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 the meaning when that spot of blood arrives to interrupt our daily routine for a period of several days.
For me (and many other women) menstruation is a nuisance. It is smelly, and messy, and often more than just 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 tack on the additional cost for pads, painkillers, and clothes that might need to be replaced. And while we are looking to extremes, just imagine the total amount of time that a woman may spend bleeding in her lifetime. These inconveniences and annoyances are what I see as the straight-up facts about menstruation.
But when I start to look beyond all that, menstruation becomes much more complex, and dare I even 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 has taken on different meanings. Here in America today, we do our best to hide menstruation, to 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 different things that occupy opposite ends of the same spectrum. I will explore these themes some more and expand upon them later in my paper.
My interest in the topic of menstruation 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 that of the men. When menstruation starts they all occupy the red tent together and remain there until the process is over. First blood especially is celebrated and respected. When the character Rachel experiences her first blood the "women sang all the welcoming songs to her while Rachel ate date honey and fine wheat-flour cake, made in the three-cornered shape of woman's sex" (Diamant, 24). The women pamper her and treat the whole experience joyfully and delicately. The process holds an air of mysticism and magic, that celebrates the uniqueness of being a woman.
This book turned my world upside down. I was totally in awe of the fact that these women 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. I had never before seen menstruation portrayed in such a positive light. 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. In order to ground myself I will provide you with my background on the subject. Though many women may have had similar experiences, I think that my history has shaped the views I have today.
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, how I would act at school. The first year (as they tell you) my period 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 (though I'm sure it didn't). Then I had to make sure I went to the bathroom to change the pad before lunch was over. The goal of the mission was to hide it, because to acknowledge the fact that I was bleeding would have been tres embarrassing. Looking back on it now, 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. However, if I ever have a daughter I would hope that I could do something special for her when her time came.
Since the first year 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 bad 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. However, I think that current cultural attitudes, in part, have played a large part in preventing me from doing so.
In this paper I plan to explore the history of menstruation to discover exactly how current American attitudes have evolved. It has also been necessary to look at cultural differences to get an understanding of the wide spectrum of perspectives. Since menstruation has been with us since the start of human existence, I will start with several ancient perceptions.
In some ancient myths menstrual blood held a special sort of power (as it did in The Red Tent). In the Yuchi tribe of North America it is the blood of the sun from which "sprang the first people" (Sproul, 256). 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'" (Armstrong, 77). 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 woman, but neither is it taken away from her.
In ancient Israel some groups were even more strict about conduct for men and women during the period of menstruation. There was even a code of laws regarding specific behaviors called the niddah. These centered around the notion that a menstruating woman was impure. Anything she touched during the seven days of the cycle would also become impure (Wasserfall, 23-25). These laws most definitely contributed to assigning women to play a subordinate role in the culture.
The philosopher, Aristotle, also evaluated menstruation by comparing the female body to the male. He saw menstruation as an "outward sign of female inferiority," the indication that the nurturing blood was useless without semen to fertilize the womb (Delaney, Lupton and Toth, 41).
The problem of inferiority would continue for centuries, as it was men who dictated the rules of normality. Menstruation was construed as a sign that women did not have control over their own bodies. This was even true in The Red Tent. Though the women were aware of the workings of their bodies, the men only knew that if a woman was bleeding she was not carrying a child. The women of the novel pride themselves on their ability to bear children and those who are unable to are ashamed of the fact. The wife who bears the most children has the most status and privilege.
These attitudes were probably influenced by the fact that we did not know the exact science of reproduction and that most early scientists were male. However, these attitudes persisted for hundreds of years and have had an impact on where we are today.
Cultural and historical conceptions of menstruation are so vast that I could not possibly explore them all, but I have done my best to provide a sampling here.
I will return now to modern perspectives, as they are what concern me the most. At some point in our history, I think that most 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 the very presence of a stigma becomes puzzling.
The theme of cleanliness still lingers with us. Nowadays we don't go so far as to say that menstruating women are "impure" but we are still pushing towards sterility. Any used "sanitary" products are carefully disposed of in special boxes, as if they were hazardous waste. I think it is the advent of such products, the disposable pads and tampons, that have had the most influence on current notions.
My biggest peeve with the whole ordeal is how we treat menstruation in public spaces. Women feel the need to hide tampons and pads. They buy fancy little cases to carry tampons in or they buy the ones that are so small that you can hide them in the palm of your hand. I personally have reached a point where I see no need to hide it anymore. Women are stuck with menstruation, mess and all. It's time to recognize that. However, at the moment we are still in some phase of denial.
