Critical Menstruation Studies, Week 2: Menstruators and Period Power (?)

This is the second in a five-week series of posts recapping a micro-seminar I'm taking on Critical Menstruation Studies through the Boston-area Graduate Consortium in Women's Studies.

For week two of the seminar, the stated topic was "Experiencing the Menstrual Cycle." This took the form of readings on the embodied experience of particular groups of menstruators: religious women, masculine of center people and transgender women, and women in relationships (in the context of PMS). Here are the readings:

  • A fact sheet published by The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, "The Menstrual Cycle: A Feminist Lifespan Perspective";
  • Two articles from Sex Roles: A Journal of Research: "Restriction and Renewal, Pollution and Power, Constraint and Community: The Paradoxes of Religious Women's Experiences of Menstruation" by Nicki C. Dunnavant and Tomi-Ann Roberts (2013) and "PMS as a Gendered Illness Linked to the Construction and Relational Experience of Hetero-Femininity" by Jane M. Ussher and Janette Perz (2013);
  • and an article from Culture, Health, and Sexuality, Joan Chrisler et al.'s "Queer Periods: Attitudes Toward Experiences with Menstruation in the Masculine of Centre and Transgender Community" (2016).
  • We also watched short videos on the impact of menstruation in the homeless population (although the video didn't address the intersection of trans issues and homeless issues in this arena, which seems like a strange omission given the high rates of homelessness among trans youth, especially) and women soldiers (fair warning, this is a very weird and problematic video).

It was gratifying to have readings this week that actively tried to un-center the cisgender female body in the conversation about menstruation. This started with the very basic idea in the Society for Menstrual Society Research fact sheet that the term to use when discussing people who menstruate is "menstruators," not "women." This seems like a no-brainer, not only because not all women menstruate and not all people who menstruate are women, but also because it seems deeply essentialist to insist that menstruation and womanhood are necessarily tied together. The "Queer Periods" article opened up all kinds of possibilities for de-coupling menstruation (and other reproductive-system functions) from gender in order to open up the ways we can understand and honor people's experience of living in their particular bodies. While obviously this is a much more urgent and loaded issue for transgender and gender non-conforming people, there are also so many broader, everyday implications that could improve the lives of all humans! In class, we also looked at this great poster by #periodpositive educator and comedian Chella Quint about changing the language we use in order to reframe these conversations:

I continue to find myself most drawn to the aspects of these conversations that are about language, as a former literary scholar/recovering grad student and close-reading advocate, but also because I truly believe in the ability of linguistic norms to affect our perception of these issues in society at large. Our lives are made up of language and it's integral to how we interact with each other, so I encourage any attempt to be more careful and considerate about the words we use. Analyze all the things!

Another major theme that kept recurring for me in this week's readings was the question of what kinds of "power" menstruators (specifically cisgender female menstruators, in this case) can mobilize through their periods. The article on "The Paradoxes of Religious Women's Experiences of Menstruation" emphasized the "heightened sense of community with other women" and "break" from obligations (including marital sexual relations) that women in religions such as Judaism and Islam experience because of the restrictions placed on them around menstruation. The authors of that piece repeatedly framed these examples of positive experiences as "ironic" and even subversive acts but I have to admit I was kind of skeptical. After all, this "power" is only mobilized within the permissions and strictures of these (largely patriarchal) religions. It's not so much that these women are empowered to deny their husbands sex during menstruation, but rather that both their husbands (and the women themselves, assuming they are religious believers) actually believe sex to be polluting during that time. And it seems like the "community" of women built around these restrictions simply serves to reinforce norms and indoctrinate younger women into existing structures of power. There doesn't seem to be a lot of choice involved, but I admit that I do not have an insider's experience of these structures, so maybe I'm missing a more nuanced understanding of the full experience. 

Similarly, the piece on "PMS as a Gendered Illness" discussed how women actually feel permission to act "unwomanly" during PMS, to be non-nurturing, non-considerate, non-caring in ways they cannot during the rest of the month. Of course, this is the result of the way womanhood and femininity are constructed on the whole, that women even feel like having a day when they aren't fully, actively invested in helping and providing for others is somehow taking a break rather than just being a normal human. That they need the mask or excuse of "hormones" in order to express anger or dissatisfaction, and that all of that has to be displaced onto a "PMS self," an instance of the "monstrous feminine" that is out of their control is also completely socially constructed and gross, and doesn't actually feel that transgressive or powerful.

Another thing that's been on my mind during the first two weeks of this class are new "menstrual technologies," including Thinx ("Underwear for People with Periods") and Clue (a mobile app for tracking ovulation and menstruation). Thinx ads have recently invaded public transit in Boston and the company has also been all over the news for weird and worrying troubles with their "She-E-O" and corporate structure, and with all the ongoing concerns about data privacy, apps like Clue seems to be in a very interesting position. If you've used either of these (or similar new period accessories), I'd love to hear about your thoughts. There's such an interesting question of branding and capitalism wrapped up in all these products in addition to the loaded issues of feminism and empowerment!