Historically, menstruation has been a deeply inappropriate topic except in closed circles. It’s dirty and gross. It’s frightening. Some people bleed for several days every 28 days or so and it inspires vicious and nasty emotions that are often culturally reinforced; people who are menstruating should be isolated so they don’t contaminate the spaces they’re in, menstruation is a deeply secret mystery that shouldn’t be discussed, menstruation supplies should be made cute and hidden so they don’t embarrass people who don’t want to be confronted by the fact that some people bleed from their uteri now and then, in part of a complex hormonal cycle that will likely last from puberty to menopause, perhaps with pauses for pregnancies.
In reaction, many people, particularly women, have attempted to bring menstruation into the light, to stop making it a forbidden topic. To admit that, yes, people menstruate. It’s been a big part of feminist movements in particular, where people are encouraged to embrace menstruation, to be honest about it, to talk about what it means for them, to provide advice for people who have just started or are experiencing health problems related to menstruation. This exchange of information and ideas can be incredibly empowering for some participants, because it busts apart the culture of shame surrounding menstruation.
At the same time, though, it can also be alienating, which raises some complex issues about the nature of theory and praxis in feminist spaces. There needs to be a way to demystify and destigmatise menstruation without making people feel excluded and frustrated with their attempts at talking about that exclusion; to explore the subject while thinking about the broad spectrum of experiences within menstruating people. As well as those who do not menstruate and may have complex feelings about it.
A rather revolting advertisement for a tampon company which was later pulled highlighted one issue with conversations about menstruation; the ad showed two women in a bathroom at a party, applying makeup and primping. One woman kept one-upping the other with bolder lashes, brighter lips, an aggressive performance of femininity. The other finally pulled out a tampon, smirking, while the one-upper frowned; she was a trans woman and thus couldn’t use the ‘ultimate’ symbol of the feminine, the tampon. Score one for ‘real women,’ the ad seemed to suggest.
People were outraged by the ad and rightly so, but many of those complaining about the ad didn’t think about the larger social attitudes behind it and their own approach to menstruation.
I have a lot of women in my life who talk about menstruation a lot, breaking down stigma. Some of them actively celebrate it and say it makes them feel more alive and connected with their bodies. I’m glad that they find it empowering, but I wonder how many of them are aware of the impact of their language on others; how talking about menstruation in this way can make trans women uncomfortable, as yet another reminder that they aren’t considered ‘real’ women. Of how it can be hard for people with menstruation-related health problems, hysterectomies, or hormonal imbalances to hear this constant ‘affirmation of womanhood’ rhetoric, telling them they, too, aren’t ‘real’ women because they don’t bleed like they should.
We have gone, in some senses, from a culture where proper women don’t talk about menstruation to one where you must menstruate to be a proper woman, and you must talk about it, and you must celebrate and embrace it. You are not allowed to say you find it unpleasant and uncomfortable. You can’t say you think it’s dirty and smelly and you hate it, and you certainly can’t complain if it’s accompanied with agonising pain, substantial blood loss, unbearable mood swings. If you use hormonal regulation to control or stop your periods, you’re betraying the sisterhood.
And those who menstruate but aren’t women are also constantly confronted with this reminder, through gender essentialism, that people associate menstruation specifically with being a woman; it’s not a simple biological function that happens to some people, but a woman thing. Nonbinary people and trans men early in transition who menstruate aren’t women, but experience intense gender dysphoria which can be heightened by being in ‘progressive’ circles where menstruation is a ‘woman’ thing that should be celebrated and discussed. People who say they experience shame, pain, and frustration when they menstruate aren’t playing the game right; we’re all supposed to talk about how great menstruation is, as a sign of our liberation, as a reclamatory act.
I struggle with how to reconcile these issues, because the fact is that menstruation itself has been used as a tool for shaming and othering people for thousands of years, and it is necessary to confront that legacy and turn it on its head. At the same time, though, it’s critical to propagate a shift away from viewing menstruation as a ‘woman’ thing, and into viewing it as a person thing, a thing that is complex and needs to be talked about as an experience that can be highly variable, and means different things to different people.
Can we develop a next generation of dialogue about menstruation, one that is more inclusive of people without underscoring ancient and harmful narratives? The responsibility for that lies in the hands of the people dominating the current narrative, the ones trying to take back attitudes about menstruation who are harming people along the way. The harm is often inadvertent and people are often horrified to have this brought to light, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening, and the people experiencing harm are reluctant to bring it up spaces where they feel unsafe because of the kind of attitude and rhetoric being espoused.