If you’re grossed out by periods, you might want to skip this post. Or, since menstruation is a perfectly normal biological function, maybe you should read this post and contemplate why it is you’re grossed out by periods.
My schoolmates and I hurried up the gangway of the Lady Baltimore with the loud, obnoxious swagger that is universal to groups of hormonally-charged 13-year-olds. We were almost done with our last year of middle school, many of us were fresh from our bar and bat mitzvahs, and summer was beckoning us. As Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff said in that year’s summer anthem (already on heavy rotation on our local radio station): “Every moment frontin and maxin/ Chillin in the car they spent all day waxin/ Leanin to the side but you can’t speed through/Two miles an hour so everybody sees you/There’s an air of love and of happiness/And this is the Fresh Prince’s new definition of summer madness”
Profound, I know. It was 1991.
As I stepped onto the deck of the ship, a faint ache in my abdomen tugged at me. I had noticed the pain earlier in the day as I skipped up the stairs of the State House, along with a slightly wet feeling in my underwear. I figured I was just feeling a little sea-sick after the long boat-ride, and the warm spring sun was making me not-so-fresh. I shrugged off the discomfort and sought out my small group of friends.
About twenty minutes later, I was leaning on the rails of the observation deck, looking out at the Chesapeake Bay, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see my friend Rose with a look of mild distaste and concern on her face. She leaned in and whispered:
“You need to go to the bathroom. You’re…leaking.”
I looked at her quizzically. Leaking? What did she mean? I couldn’t have wet myself…I was in 8th grade, for God’s sake!
“Your period. You got your period. It’s…all over your butt.”
I craned my neck to see what she was talking about. There it was: a large red stain decorated the seat of the new white jeans shorts my grandmother had given me.
My period. I had my period. Like, for real.
I glanced past Rose to discover Jessica Freidman and her group of Jewish American Royalty smirking at me and cackling. Oh, God. This was bad. This was tragic.
Rose followed closely behind to help shield everyone from a view of my bleeding backside as I rushed to the tiny galley bathroom. I closed the door quickly behind me, pulled down my stained white shorts, stripped off my soaked-through underpants and threw them into the garbage after attempting to rinse them off in the bathroom sink to no avail.
I sank down onto the toilet and felt the flow of blood dripping into the water. I was dazed.
My first period wasn’t supposed to happen this way. It was supposed to be like Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret: I was supposed to wake up in the morning, discover blood on the toilet paper, shyly declare my discovery to my mother, who was to take me by the shoulders, look me in the eye and announce “You’re a woman now.” I was supposed to glow with a quiet sense of momentous pride.
I wasn’t feeling proud. I was feeling disgust and shame and betrayal. My body had betrayed me.
There was a knock on the door: Rose had gotten one of the chaperone moms. She poked her head into the bathroom to see me sitting helplessly on the toilet without any pants on. My eyes filled with tears at the sight of her.
“Oh, honey. It’ll be okay. I’ve got a tampon for you.”
A tampon? Oh, God.
I flashed back to 5th grade, when my best friend Dayle and I got a hold of her older sister’s box of Super Plus Tampax and dared each other to try one out, just to see what it was like. The huge, dry cotton cylinder had gotten stuck in my non-menstruating pre-pubescent vaginal canal, and I spent the rest of the night locked in Dayle’s bathroom, panicked and tugging at the unyielding blue string. Eventually, the tampon came out, but I had vowed to never use such an evil contraption once I started my period.
The mom must have seen the fear in my eyes, because she said “Don’t worry, sweety. You’ll still be a virgin.”
Oh, no. I hadn’t even thought about the de-virginizing factor. But they had already told us in health class that tampons don’t pop your cherry, so I wasn’t overly concerned.
I realized that the tampon was my only option at this point. My soiled panties were at the bottom of a trashcan, and my flow was strong enough to soak through a wad of toilet paper in minutes.
