Philobiblon: Menstruation: why is it so hard to say the word?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

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)


Blogger Penny L. Richards said...

Guess it depends what that cleric meant by "some"--or maybe he was just guessing?

I have a 19th-century North Carolina schoolmaster explaining to a brother-guardian that his thirteen-year-old sister's behavior, mood, and health problems will soon be relieved by menarche: "Your sister is approaching that period of life so critical to females, when the crisis expected on every lunar change shall have arrived it is the opinion of her physicians that the greater impediment to the full enjoyment of health will be in great measure removed." (Jacob Mordecai to Joseph Prentis Jr., 12 July 1810, Webb-Prentis Collection, University of Virginia, Charlottesville VA.) So at least in 1810, it was considered reasonable to expect well-fed planter daughters to begin menstruating around the age of 13 or 14.

11/29/2005 06:57:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you visited The Museum of Menstruation? It's run by a man, which is quite cool.
In Indian culture, women are still not supposed to take part in any kind of ritual, and in many cases even enter temples if they're menstruating - though a highly progressive grandaunt of mine told me though, if god made women then s/he surely knows what's going on, and shouldn't have a problem with it - rather refreshing.

11/29/2005 07:56:00 pm  
Blogger Blue Earth Notes said...

Thanks for the historical data about tampons!

Tampons were so liberating that I became furious and suspicious when newspapers began publishing articles about toxic shock syndrome (a problem I never hear about anymore, by the way). I was convinced that the disease was nothing but an anti-feminist plot to destroy the tampon industry and get us back on the rag again.

Yes, menstruation was very hush-hush when I was growing up. There was a film about menstruation, which the girls in my class had to get special permission to see. We were all pretty solemn about it.

I'm glad my menstruating days are behind me. No more getting my period on the bus on a day when I'm wearing white pants. Kind strangers did bond with me, though, letting me know I had bled through my pants when I got up . So the subject wasn't completely taboo.

But the word "period" was preferred to "menstruation." Odd.

11/29/2005 09:01:00 pm  
Blogger Nina said...

Even now people from rural and semi-rural parts of India continue to have bizarre ideas about menstruation. Even educated people. Like my room mate in college who sho fervently believed that touching a plant while menstruating would cause it to wither away, that pickles would spoil, babies would get infected with unknown illnesses...and she was/is a biologist!!

11/29/2005 11:42:00 pm  
Blogger melinama said...

My mom called it "The Curse"

Great post, I'm sending it to my daughter. Fascinating. I'll visit the museum, too!

11/29/2005 11:51:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I blogged about the notion of "impurity" and menstruation in the Indian context ( recently. I was also told, by my aunt that sanitary napkins should on no account be seen by a man...but the first period was also celebrated-strange contradictions.

11/29/2005 11:55:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks for all the comments. I'm not quite going to write the Menstruation Monologues, but I do feel like something should be done since I suspect the girls of today are getting just the same sort of messages that we were. As Nina's comment indicates, these taboos and beliefs can be very powerful, even in apparently rational circles.

11/30/2005 12:51:00 am  
Blogger Jagadish said...

In India, sanitary napkins are sold at the neighbourhood departmental/pharmaceutical stores and packed in black coloured plastic covers!

So much so that even diapers/nappy pads I buy for my daughter are wrapped in the black covers!

11/30/2005 06:27:00 am  
Blogger Frank said...

About the medieval girls menstruating at ten or eleven: it could be he was describing girls from noble or well-to-do families. They tended to start menstruating earlier (and thus married off earlier) than the rest of the female population due to better - relative - nutrition and medical care. Maybe also because they didn't have to work as much as peasant women (but that's sheer conjecture on my part based on my understanding that girls, such as gymnasts, who do a lot of strenuous exercise menstruate later). Plus, I'm sure there have always been genetic variations that make some women menstruate earlier and some later than "normal."

11/30/2005 07:20:00 am  
Blogger rauf said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12/01/2005 05:13:00 am  
Blogger rauf said...

yea it beats me too

12/01/2005 05:16:00 am  
Blogger purpleelephant said...

I hope I'm not steering this too far off topic but apart from the obvious swimming answer, I'm not so sure why tampons are seen as so liberating, when really I see them as just another way of making sure that menstruation is something embarassing and dirty that should be covered up and kept inside of us. Out of sight out of mind.
Of course which products we use is entirely a matter of personal choice but we should also be digging deep and asking ourselves why being 'on the rag' seems so unappealing.
Anyway maybe I should write a post on the subject myself instead of taking over here!

I guess I am of the in-between generation, growing up in the mid/late 80s. Mum herself was very open about menstruation and puberty but although unlike yours she never actually came out and told me that this sort of thing should not be discussed in front of my father, our conversations were always held in lowered voices, in the bedroom with the door shut, so I guess it was a bit like an unwritten rule.
I would be interested to know what it is like today, my suspicion is that it is not a lot different.

