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I, Being Born Woman and Suppressed

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She tells the wrong kinds of jokes, she never shuts up, she laughs too loud and too much. She has questionable friends and she sleeps around shamelessly. She eats too much and with too much delight; she can hold her own liquor; she stays out after curfew; she even gets in bar fights. She could always use a shower, she doesn't shave her armpits, eschews deodorant and she'll only wear jackboots. She’s an unapologetic slob, and when she leaves a mess behind, soiling the most pristine of places, she’s always grinning while she mouths “No, Up yours.”

She is our shameless, smelly, lurid sister.

She’s not just the flow: she's the undertow. She's timely in her own way, but she hates a 9-to-5 schedule, and she's going to take a week off when she bloody well wants to, whether we like it or not. She's not a good girl, and she doesn’t deal at all well with authority.

People never get tired of talking shit about her, and we blindly believe and spread every nasty rumor we hear, no matter the source, no matter how far-fetched or cruel. We walk ten paces in front of her on the way to school, hoping that no one will know we’re in any way related to her, let alone so closely. All the same, she trails us around doggedly and kills our cool, and no matter what we do, her bad reputation sullies us just by association. Try as we might, we just can't seem to untangle our own reputations from hers. At best -- if we gleefully and guiltlessly malign her with everyone else -- we can at least get some sympathy for having the poor misfortune of any association with her: our menstrual period.

At Scarleteen, which I have run for the last 10 years, young women express these attitudes daily:

I see all around the boards that girls are having sex with their period. Are they having it when they’re bleeding heavy, and if so when the guys are having sex with their partners is there blood on their penises too? YUCK.

I just can’t stand to be around any man with it, especially my boyfriend.

When I first got it, I went to my mom, handed her my bloody underwear and said "I think I have my period." She said "Yep, you do. Congratulations!" I thought, why are you congratulating me? This is a bad thing! My friend had just gotten it about a week before I did, and was telling me how much she hated it and that I would probably hate it too.

When I need to buy pads I have to write code word "rabbit chow" on the board because I’m so embarrassed and ashamed.

I hate it because when I get it, it is horrible. There's something wrong with my body -- I have to go to the gyn and get birth control to fix it.

I was having sex this weekend, and my partner asked what something was...it ended up being blood. It really grossed me out, and he thought he had done it, but this wasn't my first time. I didn't tell him it was my period. I told him I didn't want to [have sex] anymore until this situation cleared up.

In my high school gym class during our swimming time, I had my period, so decided to use a tampon. 20 minutes later, blood everywhere! The lifeguard pulled me out in front of everyone! 3 classes in all, my friends and everyone were watching me...I just wanted to die! The male lifeguard gave me a real hard time about using a tampon in the future (though I had used one...) and told me to stop swimming since I was gross.

It grosses me out because I just hate going to the bathroom to change pads and seeing these gobs and puddles of blood. I think it's horrible. I don't feel comfortable even at my own home changing pads, so I can't imagine staying over at a friends house, or at a partners house while having my period.

It’s inconvenient and time consuming and I feel very dirty. I don’t like having secrets and this is one huge one that I cant ever tell anyone. When I do have it, I’m in the bathroom, I wipe and wipe and wipe until it's as close to spotless that I can get it.

I don't usually masturbate when I'm on it. And even when I do, it feels really scandalous.

Every month when I would get it, I would cry and beg my mom to put me on the pill or to get me a hysterectomy.

Not limited to the mouths of babes, negative attitudes about periods are writ on the proverbial bathroom wall: "Lifting the Curse," (Chicago Sun-Times), "Off the Rag" (salon.com), "Move Over Mother Nature," (ABC's 20/20), "No Flow" (The Stranger), “A Pill to Uncramp Women’s Style" (Washington Post), "Continuous Contraception May Banish Periods" (NPR, Morning Edition), are all titles of recent pieces championing menstrual suppression. Take Control of Your Period is the title of one of the most popular books on the subject, clearly implying that, by god, if you don’t take control of her, then she’s going to take control of you.

