A Discussion of Menstrual Activism with Chris Bobel

By Rachel Walden |

Following up on our recent post on Chris Bobel’s article on menstrual activism, I discussed the topic further with the author. Bobel’s new book is due out in Spring 2010 from Rutgers University Press. Its working title is “New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation.”

Our Bodies, Our Blog: Can you tell me a bit about what is covered in the book, in addition to the menstrual activism history covered in your recent article?

Chris Bobel: The book is written for an undergrad/general public audience with lots of lively examples of the very cool activism I encountered — and pictures, too. In short, the book is at once a history and sociological study of menstrual activism using this little-known activism to track changes in feminist thinking and doing over time. There’s a lot of debate right now about the future of feminism: Is the movement dead? Is there something new going on? Is it really new or just recycled?

The newest iteration of feminism (in the West) is called third wave and I wanted to find a concrete way to tease out what third wave is and how it both reflects the past of feminism and takes off in new directions. We talk about feminism in the abstract a lot and we lose people. I wanted to show what third wave feminism looks like on the ground.

And menstrual activism really fascinates me because it, on the surface at least, is populated by mostly white women (and some men) and many of the activists identify as LGBT and/or queer. I grew very curious about this demographic. I think the taboo nature of the topic presents both barriers and opportunities to people depending on their social location.

Women of color are doing menstrual health activism, but often in different forms and often within their own communities. Realities, past and present, of racism and ethnocentrism factor mightily into how activism gets done, the language used, strategies chosen and the linkages made between issues. Thus, we really should speak of menstrual activisms.

Many of the queer-identified activists told me they were already out there (yes, in more ways than one) doing risky, envelope-pushing work and menstrual activism was a natural next step for them. Their interest in challenging basic assumptions — right on down to the care and feeding of our bodies — led them to the politics of menstruation.

Here’s the summary: The book is an interdisciplinary, multi-method interrogation of a little known, but persistent presence in the feminist health, environmental and consumer rights movements. Menstrual activists resist the medicalized and commodified body when they question the safety and necessity of femcare innovations, the pathologizing and shaming of the natural menstrual experience, and most recently, menstrual suppression. See Seasonique, Lybrel, etc.

Study of menstrual activism, from the late 1960s to the present, offers insight into the changing and enduring nature of feminist thought and action, in particular the tensions felt between so-called second- and third-wave feminists and the implications of sharp ideological differences in feminist practice.

For example, while the feminist spiritualist wing of the movement resists the dominant cultural narrative of menstruation through an embrace of embodiment as a source of women-centered pride, the radical menstruation wing of the movement rejects this approach. In fact, many of the radical menstruation activists detach menstruation from the gendered body and refuse to speak of menstruation as a uniquely women’s experience. They, for instance, reach out to transmen and intersexed people who menstruate and acknowledge that not all women menstruate; they refer to “menstruaters” who menstruate, not “women” who menstruate.

They work to undo gender in a moment in feminist history where the feminist agenda of exploding gender categories is widely accepted in the abstract. But, I ask, what does this ideological position look like when we actually do feminist activism? How can we talk about menstrual taboos, for example, without talking about women as women — even with all the differences within and among women? At the same time, how can we not afford to incorporate a questioning of fundamental categories as we develop feminist agendas for the 21st century?

OBOB: Have you had any difficulties finding a publisher home for this work — or a publisher willing to do the appropriate promotion of the work — because of the topic?

CB: I did have some trouble. Some presses thought the topic was too narrow (read: weird, or maybe trivial). I also have had colleagues, over the years, suggest that an entire book on this topic was a stretch. Even among feminists, menstruation is not a central concern. Obviously, the cultural brainwashing runs deep and wide. One very respected colleague told me I should “write that little book and get on with it.” She didn’t think there was enough to say about menstruation.

On the contrary, I think I could fill volumes. There is a very rich and growing literature on menstruation, but it is not widely known. These attitudes are a shame, really, because menstruation is experienced by more than half of the human population, over a period of decades, and the amount of misinformation that circulates about this natural body process is stunning. There are lots of other reasons to engage menstruation as a serious scholarly and political concern. That’s just a beginning.

OBOB: What do you think are important areas of focus or goals for today’s menstrual activists? Is menstrual activism less necessary today, or do you see important areas of needed change?

CB: Absolutely as necessary today — perhaps more. While products are safer (the dioxin risk is much much less; the polyester in tampons is gone), awareness about existing risks associated with conventional products and alternatives available is still virtually nonexistent across the general public.

When I teach this information or give a lecture, people are shocked that they had no idea that there were any risks at all with pads and tampons. They hadn’t considered the environmental impact of single use products. They surely never heard of the keeper, the Diva cup, menstrual sponges or reusable cloth pads as alternatives. In short, they hadn’t looked at menstruation through a feminist, anti-capitalist lens and when they do, wow!

Then there’s the companion issue of menstrual shame, silence and taboo. It is still unacceptable to talk openly about menstruation, to make visible one’s menstruation. We are usually limited to homicidal PMS women jokes, or menstruation horror stories of the kind that teen magazines publish, and we socialize girls to expect to hate their periods, even before they have them.

Here’s an example very close to home: When I asked my daughter, then about 12 years old and not yet menstruating, what she expected menstruation would be like, she replied, without hesitation, “It will suck.” I asked why and she replied, “Cause everyone says it does.” Mind you, hardly any of her friends had started to menstruate at this point, and she is the daughter of someone who has a library about menstruation and talks openly about periods, including the possibility that they aren’t all bad.

I, for one, appreciate the cycle my body goes through and find when I work with it, instead of against it, I can learn a lot about myself. But my daughter had already internalized the notion that periods necessarily suck. It is true — they can suck and often do and hers might, but she didn’t even have a chance to develop her own impression of her own periods, to even imagine an alternative.

Finally, now that menstrual suppression — or, more accurately, cycle-stopping contraception — is widely available, we need more than ever to have very honest and well-informed conversations about menstruation and, more broadly, how our bodies work; that is, to develop what’s increasingly called “body literacy.” And this, as you know, is precisely what OBOS has been trying to make happen since the 1970s.

Many experts, including members of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, are not convinced of the long-term safety of the continuous use of contraception merely for the purposes of avoiding menstruation in otherwise healthy women. See this statement which I helped to draft and I stand behind: http://menstruationresearch.org/position/menstrual-suppression-new-2007

The prohibition against talking about menstruation — shh … that’s dirty; that’s gross; pretend it’s not going on; just clean it up — breeds a climate where corporations, like femcare companies and pharmaceutical companies, like the makers of Lybrel and Seasonique, can develop and market products of questionable safety. They can conveniently exploit women’s body shame and self-hatred. And we see this, by the way, when it comes to birthing, breastfeeding, birth control and health care in general. The medical industrial complex depends on our ignorance and discomfort with our bodies, after all.

Who is going to call the companies and health care providers to account if we can’t talk openly about leaky, messy, authentic bodies? Who is going to say, hey, wait a minute, maybe the problem isn’t simply that menstruation makes our lives miserable, maybe the complex interplay of sexism and capitalism and hyper-consumption are at the root.

Maybe we don’t necessarily need more drugs and more high-tech products that produce tremendous waste, but we do need a culture that makes it safe to talk openly about our bodies, a culture that values and provides comprehensive reproductive health education that is more than a long commercial for Tampax. Menstrual activists are doing this work, but they need us all to join them.

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