Though historically the female body has been under-researched, menstruation has been highly medicalized; it’s been made into a medical event that people feel the need to be suppress and remedy. Today, it’s viewed by many young women as a problem that needs a solution, whether that’s over-the-counter painkillers or pills to get rid of the period altogether. But some people are using their cycle to reconnect with their bodies.
In Kathryn M. Lese’s paper, Padded Assumptions: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Patriarchal Menstruation Discourse, she refers to the period as an emotional and hygienic crisis. And how else is it to be interpreted with the products available?
There are pads and tampons of all sizes to hide (sometimes even the smell of) periods. Soft cups are available to those who want to eradicate evidence of their period during sex. Livia is a shock therapy device that claims to relieve cramps. Midol, the painkiller, is marketed for the same purpose. The birth control pill is used by some to regulate the period and some forms even stop it altogether.
These products suggest that it’s both something to be ashamed of and something to be hidden. Menstruation is often talked about indirectly, using euphemisms, which Lese writes are used to avoid the negative feelings associated with periods.
Shark Week, Aunt Flo, crimson wave, on the rag, that time of the month, lady time. They all add a bit of humor to menstruation. While between friends, using the terms jokingly in private, I’ve never felt harm, Lese notes that boys often first learn about menstruation and sanitary products through humor, adding to the shame girls feel and encouraging them to hide their periods for fear of ridicule.
I think back to junior high when a classmate colored a clean pad with red marker then stuck it to the back of a boy in our gym class. His utter disgust and horror were, on the surface, hilarious to the girls. The other boys sided with him that she’d gone too far. Their reaction reinforced in me a desire to hide my period at all costs. If an unused pad incited such intense feelings, imagine their reaction if they knew there was a blood-soaked pad between my legs.
Women are most self-conscious about their bodies when they’re menstruating, according to Lese. This is a time when we’re hyper-aware of our body’s function and society’s reaction to it. Many women have anxiety and insecurity surrounding their periods, as well. How can we possibly love our bodies if these are the feelings our periods give us?
In her paper Pondering periods: Young women talk about menstruation in the age of menstrual suppression, Carol Berenson references a study that found some young women viewed menstruation as empowering. Empowerment came from heightened spirituality, affirmed womanhood and the ability to create life.
Looking at menstruation through a de-medicalized lens can do this.
Learning about my body was a slow process that started when I learned how nutrient-rich period blood is. It’s meant to grow a baby, after all! Sending it to the landfill on chemical-laden tampons and pads seemed like a waste, so I looked into alternatives. As it turns out, period blood makes for great fertilizer. With a graveyard of dead houseplants, I bought a menstrual cup and started pouring the contents into plants that were just barely hanging on for dear life.
And it worked.
The life-giving liquid coming from my body began to fascinate me and I started to look forward to my period. But I thirsted for more information. After years of battling anxiety and depression, I came to know that my overall health impacted my period; if it didn’t show up when expected, it indicated to me that something was going awry with my body.
At some point, I came to own the zine Body Conscious Birth Control: An Introduction to the Fertility Awareness Method. While the author warns it’s not a complete enough guide for anyone to embark on the all-natural and intensive form of birth control, it is packed with information most high school sex ed classes don’t cover, such as what the different types of vaginal discharge mean. That would have been excellent information to have when I was 18 and terrified that the white goop on my panties meant I had an STI.
In my early 20s, when my breasts would swell and ache, I’d begin to fear that I was pregnant. Through this same guide, I realized that my chest changes throughout my cycle and I could use the pain to predict when my period would be arriving.
And there’s so much more. The color and consistency of the blood during a period reveals a great deal about hormone levels and can let you know if you’ve got an infection. The position of the cervix helps reveal when the body is in its fertile period.
While there’s nothing wrong with popping a couple painkillers to relieve cramps, it’s also important to understand that menstrual cramps are a normal experience for half the human population. They’re (usually) not an indicator that something is wrong with the body and can often be cured with herbs and exercise.
By medicalizing periods, we’re disconnecting people from their bodies. We’re taking away powerful tools for understanding ourselves, our health and our fertility. Getting away from these notions after years of being exposed to them can be a long process that takes time, but even starting slow by charting the cycle on an app such as Clue or using a menstrual cup to get a closer look at the flow can lead to powerful knowledge about our own bodies.
Meg Crane is a freelance writer and editor. Having struggled with anxiety and depression her whole life, she helps other freelancers and creatives learn how to take care of their mental health while pursuing the work they love. Learn more at megjcrane.com.
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