So I took the Playtex from the hand she had stuck into the bathroom and as I unwrapped it, she insisted on bellowing instructions through the cracked door despite my assurances that I knew what I was doing. As I began to insert the tampon, she said “Now when it’s time for you to take it out, just pull on the string and…go with the flow.”
After the tampon had been inserted, I put my stained shorts back on. I washed my hands and opened the bathroom door.
My entire 8th grade class was waiting for me. Every single one of them. A member of the Jewish American Royalty clique began the slow clap. The gradual applause full of contempt and mockery caught on until almost every member of Pikesville Middle School’s graduating class was clapping and hooting and laughing.
“GO WITH THE FLOW!” some of them chanted. “GO WITH THE FLOW!”
Someone gave me a sweatshirt to tie around my waist. Someone escorted me to a table in the deserted galley, far from the rest of the kids. Someone, I think it was my friend Jeannie, sat with me and acted like a security guard every time a kid passed my table to sneer and toss an insult my way.
“Leave her alone,” Jeannie would say. But my humiliation was much too succulent for hormonally-charged 13-year-olds to pass up. They circled me like sharks, darting in every once in a while to take a bite out of my self-esteem. Thank God I only had a month of school left with those monsters.
But every month, for years after that incident, I would feel a mixture of disgust and shame at the sight of my blood on the toilet paper. And then I would feel betrayed by my body.
My Body Wasn’t the Problem
Now, after my body has contributed two boys to this world, I feel betrayed by the culture of shame and taboos that surround menstruation.
I feel bemused that despite having been witness to the birth of both of my children, despite having seen my body at its most vulnerable and its most intimate, my husband still feels embarrassed or somehow emasculated about picking up feminine products from the grocery store.
I feel sickened that someone who considers himself qualified to lead the free world felt it acceptable to imply that a female journalist who asked tough debate questions had “blood coming out of her…wherever”. Because only a hormonally deranged bitch would dare challenge The Donald.
I feel outraged that a woman who chose to run a marathon without a tampon was treated like a side-show freak, and a woman who posted pictures of her full menstrual cup to increase awareness of period-shaming received a storm of hate-fueled comments from both men and women.
I feel saddened that menstruating girls around the world are dropping out of school due to the lack of basic resources such as clean water, toilets, and reliable products necessary for feminine hygiene.
Take a look at this story about menstrual taboos that pervade the lives of women in a rural Kenyan village:
And this is now. In the year 2015.
Twenty-four years after my middle-school humiliation, negative attitudes toward menstruation haven’t changed much, but thanks to a growing awareness movement, they’re starting to. And I want to help.
So here’s what I’m going to do: I just told my period story (although I have more—period-shaming isn’t usually reserved to one incident in a woman’s life). And this month, I’m going to tell stories about periods throughout the ages–or, periods, if you will.
Today I’m going to take a look at the taboos and practices that contribute to contemporary attitudes of fear and disgust surrounding periods. The rest of this month, I’m going to share how different societies celebrated menarche, menses, and menopause, and how menstrual hygiene practices have evolved over time.
So…let’s do this.
Where do Menstrual Taboos Come From?
Like many body-shaming and sex-shaming practices in Western culture, we can thank good old Leviticus (the same book of the Old Testament that forbids premarital booty, same-sex porking, and just plain pork) for perpetuating the belief that a woman is both physically and spiritually impure during the period in which her uterus sheds its lining.
Here’s what Leviticus 15:19:33 has to say:
19 “Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening.
20 Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean.
21 If any of you touch her bed, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening.
22 If you touch any object she has sat on, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening.
23 This includes her bed or any other object she has sat on; you will be unclean until evening if you touch it.
24 If a man has sexual intercourse with her and her blood touches him, her menstrual impurity will be transmitted to him. He will remain unclean for seven days, and any bed on which he lies will be unclean.
So, basically, according to the Torah, women on their periods have spiritual cooties that can be caught simply from touching something she’s placed her bleeding fanny upon.
