On a bitter cold day in January 2018, a woman died in Nepal after she was forced to live in a menstruating hut. She had been banished to the unheated hut for the duration of her period, a still-common practice in Nepal, despite the fact that the weather often falls below zero degrees celsius in the winter. The woman died from smoke inhalation after she lit a fire to try to get warm.
|A menstruating hut in Nepal|
This sad story was announced soon after the publication of an article on the politics of periods that I wrote for a new online literary magazine called Boundless. Dedicated to long-form writing and edited by the incomparable Arifa Akbar, former Independent literary editor, it's a fantastic resource, and one that I urge readers to check out.
My article considered why periods are so shameful when they are such a natural part of human existence. Most major belief systems, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, place restrictions on menstruating women. Leviticus 15:19 and 24 states: ‘if a woman has an emission, and her emission in her flesh is blood, she shall be seven days in her [menstrual] separation, and anyone who touches her shall be tamei…[ritually unclean] until evening.’ Followers of the Qur'an regard menstruation as ‘an impurity’, often banning menstruating women from religious and social practices. In the Christian tradition, menstruation and pain in childbirth was God’s punishment when Eve tempted Adam. This is the origin of the 'curse', a term still used for menstruation.
|The creation of Eve (Wellcome Images)|
Menstruation has not been considered 'proper history' in the past. That is, before the 1970s and women's history, family history and medical history found new ways of redressing the gender and class imbalance of traditional history and exploring new sources. There remains a limit to what we know about menstruation in the ancient world, however, since records of the time were taken by men. They therefore didn't record women's cycles, or consider what 'normal' might have been. Ancient Egyptian women are said to have used cloths on sticks to stem the flow, or wedges of papyrus, a plant-based material also used to make paper. Classical books talked about 'wombfuls' of blood, but were not specific about how much blood a woman might have lost.
In keeping with religious concerns about menstruation,we do know that classical writers worried about women's association with witchcraft, the natural world and spiritualism. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and philosopher, believed that menstruating women could prevent hailstorms and protect crops. Period blood was not always depicted as revolting; ancient Egyptians may have included menstrual blood in medical recipes.
|Pliny the Elder, killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, AD 79|
What did women do without Tampax? The same as they do in most of the world today. Ragged cloths that were washed seems the likely option, especially in medieval times, and this explains the modern term 'on the rag' to describe a menstruating woman. It is likely that poor women with little access to hot water had little option but to use and reuse the same rag, or to bleed on their clothes. By the nineteenth century there was more concern about hygiene, and more 'scientific' language by which the female body and menstruation was understood.
Sanitary belts were created by the end of the nineteenth century, and washable pads could be attached to the belt. By the 1980s, adhesive strips on sanitary towels and tampons were more popular. But this did not mean that the shame around women's bodies and menstruation was reduced. In the modern West, menstruation remains shrouded in disgust and shame, even where scientific explanations show it to be a natural biomedical process rather than related to magic or divinity.
|Early 20th-century newspaper advert for a sanitary belt|
Consider European popular culture, which has many slang words for periods, few of them positive. English examples are Aunt Flo, Bloody Mary, Code Red, The Blob and Shark Week; while the French included La semaine Ketchup (ketchup week), VHS (vaginalement hors service), Les chutes du Niagra (Niagra Falls). And in German: Die rote pest (the red pest) and Besuchvon Tante Rosa (a visit from Aunt Rose).
It's not just periods, but women who are on their periods that are the subject of disempowering language. Menstruating women are ‘PMS-ing’, ‘On the Blob’ or ‘Out of Service’. Jokes about menstruation depict periods as a disruptive force that lessens women’s intellectual capacities, and reduces them to their biological function.
In schools, children are taught a basic biomedical model: each month the uterine lining thickens and becomes vascularized in case an egg is fertilised. If it is not, the unused blood is released as a period. Boys and girls (and boys are usually excluded from the classroom) are not taught the psychological, social or cultural contexts of menstruation, of the constituents of period blood, of the different cycles girls might experience, or how cycles can differ between girls. Menstruation simply marks girls and women apart as different and, in some contexts inferior, like the poor girl who died in Nepal, or the thousands of women from developing countries who cannot attend school because they do not have sanitary supplies. 'Period poverty' is also a problem in the UK.
It's striking how little we have progressed from nineteenth-century ideas about menstruation, which is where much of our language of the body comes from. Victorian medics were convinced that menstruation weakened women, providing evidence of their biological and spiritual inferiority. Women were already regarded as hysterical because of their ‘wandering wombs’ that caused havoc with women’s mental and physical health. Walter Heape, the anti-suffragist and Cambridge zoologist, drew attention to the terrifying spectacle of menstruation, that left behind ‘a ragged wreck of tissue, torn glands, ruptured vessels, jagged edges of stroma, and masses of blood corpuscles.’ Menstruating women couldn’t possibly tackle work, education or intellectual concerns, argued prominent Victorian writers, which women like Mary Wollstonecraft did much to tackle.
Discussions of periods used economic languages of production in the industrial age, with women’s bodies as baby-making factories: profitable or unprofitable, depending on their ability to produce. If conception was the proper result of the menstrual cycle, menstruation was failed production. The tissue lost during menstruation was ‘debris’ and waste. Early pregnancy failure was a ‘blighted ovum’, a womb that opened up too soon, an 'incompetent cervix'.
Scientific medicine still talks about menstruation in these terms. The social meaning of menstruation also takes on different emphases throughout a woman’s life, highlighting the demand for youth in the modern West – at least for women. For an individual, menopause, or the literal stopping of the menses, might bring all kinds of exciting new opportunities into a woman's life. Yet in narrowly biomedical terms, it signals her lack of reproductive competence, and her social and sexual irrelevance. Menopausal women have a tendency to become invisible.
In all kinds of areas, 21st century women campaign for more social visibility, and equity with regard to their bodies, including around menstruation. In the digital age, new opportunities arise for us to talk about periods and how they are framed in society. For example, isn’t it extraordinary, given the fact that the average woman menstruates for 3,000 days, that there is no symbol for menstruation? There are, after all, emojis for everything from crystal balls to sushi, from faeces to tears. This is why the charity Plan International UK has been campaigning for a period emoji to allow people to communicate more openly. Nearly 55,000 people voted. The winner? A pair of white pants, decorated with two drops of blood.
|The world's first period emoji, courtesy of Plan International|
Finding spaces to talk about menstruation in its own right and not as linked to fertility is important – and not only to avoid biological reductionism. The presumption that menstruation equals fertility and womanhood excludes women born without wombs as well transgender woman. It excludes women who choose not to have children, or are unable to have children.
Reframing how we talk about the body, and rejecting historical ideas that are outmoded or reductive, is not new. Since the 1970s, the shaming and silencing of menstruation has been subverted. Feminist artists initially made periods visible. Judy Chicago’s ‘Menstruation Bathroom’ (1972), showcased a bin filled with used sanitary towels. In the 1990s, Tracy Emin casually disposed of used tampons in ‘My Bed’ (1998), described as ‘a violent mess of sex and death’. In 2015 Kiran Ghandi ran the London marathon while menstruating, and without using tampons or pads, to highlight menstrual stigma. And in 2017 the #BloodNormal campaign won the right to use red rather than blue fluid in menstrual product advertising. This important step demystifies the idea and image of period blood, and marks a shift towards normalizing menstruation.
Periods are political, as their history shows. Which is why we need more education about what is 'normal' or abnormal, more discussion about the differences between women, and better metaphors for women's bodies that aren't based on outdated ideas of the factory. When it comes to the history and experience of menstruation we need less shaming, and more talking. Period.