A Cross-Cultural Approach
by Claire Feldman-Riordan
In this course we have focused at length on the idea that gender, sexuality, and even sex are social constructs (Laqueur 1990, Martin 1987, et al). It is also important to consider the menstrual period from this perspective. While the menstrual cycle is a human phenomenon that really does exist on some empirical level, the daily, ritualized practices and representations of menstruation and menopause are indeed constructed culturally. For example, a study of menopause in North America and Japan revealed that Japanese women report menopausal symptoms far less frequently than North American women (Lock 1993). This difference is due in large part to the different lifestyles and rituals that accompany and construct the aging process in both North America and Japan.
Cultural shaping is also evident in the American discourse surrounding the menstrual period itself. While the popular and professional acknowledgement of pre-menstrual syndrome has been empowering in that it puts a name to and legitimizes the symptoms women have "always already" suffered silently, PMS is also problematic because it has contributed to further stigmatization of the menstrual cycle as dirty, disgusting, and despicable. PMS has become a scapegoat for women's behavior in many arenas, often serving as a premise for the devaluation of what women have to say at home, at work, and in the media. Menstruation as a cultural text can be and is interpreted according to the best interests of those doing the interpreting, be they men or women, individuals or the state. The beliefs and practices surrounding, constructing, and being constructed by the menstrual cycle can be read as a symbol and signifier of what a culture says for and about women.
If menstruation is a cultural text, then who are the protagonists? How do we go about "reading" menstruation? For the purposes of this presentation, the answer is a simple one -- ask women! My goal was to study menstruation as a cultural construct by gathering personal experiences. I did so in the following ways:
- A poster, mounted in a women's bathroom in my residence hall, with the heading "How do you feel about your period, or menstruation in general, or both?" All responses were anonymous.
- An e-mail to women friends of mine from college and high school, and to women in my family aged 16 to 49. I did not identify the name of the course for which I was planning the presentation, keeping in mind that this knowledge could color the responses I received.
- An e-mail to my Women's Studies classmates.
The result was overwhelming -- over 30 women responded in the form of personal narratives that reflected their experiences with menstruation. For the purposes of this presentation, I have edited all responses only to preserve anonymity or to correct trivial errors in spelling or grammar.
In the narratives personal experiences are generally described according to a positive negative continuum; they may be extremely positive, extremely negative, or anything in between. For example, the "first time" experience, when positive, seemed to shape the entire menstruation experience in a positive way. Likewise, a negative experience would have a negative effect on the entire menstruation experience.
While the menstruation narratives are unique and personal, what is truly striking is the recurrence of several key themes. Each of these themes is significant because it represents a potentially transformative area: a positive experience in each of these areas has the potential to shape the menstruation experience in a more positive way, both for the individual and for the entire culture, since these themes are recurring (but not universal) rather than singular. Here are some of the recurring themes I found. I encourage you to examine the narratives yourself for additional themes.
Some themes appearing in menstruation narratives:
- The "mixed feelings" response: "I've always hated getting my period ... At the same time I realize how important it is."
- The reactions of men in one's life (peers, siblings, father, boyfriend)
- The "first time" or "early" experience -- importance of mother and/or peers
- Consideration of how menstruation falls into or challenges the broader framework of women's issues -- "I don't see it as an unequally placed burden" vs. "To me it represents something so much larger. It is something that men will NEVER understand. It is very similar to the oppression that women have always faced."
- Feelings of joy, amazement, enjoyment
- Feelings of shame
- Feelings of pain, fear -- "It has been one of the most terrifying and horrific things that I have ever experienced."
- Desire that men had to go through something similar
- Inconvenience for atheletes
- The view that menstruation is a worthwhile sacrifice -- a bothersome experience for which the trade-off is the ability to bear and raise children.
The menstruation narratives raise several questions regarding the relationship of menstruation and womanhood -- specifically, what does woman's response to menstruation say about the response to being woman? Quite simply, it depends on the woman. The menstrual cycle was generally viewed as an obligatory nuisance, an inconvenient but necessary part of life. However, most responses said nothing about the womanhood-menstruation connection. The few that did were quite positive, which, according to the narratives, was based on positive personal experience.
Positive individual experiences indicate the possibility of positive representations of menstruation on the cultural level. In many cultures a woman's menstrual cycle is indeed a cause for celebration, for positive rituals and practices. One such celebration is depicted in Mary Dillon's Flowering Woman: Moontime for Kory. Because I received this book as a gift at the time of my own coming-of-age as a woman, the story has shaped my own experience with menstruation in an extremely positive way. In Flowering Woman, a Native American girl (nation not specified) gets her first period, or "Moontime." The women of her village prepare a feast to celebrate this rite of passage and welcome her to their community as a new woman. She receives many gifts symbolic of her connection with nature, with other women, and with other creatures. This story is beautiful in its entirety; however, I will cite some particularly meaningful passages here and supplement them with an analysis of their relevance to positive representations of menstruation.