But it doesn’t stop there; Jewish law requires some very elaborate rituals for women to purify themselves after their periods are done. One such ritual is that of the “mikveh,” or ceremonial bath, in which she must immerse herself seven days after her period has begun.
And there are even rabbinical laws, called hefsek tahara, about how to check if you still have your period past the seven-day window: a woman is to bathe around sunset, wrap a cloth around her finger, give her vagina a swipe, and see what color it is. White, yellow or clear means she’s in the clear. Pink or red means she must remain an untouchable, or niddah, until her blood stops flowing.
The rituals continue:
28 “When the woman’s bleeding stops, she must count off seven days. Then she will be ceremonially clean.
29 On the eighth day she must bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons and present them to the priest at the entrance of the Tabernacle.
30 The priest will offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. Through this process, the priest will purify her before the LORD for the ceremonial impurity caused by her bleeding.
31“This is how you will guard the people of Israel from ceremonial uncleanness. Otherwise they would die, for their impurity would defile my Tabernacle that stands among them.”
I just have to stop here to ask you to take another look at line 29: “On the eighth day she must bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons and present them to the priest at the entrance of the Tabernacle.”
I don’t know about you, but my purse is already littered with emergency pads and tampons and feminine wipes. Can you imagine if we had to carry around a pair of turtledoves every time our periods ended? Oy.
Religious Traditions of Period-shaming
Judaism isn’t the only major religion to consider menstruation unclean. In Islam, blood isn’t cool no matter where it comes from, so a woman whose uterus is flowing is forbidden from all religious activities including prayer or fasting, and sex is a no-no during her monthlies. In some Hindu traditions, menstruating women aren’t allowed to enter the temple are discouraged from housework and cooking, and must sleep and eat separately from the rest of the household for three days.
While Buddhist teachings state that men and women are equally flawed, certain taboos about menstruation have been adopted based on superstition. According to Buddhist mythology, ghosts like to eat blood, so menstruating women are particularly vulnerable to the attacks of voracious spirits. Menstruation is also believed to drain women and anyone around them of their Qi (or chi—basically, The Force, for you Jedi’s out there), and as such are forbidden to have contact with priests. In Taiwanese Buddhist culture, a woman on her period is considered polluted and her blood is referred to as “poison” or “filth.”
Although Christianity has its roots in Judaism, there aren’t explicit taboos banning women from participating in secular or religious life when they’re on their periods. In fact, according to a gospel of Mark (5:25-34), Jesus healed an “unclean” woman who had been suffering from menometrorrhagia, or intense periods with heavy blood flow, for twelve years.
Still, Catholicism along with other denominations have long taught that menstruation and pain during childbirth was God’s curse upon womankind for having eaten from the Fruit of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. So we have Grandma Eve to thank for cramps and contractions.
Hysterical Hysteria over the Hystera
There’s a ton of pseudo-scientific beliefs that evolved both from early Christianity and ancient Roman culture that have contributed to the modern Western fear of period blood. Get this: first-century Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote “Nothing may easily be found more monstrous than the flux of women.”
Monstrous. It doesn’t more bad-ass than that. Menses is a force to be reckoned with. So much so that
“Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
…Which is why Pliny recommended that women on their periods walk around in farm fields with their skirts hiked up to get rid of “caterpillars, beetles, worms, along with other pests.” No, really.
Medieval folk believed that women’s blood had a corrosive effect on male genitals and therefore intercourse with a menstruating woman was a cause of syphilis. Also, babies could be killed from the mere glance of an older, pre-menopausal woman who emitted poisonous vapors when she was menstruating.
Even as late as the 19th century, scientific types shuddered at the notion of menstrual blood. The British Medical Journal in 1878 reported that a menstruating woman can cause meat to putrefy. The psychological term “hysteria” comes from the Greek for “uterus,” (hystera) and many women’s “nervous conditions” were thought to stem from “female complaints.” As such, the majority of women in the 19th century were considered to be ill in some way or another, and therefore much weaker than men, and were incapable of being equal to men, because Science.
