Menstrual Activism Media Alert

Wow – it’s been a busy few days out there in media cyberspace for us menstrually-inclined types.  For those of you who might have missed it, on October 2nd the UK’s Guardian published a really interesting piece by Kira Cochrane about the current state of menstrual activism.  The article (which included a provocative photo of a woman wearing her menses as lipstick) elicited 160 comments, many of which were negative.  The article was complemented by another post on the same site from Rowenna Davis, who wrote a wonderful account of her own coming to consciousness around her period and how using a menstrual cup helped shift things for the good.  Her post generated over 100 comments, including many (mostly men) who found the topic disgusting.

Salon.com’s Amanda Fortini responded to the Guardian articles on October 6th with a scathing post questioning the necessity of menstrual activism.  Her premise is essentially that societal discomfort with menstrual matters is largely a thing of the past (maybe she didn’t read the comments to the Guardian pieces?) and that feminists have rustier axes to grind, such as pay equity and violence.

While this type of argument can make pretty much any pursuit seem petty (“well, it’s not going to stop a nuclear war, is it?”- my example), it is my perception that menstrual activism occurs on a crucial spectrum that ranges from body self-acceptance, sexuality, fertility, birth, breastfeeding and menopause – basically everything to do with women’s health and self-esteem.  Given this, I think it does matter – a lot.

Menstrual activists are typically women who both happen to menstruate and care about women’s health, in much the same way as most birth and breastfeeding activists are pregnant, birthing and/or nursing women who care about women’s health.

Some critics may say, so who cares if one nursing woman gets kicked out of a department store?  Thousands of “lactivists” (Suzanne and the rest of the Lunapads team included) will tell you that a culture that does not support breastfeeding does not support women’s or children’s health. Similarly, we need to pay attention to and respect women’s cycles.

For me, the most important reason to be vocal in the face of silence or squeamishness around menstruation is for girls.

A recent blog post at progressive teen sex education site Scarleteen.com about why to chart your cycle presents a compelling argument for spreading information that should rightly be part of every girl’s education… and yet isn’t.  Why not?  Whether it’s discomfort with the topic of menstruation itself, or a wider-spread fear of all things powerful and female, we still do not adequately educate girls (or celebrate them – another form of activism in my eyes) with respect to their cycles.  It’s a cornerstone to building their self-esteem, and as a society we are collectively missing the opportunity to contribute to stronger, more self-aware generations of women.

Speaking of girls, what about the needs of girls in developing nations, and the consequences of their unmanaged menses?  In their case, lack of adequate supplies can actually reduce their life expectancy (less education due to missed school leads to earlier marriage leads to earlier childbirth leads to higher maternal mortality rates.) Viewed from this more global perspective, menstrual activism is thus in fact saving lives – hardly the trivial pursuit Fortini derides.

In an odd coincidence, the issue has recently risen in the Canadian media, where popular comedienne and Elvira Kurt’s menstrual humor was edited from the podcast version of a popular show where she is a regular guest.  Contrary to Fortini’s assessment, it in fact appears that some folks are still not totally OK with a little period talk here and there.  Get the whole story at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research’s blog here.  Maybe menstru-phobia isn’t so far back in the mists of time, after all?

As many of you are already aware, Lunapads recently sponsored a contest for artwork for the cover of an upcoming book on menstrual activism: Chris Bobel’s upcoming New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation.  Chris has some powerful thoughts on this recent controversy, which I encourage you to read and respond to.

On a final note, I happened to find one of our “ditch the disposables!” stickers on a tampon dispenser and took the picture shown here.  It made me wonder how many women saw it and as a result were made aware, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that there were alternatives to disposable pads and tampons.

The collective difference that all of us who choose reusable menstrual products is massive and growing all the time, as we are helping to reduce solid waste and industrial effluent.  When taken as an isolated act by a few women, it may not seem like a significant choice, but again there is a continuum here: we are powerful beyond measure when we act together.  It has not escaped our notice that gals who choose to reuse their menstrual products also do nutty, planet-improving things like wash their kids diapers, eat organic, locally-grown food and get conscious about how and what they consume.

Do you see a place for menstrual activism?  What does it look like to you and why does it matter?

