Challenging the stigmatization of menstruation
The Office of Women’s Health, a project of the U.S. Department of Human Health and Services, defines menstruation as “a woman’s monthly bleeding.” Despite its biological definitions, the simple mention of “menstruation” and “period” is often enough to elicit various reactions of disgust in public settings.
Similar to the ways in which unfavorable attitudes have been maintained against other marginalized groups in society, the constant perpetration of the negative perceptions toward menstruation stems from various interpersonal and institutional levels, Cathleen Anne Power, service learning coordinator in the gender studies department at the University of Utah, said.
“It comes from various institutions. It comes from media institutions that communicate negative messages about menstruation and about women’s bodies in general,” she said. “I think we live in a culture that is not set up around girls’ or women’s needs.”
Power was one of four researchers who published the 2002 study “‘Feminine Protection: The Effects of Menstruation on Attitudes Towards Women” in Psychology of Women Quarterly.
According to the study, the taboo against menstruation influences women to meticulously hide evidence of their menstrual cycle, such as hiding pads or tampons in disguised packages or using euphemisms to mask discussion about menstruation. For instance, many women choose to avoid using the terms “menstruation” or even the more socially acceptable term “period” in everyday conversation. The study also found that in addition to having to shield evidence of menses, women and girls are influenced by a strong societal stigma against menstruation to not discuss the topic in public or with men.
In the Feminine Protection survey, researchers conducted an experiment testing the hypothesis that evidence of a woman’s menstrual status results in negative reactions to her, as well as increased objectification of women as a whole. The experiment involved 65 university students — 32 females and 33 males — who interacted with a woman who accidentally dropped either a tampon or a hair clip out of her handbag.
The results showed participants in the tampon scenario reacted negatively to their female partner, viewing her as less competent, less likeable, and were more physically and psychologically avoided compared with a woman who dropped a hair clip. These reactions suggest feelings of disgust and discomfort surrounding menses. Participants in the tampon condition generally placed greater importance on a woman’s physical appearance.
According to the study, “individuals who subscribe most strongly to cultural gender role stereotypes would be more likely to engage in ‘feminine protection’ by responding to menstruation with an increase in the objectification of women — that is, clinging to a more sanitized, deodorized, and culturally idealized view of women’s bodies.”
The stigma of menstruation can be fueled by the belief that women who are on their periods are impure, unclean or dirty. The foundation of these conceptions lies in traditional social constructions regarding a woman’s sexuality, often fueled by religious and cultural beliefs. The negative attitudes toward menstruation, Power said, stem from perceptions of women that devalue the female body.
“We prefer women’s bodies as objects that are there for the viewing pleasure of men and not as bodies that function for the use and benefit of women, and so any sort of physical bodily function for women gets devalued,” she said.
According to Aru Bhartiya’s 2013 study “Menstruation, Religion and Society,” published in the International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, all major world religions have placed restrictions on menstruating women and frequently refer to them as “ritually unclean.” For instance, Halakha, the Jewish code of law, prohibits any type of physical contact between males and females during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Menstruation is also considered unclean in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church.
Although laws such as these are typically no longer strictly followed today, they have greatly contributed to the stigmatization of menstruation. The discomfort associated with the topic influences young girls to feel shame or embarrassment about being on their period, despite it being a natural female biological process.
From the results of her study, Bhartiya found when participants received the questionnaire, 70 percent of the women, aged 20 to 25, read and giggled about the topic, and 50 percent of those who reacted this way simply refused to complete the survey.
For young girls experiencing menstruation for the first time, the sources from which they obtain knowledge from about menses reflects the stigma. One result of Bhartiya’s study showed 41 percent of women learned about menstruation after experiencing their period for the first time. Lacking the proper information beforehand to deal with the process can breed shame and lead to misconceptions.
A 1994 study by Janet Lee, “Menarche and the (Hetero)Sexualization of the Female Body,” addressed the issue of staining and how it becomes a visible emblem of women’s contamination and shame. Lee further discussed how staining contradicts the cultural ideal for women to conceal any evidence of menstruation. The negative perception of menses also stems from the expectation for women to remain clean, Lee claimed. The negative connotations behind revealing the existence of one’s period prompts fear within women of facing humiliation, thus it breaks the socially constructed ideals of impeccable cleanliness and beauty.
The researchers in the Feminine Protection study claimed patriarchal cultures define a woman’s inferiority in what separates her from a man. The blatant difference in a reproductive system between men and women and the bodily functions associated with the system symbolize women’s inferiority, they said. The results of the study support the idea that any reminders of menstruation lead to primarily negative reactions because they emphasize a primary difference between men and women.
Jamie Goldenberg, psychology professor at the University of South Florida, contributed to the Feminine Protection study by applying the perceptions surrounding menstruation to her terror management theory.
