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On Menstruating Publicly and Privately

After years of euphemistically portraying menstrual blood as blue water and delicately avoiding any actual portrayal of menstruation, a major pad manufacturer has finally acknowledged that women in fact do bleed red fluid onto bunches of cotton we stick in our underpants.

A maxi pad on a blue background with a red dot in the middle surrounded by a maze extending to the edge of the pad. Copy for Always is at the bottom.
No white pants, no twirling on the beach, no blue liquid, nothing!

The notice that this otherwise unremarkable ad has garnered highlights how uncomfortable we are as a society discussing menstruation. Just think about how many euphemisms there are for menstruation! We collectively skirt the subject, talk about it in hushed tones (if at all) among mixed company, and generally don’t acknowledge that it’s a normal biological function that a very large portion of the population experiences regularly. It’s a Culturally Big Deal, even to adults who’ve been menstruating for years or decades.

It’s an even bigger deal for teenagers: everything about their bodies are shifting and changing, and there’s little helpful guidance to grab on to to try to make sense of it all. Our mothers generally give us the basics of what’s going on, how to use pads or tampons, and give us Advil and heating pads, but there’s a whole social minefield to navigate, and adults are often of little help with that. That minefield is squarely centered around ensuring that no one around you knew that you were menstruating, from the worries about leaks to keeping pads hidden away to explaining away discomfort. Menstruating was a very alien experience to me as an early teenager, and I was deeply worried that my discomfort (both emotional and physical) that was so palpable to me was similarly as plain as day to everyone around me. At that age, I would’ve been mortified if that were actually true, though as I’ve aged and grown many orders of magnitude more comfortable in my skin, I am more or less unfazed by anyone else knowing what’s going on in my underpants/abdomen. Not that it’s any of their beeswax, though.

Also in the news is a school in northern Toronto that allows Muslim students to leave class to attend a prayer service at the school. Almost all the discussion of this is either about the (public) school’s decision to make prayer services available to its overwhelmingly Muslim student body, or about how the prayer sessions are gender-segregated (boys at the front, girls behind separated by benches).* But a Toronto Star columnist pointed out that not only are the girls separated, but girls who are menstruating are further segregated and not allowed to pray. These are girls typically in grade 7 or 8, so around 12 or 13 years old.

Now. I was ill at ease with pretty much every aspect of menstruation initially, and having talked to friends of mine, this is not an uncommon experience. Having my menstrual status, as it were, made public knowledge would’ve been mortifying. It was bad enough having to tell my very matter-of-fact Mom about it, but more or less telling everyone in the room? Did none of the adults think about how deeply uncomfortable this would probably make the girls feel? Even if the organizers were all male, wouldn’t they at least have the sense to talk to some women about it, since they don’t have a tangible understanding of that experience?** And wouldn’t those women remember what it was like to feel like a stranger in your own suddenly-morphing body and how deeply uncomfortable and unsettling it was when that body and those changes were publicly announced without you having any power over the situation?

Obviously, my first reaction to this was “I bet most of them are lying about it – I know I would,” and honestly, I hope they are. No one has any right to know whether or not a girl or woman is menstruating at any given time, and it shouldn’t affect how that girl or woman moves the world. That their menstrual status is not only made public but sidelines them in such a tangible and obvious way just adds insult to injury. It reinforces the shame often associated with menstruation and paradoxically shoves any frank and non-judgmental discussion of it further into the closet to be buried under heaps of embarrassment. How are these girls going to come to mentally and emotionally healthy terms with menstruation if this is what they have to navigate?

If anything, the combination of these two totally unrelated things underscores how important it is for us, as a society, to take menstruation from the overwhelmingly private (and thus mysterious and embarrassing) and learn how to talk about menstruation in public without resorting to euphemisms, hedging around, or flat-out avoidance. If we can’t do it as adults, there’s little hope for us helping our teenagers navigate those bewildering years. And while we’re doing that, we need to make sure teenagers have the privacy to come to grips with their bodies away from the judgment of adults (though of course with support and guidance available, should they feel comfortable asking). We’ve just gotten to the point where a major pad manufacturer is putting a red dot on a pad. We’ve got a long ways to go, but we’re at least headed in the right direction.

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* For the record, I’ve no issue with a public school putting in place a way for students to observe their faith without missing class. I do have a big issue with the students being segregated, and I hope that due to the public discussion about this in the news, that gets changed.

** I’m assuming that none of the men involved in this are trans* men.

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

12 replies on “On Menstruating Publicly and Privately”

You know, I’m torn.

On the one hand, I largely agree with your reaction to the public, private and religious tensions to the story of Muslim girls praying in school. On the other hand, I’ve allowed myself to be segregated based on where I was in my menstrual cycle.

