The Last Taboo: Menstruation and Body Literacy
Many moons ago, Gloria Steinem wrote and article “If Men Could Menstruate,” which I excerpt here:
“So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event… Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (‘men-struation’) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (“You have to give blood to take blood”), occupy high political office (“Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?”)… Lesbians would be said to fear blood and therefore life itself, though all they needed was a good menstruating man.”
Gloria, you got to love her. She knows how to transform people and perspectives. Switching gender roles shows us how we create fictions around the subject of a bleeding uterus. What we take as objective or value-free (menstruation- shh, just clean it up!) is really man-made meaning. The riff above gives us a glimpse into how sexual difference is socially constructed. In other words, it shows the show.
I’ve enjoyed reading Regina Barreca’s lively rejoinder to Satoshi Kanazawa’s “Why modern feminism is illogical, unnecessary, and evil.” Yet clearly the evil among us is menstruation. Or rather, how we think about it.
Contrary to what Kanazawa says, feminism (a multi-vocal movement) does not claim “men and women are on the whole identical.” Feminism does, however, strive to illuminate how social and historical conditions make men and women seem more different than they are. For instance, Third Wave feminists of today detach menstruation from the gendered body. They reach out to trans people (some do and some do not menstruate) and acknowledge that not all women have periods (post-menopausal females do not). Of late, these plucky feminists have also been toying with menstrual taboos.
Social taboos against women’s monthly have been common throughout history. Pagan Greek and Roman cultures believed that contact with women during menses withered crops, soured wine, dimmed the sheen of mirrors and dulled blades of steel. Leviticus, from the Old Testament, warns that during flow women are not only ritually “unclean,” but in danger of contaminating others. Some theologians claim that the Christian perpetuation of these beliefs has fueled the case against women as priests in the Catholic Church.
Cultures often construct fantasies of danger and power around the body’s orifices. These vulnerable, penetrating spots reveal our interiority. They are the places where we take things in (food, air) and put things out (words, blood, children, excrement). These are sites of terror and pleasure — and intense myth making.
Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, authors of the book Flow (2009), argue menstruation is “hidden in a figurative box (scented, of course), stuffed deep inside the great medicine cabinet of American culture: out of sight and unmentioned.” They claim this kind of silence is a matter of deep-rooted shame regarding the female body rather than an act of modesty or conversational etiquette. Secrecy is a familiar trope in the advertisingfor sanitary products. Pad and tampon ads avoid direct allusion to blood by pouring blue liquid on a hygienic napkin to demonstrate how it absorbs.
If men could menstruate, newspapers, TV, and online sources would treat the subject more openly. We have only to recall the media coverage of Uta Pippig’s 1996 Boston Marathon victory to see our difficulty in dealing directly with the subject. Pippig spent most of 26.2 miles plagued by menstrual blood, cramps, and a live camera feed. While the German runner, who finished first in the women’s division, stopped several times to clean menstrual blood off her legs, commentators stumbled over their well-versed tongues: many halted at the euphemistic “physical problems” or “stomach pain.” Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara sparked further controversy by remarking on the media’s failure to address the incident straight-forwardly.