The Mark of Blood
It's that time of the month again. The time to use coded phrases about the functions of the female body; the time to pop a few Advil and load up on "feminine products;" the time to pretend that there isn't blood flowing from between your legs. Of course, I'm talking about menstruation. It's the process that all women (of the appropriate age) experience once a month. When the lining of the uterine walls breaks down and travels down and out of the body. This discarded material, that we flush down the toilet, once held the potential, for a few short weeks, to become a nurturing environment for a new life. Menstruation is the constant reminder that we as women are meant to bear children. While it is a glorious (and terrifying) notion, we tend to forget it when that spot of blood arrives to interrupt our daily routine for awhile.
For me, (and many other women) menstruation is a nuisance. It is smelly, and messy, and more than an inconvenience. The accompanying pain can be both dull and sharp, manifested not only in cramps, but in headaches and bloating among others. The process affects not only the uterine area, but also wages war on the hormones. Not to mention the expense! Sure, a box of tampons may only cost five dollars, but just add those numbers up over a lifetime. And add on the additional cost for pads, painkillers, and clothes that might need to be replaced. That's what I see as the straight-up facts.
But when I start to look beyond that, menstruation becomes much more complex, and dare I say fascinating? The most interesting thing about menstruation is the embodiment of a paradox. For the mark of blood is usually an indication of violence, a wound on the body. Yet menstruation is also an indication of fertility, a sign that a woman can have children. Across cultures and also throughout history, menstruation takes on different meanings. Here in America today, we do our best to hide menstruation, clean it up and not talk about it. Elsewhere it is a cause for celebration. The process can be empowering, yet painful; full of wonderment and also danger. It can represent two things that occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. I will explore these themes some more and expand upon them later in paper.
My interest in the topic was first spiked when I read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It's a novel that tells the story of Jacob from the Book of Genesis, through the eyes of the women in his life. In that ancient world, women have their own culture separate from the men. When menstruation starts they all occupy the red tent together and remain there until the process is over. First blood is celebrated and respected. I was totally in awe of the fact that they simply took the time out of every month to let the body do what it needed. They let themselves be a part of the cycle, even treating it with reverence. It was a huge contrast in comparison to how we treat menstruation today. Additionally it made me analyze my own feelings toward menstruation. I realized that they were rather negative, but that a lot of the negativity came from external sources.
I guess I'll start from the beginning of my experience. I got my period (conveniently) on the last day of school in 7th grade. It wasn't a shock to me. These days the schools make sure that you know that it's coming and my mother provided all the proper literature (I devoured What's Happening to My Body book for girls in private). I think I got it in the morning too so that I had time to figure out what I would do at school. The first year (as they tell you) it was very erratic. I believe I had traces of it for a whole month at one point. Because of that taking care of it became a stealth operation. Every day before lunch I would slip a bulky pad from my locker into my pocket and carefully hold my lunch bag at hip level to hide the bulge (I'm sure it didn't). Then I had to make sure I went to the bathroom before lunch was over. The goal of the mission was to hide it because to acknowledge would have been tres embarrassing. Looking back it feels silly, until I realize that mostly we still try to hide it. Why, I don't know, seeing as it is merely a fact of life. Women talk to each other about it, but heaven forbid you try to confide in a man about it. They just don't want to hear it. I laugh when I think that the idea of blood may be too much for them.
Anyway, to return to my story: my mother tried to do a little red-tenting for me. She told me I could get my ears pierced when my period came. Looking back I can appreciate that, but at the time I didn't want the one badly enough to justify the other. Since then it has been pretty much routine. My cycle alternates between about 26 and 31 days. I learned that's because your ovaries trade off every month. I don't really need to keep track anymore because my body lets me know when it is coming. My breasts get sore a few days ahead and I sometimes get the hint of a bloody nose (though I never figured out why that is, blood coming out on both ends?). The cramps are usually the first two days and then die down. My flow used to stop at night (which was nice) but it doesn't anymore. I don't dread that time of the month but I don't hold it in any sort of reverence either. I wish that I did.
In some ancient myths menstrual blood held a special sort of power. In the Yuchi tribe of North America it is the blood of the sun from which "sprang the first people." I think the associations there are obvious. The menstrual blood was also associated directly with power in ancient cultures, the power of creation and of nurturing. Ancient Jewish culture had a slightly different spin on it. There "sexual intercourse was forbidden during menstruation… not because a woman was to be regarded as dirty or disgusting. The period of abstinence was designed to prevent a man from taking his wife for granted: 'Because a man may become overly familiar with his wife, and thus repelled by her.'" In this view menstruation seems to have a function, to create a positive outcome based on negative assumptions. The power here is not really in the hands of the women, but neither is it taken away from her.
At some point though, I think that all traces of that ancient power have slipped away from us. Perhaps it is because we live in a much more sterile world now. Exposed blood is a sign of danger, of potential infection. It's true that we do live in a world of fear-mongering. Or maybe the negative connotations have appeared because blood is a stain that doesn't come out. I mean you can't wear your favorite underwear when you have your period. That's my argument at the most superficial level. What I mean to say is that there is a stigma surrounding menstruation. Maybe it comes out of prudery, maybe fear. My goal (if I could) would be to erase that stigma, as I see no need for it. We, as humans and especially women, are still uncomfortable about the natural processes of our bodies. And this one is so fundamental, that it becomes puzzling.
To bring in the feminist perspective I turn to second-wave feminist Gloria Steinem. In her essay "If Men Could Menstruate" she makes the argument that our attempts to cover up menstruation are just another form of oppression by a male dominated society. For if men could menstruate, it would again be a symbol of power. She says they would brag about the amount of blood and that all "Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free." Now if that's true, I would probably be very angry.
My biggest peeve with the whole ordeal is how we treat menstruation in public spaces. Like I said before, women feel the need to hide tampons and pads. They buy fancy little cases to carry them in or buy the ones that are so small that you can hide them in the palm of your hand. I personally don't want to hide it anymore.
Furthermore I find commercial ads to be nauseating. So many of them go with the message that says if you use our product you can function like "normal," you can still go swimming, still feel sexy. The women in the ads are always happy. I mean of course that's advertising for you but, seriously, who wants to do all those things when they have their period. I wish we felt less pressure to be "normal."
I'm not advocating the return of the red tent. I don't think our modern world could handle that. However, I wish there was some happy medium between that and what we typically do. In my ideal world a woman could take those first couple days for herself; the days when the pain is the worst. She could take those days if she wanted to and not have to create an "appropriate" excuse. She wouldn't have to call it a stomach bug or a migraine.
Of course I can already see the problems with such a utopia. Giving women time off for menstruation would only enhance that male opinion that women can't be leaders because their judgement is shot to hell once a month, etc. And of course the range of experiences that women have with menstruation is infinite. Some experience minimal side effects, while others actually require medical attention. There would be divisions between those camps. I'd like a world where a woman could make those choices based on her individual needs and where that wouldn't be a problem.
I have one final question; why in the world do we call it MENstruation?? (Okay, I actually know why because I looked it up. It comes from the Greek words menus, meaning moon, and men, meaning month.) But STILL, doesn't that seem a little silly ladies?
Anne- I know this still needs a conclusion. I also want to add some stuff about PMS and maybe TSS but I don't have enough information yet and I'm not sure where to fit that in.