Goldenberg, explaining terror management theory, said: “We defend against the threat associated with the awareness of mortality by clinging to symbolic cultural construction and so much of this uniquely human defense has to do with separating ourselves from other animals and making the body symbolic… Menstruation is something that is very creaturely, very much of the body.”
With the association to blood as a sign of mortality, Goldenberg said women’s concerns and fears surrounding menstruation stem from its physicality and its association with disgust.
“I think they stem from two levels: one level we’re kind of taught that in society that attitudes about menstruation are very secretive and you have to keep it private and concealed,” Goldenberg said. “My other research on terror management theory and kind of the existential approach suggests that these norms about the body and transforming the body, and concealing things that are very physical and creaturely stem from the need to distance ourselves from mortality and the association with other animals who clearly die.”
In Bhartiya’s survey, 62 percent of women said they did not feel comfortable discussing menstruation because it may cause them to feel uncomfortable. These results support the idea that while many women are able to discuss menstruation in a private setting with other women, oftentimes the topic is wholly avoided in mixed gender conversations.
In Goldenberg’s recent research, she said the objectification of the female body and the desire to look attractive rationalizes why women often refuse to discuss menstruation with their male peers.
“Objectification is sort of the opposite, it’s the antithesis of the reproductive functioning of the body,” she said. “By turning the body into an object and putting focus on appearance, you can conceal some of the threat associated with menstruation. I think talking about it with men — wanting to appear attractive — it might kind of seem like the opposite of being desirable and attractive.”
Despite society’s antipathy toward menses, according to the 2005 Menstruation and Menstrual Suppression Survey conducted by researchers Anna Greenberg and Jennifer Berktold, 70 percent of women aged 18 to 40 were not embarrassed in having to purchase feminine hygiene products such as pads or tampons, and 41 percent of women did not feel embarrassed to openly talk about their period.
The survey further showcases how most women simply view menstruation as a nuisance, with 77 percent of women agreeing with the idea that menstruation is a process they must deal with. In addition, 74 percent of women reported they believed men have an advantage in not going through the monthly experience of having a period. The survey results further reflect how a majority of women believe menstruation puts women at a disadvantage in society amongst male counterparts.
The stigmatization of menstruation is further perpetuated by the advertising industry through its portrayal of feminine hygiene products. In the 1999 research study, “Adolescence, Advertising and the Ideology of Menstruation,” researcher Debra Merskin said, “Ideology, thereby, has to do with the tools of a social system (language, imagery, institutions) that influence thought and serve to stabilize beliefs among the masses and reinforce their subordinate place in the social system.”
Since advertisements attempt to elicit appeal by relying upon the ideology of popular culture, the strategies involved in marketing products such as tampons and pads relies on the expectation of cleanliness and purity associated with female sexuality. For instance, Merskin’s pointed out the frequency in which flowers are commonly associated with feminine hygiene products to symbolize freshness and delicacy. In addition, the mere names of these products serve as reassurance to girls and women against the burdens of menstruation, such as Always and Stayfree.
Specifically, while advertisements for feminine pads attempt to support the effectiveness of their product by demonstrating the absorption rate, oftentimes in commercials, the blood associated with periods is replaced with blue liquid.
Merksin’s research study analyzed the content of 94 feminine hygiene advertisements in Seventeen and Teen magazines from 1987 to 1997 to answer and evaluate the question, “Do advertisements that target girls perpetuate or dispel myths and taboos associated with menstruation?’’
Eighty-three percent of the textual goals — the advertisement’s text, content and tone — mentioned most often encompassed fear and uncertainty, specifically the fear of discomfort and product risk. In addition, 38 percent of the advertisements communicated secrecy. Furthermore, 94 percent of the context of the advertisements centered on a woman being discovered she is menstruating by her peers, playing upon the embarrassment and shame factor.
The results of the study support the idea that advertisements for feminine hygiene products market the same common goal of successfully hiding a woman’s menstrual cycle through different ways, all to help the menstruating woman avoid embarrassment and shame at the hands of society. Furthermore, with menstruation acting as a symbol for a woman’s femininity, the expectation to hide one’s cycle suggests that the impurity of femininity should be kept from the public eye.
“The current array of feminine hygiene advertisements targeted toward adolescent girls does serve to reinforce an ideology that helps to define social roles and the subsequent relegation of girls and women to a private space,” Merskin said in the study. “As a social construction, femininity involves the cultivation of a body that does not leak.”
The reaction of disgust toward menstruation and women’s bodies, Power said, is a broader reflection of society’s attitudes toward marginalized groups.
“We have not just a physiological disgust but a social disgust, and you’ll notice that whenever a group is marginalized disgust is one of the ways in which their lower status is maintained,” she said. “We still use disgust as a justification for marginalization.”
This objectification and devaluation of the female body both reflects and upholds the marginalized status of women in today’s society. Menstruation is a natural biological process and should not be treated as an unnatural anomaly.
Celisa Calacal is a freshman journalism major who purchases her tampons with pride. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.