Crimson Tide: The Centering of Female Experience Around Menstruation

Crimson tide. Aunt Flo. Period. Checking into the red roof inn. Bleeding. On the rag. Time of the month. Red wings. The curse. Monthlies.

Ah, menstruation. Nothing is a larger part of the female experience, right? All women share the commonality of bleeding from their vaginas for several days each month, right? Much of the understanding of female experience is centered around menstruation, from the belief that women behave irrationally during their periods to the idea that a girl’s first period is her initiation into womanhood.

Fear of womanhood in the form of menstruation fear is also a huge part of our society. A teenage girl need only gaze at the ground and mutter something about “not feeling well” to be dismissed from gym class for the day. People who admit to having sex with women during their periods are mocked and treated with horror, disgust, and fear. Women are assumed to be “overly emotional” because of “the curse” and whenever a woman breaks from the behavioral expectation of remaining calm, meek, and submissive, it is assumed that she’s “on the rag” and will quickly return to more acceptable behaviour. It’s practically the first question that gets asked at every medical exam: “when was your last period?” (Unless you’re at a college health center, in which case the first question is: “Are you pregnant?” “No? Are you sure?”)

But this is all wrong, because it ignores a significant part of the female population: women who don’t menstruate. For women who don’t menstruate, the focus on menstruation is just alienating, rather than being an inclusive common ground which allows them to find “kinship with all women.” All women do not share the commonality of menstrual periods. Having a period is not central to the female experience. And the obsession with menstruation is, for these women, othering. Yet another example of how they aren’t “real women” and are somehow failing at being female.

There are a wide assortment of reasons for a woman not to menstruate. Oddly enough, while society is often very reluctant to discuss menstruation, the belief that it is firmly coupled with female experience means that people assume that all women menstruate, and women who don’t menstruate are subjected to scrutiny. Surely, they must feel bereft at not being able to share in this quintessential female experience! Surely, thus, society is obliged to know why it is that they don’t menstruate.

To disclose that one doesn’t menstruate is to open up the floor to conversation and probing discussion, evidently. And, in some cases, this is really dangerous. Trans women who have chosen stealth, for example, may be exposed through admitting that they don’t experience menstruation (although, fun fact, they do get cramps). Cis women with health problems which prevent menstruation, ranging from anorexia to gynecological cancers, may not feel comfortable discussing these issues, just like pregnant cis women might prefer to keep their pregnancies private in the early stages. Menopause also leads to the cessation of periods in cis women, may onset at a variety of ages, and, again, is a personal medical issue which cis women may not appreciate having aired publicly. And, for cis women who choose to manipulate and control their periods with hormones, a discussion about timing periods might not be something which one wants to have with just anyone.

Female experience is so centered around menstruation that in the early years of developing hormonal birth control, there was a great deal of debate about the placebo pills. Initially, developers suggested simply maintaining hormones throughout the cycle, effectively preventing women from having periods. But, they were shot down, for cultural rather than medical reasons, and the placebo pills were inserted, forcing women to undergo a period while using hormonal birth control. The placebo pills endure to this day, with alternate modes of hormonal birth control sometimes using reduced periods as a selling point. Seasonique, for example, tells us right on their splash page that women will only get four periods a year while using it.

This illustrates the dichotomy with which menstruation is viewed: it’s gross and disgusting and mysterious, but it’s also essential to female experience. It’s yet another reason why vaginas are icky, but it’s something which women should not go without. To bleed is to be female. Not to bleed is to be other.

Assuming that all women menstruate is cissexist, ableist, and ageist. Like many things which are supposedly common female experiences, menstruation is used both to stereotype and judge women. It’s used to differentiate between “real” and “fake” women, to evaluate fertility in a very public way, to exclude women who “don’t belong” from the supposedly universal sisterhood of femaleness. Much like searching for blood on the sheets after the wedding night, the assumption that all women menstruate is a continual reinforcement that women’s bodies are public property. That what a woman’s body does or doesn’t do is the concern of society as a collective, rather than her private business.

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