Menstrual suppression -- the use of oral contraceptives, Depo-Provera or other hormonal methods either to prevent menstruation from occurring with its normal frequency or to stop it altogether -- is all the rage these days. It’s being given the hard sell, too. Having figured out that the concept of “choice” plays well with women generally, and knowing how desperate we are to have actual choices where our reproductive and bodily lives are concerned, menstrual suppression is increasingly being sold as a matter of being empowered. At long, desperate last there’s a way for us to choose to send our terrible sister packing for good, to put her in the corner and make her write "I will not bleed all over your whitewashed world" 300 times while we snicker behind her back. If plugging her up with bleached, rose-scented wads of cotton is sending her to her room without supper, and trying to wash every unsightly trace of her away with vaginally-disruptive and unhealthy douching is a stint in juvenile hall, then seeking to suppress her completely is sending her to prison without the possibility of parole.

By all means, menstrual suppression gives women a choice, and for some women with certain health conditions, inexplicably painful periods, or who are spending extended times in areas without the means to tend to a period, suppression is a godsend, even though not all women’s bodies react ideally to such hormonal interventions and many will instead end up trading a monthly flow for irregular spotting at any time.

But there is real reason to also question this, particularly given the marketing of suppression. Do pervasive cultural attitudes about menstruation, and about the female body as being a great annoyance and a burden -- attitudes so ingrained and accepted that even some doctors perpetuate them -- allow women a real choice as to whether or not, and why, they WANT to suppress menstruation?

For teen and young adult women today, the era of fierce, second-wave revolts against looksism aren't a distant memory for them. They've no memory, no feeling, and often no knowledge, of old-school feminist reclamation of the body and the watershed feminist health care movement which first shred giant holes in male and corporate dominated approaches to women's bodies and reproductive health. Rather, this is a generation that has often been sent clear and often unchallenged messages, much like their grandmothers were, from their earliest moments of girlhood that every aspect of their natural female bodies is unacceptable -- body hair, wrinkles, the “wrong” size of labia minora or breasts, the cushy softness of even the thinnest female belly. To many, the biologically female has been taught and learned as troublesome, unacceptable and, ironically, touted as unfeminine. Is it really a choice for them, when they squash or hide aspects of their naturally-occurring bodies out of shame or fear of harassment? Especially when the thing they want to do away with is as overt a marker of embarrassing womanhood as the bright, red stain of menstruation?

In case you had one of those five-second periods of doubt we all have every decade or so, and thought that misogyny might not be alive and well and living in every waking corner of the world, all you would need do is look to the treatment of menstruation. Nearly every article we read about menses in the major newspapers and magazines is pejorative. We can trip over most coming-of-age books in the library and find our shame writ and commemorated in fiction and non-fiction alike. Usually these depictions are written with a giggle, not a rebel yell, and you’ve got to search all day to find even a paragraph that suggests we’ve no reason to be ashamed, or that our shame is anything but cute, funny, sweet or some sort of essential rite of passage. What the shame is is an essential weapon in the arsenal of our oppression.

In a study by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals about patient and doctor attitudes regarding menstrual suppression, 71% women disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that they enjoyed their periods in some way; 48% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that the only good thing about menstruating is to let them know they are not pregnant; and 75% thought that men have a real advantage in not having the monthly interruption of a menstrual period. 45% did not disagree that they hide when they are menstruating. 55% did not disagree that they avoid touching themselves when menstruating. 37% agreed/strongly agreed that they think menstrual blood is disgusting. And when it comes to menstrual suppression, 53% of women who knew about it had been told about it by a health care provider (some of whom hold and state outright these attitudes themselves). Another recent study has also noted the profound bias in the way menstrual suppression and menstruation are often being presented, as well as how much more frequently those who are proponents are quoted compared to those who are questioners or critics of suppression.

You know menstruation is in the big trouble she clearly deserves when we hear even female doctors recommending this for nothing more than convenience. These women have often worked harder than their male counterparts, fought for equality and credibility in their field, and usually know from gender bias. They are women whom other women often count on to help keep us safe from misogynist bias in the medical system. It seems that some, though, are either so unaware of their own internalized misogyny or so convinced of its essential validity that when cited as experts in newspaper and magazine articles on menstrual suppression, they do not talk, as healthcare pros should, about health concerns, biochemistry, or the results of double-blind studies. Rather we hear doctors telling us about the wonder that is avoiding pesky stains in our expensive, pretty panties.

