On Menstruation

| Friday, January 27, 2012
Today's Tune: Skeleton

If you're immediately freaking out at the idea of discussing menstruation, then you need to stay and read this. Don't run away. Don't do it. I will chase you down and bring you right back. This is something that needs to be talked about.

Menstruation is something that's viewed as a big, dirty secret. I've lost count of the number of boys/men I've come across who have absolutely no idea what it is or how it actually works, despite dating many girls/women. I've lost count of the number of GIRLS AND WOMEN I've come across who don't really understand what's happening to their body, they just know it's gross and dirty and something to be ashamed of.

Look: I am not going to sit here and pretend to be Sally Feminist, Spokeswoman of Rejoicing in Your Bloodtime. I know that periods can be terrible. Like, really terrible. I know they can make us feel sick or uncomfortable or alien in our own bodies. But they do happen. They are natural. And the avoidance and "EW GROSS" attitude that a lot of men (and women) adapt around them is ridiculous. There are all sorts of stigmas and stereotypes attached to it. That it turns females into raging hosebeasts for no apparent reason. That it makes them burst into tears because you didn't compliment their haircut. That they eat a lot of junk food and dress in sweatpants and watch reruns of *insert super girly show here* and generally forget how to be sexy and desirable in any way.

Obviously, these are all incredibly sexist stereotypes. It implies that a woman's job is to always be a sexual creature for the pleasure of others and that if she can't be sexual (aka she's on the rag and EW GROSS WHO WOULD GO THERE), then she turns into Frumpy McFrumppants. It implies that one of the biggest differentiating factors between men and women (the fact that we menstruate and they do not) heightens our stereotypical irrationality and bitchiness. Yet, these stereotypes are perpetuated by BOTH sexes. Constantly.

Premenstrual Syndrome is a very real thing. It can cause bloating, hormonal mood swings, cramping, fatigue, food cravings, and all of that. It's silly to pretend that this isn't reality. That said, it is blown wildly out of proportion and is largely misunderstood. Some women experience very severe PMS and need to be treated medically. For ACTUAL MEDICAL ISSUES, not "hurr hurr bitch so crazy she needs Paxil." Others experience very few, if any, symptoms. However, if a woman puts a toe out of line and acts in a way that doesn't perfectly fit with the ideal of the nice, kind, sweet, hospitable woman, what happens? BITCH MUST BE ON THE RAG. ARE YOU ON YOUR PERIOD OR SOMETHING? Never mind that PMS occurs PRE THE MENSTRUATION and most symptoms alleviate when a women is actually menstruating. Misconceptions are fun!

All of this is goofy. Utterly goofy. Many women continue to feel sexual while menstruating. We experience frustration, sadness, and anger due to the events happening at the time, not due to the state of our uterus. We do not become a barren wasteland of femininity. Some of us continue our lives in the face of discomfort, pain, and stress. Some of us don't get periods at all. People don't ever consider how potentially hurtful and nasty it can be to make a period comment to a woman struggling with infertility or gender assignment or hormonal balance issues, do they? Not that period comments aren't generally nasty anyway, but you know what I mean.

What's my point in all this? I think menstruation is something that's all too commonly glossed over in fiction. I'm not suggesting that we include it if it doesn't fit the story at hand, just as we don't normally include using the toilet or showering unless it's relevant to the plot. But we should work on the attitude of avoiding menstruation because it's GROSS and ICKY and NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR ABOUT THAT. Teenage girls are already menstruating, or they're getting ready to start. There is no better time to establish the foundation that their period is NOT something to be grossed out or ashamed about. This is part of their lives. It helps to explore the themes and metaphors of discovering sexuality and womanhood (or even the emotions involved with NOT having one's period normally and how that can make them feel).

I mean, avoidance is a common thing. Can't deal with periods in a romance because EEEWWW SO NOT SEXY. Can't deal with it in adventures because the girl's fighting evil, she can't be bothered with PERIODS. There are vampires in a high school who GO BONKERS WHEN THEY SMELL BLOOD, but ew ew ew let's not talk about the school full of menstruating girls because that's sooooo nasty. Come on. We can man and woman up about this.

I remember being ten or eleven years old and reading ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET for the first time and being completely floored that these characters were talking about periods like normal girls. They asked each other what it was like. They shared their stories. They felt worried and excited and scared. I was on the cusp of puberty! I could relate!

There's so much rich material to be explored in coming-of-age stories, if only we're willing to let go of our hang-ups and stereotypes. And again, I'm not suggesting we include menstruation just to make a point or if it doesn't fit with the flow (har har) of the narrative. Maybe I'm just asking us to think critically about our own perceptions and guilt issues and annoyances about menstruation and look at the way we are (or aren't) portraying it in fiction. Even something as simple as rethinking period jokes ("Ohmigod, Jodi is being such a bitch, is she on her period?") is a start.

What say you, readers?


{ Old Kitty } at: January 27, 2012 at 5:23 AM said...