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  • Thank you so much for articulating why talking about menstruation matters so much. I didn’t realize how much mensphobia there was out there until I did some research on the potential health risks of mainstream tampons, from artificial adsorbents to chlorine bleached rayon, when I was 19. I was shocked by what I was finding out and started talking to everyone about it. No men wanted to hear what I had to say, stopping me before I got started because they didn’t need to know about tampons. I would try to explain that they had a loved one, a girlfriend, sister, mother, who menstruated who this information would help but they still didn’t want to listen. And lots of women didn’t feel comfortable listening to me talk about tampons. And I realized that part of the reason tampon manufacturers are allowed to ignore damage they may be causing women’s health and the environment is because as a culture we are so afraid of menstruation. And I think it ties into being afraid of women in general. That was when I became a menstruation activist and it does matter!

  • Wow.This is a truly wonderful post, Madeleine and I thank you for it. I especially like the bit about *stronger, more self-aware generations of women.* Right on! There really are countless reasons for rethinking the menstrual status quo-improved women’s health, improved self esteem, a cleaner planet…..

    Thanks for making the case so clearly.

  • Julie Aldridge

    Is that picture from York University? 🙂

  • I am realising with horror and stupefaction that menstrual activism doesn’t seem to exist in France (either that or I don’t know which key words to type on google).
    Eco-feminism doesn’t seem to exist much either…
    We still have the classic “women should be equal to men” feminism though.
    Only, we’re not equal, we’re different, neither lower nor above them, just different. I guess that’s what we’re saying when we’re talking about our periods.
    Any advice for a beginner menstrual activist?
    Thanks and keep up the inspiring work girls!
    Marie

  • Kasha

    It’s more than dealing with menstrual taboos but also the body issues that inevitably come from telling women the very thing that makes them female is gross, that effects our health, sexuality and body image on so many levels. Most girls are still ashamed, will consider menstrual gross, with constant messages from advertising and the women around us menstruation is at best seen as inconvenient and unpleasant, for example if a woman suffers cramps because they are ‘part of being a woman’ then a woman will not seek ways of preventing cramps through learning about her body. It’s making people aware of the risks of commercial sanitary products, it’s educating them as a means of arming them so that they understand how their vagina works so not only can realise the harm certain products can cause but can care for their health long-term in all aspects. It’s dispelling myths such as ‘You only get TSS if you leave tampons in too long’ and trying to keep up the message that tampons can be harmful to health so precautions need to be taken, in a world where no one takes TSS seriously any more. It’s pointing out the horrific history of some companies when they have knowingly used ingredients that have cost lives and health, and continue today to use ingredients that are harmful for the sake of menstrual modesty, it’s raising the point that commercial sanitary product companies risk the environment on a number or levels and simply don’t care. It’s telling a girl who has just gotten her period ‘congratulations’ rather than telling her that periods are horrible gross things that stop you from doing all the things you’d do normally. I know of so few women who understand how their vagina’s work or how their menstrual cycles work, women who have had children but don’t know how babies are made past sperm and egg having to meet. So often I see women who believe the pill regulates menstrual cycles when in fact it does the total opposite, they take it for menstrual problems that are so easily dealt with by less extreme means, but instead problems are hidden, cycles are suppressed so women are less aware of them, and side-effects are common – it also limits options if everyone is expected to use hormonal birth control, it makes doctors complacent and frankly ignorant, and women who do not use hormonal options are harassed and denied treatment. These for me are the main issues, but there are so many smaller issues that come up, so many contradictory views on menstrual subjects that really wouldn’t stand up if women simply stopped to think, there are so many knock-on effects.

    To make people aware of the issues you first need them to be aware of menstruation, menstrual taboos aren’t as they were where it was never discussed, now we openly discuss menstruation but when we do it is still about menstruation being a negative, we now have menstrual management so we don’t have to talk or think about menstruation, we are still not happy with our periods and various myths and taboos do still exist. To be a menstrual activist means to be educated on the subjects, so much so because often the mainstream view on so many issues relating to menstruation are simply not right, from every day women to medical professionals menstrual taboos limit peoples education by making the subject something not discussed openly and not thought of logically. To be a menstrual activist is to have tolerance not to get annoyed when people simply refuse to accept reason, and to have some serious ovaries to be able to talk about a subject many would not only be embarrassed about but so offended they will personally attack you.

  • Loved this article. I’ve recently been thinking along the same lines and developed a t-shirt line called “It’s time the period came out of the closet” You can see it on my website http://www.ninjawitch.com under the tee’s tab. Thanks again for this great article!

  • Kate

    Brilliant article!
    The cup has revolutionized my life, and finally made it comfortable to bike, swim and do other things at ‘that time’ of the month. Not to mention the hundreds of dollars I’ve saved in 10 years of using it, and the giant amount of paper and plastic I’ve avoided cozying up to.

