MARY’S BLOODY KNICKERS
AN ESSAY BY NAZILA KIVI
Even though women are no longer shunned and moved to secluded huts, the act of menstruating continues to be associated with uncleanliness and shame. Commercials for women’s health products are an obvious example. A fourth wave of feminism that is spreading on social media strives to combat the tabooing and shaming of the female body.
“Menstruation is the weeping of a disappointed womb for not having fulfilled its purpose”
That is how a 1950’s book on gynaecology described menstruation: As a biological failure, where the organism hasn’t succeeded in reproducing itself.
In her 1990 doctorate the Canadian philosopher and gender researcher Deborah Anne Findlay worked through 4000 pages of scientific publications from the 1950’s in order to show how the production of medical knowledge about women was interspersed with the concurrent discourse and the ideologies of medical practitioners.
Her outset and conclusion was that the distinction between objective biomedical knowledge, and socially produced knowledge is a false dichotomy, because all knowledge is a product of social mechanics and can’t be isolated from these. According to Findlay this applies especially to knowledge concerning female reproduction and sexuality.
Menstruation in contemporary western culture
In postwar America, the emergence of women in the job market soon became a reality due to their contributions in the absence of men during World War II. Upon the homecoming of the men, the fight for jobs reappeared. Following the dire economic situation following the depression in the 1930’s and postwar joblessness National conservatives regained new political ground. With historical precision, they blamed, besides immigrants, communists, and Black people, women and their newfound emancipation for threatening the equilibrium of American society.
According to Findlay, many of the leading gynaecologists of the time saw themselves as guardians of traditional family values, and these values appear in the production of biological research on women. In the texts reviewed by Findlay, she uncovered that female physiology was described as serving only one purpose: reproduction.
In this light menstruation figured as a clear biological indicator both of failed reproduction and of women being unfit for the job market. For example a gynaecological textbook speaks of a woman who has been pregnant “non-stop” from the age of 14 until 27, never experiencing menstruation, as a biological perfection.
By defining normalcy within a biomedical framework, these doctors contributed to the construction and presentation of “normal” femininity and female reproduction as supposedly neutral and objective scientific facts.
To describe the perpetrators of this practice, Findlay coins the term: Pronatalist. Their agenda was to get middle class white women to carry more children and thus function as a bulwark against the overturning of the current world order, whether this threat came from feminist movements, communism or the increased immigration by non-whites to North America and Britain.
One doesn’t have to go back 60 years, though, to witness the female body being spoken of as solely a reproductive organ. In contemporary acedmic textbooks used in medical school this discourse resurfaces: The female genitals are only described in terms of their reproductive capabilities and their sexual function is still underrepresented compared to descriptions of corresponding male anatomy.
When the language we are given to describe the basic functions of the body are partly negatively charged and partly presented as indisputable objective truths, this language over time becomes the only one available for a woman when describing her own body.
A run-of-the-mill example is when young women say [freely translated to an English equivalent-E.H.] “Aunt Flo is coming to town” when they are menstruating, or when commercials for women’s health products speak of periods as something that should be hidden at any cost.
The Australian professor of psychology Jane Ussher has 30 years of experience researching reproduction and sexuality in public health. In 2013 she published the article PMS as a process of negotiation: Women’s experience and management of premenstrual distress. In this study based on interviews she documented that the women who participated had improved physical experiences with menstruation and experienced less discomfort if they received guidance in articulating and handling their premenstrual phase and bleeding in accordance with their own lived experience instead of using the more common negative words usually at their disposal.
Some of Ussher’s earlier research points toward that a phenomenon like PMS, premenstrual symptom, is primarily experienced by women in the West. Women in other parts of the world and other cultures also experience changes tied to their menstruation, both positive and negative. The difference lies in that these changes are not described as symptoms or as something pathological in peoples where PMS isn’t locatable as a cultural phenomenon.
Ussher’s results show that recasting the language around menstruation based on the lived experiences of women not only changes the discursive practice in relation to bodily phenomena, but also how these phenomena are experienced physically.
This concurs with the findings of the Icelandic gender researcher Herdis Sveinsdottir. Through qualitative interviews with women she found that many internalise the negative stereotypes about menstruation and PMS and often are of the opinion that other women suffer direly from discomforts related to their periods, while most women seldom describe their own experiences as being as bad as those of others.
Sveinsdottir’s research is from 2002 and her recommendation was that first and foremost researchers and health professionals pick up the torch and change the negative discourses around menstruation.
Fourth wave feminism
While we’re waiting for that to happen, a multiverse of feminisms have grown from the dynamic depths of social media. These movements that have seized upon and benefited greatly from the “easy-sharing” properties of the internet, gathering innumerable numbers of followers, is referred to as fourth wave feminism.
The notable elements about fourth wave is that it is fragmented, more polyphonic than any other feminism before it, and its fast-paced development of new ideas evolve in numerous directions. Even more significant is that when any one person with an internet connection has a voice and agency the transformation from individual oppression to collective activism becomes facilitated. Making it possible to share personal experiences and express solidarity across the borders of gender, sexual preference and race.
The neoliberal health and sexuality politics of the last few decades where structural issues have been individualised in order to quench fundamental societal critique, has been carried out eagerly by mainstream medical practice and psychiatry where ‘abnormal’ behaviour is pathologised and used as a means to legitimise control of diversity. This pathologisation has been applied in a wide range of human experience like sexuality, gender identity or depressive states – the newly emerged diagnosis “sex addiction” is an example. But the emergence of the internet and collective movements in the social media can challenge these neoliberal means of control, giving way to a new possibility of politicizing the private.
