Assortments of Thought

Menstruation

Posted on: April 3rd, 2011

Discussions involving bodily functions and, to a lesser extent, personal hygiene are often uncomfortable, as are discussions that relate to sexuality. It’s not surprising then than menstruation is a difficult topic, both historically in many cultures and in contemporary times. Indeed, there are many men in particular who would rather avoid menstruation to the greatest extent possible, who don’t like talking about it and who may even want their girlfriends and wives to more or less hide it. Likewise, there are many women who are hesitant about discussing menstruation with men–and in some cases even with other women–while cultural attitudes dictate that menstruation isn’t to be talked about in mixed company either, that it’s something to be avoided or joked about. These attitudes by all sides are, however, flawed at best, and hurtful at worst. Not only is menstruation simply a natural function–nothing to get uptight about–it also isn’t right that women should ever have to feel embarrassed or ashamed about it, or feel that they must unduly conceal it. Further, whenever a woman might feel like talking about it, whether with boyfriends or husbands, family or friends, she shouldn’t have to anticipate a negative reaction either. In short, men and women alike should lighten up about menstruation; acknowledge it as being the significant and natural feature of women’s lives that it is; and become more open to discussing and accepting it, without fear of so doing. Perhaps then women and men would feel just a closer to one another and accepted as a result.

The basic perspective to keep in mind about menstruation is that menses are not unhygienic, and that menstruation is natural, normal, and healthy–even the feelings and physical sensations that accompany it for many women (not counting, of course, those of true premenstrual syndrome, or any of the other various menstrual disorders). Just in case anyone’s in doubt over the fundamentals, roughly each month, a woman’s body prepares for a possible pregnancy by building up the uterine lining. When and if pregnancy doesn’t occur, the body then sheds that lining–along with the unused egg in uterine blood–out of the body over a period of time ranging from a couple days to about a week. The product is properly termed menses, a mixture of the shed uterine lining and blood, and women typically use any of various menstrual products to catch it. Most common, of course, are disposable pads and tampons, although washable pads are an option, as are reusable cups, silicone cups that are placed just below the cervix. Alternatively, women may at times just let their panties catch it, such as on light flow days near the beginning or end, or may just use towels, for instance while sleeping. (See, for instance, the page “All About My Free Bleeding,” by Sarah at All About My Vagina). Each of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages, so the variety is good, but the point here is, menstruation as practically encountered largely centers on women bleeding and having to deal with it. Of course, in addition to bleeding, uterine cramps, bloating, fatigue, and such may also manifest themselves, including emotional responses for some women, and these aspects are as irritating to many women as they may be uncomfortable for many men to even think about. That said though, the aspect most likely to “gross out” or elicit a negative reaction from men is the bleeding. Menses are not however dirty or health-threatening in any way, unless they’ve been contained in a menstrual product for a prolonged period of time. Hence the cycle is natural and healthy–albeit annoying for many women–and menses are safe and largely just blood, so there is nothing for anyone to be uptight about. Such is the fundamental perspective to keep in mind.

Unfortunately, menstruation is often treated as something bad: something to be hidden by women; never discussed by men except as a joke; and entirely avoided in mixed company. Such attitudes however are harmful to women in particular, and really, to men as well. They force women, for instance, to feel anxiety, embarrassment, or shame over a big and significant aspect of their lives, making them feel they must unduly conceal their menstruation even from people, including men, that they’re close to. Indeed, such attitudes lead men to be unsupportive or even rejecting of such a big part of women’s lives, or else prevent them from being supportive, out of personal discomfort or a fear of what others might think. In short, when everyone is embarrassed and uptight or even outright ardent about not discussing or openly acknowledging women’s menstruation, women are denied the love and support of their partners, family, and friends, and men are under pressure not to provide that support, again, in this area so prominent for women every month.

Consider some concrete examples. Imagine, for instance, the woman whose boyfriend or husband tells her not to even touch him while she’s menstruating, or to keep all menstrual products, new or used, out of his sight. Of course those are extremes, though not unrealistic, so consider the woman who might like to relate her experiences with and occasional burdens of menstruation to her boyfriend or husband, the man who should always be there for her, but doesn’t or can’t because of how she fears he would react. Or how about the woman who has an accident–say a young woman now–who would feel embarrassed enough around other girls, but must also endure thinking about what boys that witness it must surely think, or how they might laugh or joke about it later. (See, for instance, the question and responses to “I had a period accident at school. I was hoping someone could tell me their stories to make me feeel better?,” by Ashley & various responders at Yahoo! Answers). Menstrual jokes in general between men and in pop culture at large must surely be hurtful in most contexts, and think of the girl who receives little support or guidance as she begins menstruating, from her parents, her father, or, indeed, even her mother. (See, for instance, the series Reader Stories: What Did Your Mother Tell You About Menstruation?, by various contributors at About.com Women’s Health). Finally, while women clearly receive the brunt of bad attitudes toward menstruation, consider the boyfriend or husband who would gladly let his girlfriend or wife know that he accepts her entirely, including her periods, but just doesn’t see how to say it, or fears how saying so could actually make his partner uncomfortable, if she’s use to men reacting negatively to talk of menstruation. Lastly, think of the boy who would gladly listen to his female friends talk about their periods–including sharing in the excitement of said friends have their firsts–but is excluded over fears or assumptions, because they figure as a boy, he just wouldn’t understand. Clearly, when attitudes towards menstruation are strained or even hostile, no one wins.