Most of all, I find commercial ads to be nauseating. The marketing of "feminine products" is itself sterile. Kotex, Tampax, and Always promote their products in pastel colors as THE new solution for dealing with menstruation. 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 don't think I have ever felt like dancing in a silk dress when I have had my period. I think I speak for a lot of women when I say that I would rather curl up in bed. And I know that others have had more dramatic problems than just the typical malaise. A friend of mine in high school used to get such severe cramps that she would break down crying. She eventually began to take anti-depressants to help her body cope at that time of the month. She certainly could not have been a woman in a tampon ad. The point of these advertisements is that certain products allow you to participate despite your condition.
For example in the 1940s, when women were joining the work force they had a greater need to function despite menstruation. Advertisements catered to the needs of working women, convincing them it was their duty to do so (Delaney, Lupton and Toth, 109). With that possibility now available, it is harder to find reasons not to participate. I believe that it is why women tend to make them up. We are "too tired," or we "have a headache," never "I am bleeding and I don't feel good in any capacity."
Furthermore, with the convenience of new products does come some risk. You may forget that you are wearing a tampon because you can't feel it. The tampon, in essence, is hindering the natural process by keeping old blood and tissue inside the body. That's why every box of tampons comes with a pamphlet warning you about the risks of Toxic Shock Syndrome. The prospect terrifies me and yet I still use tampons. We routinely expose ourselves to danger in favor of convenience.
I have not yet touched on PMS but it is certainly important enough to be included. The pre-menstrual syndrome is perhaps the most villainized aspect of the whole process of menstruation. It's a difficult subject to tackle because (like feminism!) it is hard to define, and it is different for every woman. We mostly define it by the appearance of a general bitchiness along with an intense craving for chocolate. There have been many debates over PMS. Some activist groups have gone to war over calling the syndrome a mental illness.
There also has been a lot of study that specifically calls itself feminist. This group wants women to reclaim the ownership of menstruation and PMS, as they say that women should be the experts on their own bodies (Figert, 109). Another feminist perspective wants women to involve themselves in researching female health in order to "lift the curse" (Koeske, 13).
What I see as the most extreme feminist position on menstruation concerns the issue of regulation, meaning controlling if and when women have their periods. It is a practice that has been used for a long time, most recently with birth control pills. It was once thought to be healthier to have periods on a regular basis, down to a specific day every month (Van de Waller and Renne, 41). Nowadays women can make the decision to stop their periods altogether. Some want to be free from the burden, others imagine that such an option turns menstruation into a disease. It is hard for me to decide which is the most feminist view here. On the one hand, women should be able to control their own bodies if they so wish. On the other hand, it would be taking away a thing that is fundamentally female, and that some say should be celebrated. I'm sure that question will be explored further with new developments in science.
I have filled this paper with a lot of negativity about menstruation, both from my personal experience and from historical research. However, in my exploration I have found many more positive representations of menstruation than I expected. To reiterate, the concepts of The Red Tent were so new to me when I discovered them. Though inspiring, they were still very foreign. Surprisingly, out in the world there are myriad representations of menstruation. A lot of these take an artistic form. I will explore two of these; one in sculpture, and the other in poetry.
In thinking about menstruation, artist Gail Chavenelle modified existing metal sculptures by adding a red strip to represent "flow." All the sculptures in this series have a fluid structure and an earthy feel to them. They are a homage to the natural processes, as they show blood running through rock, earth and water. One in particular shows "flow" embracing the figure of Mother Earth. My favorite sculpture is the one of the Water Spirit, whose flowing hair becomes a moving stream. Her menstrual flow joins the stream in a graceful line. These sculptures are reminiscent of the natural cycle of life. Menstruation, though it stands out from the sculptures because of the color difference, is an integral part of the figures. Gail's representations are very positive, accepting and natural and she portrays menstruation as all of these things.
Other positive representations of menstruation are found in Lucille Clifton's poetry. She has written several on the topic, including "Poem in praise of menstruation," "to my last period," and "Poem to my uterus." In "praise of menstruation" she again embraces the ideas of power and strength. Clifton uses the words "ancient," "faithful," "powerful," and "beautiful" to describe this "river… bright as blood." She uses menstruation as a symbol for creation, a process that is as old as time.
Second-wave feminist, Gloria Steinem, turns to humor to explore the topic of menstruation. 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. Her essay is an interesting exploration of the different ways that men and women regard their bodies.
I have come to the end here, perhaps with more questions now than when I started. I do have some conclusions and ideas that I would like to develop further in the real world. I'd like to start changing attitudes towards menstruation by making it less taboo. 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. Women would be able to name it without any shame.
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.
To make such a thing a reality, it will be necessary to embrace the paradox, to realize that blood can be both a symbol of nurturing and of pain. It is time to get the word out. Health classes need to tell the whole story and let boys know too. Advertisements need to lose the dancing ponies and floral themes. And women need to tell the truth about their health. And for the hell of it let's change the word to "womenstruation."