Superstitions about the evil power of menstrual blood have even taken hold in modern times: there have been multiple incidents of mass hysteria over the past several decadesin which rural Malaysian girls begin to scream and collapse in the middle of work and school due to “spiritual possession.” One theory for these phenomena began because the superstitious factory workers and students were menstruating.
The Menstrual Hut
How women have been expected to sequester their icky, impure selves from the general population during the time of their moon blood has varied over the centuries, but one practice that was adopted almost globally was the menstrual hut.
While some cultures use the menstrual hut as a tool of oppression and separation of women from power in patriarchal cultures, others see the huts as places of opportunity for women to combine their strengths and create bonded communities that deeply influence their societies.
In Polynesian cultures, where the term “taboo” comes from, menstrual sequestration (called kahapouli) is considered a pleasant time in which women are able to reconnect to their spirituality and take a much-needed break from their domestic duties. According to the fantastic Museum of Menstruation & Women’s Health website, mum.org:
“While kahapouli literally means place of dark night, the atmosphere and activity in and around the hale pe’a (menstrual hut) placed emphasis on relaxation and recentering the mind and body of the menstruating woman. Women rekindled family and friendship ties (ohana) while she was given a needed break from homelife and children within the hut. Kahapouli took precidence over all other womens kapu (rituals). For example, when it was her kahapouli time, a nursing mother placed her child with a nursing relative. The menstrual blood that collected on fine wood fiber and such was then buried and a kapu of sacredness placed on the spot. The woman to handle this task was also kapu.”
To this day, Ethiopian immigrants and other Jewish women in Israel utilize a margam gojo to stay in while they menstruate. The hut, which resembles a small tool shed, contains a central room, bathroom, and kitchenette. It’s a place for women to connect, rest, and retreat during their monthlies.
Although the thought of getting some “me-time” when you’re on your period may sound appealing, the practice in many cultures isn’t exactly ideal. In rural Nepal, for example, the huts are mud and straw shacks about the size of dog-houses. Girls are forced to miss school for a week every month due to their banishment to the tiny dwellings.
Here’s a heart-rending video about the practice of menstrual banishment in a remote Nepalese village.
Let’s Tell Our #PeriodStories Without Embarrassment
So, after all of the centuries of convincing women that every month their bodies do something that’s disgusting, poisonous, unclean, impure and MONSTROUS, is it any surprise that there’s a ton of psychological and cultural baggage that goes with periods, femininity, and self-esteem?
We’re all very open about our birth stories, even about our losing virginity stories, but period stories? Not so much. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to make men uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because we feel ashamed that our bodies do something that’s decidedly unglamorous. Maybe we don’t think the world is ready to embrace menstruation as something as beautiful as birth or as exciting as sex.
But I think that if we start telling our period stories, start normalizing menstruation as a mundane part of female existence and start celebrating it as a symbol of feminine power, we can help the world get there a little faster.
No Shame in Menses, Period
So if you have a period story, share it. Share it here in the comments, share it on the Bad-ass Motherblogger Facebook Page, or my Twitter account. Better yet, share your stories with your daughters and your sons—especially your sons, so they can understand that a woman’s body isn’t dirty or embarrassing or mysterious or secretive: it’s a beautiful source of life and should be celebrated and respected as such.
For all little girls who have been bullied or kept from going to school and for all women who have been threatened or attacked by abusers who are fueled by a need to have power over a source of fear or disgust, we need to stop the shame. So, Bad-ass Mamas: what’s your story?
Stay tuned for my next post in which we’ll explore the relationships between menarche rituals, child brides, and teen pregnancy, and we’ll learn about the most Bad-ass Teen Mom of all time. To be notified when new posts are published (and get some additional goodies), don’t forget to subscribe to Bad-ass Motherblogger or click “like” and “see first” on my Facebook Page.
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