[Leslie Carol Botha: This is a valuable document diligently prepared by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research that should be shared in women’s health curriculum’s. It is crucial that women understand their menstrual health to understand other social/political issues including the gender discrimination we face.]
The Menstrual Cycle: A Feminist Lifespan Perspective
Prepared by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research |
A. Why Menstruation Matters
The Menstrual Cycle is one of the most important biological differences between females and males, one that has been used – in many contexts — to justify discrimination against women and girls. Thus, the more clearly we understand the biological and social significance of the menstrual cycle for both women and men, the better we understand the fundamental arrangements of human society. Challenging the shame and secrecy surrounding the menstrual cycle, encourages embodied consciousness, or a more meaningful and complex appreciation of bodies across the lifespan. Interdisciplinary menstrual cycle research, especially studies that explore the psychosocial dimensions of menstruation in diverse cultural settings, is an emerging subfield.
Some menstrual activists and menstrual cycle researchers refer to “menstruators” instead of women when referring to those who menstruate. This linguistic choice locates menstruation beyond the confines of gender as socially constructed and expresses solidarity with women who do not menstruate (due to illness, age or some aspect of their physiology) and transgender men and genderqueer individuals who do in spite of their gender identity. Refusing to assume who does and does not menstruate is one way of challenging the rigid gender binary that perpetuates privilege and oppression (Bobel, 2010).
B. How the Menstrual Cycle Works
Most menstrual cycles are 21-35 days long but variability is common after menarche (the first period) and also before menopause. Each menstrual cycle is created by a unique egg and its surrounding cells; these produce hormones under careful feedback control by brain and pituitary hormones. A usual menstrual cycle begins with 2-6 days of vaginal blood loss (called a “period” or “flow”) as the uterine lining is shed. Whole period blood loss averages 8 soaked regular menstrual products (40 ml) (Hallberg, Hogdahl, Nillson, & Rybo, 1966). Despite cultural concepts of regularity, a third of women, once a year have a period two weeks early or late (Munster, Schmidt and Helm, 1992). From low levels during flow, estrogen rises to a midcycle peak over 9-20 days. Next, a pituitary Luteinizing Hormone (LH) peak triggers the release of an egg
(ovulation). Following ovulation, progesterone production rises steeply while estrogen decreases minimally (Nielsen, Brixen, Bouillon, & Mosekilde, 1990) until both decrease at the next flow. The luteal (post-ovulation) phase normally lasts 10-14 days (Vollman, 1977) but ovulatory disturbances are common (Bedford 2010).
C. Menstrual Attitudes & Representations
Though menstruation is a biological reality, culture-bound values shape its meaning and management. Though there is not a comprehensive cross-cultural comparison of menstruation, anthropologists have reported extensively on various cultural practices surrounding menstruation ranging from severe social restriction to special respect and privilege for menstruating women (Mead, 1949; Shuttle & Redgrove, 2005; Knight, 1991). In most cultures, menarche (the onset of menstruation) is viewed as differentiating males and females. Though uncommon, artistic and cultural menstrual references exist, such as bleeding wounds (in crucifixion or Dracula) (Mulvey-Roberts, 1998) or wolf bites in fairy tales (Bettelheim, 1976). In cinema, as early as 1966, To Sir with Love used a menstrual detail to test the protagonist’s manhood, and more recently Superbad (2007) and No Strings Attached (2011) offered more subtle explorations of male responses to menstrual encounters. Meanwhile, novelists such as William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, Erica Jong and Philip Roth and Stephen King (who exploited menstruation in the horror genre), included menstrual content. Artists such as Vanessa Tiegs and Judy Chicago used menstrual blood and menstrual products, respectively, to challenge menstrual silence and secrecy.