First blood: Introducing "menstrual activism"

Do we really need a radical movement to combat the stigma of periods?

By Amanda Fortini

Published October 6, 2009 7:05AM (EDT)

Every woman has one. Not what you're thinking -- that too, yes, but I am referring to a menstruation horror story. A bright blood stain blooming on the back of white jeans, a first period that has the audacity to arrive during gym class or one that colors a yellow swimsuit red while you are waterskiing with your grandfather, as happened to Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, the editor of "My Little Red Book." (Back in January, Rebecca Traister wrote a smart piece that talked about Nalebuff's collection of first-time stories, whose contributors include Erica Jong, Gloria Steinem and Jacquelyn Mitchard.) But does the embarrassment many women feel arise from a negative cultural stance toward menstruation? And do we need a concerted effort to address it?

In an article published in the Guardian on Friday, writer Kira Cochrane situates "My Little Red Book" at the center of a new wave, as it were, of "menstrual activism." (The movement is also called "radical menstruation," "menstrual anarchy" or "menarchy.") The term, she writes, "is used to describe a whole range of actions," such as "simple efforts to speak openly about periods, radical affronts to negative attitudes, and campaigns for more environmentally friendly sanitary products," since a woman could create her own personal landfill with the 11,400 tampons she uses in her lifetime. (What I want to know is: Who counted?) Chris Bobel, a women's studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of an upcoming book, "New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation," explains that many "menstrual activists begin by thinking, wait a minute! Do we have to regard our period as something dirty? Do we have to greet a girl's first period with silence?" According to Cochrane, these women are attempting to take "the shame out of periods," to overcome the supposed "menstrual taboo."

Cochrane provides numerous florid examples of menstrual activism. In addition to the aforementioned books, there is "Period: The End of Menstruation," filmmaker Giovanna Chesler's documentary response "to the growing number of hormone treatments that promise to end the monthly bleed altogether." (The health consequences of taking Seasonique and Lybrel, birth-control pills that limit menstruation or suppress it completely, remain a topic of debate.) There are the monthly-cycle celebrants who, unlike the hippies of the '70s -- with their red tents and moon-tides, their talk of "transitions" and "honoring your changes" -- are said to be punk-style anarchists (menarchists?) who dress up as bloody tampons and holler rogue cheers: "Smear it on your face and rub it on your body, it's time to start a menstrual party!" Artist Chella Quint publishes a zine, "Adventures in Menstruating," which features DIY tampon projects and the requisite "leakage horror stories." And another artist, Ingrid Berthon-Moine, has made a video in which she is "twanging her tampon string" to the tune "Slave to the Rhythm," an apt theme song if ever there was one. For her latest project, Berthon-Moine has photographed women wearing "lipstick" made of their menstrual blood. To the consternation and disgust of Guardian readers, the article is illustrated with one of these images. "A woman who has smeared blood on herself and pictured herself on the front of a family newspaper obviously has a social problem," writes one commentator. And another: "Ewww. Just ewww."

Countering reactions of this stripe would seem to be the point of all the menstrual militancy. But is it necessary? Is menstruation really such a taboo? To put it bluntly, not wanting to see menstrual blood on a woman's lips is not the same thing as being disgusted by the fact of it between her legs. (Actually, I wouldn't want to see any kind of blood on anyone's lips.) While in certain religious milieus shame and silence still surround the topic, in mainstream American society, the reality that women menstruate has been out of the closet for a while now.  Men are dispatched to buy tampons for their girlfriends and wives and do so without embarrassment. Single fathers are obliged to discuss menstruation with their adolescent daughters (though doing so still probably involves at least a tinge of embarrassment). Much of the pejorative language once used to describe the phenomenon ("on the rag," anyone?) isn't as common as it used be. It's so normal to talk about periods that there is even a juvenile iPhone app devoted to it. "I am a Man" tracks the monthly cycle of one's girlfriend -- or multiple girlfriends, if needed, with a password for each one. "You will know about your girlfriend's period and her mood. You can plan your dates, evening and save some money," reads the gross app copy (just because periods are out in the open doesn't mean there aren't still sexist ideas about them). 

But the greatest indicator that the cultural attitude toward menstruation has shifted may be the ads for “feminine products.” Ads have ceased to be so euphemistic you have no idea what product is being peddled ("Be free and active!"). The latest from Tampax are hilariously direct in their wink-wink indirectness. Mother Nature (played by Catherine Lloyd Burns) offers a “monthly gift” -- a box wrapped in red paper, a symbol obvious enough to please teenage boys and dissertation writers alike -- to various women (in one ad, it’s Serena Williams) at inopportune moments. When primetime viewers are savvy enough about menstruation to get in-jokes about periods and blood, it’s a safe bet that the stigma has eased.

Those who prefer to remain quiet about the subject may not be evincing gynophobia so much as conversational etiquette. It may be an act of modesty, not of shame. People don't much discuss erectile dysfunction or bowel problems either, and not for reasons of gender, or because those bodily processes are particularly taboo. When menstruation is a relevant subject between people -- girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives, female friends -- it's not generally treated as humiliating or distasteful. And indeed, women don't seem to feel much fear about talking about it. Case in point: "My Little Red Book," for which 90-odd female writers agreed to share their stories.

Menstrual activism thus seems like an overreaction to a taboo that has mostly dissipated. People don't need to see menstrual bloods on lips -- a PETA-ish gimmick -- to shock them into recognizing a hostility they don't feel. At a time when Tampax is employing menstrual humor, guerrilla tactics like this seem sour and antiquated and out of place. And while some activists must surely be fighting important menstrual-related battles (advocating against dioxins in tampons, say, or for the environmental benefits of multiple-use products) might not the energies of those playing their tampon strings like a guitar be more effectively utilized if applied to any number of feminist causes such as, I don't know, equal pay or domestic violence or human rights abuses committed against women? Maybe advocates who want to focus on menstruation could talk about some of the less-than-pleasant issues that often accompany it (polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, or cramps so painful you can hardly go to work) and push for doctors to find treatments other than handing every woman the pill. But to fret that menstruation is taboo when it's not risks making it so. Some advice for the menarchists: Let it bleed. 

Amanda Fortini

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