Passage 1:(pp. 15-17)
"The Blood That No Wound Can Shed"
"...Mara [Kory's dolphin friend] swam as close as she could to shore. She looked up and down the beach but no Kory. Then Mara heard a soft, sweet voice say, 'Greetings!' Mara strained to see where the voice came from. Then, she heard another little voice say, 'Hello there!' At the edge of the water, standing among the seashells, stood two tiny, little, winged people, staring straight at her. "'Hello,' Mara sang back. "The two little nature spirits began to talk at once; then giggling, one of them spoke. 'My name is Ree, and this is Alo. We're Kory's friends and we live in her garden. We heard your worried voice calling for her, so we came to tell you that she's all right.' "Then Alo added, 'We need your help, dolphin sister. Kory loves you more than anything in the world. Since she has found you for her special friend, she has forgotten about her gardens. Kory has forgotten to nurture the earth in her gardens. Many plants are lonely and dying, and some Devas are moving away.' "Mara felt sad to hear this news about her friend. 'How can I help?' she asked Ree and Alo. "'Right now as we speak,' Ree answered, 'something wonderful is happening to Kory. She has begun her Menarche -- bleeding the blood that no wound can shed.' "'The first blood a woman bleeds is the most magical of all,' said Ree. 'Its magic is so strong, just a little of it can heal the dying plants in the garden, and a little more would make the whole garden flourish.' "Alo's sad voice interrupted, 'But Kory doesn't come to the gardens any more. She doesn't hear us calling. She hears only you, Mara.' "'Don't worry any more,' Mara responded compassionately. 'I will talk with Kory and remind her to renew the earth with her special Menarche blood.' "Ree and Alo thanked Mara and danced back up the path...."
Analysis of Passage 1 Note that Kory's garden friends depend on her for nurturance. Only her blood, unique in its healing power, can revive the gardens. This first blood is hardly a "curse." Kory's ability to nurture the plants in her garden becomes a significant part of her identity and role in her community. Menarche is not subverted but is instead a celebrated rite of passage through which she is welcomed into both womanhood and adulthood.
Passage 2: "The Great Mother Goddess has blessed women..."(pp. 18-19) "'The Great Mother Goddess has blessed women,' whispered Chalice [the Grand Mother of the West, a respected older woman in Kory's community]. 'She has given us our Moontime. Our Moontime is for renewal, for nourishing our inner strength, for getting in touch with our deepest feelings and for expressing our power. This special time is to reattune to our own personal rhythm so we can begin our cycle again pure and strong. It is the time when the Goddess is most likely to use each woman as a channel to pour out her truth and beauty in the form of songs, poems, stories, new ideas and new ideals. Guard this special time of your moon. Don't make yourself so busy that you have no time to do the work of the Goddess. Because she brings a special blessing for us all.'"
Analysis of Passage 2 For Kory and her community, menstrual blood is the stuff of goddesses and moonbeams. In Sarah's presentation we learned that the Great Mother Goddess held a pivotal spiritual role prior to Christian imperialism and continues to play that role in many Native American communities. Chalice advises Kory not to ignore her Moontime; the "work of the Goddess" is nothing to be hidden or shamed. The transformative power of this statement is quite clear; Chalice is not offering Kory a bottle of Midol. Kory learns that her menstrual period is a blessing; it is the time to nourish herself and the world around her.
Passage 3: "Imagine a root beginning in your womb..."(pp. 21-24) "'You look very serious, Earth Woman,' said Naom, the fourth Grand mother and the keeper of the Night, of death and rebirth, of wisdom from the Earth. Naom sat down in front of Kory, saying, 'You have been given much to think about today. Close your eyes, Earth woman.' Naom took Kory's hands and held them in her own. "'Breathe deep, deep into your belly and relax. You will have plenty of time to think about all that has happened today. Just for now, let it go. Let yourself melt into the ground and become one with the Earth. Imagine a root beginning in your womb, growing down deep into the Mother Earth. Imagine your root like the root of a mighty tree pushing through the dirt, rock and water until it reaches the fire in the Earth's core. Feel the warmth of the Earth's fire rising up your root like the sap in the heart of that mighty tree. Let the sap pulse, like the blood in your veins, up into your body.' "'See the fiery energy circling around your belly and back. Envision in your mind's eye, the energy going down your legs to the tips of your toes, healing any wounds or weaknesses you find along the way,' continued Naom. "As Kory followed the energy through her body, she sometimes noticed blotches of grey and small, formless shadows that seemed to be from both physical and emotional hurts blocking the energy's path. Immediately, the light and warmth from the fire's image dissolved the grey shadows and new energy spiraled throughout her body. "'Now let the energy rise back up your body, spiraling around your chest and shoulders, warming and energizing those areas,' spoke Naom prayerfully. 'Feel the earth energy spiraling down your arms and into your fingers. Let it rise up your neck and throat and swirl around your head, quieting the little voices that endlessly chatter in your mind.' ... "'Imagine your head is like the bud of your favorite flower,' Naom suggested softly. 'Let it bloom, petal by petal, opening to the sky. Let the Sun and the Sky pour their white light down through the top of your head. Feel the Light flowing into and throughout your entire body.' ... "'Now,' counseled Naom, 'you are a connecting link between Mother Earth and Father Sky. Her warmth and His light are moving and flowing freely throughout you.'"