One of the common arguments such doctors make in favor of suppression is that women of yesteryear had fewer menstrual periods because they had more children and less time between pregnancies. The doctors then apply an incredibly strange logic to reach the conclusion that thus, we would be healthier if we menstruated less, completely ignoring the facts that the women of yesteryear weren’t actually known to be any healthier than we are, and lack of menses due to pregnancy and lactation are an entirely different biological phenomenon than lack of menstruation due to synthetic hormones.

When I think of period bleeding I mostly think of the smell and mess. Invariably my underwear and bedding would end up stained after years of use. It seems shameful to admit that even with a tampon and a pad there would still be bloody accidents.

Tampons are hard to insert, go in crooked, and it hurts to pull them out (almost like my uterus is acting like a suction cup). My vagina gets abnormally dry, and the tampon doesn't stay up all the way; creeps down in a short amount of time.

(From adult women at no period.com)

When you’ve got a medical professional such as Dr. Leslie Miller, who runs the noperiod.com website (and seems to have a disturbing conflict of interest: her research was paid for by Wyeth, a pharmaceutical company who makes big bucks from Lybrel, a pill developed for menstrual suppression), posting testimonials like these as reasons to suppress menstruation coming from a place of medical authority, we’ve got to start asking questions about why a doctor would advise any of us to engage in a known gamble with our long-term health rather than just suggesting we first try something as simple, inexpensive, and utterly without risk, as putting a towel or two under one’s self when in bed to avoid damage to linens and mattresses, or using a menstrual pad or cup instead of a tampon as tampons create vaginal dryness during a period.

Miller states that “Taking the pill every day should be no different than taking them for only 3 weeks with one week off” – although this rather fails to address the history of known links between contraceptive pill use and problems like cardiovascular disease and stroke. Extra hormones each month may well mean extra risks, particularly for younger women. Dr. Miller and other ardent supporters of suppression rarely, if ever, even bother to address such risks and side effects. But as other doctors, like Dr. Winnifred Cutler of The Athena Institute, Dr. Susan Rako, and Jerilynn C. Prior and Christine L. Hitchcock of The Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research have mentioned, there are numerous potential problems from continuous contraceptive pill use: the dampening of female sexual response, reduced production of oxytocin and testosterone (both vital for the sexual response cycle), increased risks of breast and cervical cancers, and troubles with iron imbalances and anemia. Many of these are known side effects of contraceptive pills used normally, let alone continuously, as with menstrual suppression. Dr. Rako, the author of "No More Periods? The Risks of Menstrual Suppression and Other Cutting-Edge Issues About Hormones and Women's Health," calls menstrual suppression "the largest uncontrolled experiment in medical history." It should be no surprise that women are the guinea pigs for such an experiment: historically, we often have been. When a gynecologist enthusiastically endorses menstrual suppression without any reservation, or without suggesting other options first or additional options at all, it doesn’t take a genius to guess that a bias may be coloring her judgment.

Certainly, periods can be painful and they can also make a mess, and heaven knows we’ve all got enough cleaning to do already. But semen is messy, too, and not only do we not hear about the great inconvenience of cleaning it up or the shameful stains it leaves behind, pornography ensures that we will never be short of words or images that praise the glory of that great, masculine goo. Heck, we can even hear odes to the wonder of semen from the same women who are moaning incessantly about their terrible, messy and embarrassing periods. Periods are gross, but plenty just cannot say enough about how much they like to have a mouth, vulva or face full of the semen. Funny thing, that.

In most cases, truly painful periods are painful for a reason. It's not because that’s the nature of menstruating, or because a given woman just happens to be struck with some unsolvable curse. However, when our easy (and profitable) prescription for any woman who complains about cramps or her period is just to put her on a contraceptive, or to suppress her periods, real opportunities to find out about her medical concerns may be missed. Women with dysmenorrhea may have any number of reproductive ailments, and these should be identified and addressed rather than simply eliminating the symptom of a painful period. But many will not, and more will never be informed about simple lifestyle changes – such as increasing physical activity, improving or changing diet, reducing stress, switching to washable pads or menstrual cups -- which can not only help regulate and harmonize periods, but will also improve the whole of womens lives and health, both in the short and long term.

Even if we dismiss or deny the effects of misogyny, the widespread internalized hatred of menstruation and the female body, and the cultural and interpersonal pressures to erase that which is undeniably female, how can we deny the obvious lack of concern for women’s health, esteem and general well-being, and the even greater lack of concern for the health of our youngest women, many of an age whose choices today will create a legacy for their lifelong health and identity?