12/01/2005 12:43:00 pm  
Blogger kate.d. said...

can i just relay a kinda funny anecdote? i went to grad school with a girl who wrote a very earnest paper about how a certain contemporary irish novel was an example of celebrating "menses." when she presented the paper at a big irish lit conference, she wore a red suit.

the funny thing is, i think the humor was lost on her.

12/01/2005 08:44:00 pm  
Blogger Tim Worstall said...

Something possibly apocryphal. I’d be interested if anyone could clear it up for me.

Menstruation, in Victorian times, was called "The Blessing" as it indicated fertility (so the story goes anyway).
Now, as mentioned above, "The Curse".

Did such a change in the description occuer, if so, why and when?

12/04/2005 03:02:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I think the answer to this is that for millennia the positive and negative constructions had existed side-by-side. It was clearly understood that a woman who was not menstruating was unlikely to get pregnant, so in that way it was a "blessing", yet by the same token there all the negative connotations discussed in the post.

12/04/2005 09:37:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mother told me I couldn't use tampons until I was married, although she wouldn't tell me why. A couple of years later I found the instruction leaflet from her box of tampons in the trash can. Lo and behold, it said that virgins could use tampons. I didn't exactly know what a virgin was, but I knew that I was one, so I bought a box and taught myself how to use them, but I had to hide them from my mom, lest she think I was no longer a virgin (which was apparently a bad thing).

This was in the early 70s. I was fifteen. How things have changed...

12/08/2005 06:02:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Well maybe things have changed for some. I still hate to think how many girls in the western world must start menstruating without having had a decent explanation of what is happening to their bodies - given the frequent inadequacy of sex education and parents' refusal to face facts about their daughters' development.

12/08/2005 06:26:00 pm  
Blogger Grace said...

"It should not be and is not normally accompanied by pain or malaise."

WTF?? If this is "sensible" and "liberating" why do I still suffer for three days every month (even having been on the pill for nearly four years - less blood, just as much cramps, often for over a week)? Why can't people accept that it's DIFFERENT for different women, and having cramps is not a sign of physical degeneracy?

BTW, I am a well-fed westerner and hit menarche at 13 and 10 months. Each of my younger sisters knocked another year off that total.

12/15/2005 08:58:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We live in an East Coast blue state and I had to explain to my (non-religious) sister-in-law in 1990 that she could still urinate with a tampon in - they are completely seperate functions.

12/16/2005 02:50:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

That is just so sad, and marks an astonishing failure in the education system. If you don't understand the basics of how your body is structured and works, then you have to be fundamentally handicapped in navigating your life.

12/16/2005 07:06:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

And Grace, I'm sorry about your suffering, but I think this passage was addressing claims common early last century that any girl or woman who was menstruating shouldn't play sport, or do anything else taxing, indeed almost to the length of suggesting they should lie in a darkened room for a week a month. That of course meant women were not able to do taxing paid work, etc. ...

12/16/2005 11:23:00 pm  
Blogger Another Damned Medievalist said...

I just don't use it because it's long. And people tend to do 'nucular' mispronunciations. But it's not all that hard to understand that it's one of the hardest cultural taboos to overcome. It's also one of the most common and longstanding, worldwide.

12/17/2005 07:47:00 am  
Blogger Mary Ann said...

The cultural taboos surrounding menstruation are powerful. I must tell you, my mother's version of "Don't let your father see it..." was to require us to wrap the offending napkin in many layers of toilet paper and carry it (discreetly?!) through the living room, dining room and kitchen to a covered garbage can.

But, honestly, the word itself is a problem. It's the "u." We don't have any trouble with frustration, agitation, flagellation, rumination, iteration, justification, rationalization, castration, denigration, saturation, calibration. You get the drift. But try any of those with a "u" before the -ation. The only exception I can think of is gradation vs graduation - which seems to work okay.

12/17/2005 03:29:00 pm  
Blogger Dark Daughta said...

I read The Curse when I was in my early twenties. It took me a long way to understanding and getting comfortable with my cycle. It also really concretized my political analysis of the blood as a counter-patriarchal icon. I'm glad people are still talking about it. I don't see the book's name pop up very often. Thanks for this.

2/10/2006 09:35:00 pm  
Blogger Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

Hi. Found your post via Bardiac. Enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

If you are interested in reading a great historical fiction novel related to this topic, check out the Red Tent. Based on the biblical stories of Rachael and her sisters, the red tent was the place where women went when they were menstruating. In a way, I wish we had something like the red tent, a place to go during your period where you could rest and deal with it. Sometimes I think we've liberated ourselves too much..

2/13/2006 03:20:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was luckily raised by two physician parents, who are quite matter-of-fact (especially my mother) about anything and everything.... although my sister continues to be utterly embarassed by anything and everything related to menstruation (she's fifteen). Go figure. And period is just easier phoenetically than menstrual cycle-- that's an extra two syllables!

2/15/2006 03:01:00 am  

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