Menstruation: why is it so hard to say the word?
"Condoms", "anal sex", all sorts of previously banned terms are regularly bandied about by the mainstream media with scarcely a wince to be seen. Yet how often do you see the word "menstruation"? Nothing (necessarily) to do with the sexual act, so, you'd think, less likely to be taboo, but somehow it is still seen as something not to be mentioned in polite company, or "family newspapers".
I've been reflecting on this after reading Menstruation: A Cultural History, edited by Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie, which provides a historical framework for understanding the strength of the taboo. Also, it makes clear how much beliefs about women contributed to the framing of women as inferior.
It starts, as so often, with Aristotle. For him, there was only one sex, females being merely an inferior form of male. This conclusion arose because as the normal human shape was male, for a woman to be capable of producing a male, menstrual blood must be male, in effect a lesser form of sperm.
When this got picked up by medieval cleric scholars who, theoretically at least, had no contact with women, it only got worse. Menstruation was a cleansing process - uniquely required by the female body - (so emmenagogues - preparations for bring on menstruation - could be seen as pro-natal, rather than abortifacients). Although I wonder how many women really understood what was going on. As a consequence of this belief, menstrual blood and women who were menstruating, could be seen as impure, and dangerous. (The process of churching women after birth certainly had something to do with this - although not according to official theology.)
And it meant that menstruating women would stain mirrors. "If a woman has this flow and looks into a mirror during this time, this mirror becomes like a bloody cloud. And if the mirror is new, one can hardly remove the red staining from the mirror, but if it is old, one can easily remove it," said the Secreta Mullierum [Secrets of Women, written circa 1300.
Then such a lovely image: "Therefore Avicenna says that the uterus of women is like a toilet that stands in the middle of town and to which people go to defecate, just like all residues of the blood from all over the woman's body go to the uterus and are cleaned there." (p. 66)
And a menstruating woman can pollute in all sorts of ways - speaking to one makes a man's voice hoarse; a baby conceived when a woman is menstruating would become leprous, it could give children the evil eye, and sex with a menstruating woman could give men all manner of diseases.
It is not until the 20th century that you start to get to heroes in this story - usually female doctors and researchers, the "most definitive expression of the approach" was in The Hygiene of Menstruation: AN Authoritative Statement by the Medical Women's Federation in 1925, which said: "Menstruation is a natural function; it is not an illness, and girls should therefore continue their normal work and play during the period. It should not be and is not normally accompanied by pain or malaise." (p. 112)
Yet there were still social hangovers. In 1926 Johnson & Johnson printed a "silent purchase coupon" for Modess sanitary napkins, so it "may be obtained in a crowded store without embarrassment or discussion". But still women complained that the shape of the box was easily identifiable. (p. 250)
(Tampons, by the way, for the historical record, were patented in 1931 and put on sale in 1934.)
What strikes me is that growing up in the early Seventies in Australia I was still affected by many of these attitudes. Mum told me carefully that I had to make sure Dad didn't see my sanitary pads. (I don't recall any explanation being given, there was just an air of this being something shameful and dirty.) And this wasn't surprising when I read the sex education books that she'd had at my age, which still referred to "clearing out impurities" in the body and similar.
I wonder what messages young teens get today. Are they any better?
* An interesting side-point: a 14th-century London cleric wrote that some girls started menstruating "in the eleventh or in the tenth year. And at that point they are capable of conception." Which certainly doesn't seem to square with our ideas about medieval nutrition and health. (p. 55)