Even though it is still debated whether social forums on the internet are nothing but superficial likes, slacktivism, and meaningless calls of sympathy that have no impact on real life, this simultaneously private and collective, anonymous and public community still gives women, queer-identified people, and other minorities the option of creating their own categories and speak for themselves.
It also crushes the two extremes that have held a monopoly on the right to define body and sexuality for women and minorities: medical science on one hand, and the porn industry on the other. In their mainstream manifestations they have both contributed to the objectification of women and claimed the right to define female sexuality.
New voices from new lips
One of the new communities defining themselves as body positive is The Large Labia Project. They are seeking to combat the pornified projections of the genitalia of cis-gendered-women, where the inner labia is often not visible. Women anonymously upload pictures of their vulva with ‘large’ inner labia and encourage and guide each other through any insecurities.
Another initiative is Real Women Bodies on the social site Tumblr where people share pictures of their body, breasts and genitalia to highlight regular bodies. It is not unproblematic because absence of likes or shares can contribute to insecurity in the poster, but the site still offers a space where women and girls can observe other women’s uncensored genitalia uninterrupted. An option that before was only possible through porn or medical text books, media that are both heavily retouched.
These new forums has also laid ground for a new conversation on menstruation, where women can figure as experts in their own bodies and provide descriptions of menstruation that isn’t riddled with biological terms. The current agenda is not only to criticise demeaning language like “the curse” and “that time of the month” and “no go to sex”, but about forging new paths and exhibiting pride in your own body and its capabilities.
It’s period power making its way through popular culture and reclaiming menstruation and the right to talk about it. You can find t-shirts with bleeding vulva, positive vocalisations of masturbation, and free bleeding movements. Historically there are similarities between the 60’s second wave feminism where women in smaller groups looked at each other’s vulvas, strolled around naked and exercised body pride.
Of the many artistic and humorous contributions to this movement, one of the more famous comes from Hand Job Academy: Lil T, Clara Bizna$$, and Ash Wednesday, three Brooklynite musicians. The latter is a schoolteacher by day and guards her pseudonym. Hand Job Academy rap about period power on the track Shark Week:
”Strap on your red wings, it’s time to make this bird sing
My bed looks like the elevator from The Shining
Contemplate, don’t hate
Cause I look like Sharon Tate
Or a pjece of rare steak, when I masturbate
Bleeding since eleven, bitch! I ain’t new to this
Feels like a werewolf is livng in my uterus (…)
Are you scared of this? It’s just a little blood! It makes me more powerful!”
In the only less than 4 minute video, which entails among other things (fake) blood poured over a Barbie doll, women with bloody mouths after sex with a menstruating partner and plenty of bloody panties, the group covers topics like sex, masturbation while menstruating, horniness, tampons and toxic shock syndrome, anger, irritation, and everything else that is frowned upon and shunned relating to menstruation.
The reactions spans the spectrum from appalled to ecstatic. Most of the English language feminist website like xoJane, Jezebel and salon.com have showered the video and the period power movement with praise.
Hand Job Academy themselves express that their intention is not only to shock for the sake of shocking; their video has a message. With their highly explicit video they want to resist what they call the “pinkification” of the female body, as seen in for example breast cancer awareness. The pink universe that female bodily functions are often cast in contributes to the infantilisation of women and according to Hand Job Academy seeks to shame the less aesthetically pleasing parts of female anatomy and biology.
Period activism has also reignited offline. A radical feminist performance project by the London-based Danish artist, curator and editor of the feminist periodical Hysteria, Bjørk Grue Lidin, also utilised menstruation as a tool to reclaim the body.
Right now she is working on a performance that will consist of her bleeding in public places like the seat of a bus, a bar counter or a political office wearing white clothing. Lidin’s goal is to break down the barriers between the different spheres that women are expected to navigate and thus politicizing the private. She doesn’t see any principal difference in the gendered power dynamics of the strip joint and the parliament, only the way in which they are segregated.
Many see it as too radical to bleed on symbols of power or sing about lick job (cunnilingus) during menstruation, but relativised against how shamed menstruation has been, initiatives like Hand Job Academy, Large Labia Project, and Lidin’s performance are nothing but small steps. Especially considering the internalised oppression and control mechanisms that new dynamic media also host:
Self-surveillance and extreme body ideals like the instagram frenzy thigh gaps, make room for a culture that rewards and praises self control.
Like so often seen before in other grass roots movements, period power has of course caught the interest of commercial players. The homepage periodpride.org sell female health products wrapped in period pride and pink packaging. But if one assumes that women will have to buy the products anyway, you might prefer that they get them from somewhere that doesn’t shame them in the process, even if periodpride.com would be a little too cute for Hand Job Academy.
The hunt for thigh gaps and other almost unattainable standards of beauty show that even when women and girls themselves are agents, they can still internalise norms that are dictated by commercial interests and a biomedical discourse where the slimmed down female body is made to be an equivalent of the healthy (and good!) body, and where menstruation is pathologised and described as a symptom.
The fourth wave of feminism is still in its formative days and its existence isn’t even acknowledged by all feminists. Thus it remains to be seen whether these new media platforms carry any actual potential for change. But even now, one would be hard pressed to deny that small cracks are being made in the hegemonic, dominant form of what it means to be feminine and female. Maybe even the actual term female will soon disperse?
To return to what Findlay concluded back in 1990: The category “woman” is useless, unless it is based on (the people who identify as) women’s own experiences in the world.
Translated by Emma Holten
Originally published with Friktion http://friktionmagasin.dk
Artwork © Agata Cardoso