Bloody Hell: Let's Talk Period Stigma
Hello are you tired of hearing us talk about ourselves yet? We are. That’s why, this week, we’re transitioning into something a little different: we’re going to talk about our exploration into the world of period education. Did you know that menstrual blood has been used as a form of revolution?
Image: Her Period
Cassidy: To My Menstruator in Arms,
With the publication of our Book List, I think now is a better time than ever to start using this platform as a source of education rather than self-reflection. If our Chicas miss us, we’re always right behind the curtain.
Last week, I mentioned how often we use the term “taboo” when we talk about menstruation. I want to return to that. There’s a certain universality to the period stigma, to the extent that periods become like Voldemort—a sort of evil that “must not be named.” But where in the hell did this fear originate? And why does it continue to hold us in its thrall?
According to an article published by the team at Clue, “the creation of menstrual taboos took place independently and repeatedly across different peoples and geographies. But scholars don’t agree on why this happened.” However, there does seem to be some degree of consensus that menstruation hasn’t always been viewed through a negative lens.
Scholar and social anthropologist Chris Knight theorizes that the early manifestations of menstrual taboos actually originated within a female-advantaging framework. Within this framework, women in pre-agricultural societies established their cycle as a period of isolation in order to incentivize a successful hunt: they would gather away from men before the hunt, and reward the hunters when they returned with food. This allowed a nutritional hierarchy to manifest, and by ritualizing their menses, they created a cultural link between blood and power.
The evolution of this cultural link, Knight postulates, is at the “crux of all the world’s patriarchal religions.” A bold claim, but it makes intuitive sense: as big game became scarce, and the cyclical nature of hunting was no longer sustainable, men would co-opt the menstrual huts and women-centric spaces for their own rituals. Within the foundations of patriarchal spirituality, he says, “we find one fundamental idea. Some things are sacred. And if the body isn’t sacred, nothing is. Blood was a mark of the sacredness of the body. So the paradox is, that the very thing that benefited women throughout evolution is now made to be, and experienced as, the most disempowering.”
It is frustrating, but not surprising, that this form of power has become so warped in its perception. And—no thanks to the patriarchy—it is not an isolated phenomenon. Remember when you first read Inga Muscio’s Cunt? I have a distinct memory of adolescent Elise telling people with pride that “cunt” was once a title of respect for women.
Let's bring that respect back. I hope Chica will allow menstruators to begin to reclaim their power when they are bleeding. Fuck the stigma, right?
P.S. Here’s another good article to read: did you know women in Northern Ireland used their menstrual blood as a means of resisting the state? Badass!
Elise: Dear My Sweetest Taboo,
I'm so glad that you wrote about the history of period taboos. In our Western patriarchal society, we often love to blame period taboo on non-Western cultures. While many cultures around the world have period taboos, this is largely a misconception, a tricky way to think we're lucky to have our tampons taxed. I listened to a great podcast about cultural period taboos, "Blood Coming Out of Her Wherever," with Dr. Alma Gottlieb, a cultural anthropologist, interviewed by Kate Clancy.
I appreciate that Dr. Gottlieb begins by defining the origin of the word taboo, which is neither positive or negative. Franz Steiner, an ethnologist, found that taboo originated from multiple Polynesian languages, and is considered to be a practice or belief that is set apart or of a different status.
You mentioned that women in non-agricultural societies isolated themselves in timing with the men leaving for a big hunt. An example of this is seen in the Yurok women. A common misconception is that these women were alone in menstrual huts. Instead, the women synced their cycles with the moon, so that most gathered in a menstrual hut for the same time every month. I was first introduced to the idea of syncing your cycle with your moon in Cunt, and it is simply the idea that by consistently studying the moon cycles and spending time in the moonlight, your biological clock will begin to align with the phases of the moon. No studies have been conducted to prove this, and I think most modern bleeders living in industrial societies will find that their cycles have no correlation with the moon since we rarely pay attention to its waxing and waning.
The Yurok women use this 10 day period for spiritual inquiry, reflection, and bathing. Their taboo is that menstrual blood is so sacred and powerful that its power can't be dissipated in mundane activities. Men also have their own ten days for their sacred activities.
Even without physical isolation, we have managed to isolate ourselves. We are menstruating 20-25% of our life before menopause, and yet we're taught to never mention it. In an attempt to make a pun the other day, I googled "slang expressions for a period," and came across multiple blog posts about using period slang. One reads, "I still turn a deep shade of red whenever I say the word period in front of my husband. I don't know why, but that word feels icky and dirty and wrong to me." Another, "Saying I'm on my period can sound so, well, graphic." If we can't say period to our significant others, how are we going to have thoughtful and thorough conversations with our doctors about our reproductive health?
P.S. - Dr. Gottlieb also talked about groups in New Guinea whose men slash their penis once a month to bleed as women do!