University of Massachusetts professor Chris Bobel is the author of the soon to be released book New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. In this two-part interview she unpacks periods and the activism, advertising and controversy that makes them so very personal and so very political.
How did you come to see menstruation as more than a personal matter?
A slogan menstrual activists use is 'We're Making Bleedin' Everyone's Issue.' As women, we are expected to keep our periods hidden and silenced. We internalize this attitude, and police each other: Women learn to hate their bodies, seeing them through racism, ageism and sexism as problems to be fixed through constant 'improvements' - that too big nose, too-dark skin, too-narrow eyes, tiny breasts, fat butt. And now we can 'improve' the body even more - we can eliminate menstruation altogether with pills such as Lybrel and Seasonique.
I think our only hope of resisting these messages and slowing down if not stopping this body hating is to develop body literacy. But we don't do this beyond encouraging girls to make their bodies thinner, harder, sexier. When girls (and later, women) lack this knowledge, they are vulnerable to exploitation, especially when it is cleverly packaged as 'liberation.'
Why should we care about menstruation?
We are all impacted by menstruation, even if we don't menstruate. Menstruation touches us all. Menstrual talk is gross, impolite, much too personal. At the same time, there are huge ecological implications related to the single-use products that most Western women use. Mountains of waste - both in the making of the products and their disposal - are produced. That's everyone's problem. And there's real questions about the safety of these products, questions that can't be easily answered by industry-sponsored research. So we should be talking.
But there's another resistance. Those who claim not to be grossed out ask, Aren't there more pressing issues to take up? What about breast cancer or violence against women or sex trafficking? But these topics are intertwined. At the root is the same story of the control of women's bodies.
Can you explain your use of the word 'menstruator' in the book?
Some radical menstruation activists use it to signal that not all women menstruate and not only women menstruate. Think of post-menopausal women (who don't) or trans men (who do). Menstruator is more than gender-neutral (like the term firefighter). Because it is related to a biological process, it gets folks thinking: What makes a woman a woman and a man a man? And why? This little word troubles the category 'woman' and the gender binary that facilitates gender-based oppression. If we eliminate the binary, we can slowly undo the problems gender makes.
Feminist spiritualist menstrual activists do not refer to menstruators. Rather, they emphasize and celebrate gender differences, including women's capacity to menstruate. They do not want to detach menstruation from gender. Instead, they want to strengthen the connection.
The radical menstruation activists, on the other hand, discourage menstrual shame and secrecy, but don't necessarily promote period love. The message is: you decide how you feel about your period - not tampon manufacturers, not your 5th grade health teacher, not your Mom, not pharmaceutical companies - you. The problem is, you can't authentically decide what you feel and think about something if you don't have good information.
How has stopping menstruation with continuous-use contraceptives, or menstrual suppressants, like Lybrel and Seasonique, come to be welcomed as modern, as progress?
These pills promise a chance to, in a sense, transcend the body. They cleverly promote liberation (get it? Lybrel/Liberty?) from our unruly, messy, uncooperative bodies that get in the way. Cycle-stopping contraception gets framed as the hip and modern lifestyle choice. 'Periods are so outdated', says Big Pharma, based on pretty flimsy evidence. The implication is that cycle-stopping contraception puts you in charge. That's seductive pseudo-feminism. But there's a fascinating paradox here. Going beyond the body is—actually--all about the body, just a different one, an 'improved' one. The body freed from menstruation is cleaner, more appealing, and always ready for sex.
There's an advert that depicts big 'granny' panties hanging on the clothesline next to a thong. Want to be sexier and more fun? Get rid of your period! Want to be dull and frumpy? Keep menstruating. It's ageist and it transparently plays to women's deep anxieties about their desirability. Wait a minute: can't I be a sexy menstruator? Is menstruation really the foil for satisfying sexuality?
Let me be clear: everyone has the right to use cycle stopping contraceptives. There are certainly many women who should take advantage of this option to address serious menstrual cycle complications. But that's not the target market for these pills; the pill makers are going after every woman. This is packaged as a 'lifestyle drug,' yet the research on long term safety is inadequate. I urge women to get to know their menstrual cycles, how continuous contraception works and then consider why menstruation is so terribly inconvenient and embarrassing (and even painful) in the first place. Maybe it doesn't have to be that way. Consider this: Janette Perz from the University of Western Sydney conducted a study about the connection between women's experiences of PMS and their intimate relationships. She found women with supportive partners were better able to manage their symptoms.
Just because we can change something, should we? This brings me back to slogans. The Reproductive Rights slogan 'My body, my choice' is powerful but I don't think it goes far enough. It makes for a catchy slogan, but perhaps it should be revised to say: 'My body, my right to information, my choice.' Until we have access to good information, we can't make truly liberatory choices.