Now consider how much better it can be. Imagine a boyfriend or husband who sees menstruation as no big deal, who accepts it such that his girlfriend or wife feels no pressure to hide every little aspect of it around him. Quite the contrary, say he acknowledges she may not be feeling her best during her time of the month, and goes extra far to comfort her. Suppose he’s even fine with sex while she’s menstruating, realizing that sex involves lots of fluids anyway, and that orgasms during periods help relieve cramps, something he’s more than happy to help her with, if she so desires. Between such a couple, menstruation isn’t an uncomfortable barrier then, but something accepted, an acceptance helping to keep them close. (See, for instance, the article “An Unfortunate Combination: Periods and Pants,” by Abbie at Scarleteen.com). Or consider a young woman again, who needn’t feel quite so embarrassed over an accident if she feels even boys won’t worry about it that much, and who has parents and other family, including a father, who are happy to give her guidance with managing her periods, and even share in her anxieties and excitement about having her first. Perhaps she even feels she can talk to her male friends about it, if she knows they’re okay with it, much as she does with her female friends. Hence when everyone loosens up about menstruation and accepts it for all it is, women and men alike feel less pressure over it and even end up closer, because instead of hiding or ignoring such a big part of women’s lives, people share with and support the people they care about. Such is what better attitudes towards menstruation can mean: not just accepting a natural process without undue anxiety, but letting women be themselves without fear or discomfort–accepted by the people who care about them–ultimately bringing women and men closer together.

Such are the attitudes then that we should work to adopt, losing the discomfort over women’s menstruation on all sides, from couples and families, to friends and society at large. Of course, how such changes in attitudes towards menstruation will take place is uncertain, not the least of which because cultural attitudes both transcend individuals and simultaneously influence them. And the gender gap concerning menstruation is only one way, really, that men and women are typically separated in ways that they don’t need to be and even shouldn’t be. Nonetheless, for individuals at least, the path is fairly clear. With luck, not nearly as many men are as uncomfortable with menstruation as might be presumed (see, for instance, the page “What’s This About?,” at MEN in Menstruation), so women might first try not going out of their way to hide that fact that yes, they have periods. Men, in turn, might refrain from making cruel jokes or displaying anti-menstrual sentiment, letting the women in their lives suspect at least that they don’t fret over menstruation or object to it. From there, as individuals’ relationships permit, perhaps everyone could reach a point by which women are fully accepted, periods and all, with men both supportive of them and simultaneously at ease with the subject amongst themselves. As an ideal, perhaps at best, a woman or girl might even by able to share a menstrual story or two at a family gathering, perhaps a recounting of an accident that seemed so horribly embarrassing at the time, but which she’s since found it within herself to laugh about. No matter though if such an ideal is ever reached. If people simply make an effort to be more open to and accepting of women’s menstruation, women and girls will be better loved; men and boys (and women) will be further enlightened; and a topic that once seemed such a conversational burden will cease to be, replaced with simple acceptance.

References:

Abbie: “An Unfortunate Combination: Periods and Pants,” Jan. 31st, 2008, at Scarleteen.com as of April 3rd, 2011
[http://www.scarleteen.com/blog/abbie/2008/01/31/
an_unfortunate_combination_periods_and_pants].

Ashley & Various: “I had a period accident at school. I was hoping someone could tell me their stories to make me feeel better?,” at Yahoo! Answers as of April 3rd, 2011
[http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090406163210AAhe620].

Sarah: “All About My Free Bleeding,” March 31st, 2004, at All About My Vagina as of April 3rd, 2011
[http://myvag.net/blood/free/1/].

meninmenstruation.Wordpress.com: “What’s This About?“, at MEN in Menstruation as of April 3rd, 2011
[http://meninmenstruation.wordpress.com/whats-this-about/].

Various: Reader Stories: What Did Your Mother Tell You About Menstruation?, at About.com Women’s Health as of April 3rd, 2011
[http://womenshealth.about.com/u/sty/menstruation/What-Did-Your-Mother-Tell-You-About-Menstruation/I-Was-10-When-Mom-Explained-Periods-To-Me.htm].

©2011, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.

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