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Tag: Menstruation

Leaky Ladies and Their Worrisome Wombs

This week’s post is an extract from Nina Funnell’s chapter in the recent feminist anthology, Destroying The Joint – Why Women have To Change The World (edited by Jane Caro). I was prompted to share this post after viewing an advertisement for menstrual products that I think is just fabulous – do take a look:

The announcement came on a Monday morning during full-school assembly. As the students sat quietly in the school gym, the deputy principal took to the stage and with her usual unimpressed air, she declared that the tampon and pad vending machines located in the girl’s bathrooms had been deemed ‘inappropriate’.

‘These machines’, she announced, ‘give an unladylike impression to our school’s guests, particularly male visitors who on, occasion, have cause to occupy the female facilities. They will be removed immediately.’

I bristled uncomfortably. What exactly did she mean by ‘unladylike’? How could there possibly be anything unladylike about products which – by definition – only ladies had cause to use? …

At recess I took the issue up with my friends. We talked about the stigma surrounding menstruation and the ridiculous tampon and pad ads on television: Why do they always use that stupid blue dye? What do they think we are, Smurfs or something? And why do the women always dance around like getting their period is the Best Thing Ever? It’s sooo patronising. Why can’t they ever just portray the subject realistically?

We talked about the decision to remove the tampon machines and the significance of it being a woman who had passed down the order – what does she use when she’s got her period? Doesn’t she remember what it is like to be caught without a pad or a tampon? Besides, if you can’t acknowledge female menstruation in a woman’s bathroom, then where on earth can you acknowledge it? – and together we agreed that something had to be done. Someone had to take action.

The following day I met with the other members of our Student Representative Council. I raised the issue and there was universal agreement that the tampon and pad machines should stay. Later that week I met with our principal, a kind and liberal man who immediately recognised the ridiculousness of the situation; he overturned the decision and we got to keep our machines. It was a small victory but it gave me a taste of something bigger. Girls could rewrite the rules….

Lifting the Curse

The year I got my first period was the same year that the movie How to Make an American Quilt came out. I remember this, because before seeing the film I had felt anxious and deeply ashamed about the changes that were occurring in my body. In the opening scene of the film, Winona Ryder’s character introduces the woman she idolises: ‘[Marianna] had lived in Paris which made her very mysterious to me when I was a kid. She taught me French, made café au laits and the year I got my period, she gave me a glass of red wine.’

This may not sound particularly remarkable. But as a thirteen-year-old girl, it had a profound impact on me because it was the first time I had seen menstruation portrayed as something which could positively bond women together. My body was changing in a way that I couldn’t control, but this was the first time that I felt that maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. In fact, this scene struck me with such force that when the movie came out on video, I immediately hired it just to watch that one scene over.

For women and girls around the world, it’s vitally important that we develop narratives about menstruation which counter the dominant cultural and religious discourses. And there is good news here. After all, the only thing more powerful than a taboo is breaking one.

Thankfully, feminists, women’s health professionals, artists, individual women and even some advertising executives are already doing this work. And since I don’t like to acknowledge a problem without also acknowledging those who are trying to fix it, let’s take a look at a few examples.

In 2010, the tampon and pad company Kotex produced a bitingly satirical video that parodied the conventional pad advertisements on TV. The clip formed part of a wider campaign called ‘Break the Cycle’, which aimed to challenge the stigma around menstruation. The clip begins with a woman on a couch saying, ‘How do I feel about my period? Ah, we are like this.’ She then crosses her fingers indicating tight friendship. She continues: ‘I love it. It makes me feel really pure. Sometimes I just want to run on the beach. I like to twirl, maybe in slow motion. And usually by the third day, I just want to dance. The ads on TV are really helpful, because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s what is supposed to happen!’ The video quickly went viral, and dozens of articles were subsequently written about the unhelpful ways in which menstruation is discussed and depicted in the public arena…

Even vampire themed texts, which have historically been read as allegories about monstrous menstruation, are beginning to play around with the stigma. In the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, for example, Buffy’s superpower strength is intrinsically linked to her menstrual cycle and every time a vampire is near she experiences light period cramps. This operates as an inbuilt alarm system to alert her to the danger around her. While this ‘ability’ was dropped for the series of the show by the same name, its inclusion in the movie represents an interesting break with conventional portrayals of menstruation in vampire-themed texts.

Moving away from art and popular culture, community workers and not-for-profit organisations in the developing world are doing some amazing work to address the social exclusion of menstruating women. For example, in Rwanda, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) has partnered with existing local women’s networks to offer microloans to women who then use the money to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality and eco-friendly sanitary pads. Not only does this provide the community with access to low-cost sanitary goods, but the model also offers women financial independence and increased economic security. Already this model has proved effective in increasing the school attendance of girls who may otherwise have stayed at home during their period.

But perhaps the most important work is the work that is being done by ordinary women in every day settings. In households, workplaces, schoolyards and online, girls and women are breaking a powerful taboo by talking about their experiences. Sisters, mothers, daughters and friends are blogging and speaking out about the menstrual stigma. They are developing new ways of thinking and talking about women’s bodies and, in the process, are fighting back against outmoded patriarchal attitudes. These women and girls are changing the future for all of us. They are our destroyers.

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

Dr Jekyll and Mrs Hyde

I had a revealing conversation with a single parent of a 12-year-old girl the other day. His daughter had been feeling particularly moody, he said, as she was just about to menstruate. I asked if she had had this premenstrual phase of her cycle explained to her. “Yes, she knows all about her periods” was his response.

