Red flag

In "The Curse," Karen Houppert rages against the shame women feel about menstruation.

Published April 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

One of the great grrrl punk bands, Heavens to Betsy, released a song in the early '90s called "My Red Self." Sung from the point of view of a girl surprised by her first menses -- she hadn't known what was coming -- "My Red Self" was a blender whirl of assertiveness, aggression and confusion, in which the girl admitted to outrage and some measure of shame that this blasted thing should happen to her -- and that she should be forced to hide it.

I was in my mid-30s when I heard "My Red Self," and I felt giddy and energized by the young band's refusal to treat this traditionally delicate subject with preciousness or embarrassment. Not that the onset of menstruation isn't commonly dealt with in literature; it's a popular topic in bad fiction and good. (The beginning of womanhood is often "announced" by a "red banner" discovered in the unwitting protagonist's underwear. Huzzah! Huzzah!) But "My Red Self" was something else altogether. "Never wear white, or your shame will creep right through," the singer warns. "Is this the flag you use to humiliate me/'Cause I was born, I was born a girl?" Most of all, though, she's enraged that she should be made to feel embarrassed by what she is. "So you make me hide the truth from you/So you make me hide my red self from you," she declares in a lioness roar. Any woman who's ever caught herself nudging a tampon box toward the back of the bathroom shelf before a first date can relate.

The fact that the bluntness of "My Red Self" shocked me (and thrilled me) is probably proof enough that it's high time for a book like "The Curse." Journalist Karen Houppert made her initial foray into the subject of menstruation in 1995, with a Village Voice article called "Embarrassed to Death: The Hidden Dangers of the Tampon Industry," and "The Curse" is the result of her further research. Some three years after that article, she "emerged with this profound analogy: Blood is kinda like snot. How come it's not treated that way?"

Well, it is and it isn't like snot: There's no doubt that, as Houppert explains, people's squeamishness about menstruation is the result of deep cultural conditioning, further compounded by all that soft-focus flora and talk about "feminine protection" served up by the menstrual-products industry, as if menstruation really were something to be embarrassed about. Yet the single most annoying thing about "The Curse" is Houppert's dogged insistence that women shouldn't be shy about the subject -- that we shouldn't hesitate to openly tote our Tampax down the office hallway on our way to the ladies' room. She almost makes it seem as if women should be ashamed of their reticence about advertising their monthlies, as if feeling that way were proof that they're hopelessly tangled in leftover Victorian mores, when it may be simply that, like many men, most women don't feel the need to share their more intimate bodily functions with the world.

But individuals' sense of privacy aside, there is something unsettling about the mantle of secrecy and fussy delicacy that cloaks the subject of menstruation, and Houppert's indignation about it -- which never descends into carping -- is the fuel that so effectively drives "The Curse." Most of us can recall seeing feminine-hygiene products advertised on television or in magazines when we were kids and puzzling over exactly what it was that women needed to be "protected" from and what it was that would give a young woman license to wear her tightest (and whitest) jeans while trotting her friend Flicka around a flower-strewn field. Far from preserving the "dignity" of menstruation, those ads (and they haven't changed much over the years) merely made it seem ludicrous, dippy. You'd have to be a real dork to let it happen to you.

While Houppert decries the lunacy of cultural attitudes toward menstruation, she doesnt insist that it's all the media's fault. But she rightly calls the advertising industry on the carpet for subtly reinforcing, even today, the idea that menstruation is somehow dirty. In the early days of tampons -- they were first introduced by Tampax in the mid-'30s -- manufacturers focused on freedom and comfort in their ads, but they also reminded women, as Houppert points out, that "menstruation was naughty; as irrepressible evidence of sexuality, news of its arrival, departure, and duration always had to be kept under wraps. A journey through the coded history of sanitary protection makes for a fascinating crash course in American sexuality -- and its repression."

Houppert is even more concerned that the shroud of secrecy surrounding menstruation could easily be used to hide certain crucial facts from women, and her argument is leakproof. "The Curse" is both solidly researched and provocative, once you get past Houppert's somewhat strained efforts to be an on-the-rag revolutionary, and the first section, covering the vagaries of the menstrual-products industry, is downright scary.