To date, we already have very few studies specifically about adolescent women taking hormonal contraception at all, as it is most currently designed with the 7-day placebo period included, and NO long-term studies about what impact the long-term use of hormonal contraceptives may have on the lifelong health of women who begin taking them in adolescence. The longest-term study available on the matter of potential bone density loss in traditional oral contraceptives users was done for a mere 24 months, and the current study on the drug Seasonale, designed to only allow menstruation four times each year,covers only a period of one year. None of these studies has, as of yet, produced longer follow-up reports.

This should be a cause for concern, especially when we consider that millions of young women are using the pill and other hormonal methods, often because of complaints about acne, the typical irregularity of menstrual cycles the first few years of menstruation (pills are often prescribed to “regulate” cycles, even though they technically do no such thing: they regulate the bleeding, not the cycle itself) menstrual cramps and PMS, all typical of the first five years of menstruation, and known to be more prevalent when other lifestyle issues endemic of teens today are in play, such as high stress, sedentary lifestyles and poor diet.

Nearly every expert in the field of adolescent health and sexuality, including myself, agrees the risks of hormonal contraception to young women are clearly lesser than the risks – physical, emotional and social – of unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. But we may often agree with that judgement far too easily, and without recognizing there are not only other, far less disruptive methods of contraception for teens, but that we need MORE of them. We often agree without considering the multitude of risks which hormonal contraception may pose to young women in the long and short term, medical and practical. It has long been established that the reliability of young adult use of hormonal contraception is spotty at best. Because condom use often ceases when young women are on the pill, it also opens them up to extra risks of cervical cancers (which may be an additional risk with the pill, period) and STIs, These risks may be even higher for social reasons, in part because once a girl is on the pill – as we learned from women in the early seventies when the pill was in its heyday -- it becomes far more difficult both for a woman to say no to intercourse, pregnancy being seen as no risk, and to get her male partner to also use condoms. We also know that young adults often have an impossibly difficult time visualizing long-term health concerns and lifestyle choices which make the use of hormonal birth control even more risky for them: they are more likely to ignore warnings about safer sex, smoking, calcium intake and regular pap smears. This is all complicated by the fact that much of the time, we’re not even talking about oral contraceptives used AS contraception but prescribed for some other reason: in the ARHP study, 91% of medical professionals state they have prescribed a birth control method for a reason other than pregnancy prevention.

As a member of an older generation, with some responsibility for the culture in which our young women are growing up, I think some of us have a lot to answer for when it comes to young women’s horror of menstruation. Pornography, for example, often teaches not just that women’s desire is pointless unless it serves men’s, but a culture of mainstreamed pornography tells our daughters that while having a face coated in semen is sexy and hot, having thighs wet with menses is disgusting and obscene.

We may see menstrual suppression as not a big deal, just one more thing about women’s bodies that is being “managed” and “controlled.” And this is just the point: it is one more thing about women’s bodies that we are being told should be “managed” and “controlled,” among a dizzying area of similar messages about body hair, skin color, “proper” weight or proportions, imperfect features and cosmetic surgery, makeup, clothing that is either too feminine or not feminine enough, sexuality which is either “too” sexual or not sexual enough, and what is endlessly presented as the unbearable agony that is normal, human aging.

When their sexuality, the hair on their bodies, their bare faces, the color of their skin, their natural breasts, labia, thighs and tummies, their mass and growth, their hormonal cycles and now their menses are taken from them, what of their natural bodies do we leave them with? When all of the above and more are gross, inconvenient, unacceptable, unfeminine, what of the body may they retain that is authentic, organic and effortless? As it is, women of every age who choose to go without Botox and Lipo, lipstick and heels, compulsive dieting and exercise, who elect to retain body hair, bleeding and their own skin color are decreasing in number yearly: at this rate within just a couple generations, the female freaks of nature of our near future may, quite literally be freaks of nature: poor, poor women who are either too broke, too hopeless or too lazy to be anything but that terribly unfeminine woman as nature designed her.

Suppression is a telling term, and an approach familiar to women throughout all of history: suck it in, tuck it in, suck it up, shut up, hide it, cut it off, make it go away. The "it" is not just our bodies. It is us: it is our sisters, it is our daughters.