Yet I suspected after talking with him further that, as it is for many young girls who are given “the talk”, this conversation was reduced to an explanation of how to care for herself physically during her period. In its most simplistic form, it is often a chat about pads versus tampons, and tends to come with the dire warning that if they are not “careful” they could now fall pregnant.

The fact is, once our girls menstruate, we don’t tend to be very helpful in advising them beyond sanitation, abstinence and, if we are particularly switched on, contraception options. Rarely do we discuss how to deal with the fact that for many girls and women emotions may be heightened during the premenstrual phase and behaviour altered.

And even if we do allude to premenstrual tension (PMT), it tends to be in terms that promote and reinforce the archetypal “crazy lady” myth, which would have us reduce everything a woman expresses during this time to hysterical ramblings. It is particularly apt that women are often referred to as being “hysterical” during this stage in their cycle, as the term derives from the Greek word meaning “womb” (hence the term “hysterectomy”). Historically, society would have us believe some deep flaw within our wombs is literally making us insane!

One day she is all smiles and gladness. A stranger in the house seeing her will sing her praise . . . But the next day she is dangerous to look at or approach: She is in a wild frenzy . . . savage to all alike, friend or foe . . . Semonides, Greek philosopher (c. 556–468 BC)

Premenstrual tension has been recognised as a medical condition since 1953 and has even controversially been used as a defence for murder—hence the headline to this post, which comes from a newspaper report chronicling a 1980s court case in London in which PMT was raised (unsuccessfully, I might add) as a defence for homicide.

Premenstrual tension may include physical symptoms such as leg cramps, bloating and headaches; emotional changes such as increased depression and anxiety and lower self-esteem; and behavioural changes including increased irritability, social isolation and being accident prone.

I have been known to suffer from particularly bad PMT at various points in my life. Leg cramps? Check. Bloating? Absolutely. Increased depression? I have been known to weep at the thought of making yet another school lunch. Irritability? My ex-husband used to always joke that I would threaten to divorce him once every month.

Despite knowing my feelings at this time are certainly heightened, I also believe they are valid. In fact, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learnt to be very attentive to them, as I can often more clearly see, for example, what is wrong in my relationships at this stage. Usually I tend to repress these darker feelings. In a sense, my inner voice stops whispering and starts screaming at me (okay, okay, and often at others) that week!

I am no longer so quick to silence my womb and my female intuition.

Rachel Hansen, a colleague and sexual health educator, offered me her insights:

In my 20s, I used to dismiss PMT as that time of the month when I was particularly irrational, but I now think of this as a time when I actually allow myself to acknowledge and express the full range of my emotions. Talk about liberating! Menstruation has traditionally been associated with craziness and all things negative. I think that we women have to reclaim this time in our lives, to reclaim it as a particularly special, empowered time – heck, perhaps the closest we get to being Superwoman each month!

A friend who is a mum to two girls explained to me how she supports her eldest daughter to not ignore, but rather manage, her mood swings:

She would get so emotional and fiery, to the point where she was confused and didn’t know what was ‘wrong’ with her and why she kept arguing with us. I sat her down and explained that it’s very normal to feel the way she does and that her feelings are legitimate, but that in the midst of those more out-of-control moments around period time, we need a word to remind her, and us, as to why she’s struggling to articulate herself. I told her to choose a word that reminds her of something calm and happy that she could use, so that she can just say the word, and then that will be our signal to just stop and hug her, to show her that we care about her feelings, but that we need to pick up the conversation later. (Most of the time, what worried her so much is forgotten later anyway.) Her word is ‘unicorns’. This works really well for us and for her, and has made a huge difference.

Psychologist Jacqui Manning offered me the following really practical tips for girls (and women) to help them better understand and manage this stage:

  • Talk and/or read. You might think you’re the only one who feels moody or down, but chances are there are some good female friends and/or family members who feel similarly at this time of the month. Remember they are different to you, they might not experience everything you’re talking about, but chances are you’ll have some common ground. Knowing you’re not alone can really help!
  • Download an app to your smartphone that logs your periods so you’ll be able to check dates and know whether your impending period might be having an effect on you. Set a reminder a few days before your period is due so you know that if you’re suddenly feeling really down on yourself or upset for no reason it might just be related to your changing hormones.
  • Try to surround yourself with positive people that make you feel good about yourself and be kind to yourself during your most vulnerable days. Rest more, listen to uplifting music, don’t attempt too many challenges at once, don’t drink (alcohol is a depressant on your system), eat healthily.
  • Take it one day at a time and realise that just as quickly as your moods have taken you into a dark state, they will swing just as quickly up again to return you to what’s normal for you. Say to yourself, “All I need to do is get through today/the next class; that’s all I need to focus on.” And remember that as bad as it feels at that moment, you won’t remember it in a year (or hopefully a week!).

Of course, it’s also important to distinguish the feelings that really are worth listening to during this period (pardon the pun) from those that are okay to merely let wash over us. A good friend offered me this when I asked for her thoughts on PMT last week:

Danni, it’s all a bit too close to home for me today given that I’ve spent the morning in bed feeling bloated and crying for no clear reason at all. Based on the thought processes I was having, it has something to do with a letter that was sent about me in high school, a sad movie I once saw, and the fact that my boyfriend doesn’t have time to go out to lunch today. The TRIFECTA!

Certainly our womb-words can seem somewhat confused and irrelevant, but they can also be deeply insightful.
I’m choosing to embrace the journey and help my daughters embrace it too.

This image and the one at the top of this post are from our series of FREE Facebook cover photos that we had specially designed for all our Enlighten Amazons. Simply click on the image or click here to have one of these gorgeous images on your Facebook timeline.

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