Critical Menstruation Studies, Week 4: What If You Could Just Stop Menstruating?

This is the fourth 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.

I have been sick with a gross spring cold and also (appropriately) laid out with terrible cramps, so this is a little delayed (in fact, we just had our last class this week), but I'm making good on my goal to write up every week of the course. The theme for week 4 was "The End of Menstruation?" (yes, question mark and all). The readings focused on menstrual suppression practices and various ways to think about them. And ho boy, is this a loaded topic. We read:

  • An article by E.A. Kissling from the journal Feminist Media Studies entitled "Pills, Periods, and Postfeminism: The New Politics of Marketing Birth Control" (2013);
  • One from Women's Studies journal by Laura Jones, "Anthropological Fantasies in the Debate Over Cycle-Stopping Contraception" (2011); and
  • The introductory chapter from Emilia Sanabria's 2016 book Plastic Bodies: Sex Hormones and Menstrual Suppression in Brazil

As a menstruator who doesn't ever plan on becoming pregnant, I see a real appeal in the idea of never having a period, but I'm also not crazy about some of the possible side-effects of hormonal birth control, so I've never actually used cycle-stopping contraception. In a larger sense, I'm also extremely interested in the possibility of decoupling menstruation from female identity (and from gender in general) and allowing us as a culture to have an idea of menstruation as a thing that some bodies do for specific reasons but not something that is constitutively tied to being a woman. Because of all this, I find technologies of menstrual suppression pretty fascinating, but the readings for this week didn't give me a lot of hope for the liberational or revolutionary possibilities of these technologies as they currently exist. In fact, with all the capitalist and misogynist baggage tied up in them, not to mention all the big questions about long-term health effects, I'm not sure there is a radical, positive way to read menstrual suppression at this time, and that makes me kinda sad. Here are some of the big issues that came up (and some questions I had).

What is HEALTHY and what is NATURAL – What loaded words! (See also: normal, universal.) Is it natural to menstruate for 3000 days over a lifetime (which is the current average)? The global average for menarche is getting younger, humans are living longer, and, in many places, having fewer pregnancies (pregnancy and lactation are natural menstrual suppressants). It's been argued that modern American women "experience excessive ovulation, cycling three times as often in their lifetimes as women did in premodern times" (Jones 133). Some have linked this "excessive cycling" to diseases such as endometriosis, anemia, and several types of cancer. The model for "natural" menstruation is seen as our paleolithic ancestors, but of course they only lived to be about 30 and spent much of their sexual maturity either pregnant or lactating, so romanticizing that seems pretty problematic. And of course, what's being recommended isn't a nasty, short, brutish life full of childbearing, but a pharmaceutical intervention that brings your body more closely in line with that experience, by limiting or entirely suppressing menstruation. 

Interestingly, "nature" was continually invoked and privileged on BOTH sides of the suppression debate, and in larger conversations about menstruation that we've encountered in the seminar. On the one hand, menstruation as it exists is clearly natural and normal and the problem is that we've stigmatized and demonized it. We need to embrace our moon-goddess feminine power and authentic experience and become proud menstruators. It's not natural to fill your body with artificial hormones that mess with your body's own rhythms, and anyone who thinks that is empowering is experiencing a dirty kind of postfeminist false consciousness. Then, on the other side, the way modern menstruation has evolved is unnatural—as mentioned above, we menstruate way more than any humans have at any other time in history, and, some would argue, with much less reason, considering relatively low birth rates. This "excessive," unproductive fertility is, in a very basic sense, unnatural; so the more natural thing would be to adjust the cycle until it more closely aligns with reality, and in so doing, to bring it more closely in line with how often our bodies seem "meant" to menstruate, in more "natural" circumstances. 

So, you see the issue. 

I was particularly bothered by the idea, as articulated in the Kissling piece, that menstrual suppression is tied up in postfeminist ideas of choice, empowerment, and bodily control which are implicated in neoliberal consumerist garbage. Because using cycle-stopping contraception creates an "idealized, docile, non-menstruating feminine body, ready for full-time participation in the neoliberal economy," there seems to be no way to subversively choose this option. Yet the lack of choice this creates and the necessary corollary that the only way to stay free or authentic is to remain within the traditional menstrual paradigm (and all the connections that implies to fertility and femininity) seems...less than ideal. If I'm missing some third option, please let me know, I feel like I'm thinking in circles at this point. 

WHITHER QUEERNESS NOW? – After all of the interesting issues raised in the readings from week 2 that seemed to open up possibilities about who is a menstruator and who might want to mobilize menstrual technologies, I was surprised to see so little of that taken into consideration in this week’s readings. Especially considering the ways transfemininity interacts with unattainable cultural ideals of femininity and the ways in which menstrual suppression seems like an obviously useful tool for queer bodies. It seems likely that these ideas were just outside the scope of the articles/sections we read, but it was also kind of jarring to go so unequivocally back to All Women, All the Time. I haven’t thought enough about postfeminism (because UGH) but I’m also super curious about where queerness fits into that context (and perhaps also into critiques of it?).

ALSO: There was a bizarre lack of discussion of fertility/reproduction in these pieces. The hormonal interventions are discussed as "cycle-stopping" and "menstrual-suppressing" as though that is their primary purpose; to alleviate the menstrual cycle. But of course what they are is birth control. It started to get a little slippery what was the main purpose of these tools and what was the side-effect, and this unnatural divorce struck me more than once, especially considering the ongoing question of how fertility figures into our idea of a natural or ideal female body.

Only one more class to recap! I hope these posts have been encouraging you to think a little more actively about menstruation in your own life and/or in the world around you. If you are a menstruator, I would love to know your thoughts on menstrual suppression: Have you ever tried cycle-stopping contraception? Does it seems unnatural to you? If there was a safe way to do stop menstruating altogether, would you do it? Why or why not? Do you think this is a feminist issue??