can’t stop thinking about it, I can’t stop talking about it, I can’t stop reading about it. The idea of the social construction behind menstruation has not left my head since I entered that classroom on the first day of the semester.

Not only has this class opened my mind to a whole new concept, but it has made me more comfortable to openly talk about menstruation and everything that goes along with it. It wasn’t even two months ago that I was so uncomfortable with the concept of the period. I wouldn’t talk about it often with my friends, I would hide my tampons in bags within bags so no one would know that I was on my period, and I thought of my period as a burden and huge inconvenience. Within the past month I have grown to love my period. It is something I am proud to be able to experience. I have become very open with conversation regarding menstruation. I have asked all of my female friends about their first experience with their periods, and all of my male friends if they know how to use a tampon. I love the responses I get. Some people embrace the chance to talk about something we as humans don’t normally talk about. However, most people I talk to become so uncomfortable with the fact that I’m talking about such a taboo topic. They ask me why I choose this class, or why my school even offers such a rare subject to study. What they are most shocked by is the fact that my professor is a male. “A guy teaches that class? Isn’t that awkward?” “No!” I reply, “Its brilliant and insightful and I am in love with it.” Too many people are uncomfortable with this topic. I am making it my mission to take the awkwardness out of menstrual conversations.

TMI – Too Much (Menstrual) Information

Communication, Humor, Independent Film


Guest Post by Michael Yazujian, Marymount Manhattan College

I found this sketch the other day when I was on It is by a sketch duo called Klepper and Grey, who are originally from Chicago, but now live in NYC. It is very similar to the “Her First Period” sketch by the Frantics (posted at re:Cycling August 5, 2011), in that things that are considered socially unacceptable to be shared are being shared in such a friendly tone; the main difference is that in this sketch the information is being shared knowingly. Both sketches make you wonder how do subjects get to a point when they are considered rude or unacceptable to discuss, even though they are so common among so many people. Things like menstruation, sex, and bowel movements are all normal bodily experiences, but they certainly don’t make appropriate dinner party conversation, or topics to share casually with an acquaintance on the street.

I’d be interested to hear comments from others about what they think the increased public display of formerly private matters means, especially when it comes to the conventional menstrual taboos.

That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger

Dysmenorrhea, Language, Menstruation, New Research, Newspapers, Pharmaceutical

Cartoon of women with cramps

London newspaper The Telegraph reports on the development of a new medical treatment for dysmenorrhea, or painful periods. The article contains very little information about the new pill — most of the article describes the variety of misery some women experience with menstruation. The only information about the new medication is that the drug blocks vasopressin, a hormone involved in regulating uterine contractions and thus a cause of menstrual cramping.

But I was struck by this sentence in the second paragraph:

But now [women with painful periods] might no longer have to soldier on stoically after researchers have developed a pill which could put an end to the root cause of their discomfort.

See that? Women with cramps aren’t whiners or crybabies or just making excuses. They’re hard-working troupers who soldier on stoically despite being miserable.

Will Kotex Break the Bank with “Break the Cycle” Campaign?

Advertising, anatomy, Disposable menstrual products, FemCare, Girls, Menstruation

This week, Kotex is launching a new campaign “that aims to encourage women to talk candidly and without embarrassment about periods and vaginal care”. Research statistics from the brand indicate that “vaginally-aware women” are more likely to have a positive body image (40% vs. 31%) and to be satisfied with their level of self-confidence (64% vs. 43%) and ability to express themselves (76% vs. 55%). In the same survey, 70% of women said they wish society would change the way it talks about vaginal health, but less than half feel like they can do anything about it.

Of course, this means new products from Kotex. But from where I sit, there’s little new here. The products seem to be the same old Kotex pads and tampons, now individually wrapped in bright, “fierce” colors instead of the usual pastels. The same old plastic applicators are now yellow, blue, or green, instead of just pink.  The anti-ad advertisement technique (see video at right) was pioneered by Sprite (a CocaColaTM product) in their mid-1990s “Image is Nothing. Obey Your Thirst.” campaign. The Sprite ad was featured in Douglas Rushkoff’s 2001 film, The Merchants of Cool, as an example of how corporate advertising appropriates youth culture to appeal to young people.

And that seems to be what Kotex is doing with “Break the Cycle.” The new web site has a hip, blocky style and multiple ways to interact with the company and with other customers (hello, Twitter! hi there, Facebook!). Quotes from girls and young women appear throughout the site, many in handwritten fonts. The FAQ file (“Real Answers“) features three answers to each question: one from a peer, one from a mom, and one from a health expert.

At the same time, this looks likes an honest effort to increase education and honesty about menstruation and vaginal health. Kotex surveyed 1,607 North American girls and women aged 14-35 about their knowledge of menstruation, vaginal health, and self-esteem and body image. The findings won’t surprise anyone at re:Cycling:

Chart summarizing some of findings from Kotex study.

  • Most women are satisfied with their personal relationships, self-confidence, and level of happiness – a majority describes themselves as intelligent, independent, and happy. However, the majority are not satisfied with what their body looks like and only a minority describe themselves as beautiful or sexy.
  • Many women think of their vaginal area as ugly and are self-conscious about what a potential sexual partner might think of how their vagina looks.

The specific findings about menstruation are sadly familiar; I recall finding similar statistics in a widely-cited survey conducted in 1981 on a similar population when I first began studying menstruation 20 years ago.

  • Society’s attitudes toward vaginal health – menstruation in particular – have had an effect on how women experience certain milestones, communicate with each other, and how they feel about

    • More than half of women (59%) felt awkward around others when they first got their period, and about 3 in 5 (62%) report that they felt uncomfortable discussing the experience with other people, even their close friends and family.
    • Though a majority (66%) say getting their period didn’t really change anything else about who they are or how they behave, more than half (55%) report that they became more self-conscious about their body once they started menstruating, and even now, more than half of women (54%) feel dirty when they have their period, and 2 in 3 (67%) don’t want people knowing when they’re menstruating.
    • One in three women (32%) think buying period products is embarrassing.
    • More than 4 in 5 (84%) say they feel the need to hide their tampon or pad on their way to the bathroom in a public place (e.g., work, school, restaurant) – more than half (54%) strongly agree with this statement.

Despite my cynicism about the ad and disappointment in plastic products, I am glad to see a femcare company promoting openness about menstruation and vaginal health. “Vaginally aware women” sure beats “have a happy period” and “stop Mother Nature”.