Many years ago my wife and I were members of a piano group comprised of three other women and two other men. All were between 35 to 55 years of age. One of the women in the group was my wife’s family doctor. I remember an incident at one of our meetings, where the women, including my wife, suddenly surrounded the doctor and quickly whisked her off to the bathroom leaving the men oddly perplexed as to what just happened. Later, I learned that the doctor had unknowingly started her menstrual cycle, which was noticed by one of the other women who noticed spotting on her dress. The other women in the group quickly picked up on their “sister’s” signals and surrounded her, thus protecting her from any shame or embarrassment she might incur from males witnessing her accident. Conversely, my daughter’s menarche was greeted by my wife with enthusiasm and, with all her girlfriends present, they spent the entire afternoon swapping “period” stories with my daughter, making the whole affair a natural womanly occurrence coupled with a “welcome-to-the-sisterhood” event. I, of course, was strictly excluded from the entire affair.
In response to reading “Managing the Menstruating Body,” I will argue that menarche and menstruation is still a domain of strictly female discourse, but with the growth of neo-liberal biomedicine and the Internet, young women are being introduced to new networks of menstrual intelligence, thus alleviating ignorance and secrecy in regards to puberty, menarche and menstruation. However, biomedicine’s attempt to normalize this biological process has been countered by health and hygiene experts, and professionals who have pathologized menstruation as an embarrassing female problem that needs to be fixed and remain hidden. Thus, in the neo-liberal world, women’s bodies become sites to be disciplined by medical and economic social structures to enhance the efficiency and productivity of the female gender, while transgressions to these structures are met with shame, embarrassment and considered abnormal (Lahiri-Dutt 2014:13).
In today’s Western world, menstruation has not only been medicalized, but also commodified by corporate interests in order to secure market share and control of women’s sexuality. While the medical community constructs menstruation narratives as a natural normal bodily function, transnational mega-conglomerates such as Proctor & Gamble wage an ideological/cultural war on women’s menstrual cycle as something of a problem that has to be managed and kept hidden (Mazzarella 2008:31). Using the Internet, (beinggirl.com), P & G on the one hand provides valuable biomedical, and cultural intelligence on puberty, menarche and menstruation, but on the other hand the site is used to attract and retain young women feminine hygiene product consumers. Feminine protection and hygiene advertising reinforces the notion of menstruation as strictly a female discourse that is hidden and confidential. Capitalizing on young girls entering into puberty whose awkwardness and embarrassment about menarche and menstruation, P & G’s beinggirl.com domain is a safe and confidential forum to answer important questions concerning female matters via the ideal big sister, virtual mother and healthcare provider, “Iris” (Mazzarella 2008:37). Of course, P & G overtly presents it intention to market feminine hygiene products from the moment you log onto the site, guiding the potential female consumer to the right product for maximum protection, comfort and confidentiality. Underlying strategic product placement, feminine ideology is constantly being constructed that menstruation is a hygienic crisis (Mazzarella 2008:38). In order for a young girl to successfully navigate puberty, menstruation is a problem that needs to be managed in a confidential and hygienic way and that way is to successfully participate in the consumer society (Mazzarella 2008:39). Commodity empowerment is stressed and reinforced with commercials depicting women using P & G feminine hygiene products can freely and safely use their bodies while swimming, running, riding a bicycle, working out at the gym or going to work and no one need know that they are on their period—everything appears normal—they are vibrant, productive and efficient members of capitalist society.
While the upside to medicalizing menstruation provides women, especially young pubescent girls, with crucial knowledge to potentially embarrassing and awkward questions about puberty, menarche and menstruation, the caveat is that women’s bodies become sites for the expansion and exploitation of capitalist consumerism (Lahiri-Dutt 2014:13). Furthermore, product development favours consumables such as pads and tampons, that require women to purchase regularly, maintaining a steady flow of female generated revenues. Unfortunately in places such as Kenya, menstruation is linked to early school dropouts due to young women being economically unable to purchase disposable pads and or tampons and thus forced to stay home because of embarrassment, hygiene or safety (Jewitt & Ryley 2014:141). Moreover, product development of feminine alternatives such as the “mooncup,” which is ideal as reusable feminine hygiene product, especially in areas of the world where water for cleaning is scarce, are not seriously considered because corporate interests favour disposable pads or tampons as a steady source of revenue (Lahiri-Dutt 2014:12).
The notion of menstruation as a physical site of contestation between medical, governmental and corporate interests in underlined by the example of Belgian colonial intrusions into Zaire’s culture of extended breastfeeding and birth spacing as a way of controlling fertility and birth rates. This was seen as abnormal and superstitious by the colonial powers and required an intervention to encourage Zaire’s women to start menstruating again in order to increase the fertility rates for the much needed industrial labour requirements of the near future (Hunt 1988:403).
In summary, the benefits of biomedicine are increased awareness and knowledge, hygiene, comfort and freedom for women throughout the western world. The downside of a capitalistic-driven consumer society marketing feminine hygiene products is that many women throughout the world simply cannot afford to purchase them due to poverty and/or environmental conditions, as we have read in the Lahiri-Dutt (2014) article about young girls in South Asia or the Jewitt & Ryley (2013) article about young girls in Kenya, thus perpetuating shame and embarrassment around menstruation for women in many poor countries and continuing to reinforce gender disparities.
Hunt, Nancy Rose. 1988. “Le Bebe en Brousse”: European Women, African Birth Spacing and Colonial Intervention in Breast Feeding in the Belgian Congo. International Journal of African Historical Studies. Vol 21, No. 3. pp. 401-432
Jewitt, Sarah; Ryley, Harriet. 2013. It’s a girl thing: Menstruation, school attendance, spatial mobility and wider gender inequalities in Kenya. School of Geography, University of Nottingham. pp. 137-147
Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala. 2014. Medicalising menstruation: a feminist critique of the political economy of menstrual hygiene management in South Asia. Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cgpc20 pp. 1-19
Mazzarella, Sharon R. 2008. Coming of Age with Proctor & Gamble. Beinggirl.com and the Commodification of Puberty. Girlhood Studies 1(2). pp. 29-50