The Frustration of Menstruation
Why did I decide to write a paper about menstruation?
The answer to that question is fairly easy, the rest is not.
“I have to write a paper for my gender and sexuality class. There’s no real prompt, I just have to figure out a way to connect disability with sex and gender. It’s not as easy as it sounds.”
“So what have you decided to write about?”
When I first read “If Men Could Menstruate” by Gloria Steinem, I was amazed. The society she depicted in which men could menstruate seemed so bizarre, yet made more sense than I was comfortable admitting. Immediately after I finished the essay I knew I wanted to write about how the modern day society we live in has made being of the female gender a disability. Specifically though, I wanted to write about menstruation.
Steinem makes the point that “Whatever a ‘superior’ group has will be used to justify its superiority, and whatever an ‘inferior’ group has will be used to justify its plight . . . So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event.” In our current reality, the ‘superior’ group of males looks at menstruation as something that disables women instead of something that empowers them simply because menstruation only happens in the ‘inferior’ group of females. In Steinem’s theoretical alternate universe where men MENstruate instead of women, menstruation is no longer seen as a disability, but as a great gift to MANkind. Steinem’s satiric commentary on society then begs the questions: Is there such a thing as disability or is it the ‘superior’ group that creates something from nothing? Or if there indeed is such a thing as disability, do we only view it as such because of the ideas the ‘superior’ group puts out into society?
And then I thought: “Seriously, what if men could menstruate?”
I was brought to the attention of this short film about a boy, Zack Johnson, who wakes up one day with “women parts” and gets his period.
It was not until after I researched the film that I found out it was an ad for Tampax the whole time. Whether or not the fact that the film was a part of an ad campaign delegitimizes it, I don’t know. What I do know is that Tampax, somewhat ingeniously, took Steinem’s idea of “If Men Could Menstruate” and made it their own in “Zack Johnson”. Even though the film does not portray menstruation in an overtly negative light, it still seems to say “well… it’s not that bad to have your period.” Even Zack himself says, “I mean, 50% of the population has a vagina, and they seem to be doing pretty well.” But why does having your period have to be bad at all? And why does anyone with a vagina have to be doing “pretty well” instead of definitively great?
I wanted to research more about cultural ideas on menstruation, but surprisingly (or maybe not), menstruation is not a topic that is widely written about as more than just a biological process of the female body. Yes, menstruation is as simply put a biological, but it is so much more than bleeding once a month. Having your period is about having the gift to give life. It is about being a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a lover. A good example to show how mainstream society likes to keep menstruation as being nothing more than a biological factor is Disney’s very own “The Story of Menstruation” from 1944.
Wow, well golly! Thanks Mother Nature!
What is Disney’s story telling young girls? Menstruation is nothing too negative, but nothing too positive either. It just happens. The message of “The Story of Menstruation” is saying that no matter if you have your period, you can still look pretty (but put on that made up so no one will know!), you can still exercise (though not too much, you still are a delicate creature
!), and you can still shower (but watch out for extreme temperatures your feminine body can’t handle!). The film is scientific and as friend of mine who watched it said “It’s not as magical as I thought it would be considering it’s by Disney.”
As I continued my quest to understand why menstruation always seemed to get a wince or cringe when mentioned, I came upon the book “The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation” by Karen Houppert. Houppert seemed to have all of the same questions I had, the most important one being why was menstruation, a gift to women, seen as a curse? As a taboo? She discusses the fact that in our society “These taboos matter because they prevent consumer debate and scientific research . . . And, by defining how women think and talk about menstruation, men—the mostly male CEOs of companies manufacturing menstrual products, as well as advertising executives, religious leaders, and sex-ed authors—have set a tone that shapes women’s experiences for them, defining what they are allowed to feel about their periods, what they are allowed to feel about their bodies, and what they are allowed to feel about their sexuality. Menstrual etiquette matters because women are being manipulated. The consequences are significant” (9). The ‘superior’ group of males wants females to be embarrassed about their periods even though menstruation is something as natural as sneezing. They want females to be embarrassed because it is something males do not have and therefore do not understand. So much for penis envy, I agree with Gloria Steinem when she says “the power of giving birth makes ‘womb envy’ more logical.” And yet, all ads for “feminine hygiene” try to sell secrecy of having a period at all along with leakage protection.
Why should women have to pretend that they do not menstruate? Houppert asks, “What does it mean for a girl, or a woman, to say simply, “This happens to me” and for society to say, “No it doesn’t.” Not in movies. Not in books. Not in conversations . . . After a while, it because psychologically disorienting to look out at a world where your reality does not exist” (9). Menstruation is one of the most real parts of life. Menstruation literally is the means of life. Women should not allow anyone to tell them that their period is a problem because it is not. And women should not allow anyone to make them feel like their period is a disability because it is most definitely not.