Inconvenient. Messy. Overemotional. Unpredictable. Nasty. Smelly. Overt. Impossible to hide, incompatible with men. Too red, too bright, too loud, too thick, too much. It isn't happenstance that all of these words often used to describe menstruation are the same words often used for women who don’t play by the rules.

Many girls grow up with the clear message that if they perceive something is wrong with the world they live in, they are perceiving it incorrectly, and just need to adapt to make that wrong seem right. If it seems to them that there isn't a place for them to do all they want to do and be all they want to be, then they need to conform to what everyone else wants them to be, to change themselves to be more like whomever there is that place for. "Good" girls are raised with the notion that when women see that a person, group or system is doing someone harm, or when something essential to them is in jeopardy – such as their femininity, their freedoms -- they need to ask someone bigger, with more power and worth, to do something about it, unless the person being harmed is them, in which case they need to stop being such a girl, just "man up" and deal; when their essentials are at risk, they are told that they should just consider themselves lucky to have been allowed any of them in the first place.

If we do not start protesting and send messages of protest to our little sisters and daughters, what of their own bodies will we allow them to have love, acceptance and ownership of? What undeniably, unabashedly female bodily process will we leave them with to serve as a reminder for them and everyone else that womanhood cannot simply be constructed, molded and formed into whatever shape serves the status quo best, regardless of how well, or how poorly, it serves women themselves?

Much of our culture has constructed itself to be purposefully incompatible with women, but that does not justify the answer that we must adapt every aspects of our womanhood to suit it. Rather, it should be painfully obvious that we need to loudly and strongly protest every way in which a world has made it so difficult for more than half its human populace to live in it, and require it to make real room for us and to allow us as much power and agency in creating and cultivating it as it has our brothers.

It's doubtful given what we already know, but maybe someday science will discover that in terms of our physical health -- not sexist bias -- we really don't need our periods. While it's profoundly unlikely that menstruation poses a danger to our health (particularly when the only way to counter that danger is to take a daily regimen of synthetic hormones), maybe doctors will find that having fewer periods is better for women physically. It’ll still be a stretch for anyone to deny the benefits we know menstruation provides: that comforting reminder for those of us who need it that we aren’t pregnant each month, that helpful boost when it comes to clearing out bacterial yuckies that like to crawl up our cunts, an ebb and flow for the years we have it that keep us in touch with the natural rhythms of our bodies and the planet they inhabit, a connection to the other women in our lives and to one phase of our womanhood, even just a forced down day now and then from the manic pace of our lives.

We are more than our bodies-as-machine or object, and our bodies are more than merely vessels for our hearts and minds. We're a cohesive unit or, at least we are when we are encouraged and allowed to be so, when we are in our best health, and when divisions are not intentionally made to divorce us from our bodies and our inconvenient, messy, unprofitable, and challenging womanhood. We can't very well make free choices when our lives and the way we think about our own bodies are so profoundly influenced and impacted by attitudes of unacceptance and negativity for women, just as we are.

Whether or not she becomes our best friend, and even when she’s driving us up the freaking wall; whatever we choose to do with her, we and our daughters need to find some measure of love and respect for our overt, rebellious, brassy and bloody sister, if for no other reason than because she can – monthly, even – dish up an essential reminder that we need to cultivate and celebrate her energy in ourselves, not quash it or let it be quashed to fit into a world that leaves no room for us precisely because it doesn’t want us in it at all.

When we’re too worn down, too overwhelmed, too distracted or just too damn scared to revolt, she’s always got our back, and even if we don’t feel like we need her anymore, our daughters still do. When they feel ashamed of their own womanhood; when they feel, as they often do, unassertive, lost, talked-over, sanitized, colonized and captive, if they can just do so much as stand up and walk away, she’ll bravely flip off whomever they cannot otherwise or yet by leaving her bloody and bright, stubborn and shameless, wet red stain behind on their pretty, pristine white chair.

(Reprinted from an essay in the forthcoming anthology "Breakthrough Bleeding:Essays on The Thing Women Spend A Quarter Of Their Time Doing, But No One’s Supposed To Talk About," edited by Hanne Blank and Moira Russell. A grateful nod to Edna St. Vincent Millay.)

written 11 Jul 2008 . updated 19 Oct 2013

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