  • Julie, sorry for the delayed response. The image of the sticker on the disposable pad/tampon dispenser was taken at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, just south of Vancouver. As soon as we walked into the restroom, my 4 year-old daughter cried out: “look, Mommy, Lunapads!” Here’s hoping that she will reach menarche at a time where honoring our cycles will be more normative – thanks everyone for reading and commenting; you’re making it happen!

  • Amy

    Thanks for the article, Madeleine! I, too, feel we are embarking on the third wave of feminism, to take back our bodies from the traditionally male-dominated medical and capitalist system.

    Where can I get my hands on some of those stickers???

  • Amy- We can send you some stickers if you’d like! Just pop us an email with your mailing address.

  • ASHLEY!

    It made me so sad to read Rowennas AWESOME article, then to read the horribly close minded sexist comments! We need more Menstruation Activists!

  • lil

    gross!

  • Kris

    I just want to thank you gals for the amount of good, healthy, right to the point period talk you have made available to women and girls.

    I was raised by a mother who did talk about periods because when her mother started bleeding as a young girl she thought she was dying, and was too embarrassed to say anything for years (my great-grandma eventually found blood on some clothing and clued her in). It was traumatic, but the next generation learned. And now we live in a time where I have seen mothers who make (awesome) girl survival boxes for their daughters, (with everything a girl might need) when they start getting close to puberty.

    Times are more enlightened then they were, but we do have a ways to go yet. I intend on educating my sons as well as my daughters about menstruation. We may not be able to beat any sense into the chauvinist minds of most of the men (and some women) in the world, but we can certainly enlighten future generations.

    We (my mother, sisters, brother, and brothers-in law) are so excited!

    Here’s to the future!

  • Kara McCollum

    Great article! Where did you get the great anime pic? I love how raw, politically charged and’in your face’ it is! Especially, b/c our culture tells us everywhere we turn that menstruation is gross, shameful, should be a secret, and we should get rid of it by taking seasonale.

  • To me menstrual activism is mostly about not letting my body be a way for other people to dismiss me. You don’t get dismiss something I say that you disagree with by saying I’m just bitchy because I’m PMS’ing.

    In addition to your arguments about body image and health, I think it’s essential to promoting equality for women by normalizing and celebrating women’s bodily functions, in order to stop the use of stereotypes and prejudices to demean and belittle women.

  • I’ve never been aware of menstrual activism before. I probably am not where I should be, but am not  squeamish about such things. It probably comes from being raised by a mother with no father around. Thanks for the introduction.

  • Tarnished

    The criticisms of menstrual activism show exactly why it’s so needed…

    For a start they argue that we no longer have menstrual taboos…really?! So that’s why 13 year old girls are ashamed of letting anyone know they menstruate, why women use bleached scented tampons with applicators (to deal with smelly, dirty periods without having to touch their own genitals), why women’s bad moods are blamed on PMS, why menstruation is still a punch-line in much of media…and one reason why young women in third-world-countries can suffer exclusion.

    One critic complained that we should be focusing on health issues like dioxin in tampons and women suffering from issues like endometriosis – it’s the fact we don’t openly talk about menstruation that means these issues aren’t talked about, we don’t know what’s in our tampons and many women assume the agonising pain they feel every month is ‘part of being a woman’, or doctors ignore their cries for help as just emotional women being overly dramatic about cramps. Women use the pill for every menstrual problem there is or to manipulate their cycles, with no idea that they don’t have to suppress their periods this way to deal with them – in turn this has lead to doctors who can prescribe the pill but not educate women or investigate problems, in fact many doctors possessively bully women onto the pill now. Menstruation is a major part of being a woman, our cycles effect everything about us, as such menstruation is more than just a little blood once per month – menstruation effects every aspect of our health.

    Menstrual activism isn’t about shocking people, it’s about tackling taboos that shame women, that hold women back, and that have an effect on our health. If we didn’t need menstrual activism, we wouldn’t be menstrual activists.

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  • Kendall Roberts

    Here in Vermont I am lucky to live in a small town where women in my social circle get to talk and share openly about blood time. On a mundane level, I feel like the more openly and calmly I share my experience around blood, the more it normalizes the experience and encourages others to share and talk about their bleeding time. I’m a mentor for a young-women’s wilderness mentoring program, and we openly share about our moon time there, too! Of course there is still so much work to be done on a global level, but I just wanted to share how in my experience there is a LOT of change happening within myself and those around me. Truly an inspiring time to be alive. Here’s a recent blog post I wrote about menstruation and bleeding with the moon, if you want to take a read! https://lunarmandalacalendar.com/2016/10/13/flow-with-the-moon/
    <3 Kendall