Period Politics

The Harvard Crimson

Menstruation myths remain at large

Published: Friday, September 24, 2010

Anyone who has ever seen a tampon commercial knows that menstruation is a topic best broached by euphemism. Downward dogs in white spandex, slow-motion runs on the beach, blue liquid seeping into a quilted pad: All both infer and idealize that which cannot be named. On par with the opacity of perfume ads, they leave the viewer with almost no information about either the product or its function. After viewing one of these spots, periods may remain mysterious and—let’s face it—totally gross, but having one sure seems like fun!

Recent research reveals that menses may do more than predispose women to spontaneous bouts of exercise. The ovulating woman, indeed, is species unto her own. She gravitates toward the Prince-Eric-ilk: manly men with symmetrical features, deep voices, and chiseled cheekbones. She exudes intoxicating odors that signal her sexual earnestness to all men within sniffing distance. She is more likely to be unfaithful to her hubby, particularly if his beer belly suggests a sub-par genetic make-up. If she works at a strip club, she grosses more money in tips—the thought of sanitary napkins being, of course, a potent aphrodisiac. And, as last month’s Journal of Consumer Research argues, she dresses skankier. Forget sweatpants: only sexy garb—low-cut blouses and slinky skirts—appeal to the female on her flow.

Such subtle mannerisms, these studies emphasize, are performed unconsciously. Unlike others in the animal kingdom, women fail to register when the time is ripe for reproduction. Female chimpanzees may experience red, inflamed rumps, but the Homo sapiens is a special breed: Her eggs offer no telltale signs of their imminent jaunt across the Fallopian tube. Moreover, the reports imply, such techniques of slow, steady seduction are geared toward one end: baby-making. The aforementioned ovulating-women-dress-to-impress study is explicit on this point. While men can spread their seed at will, women must be more discriminating about whom they bed: their womb, after all, is what ultimately will reap the consequences. Because desirable sperm donors are in short supply, the fertile female must do everything in her power to out-slutify her same-sex competitors. The more skin she shows, the better her odds of reproductive success.

These studies stem from a single scientific premise: the Ovulatory Shift Hypothesis. Articulated in a 2005 paper, the Hypothesis contends that natural selection has selectively shaped the female psyche to “shift” when conception is possible. But note the operative word here: “hypothesis.” Far from definitive fact, this theory remains highly speculative. What’s more, it has historically relied on research of limited scope and dubious methodology. Take, for example, this 2007 study concluding (surprise of surprises!) that menstruating women wear shorter skirts—based on a sample size of thirty. Complicating matters are the broader controversies surrounding evolutionary psychology: a field perennially plagued by charges of reductionism.


Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.