Ever seen Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie? Poor Tippi Hedren (because of some childhood trauma) is PETRIFIED of the colour red. A little drop of it on her blouse (spilled nail varnish for instance) and she near enough tears her gorgeous blonde hair out and has a proper fit.

I watched this film when I was like 10 years old and I remember wondering how this character survived every month during her periods. That's Hitchcock for you. Didn't really know how to write real women!

Take care

{ Mindy McGinnis } at: January 27, 2012 at 6:08 AM said...

Yeah. Even some men that I respect who are intelligent throw their hands up in the air whenever menstruation comes up, and women too. You know what? I'm a woman. I bleed. I'm OK with that.

The first time I heard the phrase, "I don't trust something that can bleed for seven days and not die," I didn't realize it was supposed to be a putdown. was like, "Yep, I can - and you can't."

So put that in your crock pot.

{ Emily White } at: January 27, 2012 at 6:30 AM said...

You know, I remember getting to the bathroom scene at the beginning of Breaking Dawn and all of a sudden thinking, "that's right! Edward would have killed Bella a looooong time ago."

Yeah, I think there are a lot of common, everyday issues that fiction tends to ignore. I don't really care so long as it's not obvious the author avoided it.

{ Landra } at: January 27, 2012 at 7:25 AM said...

@Emily Lol! That's exactly what I thought. Technically Bella should have died in book 1. There's just no way.

Steph, I'm right there with ya! I believe in the whole reality bit of novels that's missing. I'm in the same boat as well. Too much detail and it's definitely not cool. But just to add the fact that it occurs would make the characters and what they go through more realistic, IMO.

{ prerna pickett } at: January 27, 2012 at 7:45 AM said...

great discussion. I think of this as well when reading stories. And it's not something to shy away from. It's been happening since the beginning of time, you'd think we'd be adults about it by now.

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: January 27, 2012 at 8:26 AM said...

My wife was working with some dude this past week who made the "must be so-and-so's time of the month" crack. She called him the backwash from a colonic. Everyone else cracked up and he shut up.

On a more productive note, for me at least it's a particularly awkward thing to consider writing. Not that it wouldn't be valuable, but given how _particular_ it is to female experience, I'd have to find some textual workarounds to write about the experience. Gets into all kinds of mansplaining territory.

In that regard, has anyone else read Norman Rush's MATING? Not from the angle of menstruation, but from use of male and female perspectives.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: January 27, 2012 at 8:47 AM said...

Kurt -

You're exactly right, and I completely understand how it may be a daunting topic for a male writer to cover. As you said, it is very particular to the female experience, and it's one that a male writer wouldn't want to unintentionally botch or belittle. I think there are workarounds, but it's definitely something to think about. I imagine there will be those who say a man could never do it justice, but then I think of the scene in CARRIE and feel like Stephen King appropriately conveyed Carrie's horror and confusion about what was happening to her because she'd been so forcibly sheltered.

I have not read MATING! But now I will add it to my list :)

{ Tasha Seegmiller } at: January 27, 2012 at 11:28 AM said...

But if you think about it, Stephen King's willingness to tackle this subject made Carrie. I think if it is plot appropriate, there are ways to cover the topic very well.

{ Yael } at: January 27, 2012 at 1:47 PM said...

Thank you for writing this.

I mentioned my period in front of one of my exes. His response? After his initial freak out, he began to give me a very detailed description of his latest bowel movement.

Umm, dude. There's a difference between a graphic description of blood pouring out of a vagina and simply mentioning the fact that, you know, you're having a period. Why do so many people act as if you're doing the former every time you dare to bring up the "p-word"?

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: January 27, 2012 at 2:58 PM said...

I read MATING nearly 20 years ago when I was living in the Czech Republic. I quite liked it then, but I'm curious how it stacks up today. The author is a man (obviously) writing 1st person in a woman's voice (primarily diary entries of a graduate student, late 20s(?) in East Africa about a man. All the erudite, private language an overeducated graduate student would use.

A tricky project in its own right, but it's an approach to another voice that is more dependent upon interrelationships, which is for me a little easier to imagine than a physical experience - and menstruation isn't just _any_ experience - it's rather defining in a way. So - I guess hats off to Stephen King?

{ erica and christy } at: January 27, 2012 at 4:44 PM said...

Wow. That's a very, very good point. And not just because I'm on my last day of my period.

Yes, I said it. I said it. I said it because I can. ;)

Truly, excellent advice. My current mc goes an entire summer without worrying about having hers, even though she's 17. Gah!!

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: January 27, 2012 at 6:01 PM said...

honestly, i hadn't really thought about it. but now i am!

{ Brooke R. Busse } at: January 28, 2012 at 12:50 PM said...

Have you read the verse novel Crank by Ellen Hopkins? It's brought up a few times, but only when it's important.

A few years ago, I ended up in the hospital for a blood transfusion because of my period. I have just recently been declared no longer anemic. Before, when I would tell people that I was and they would ask why, I would feel weird about telling them. Later I would wonder why.

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