Every woman of child-bearing age has probably wondered why the big tampon manufacturers get away with asking her to shell out $6 for a box of measly plugs (the answer: Because they can). But Houppert goes on to ask even more crucial questions -- most significantly, about the refusal of menstrual-products companies and the federal government to allow for (and test for) the possibility that dioxins found in tampons (as the result of the chlorine-bleaching process at paper and wood-pulp mills) could cause cancer and/or birth defects and infertility. It's one area where women's reluctance to bring the subject of menstruation into the open could possibly harm them or even kill them. "As long as everything is so hush-hush, who chitchats about quality or safety?" Houppert demands. "Who calls the industry or the FDA on the fact that consumers can read a list of ingredients on a shampoo bottle but not on a package of tampons, which are held for hours in one of the most porous and absorbent parts of a woman's body?"

With chilling precision, Houppert outlines the complicity of the tampon industry and the Food and Drug Administration, noting that in research conducted in the late '80s, the FDA did not itself test tampons for dioxins but rather relied on data supplied by the industry to declare tampons safe. She cites the "cover-ups and denials" of the feminine-hygiene industry in the wake of the Rely toxic-shock scandal of the early 1980s, noting that although Rely's manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, is often praised for voluntarily withdrawing the product from the market, "it seems clear that the company didn't act until the FDA threatened to act for it. And the FDA didn't act until women died." What's more, Procter & Gamble purchased Tambrands (the tampon giant that makes Tampax) in 1997, thus buying itself a huge amount of clout in the feminine-hygiene market -- all the more reason for consumers to be vigilant and exert pressure for better testing.

The rest of "The Curse" deals largely with women's attitudes toward menstruation and how they're shaped from a young age. Even if much of it isn't particularly new, it makes for interesting reading. Houppert sagely questions the way premenstrual syndrome is used as a catch-all diagnosis for women's crankiness (and is often treated with antidepressants), wondering if many of the women who are diagnosed with PMS or similar "ailments" don't have plenty of good reasons to be cranky that aren't hormonal. She also addresses the seemingly obvious but often overlooked possibility that the medical community's easy acceptance of PMS as a treatable ailment could result in its being used against women as a biological weakness -- yet another reason women might be discriminated against in the workplace and the world.

And in a brilliantly understated act of chutzpah, Houppert tracked down the great grandma of PMS, Britain's Dr. Katharina Dalton, who in 1953 "first itemized a set of symptoms and labeled them PMS. In the 40 years since, the acronym has mutated into shorthand for 'irrational anger.' Or rather, an irrationally angry woman." When Houppert interviewed Dalton by telephone, citing critics who believe Dalton's "cure" for PMS -- large doses of progesterone -- is the result of faulty methodology, the doctor offered a superbly cranky and dismissive response: "That's just plain stupid," she snapped. Sounds like it's time for her to double her dose.

Houppert also provides a good personal anecdote on the subject of hormones gone awry. About 24 hours after the birth of her son, in November 1996, she found herself wandering the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in New York, in tears. "A nurse comforted me, telling me to calm down, to relax, that my hormones were going crazy, that this was 'postpartum.' I let her lead me back to my bed and dutifully climbed in. I tried to stop crying, but as I went over events in my head, I just got madder -- and cried more." She goes on to explain how after delivering her child -- a normal delivery, which means it was hardly a trip to the circus -- every effort she made to restore equilibrium was thwarted by the hospital. Her sleep was hindered by a crackling intercom over her head and an infant who wasn't nursing properly; her partner wasn't allowed to spend the night in her room, just when she needed him most; she'd been told she shouldn't go the bathroom unaided but was forced to make a go of it after her calls for help went unanswered for an hour; and when there was nothing she wanted more than a shower, there was no hot water in the maternity ward. The story is a perfect example of how much easier it is for a health-care organization to blame its inadequacy on women's hormones than to diagnose itself with mismanagement.

But Houppert's not all gloom and doom, and she knows how to go for laughs. She takes great delight in skewering what she calls "Celebrate-Your-Cycles feminists" -- goddess worshippers who luxuriate in the idea that their periods afford them closer ties with Mother Nature. One proponent "suggests soaking used cloth pads in the 'moon bowl' she offers for a modest price and using this 'rich soaking water' on gardens and plants for 'amazing results.'"

Somewhere, there's a happy medium between the "womyn" who are ready to let their freak flags fly and the women who are so repressed they can barely explain to their daughters what a tampon is. And if some of us are still a little timid about advertising our periods, that's our business. But Houppert knows that in her role, she absolutely cannot be shy, and for the most part her candidness is refreshing. "The Curse" is a clarion call for more awareness and less embarrassment about the subject; Houppert's message is that you don't have to put a lid on it -- even if you still have to put a plug in it.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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