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Thursday, 26 January 2012

Menstruation (yes, really)

By Flick Myerscough

A few weeks ago I went shopping. Later that day, I looked at a photo which someone had tweeted. This is a mundane and not unusual set of events to take place in my experiences on one day, considering the day-to-day lives of the people I know.
At the end of last term I was stressed. I was stressed to the extent that I became physically ill. For a significant proportion of the population, the symptoms of stress can include their periods stopping. This proportion of the population includes me and I experienced this symptom. It’s quite a stressful symptom as its one that raises a rather “what-the-hell-is-going-on-exclamation-marks” feeling, which isn’t very helpful when one is already stressed.  But I didn’t feel able to share this what-the-hell-is-going-on-exclamation-marks with people. It would be “too much information” or “icky” or somesuch.
On this day that I went shopping, it was raining, and one-of-my-favourite-people had offered to give me a lift to the shops in his car. One-of-my-favourite-people was also giving another friend a lift somewhere else. Whilst said other friend was in the car, I was asked what I wanted to buy. I was going to buy tampons. I felt like I “shouldn’t” really announce this in front of the car, so uttered something vague and noncommittal. To be honest, it probably sounded a bit silly.
One isn’t “meant” to talk about menstruation in polite society, despite it being something experienced first-hand by a significant proportion of said society. The exception to this would be jokes about people behaving in a “pre-menstrual” way. These are generally self-fulfilling, as people are understandably miffed at others being patronising and sexist at them.
Further, a member of the proportion of the population which menstruates is supposed to hide any evidence that it takes place. One can [read should] buy small bags to store sanitary items in, or store them in a discreet pocket of a larger bag. [As an aside, I’ve always found the similarity between the words “sanitary” and “sanity” amusing.] To have someone find these items in your bag is meant to be a bit awkward, as is for them to fall out, or for it to be obvious one is about to use them…
Let alone having to ask someone else if they have any you can use. That would mean both of you coming out. Heaven forfend.
Maybe this is one of the reasons people are so freaked by the idea of using a mooncup. By using mainstream sanitary items, we can throw out the evidence of menstruation with the rest of the rubbish we dump and ignore. The reusable nature of a mooncup removes this opportunity to enact our ignorance of menstruation itself.
The picture I found on twitter later that day (the day when I bought tampons) has disappeared – it was a bit old at the time. Anyway, it was a bag especially designed for storing sanitary items, with a picture of a little stick girl on the front, in such a way as if to say “Look! Here are my period things”. The tweet was remarking on how announcing this to the world seemed a bit weird. Thinking about it, for me it both is and isn’t but not for the “that’s too much information/private”. A bag for storing these items can be marketed to a significant proportion of the population – it’s commercially viable. So, really, it’s hardly surprising it exists (in consumerist societies). But it is, thinking about it, a bit of a weird idea – why not use any other small bag, or a pocket which doesn’t get buffeted so the wrappers don;t break. OR the producing companies could make products with wrappers that don;t break so easily just from being moved about in a bag?! That would make for less side products though. What is weird is the commercialisation of bodily functions which people can’t help which this bag epitomises. The announcing cartoon on this particular example could even be said to give it a certain self-aware irony, as it transforms a product one of the points of which is to hide things into an announcement. It reminds us that our silence on menstruation is to the benefits of some groups commercially.
Why did I bother to analyse the bag to such an extent? I suppose I was rather aware of the issues at stake at the time. The other passenger having left the car, we repeated the what-is-each-person-buying thing. I said I was going to buy tampons. As I muddledly both apologised and said that I really didn’t think I should be apologising if I made one-of-my-favourite-people feel awkward one-of-my-favourite-people responded with a delightfully refreshing point: from a misogynist perspective, buying tampons is one of the manliest things a man can do. The traditional misogynist man is, after all, the monetary provider for his woman. And keeping a woman like a pet requires looking after her bodily functions. (I would also add that buying tampons could also be a way of boasting sexual intimacy with someone, but think that’s a more common observation.) (Also, If misogyny provides an environment where people are more open about bodies than an apparently more liberated sexual environment…. well, THAT is bit a weird.)
I don’t want to suggest that we should all announce our menstrual cycles to eachother or anything like that. That would be pointless and a waste of time (generally, I realise people wanted to conceive might need to consider these things with some people). It’s not something which should really matter to people. But not mattering, for me, surely should make it something which isn’t to be embarrassed and awkward about. Menstruation is going to happen even if we pretend it doesn’t. And we know that really. People need to accept that some people have periods rather than feign ignorance of it.

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