Analysis of Passage 3 Through this interactive experience, Naom encourages Kory to acknowledge and concentrate on her connection to the natural world. Ultimately Kory becomes a connection between the earth and the sky, evoking strong spiritual connotations. The energy Kory garners from this experience heals her wounds and weaknesses -- what a remarkable departure from illness-oriented constructions of menstruation! The image of Kory blossoming like a flower is mirrored in the book's title; Kory's emergence into womanhood is clearly a cause for celebration in her community.
The importance of positive first-time experiences like the one described in Flowering Woman is that they set a positive precedent for the entire menstrual experience -- both personally and on the cultural level. It is crucial, however, to remember that no single description is adequate in expressing the complexity of experiences associated with the menstrual cycle. While Flowering Woman is a good deal more promising in what it offers young women who will be shaped tremendously by their first experience with menstruation, there are problems even within this text. A construct of menstruation in which women are expected to reaffirm their connections to earth and nurturance is surely problematic for women's autonomy and does not counteract the problems associated with PMS-culture. We must recognize that no one definition or construct of menstruation (or of the category woman, if it even exists) is sufficient in describing menstrual experiences. Alternative experiences like those described in Flowering Woman -- and like those associated with Rosh Chodesh, which I am about to discuss -- provide additional options for interpreting and assigning meaning to the menstrual cycle. It is my assessment that these options taken together allow for more positive and well-balanced menstrual experiences than does any one option on its own.
Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new moon festival, is traditionally recognized as a women's holiday. A marker of the new month (the Hebrew calendar is a lunar one), Rosh Chodesh is God's reward to woman for two reasons:
- When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, Jewish women refused to obey the Pharaoh and continued to bear and raise Jewish children.
- When Jewish men were building the infamous Golden Calf, Jewish women would not donate their golden jewelry, thus refusing to participate in idol worship, which is against Jewish law.
I encourage you to explore Rosh Chodesh on your own by investigating these websites, not to mention religious texts and existing women's spirituality groups. Or start a group of your own!
In closing, I call on the words of Susan Berrin, author of Celebrating the New Moon: A Rosh Chodesh Anthology: "...[W]omen's lives are, for the most part not mirrored in traditional rituals. A vast compendium of rituals has been developed specifically to speak to and reflect the content of women's lives, to take the ordinary events of our lives and ritualize them, make note of their importance, make them holy, give them depth and sanctity."
It is my conviction that the menstrual cycle and the beliefs and practices surrounding it can be looked at in positive ways. Read new and different books, talk to other women, and brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm . . . taking a thoughtful approach is very rarely a bad idea.
Thank you for your time! Please let me know what you think -- I want feedback! And thanks everlasting to Maya -- her web knowledge is mind-boggling and has been invaluable to our group.
-- Claire Feldman-Riordan, flowering woman.
Letters I sent asking for responses to menstruation:
Dear friends and family,
I'm doing some research for a class presentation I have to give next week, and I have a question for all of you: how do you feel about your period, or menstruation in general, or both?
If you are interested, please respond as soon as possible to firstname.lastname@example.org even if you have already talked with me about it informally. Any length is fine -- a few sentences or thoughts, ten pages, whatever! I realize responses won't be anonymous because, well, it's e-mail, but I promise the content of all responses will be presented anonymously (meaning I won't even tell other members of my presentation group who said what). If the anonymity issue is keeping you from participating, please respond anyway and we'll try to think of a way for you to participate if you are interested.
Thanks so much, women! Have a great rest of the week! By the way, the presentation is on Monday, so as soon as you can send responses, please do!!! Thanks!
Dear Women's Studies classmates,
For our presentation on Monday involving mind, body, and spirituality, I am doing some research on paradigms surrounding menstruation. I'm interested in what you all have to say -- how do you feel about your period, or menstruation in general, or both? Please respond as soon as possible to email@example.com. I realize responses won't be anonymous because, well, it's e mail, but I promise the content of all responses will be presented anonymously (meaning I won't even tell other members of my group who said what). If the anonymity issue is keeping you from participating, please respond anyway and we'll try to think of a way for you to participate if you are interested.
Thanks for your help, everyone! See you Monday!
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