Menstruation, myth, and medicine

By Sandy Thomson-Conklin | Corpus | Posted: Monday December 2, 2019

I was twelve years old, munching away on some crackers in the back garden when I noticed an uncomfortable wetness in my knickers. I hopped to the loo and was surprised to discover that I had got my first period. I immediately grasped what had happened; my mother is a nurse and my family has a decidedly casual attitude towards the human body and its functions. I ran and proudly shared my news. Tearing up, Mum explained how I was now a young woman. Together we went over the practical accoutrements, and she presented me with a silver necklace adorned with hearts to mark the occasion (and satiate my rampant preteen consumerism). Though my experience of the bloody menses itself is not new or unique, I have learned that the openness and practical knowledge is. Roughly fifty percent of the world’s population is biologically female, and almost all females will menstruate for some 3,000 days in their lives. Most girls begin their monthly bleed between the ages of 11-16, and will continue to bleed for five (give or take) days each month for the next 30 years. Societally, menstrual blood is taboo. Historically, it has been taken as evidence of females being the ‘weaker sex.’ Keeping this shameful secret shrouded is a long-running custom. Time and time again inferiority has been upheld through religion, the medical profession, or internalised shame passed from mother to daughter.

In 1948, a young female medical student at the Otago School of Medicine, M. W. Wray, investigated menstruation as part of her fifth year Preventative Medicine dissertation. She found a serious lack of information about the average girl’s experience in New Zealand. Rather than accepting the status quo, Wray decided to collect some data. 120 permission slips were sent to parents of students at Otago Girls High School, requesting their daughters be interviewed about menstruation. A mere half of the permissions were returned signed, and fewer than sixty girls were interviewed.

The study uncovered a number of cultural norms the modern person might find surprising: while menstruating 17.6% of women restricted their exercise; 43.8% were not permitted baths; and 68.4% used homemade sanitary pads. These raw statistics were not the only finding from the interviews. Long-standing attitudes to the physical habits of menstruating women were illuminated. Despite the urgings of their biology teacher, a good number of the girls were found to be abstaining from their normal hygiene routines whilst plagued by ‘the curse.’ When questioned, the girls protested that despite explaining to their mothers what the teacher had said, they were still not allowed to wash. The taboo on washing while menstruating stems from a long standing Judaeo-Christian notion that a woman is unclean, or tainted, and must be cordoned off from the community to avoid polluting it. Many women were encouraged to treat ‘having your pains’ as a mini-illness, and to forgo ‘taking exercises.’ Physical exertion was believed to exacerbate a woman’s already weakened state. Wray was dismissive of these notions (and rightly so), and armed the girls with information pamphlets titled “Advice to Young Girls Concerning the Monthly Period.” These pamphlets directly counselled the girls to wash their bodies as usual, if not more frequently, during their periods. The pamphlets also stressed the importance of daily exercise, advising that exercise may even contribute to pain management for period discomfort.

The Wray interviews also laid bare the shame, embarrassment, and secrecy embedded in the minds of the teens and the culture at large. The primary source of anxiety for the girls was the fear that their soiled pads (or their sullied condition) would be discovered in their school bags by their friends and that this would lead to teasing and ridicule. The private nature of ‘the monthlies’ was socially enforced by jeering peers and was further enhanced by the societal cues the girls felt at home and as menstruating people in the larger world. When a young lady discovered her menarche, her mother was apt to tell her to keep it ‘just between us girls’. Young women of the time recalled that there weren’t any rubbish bins provided in the loos, and at one school they were instructed to place bloodied napkins in the incinerator directly opposite the headmaster’s office. The absence of ablution facilities added to the sense of private shame that the girls already felt. ‘Nature’s handicap’ put uterine blood out of sight and out of mind, with women themselves being the main enforcers of this quiet club.

As noted above, the majority of these high school girls were using homemade pads. In 1948, most married women were reliant on their husband’s income for money and had little autonomy to purchase goods without review. Purchasing menstrual products was financially, and conversationally, out of reach. When more women entered the workforce in later decades, disposable pads became popular. Now, some seventy years later, we are seeing another social shift as, in the name of sustainability, affluent women purchase reusable silicone menstrual cups and washable cloth pads. Notably, it is now the well-to-do who can afford to use these time-intensive devices. Impoverished people cannot spend limited time and money on such aspirational accessories, which take valuable time to maintain or (as in the case of menstrual cups) involve a large upfront cost. The price for these ‘new’ products is, however, dropping as demand and awareness increase.

It is heartening to think of the leaps we have made towards a more inclusive and scientific attitude towards women’s health since M. Wray’s 1948 study. It would be rare that a girl now experiences their menarche without some understanding of what is going on. Although I am horrified to realise that widespread ignorance was so common only a few decades ago, I am privileged to have never experienced the shame that was recently so pervasive amongst women. Although the advice pamphlets or biology instructor’s chiding may not have been adequate to defend them against their mother’s traditions, they certainly made new decisions with their own daughters. As the offspring of baby boomers, I have benefited greatly from these choices and am gratefully unburdened by socially enforced shame.

Original Article


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