I’ve worked with American Indian artifacts before in which women who were menstruating or pregnant were asked not to touch objects and/or even enter the room where they’re held. Cultural explanations vary, but ideas include potential conflicts between the power women have while menstruating and the power of various sacred objects, and a concern for the health of mother and child around other objects of power.

So why was I fine with that? Perhaps because it was a cultural request from a culture other than my own, and therefore not something I was to be continuously subjected to? Perhaps because it was a request and not a demand? I’m not quite sure.

For those interested, here’s an article on a similar request of staff and visitors from the Maori community regarding sacred objects in the Te Papa Museum:

I see a bit of a difference between that and this, though — you’re a grown woman who’s got a strong sense of who you are and what you’re about. It doesn’t, I suspect, impact you much to your identity to self-segregate like that. Asking you to self segregate and asking teenage girls to self segregate will have different effects on their,your identity, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that when you’re trying to sort out what’s going on with your body as a teenager, being told to separate yourself from your community will have a much greater impact on your you see your body that it would if you were asked to separate only later in life. I think the request vs demand thing factors into it too — I’m usually more amenable to something when I’m asked rather than told, and again I don’t think that’s unusual. I get the sense that this is more demanded than asked, though of course that’s from an impression gotten through reporting, which is not necessarily accurate.

Just a thought, and I am not well versed on the many aspects of islam so please anyone correct me if I am wrong, but is the gender segregation and exclusion of menstruating females mandated by religious doctrine? I do not agree with forced segregation of any kind. However, no one has the right to infringe on how a person chooses to worship (or not worship) their God. If these young women worship Islam willingly, and Islam (the religion, not the politics involved in it) calls for genders to be separated during prayer, is it our place to question it? I don’t know. I would have been mortified to be put on the spot like that when I had my period. But perhaps these young ladies would find it more abhorrent to dishonor the teachings of their faith? Again, I don’t know. Just a thought.

I admit I’m totally unqualified to answer that, and the way it’s approached theologically may well make for a very different experience to these young women. But on the flip side, these young women aren’t isolated — they get the same secular perspective from media and cultural discourse (though living in a very Muslim neighbourhood, the discourse may be different than what comes through the media and books and things), and so there’s still minefields for them to navigate.

Ok so first no one “worships Islam” willingly or unwillingly. They practice it. As far as doctrine goes it is in scripture that women cannot perform the ritual prayers while menstruating. That doesn’t mean that they can’t pray on their own or be spiritual and they can be present at a service. The segregation thing is sunnat or part of the traditions transmitted from the time of the Prophet, although in those days it was more of a side by side thing rather than women getting the shaft. This is an issue in Muslim communities that is discussed a lot.

As far as being embarrassed by being segregated based on having your period, the same thing happened to me at that age, but with PE swimming class. We were made to sit on the bleachers in full view of the other students swimming and I never had a problem with that even though I wasn’t the most body positive pre-teen. There might be other girls that did, but it sure didn’t make national headlines.

In Islam, there are certain things that break ritual purity. Having your period is one, but having an orgasm and farting do it too. In the school’s case, people falling under those categories can decide not to go to the service at all if they feel awkward sitting aside.

I have a feeling that a lot of the discourse around this comes from the assumption that Muslim girls are necessarily more likely to feel shame surrounding these issues. However, they are clearly and frankly discussed in Islamic contexts simply because ritual purity is a very basic concept. In fact, my husband who went to a madrasa in rural South Asia got a more thorough sex education than I did growing up in the states.

I sincerely apologize if my usage of the word ‘worship’ was insensitive. I come from a Catholic background where worship was used in the intransitive frequently, so I was just using the language with which I am familiar. I truly intended no offense.

Thank you for the information! Have you ever considered writing an article about contemporary women’s issues and Islam?

I’m a gestational surrogate and heavily involved in a surrogate forum group.

With all the talk of fertility and the going’s on in our nether regions we all still refer to our period as AF – or Aunt Flow.

The other day a woman who had to have a D&C after a miscarriage was waiting on AF so they could try another embryo transplant. Anyway, I, along with many others congratulated her with excited jumping banana smiley’s when her time of the month finally came. I also commented on how weird that was since I would have been mortified to even tell anyone I was “flowin'” ten years ago.

very very much milder example of publicly signalling ‘hey, I’m having my period!’: yoga class. Most yoga teachers will mention that women having their periods shouldn’t do inverted poses (handstands, shoulder stands, etc.) and can do alternatives. Cue side-eye in the class: who’s going to opt out?
Of course it is still down to personal choice, not a religious custom.

Yeah, me either, there’s no good evidence that it’s detrimental, plus shoulder stands are my favourite thing. But part of it for me is definitely that it’s none of anyone’s business what my uterus is or isn’t doing right now:)

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