The other day I got an email from a writer for Ask Me About My Uterus requesting we take down her pieces. We of course obliged, but found ourselves collectively troubled about the why.
This writer did not want to leave our community, she didn’t want to stop speaking up — but she had been silenced. Her job (a non-profit with a significant religious affiliation) had seen her byline, seen her pieces where she eloquently spoke of her experiences — and issued her a warning.
She asked us to take down her beautiful, brave essays about menstruation because she was afraid of losing her job.
Aura Bishop pointed out to me on Twitter that I’ve left out an important point here, and with her permission I’ll directly quote her, since she has more astutely made the point than I can:
This got me thinking even harder about menstrual stigma. Next month I’m giving a talk at Stanford Medicine X — a conference I attended last year and am thrilled to be attending again this year — and as you may have inferred from the majority of my writing, it’s about periods.
Specifically, it’s about menstrual stigma, and this anecdote about our writer (who we hope, by the way, will write for us in the future under a pseudonym if she’s comfortable doing so) made it all too real.
Olympian Fu Yuanhui openly smashed period stigma in interviews she gave after placing third in the 100m backstroke — saying that her period fatigue had affected her performance. This made international headlines. A WOMAN TALKING ABOUT HER PERIOD MADE INTERNATIONAL HEADLINES. That’s how taboo it is to talk about menstruation.
Talking so openly about the fact that she was competing on her period — in a pool, no less (which has long been considered a no-no by many cultures) made Fu “brave”. Though, some people accused her of lying, using her period as an excuse for not performing well — because they believed that she simply couldn’t have swam while menstruating.
In her home country of China, most women don’t use tampons as a result of another widely circulated misconception: that they will break the hymen and disintegrate one’s virginity. Therefore, swimming on your period in China sans tampon wouldn’t be considered unusual, whereas in other countries, it’s almost demanded that you don’t swim on your period at all.
Why does this stigma even exist? Who does it serve? As this glorious piece from Pacific Standard by Kate Wheeling points out, instilling a fear of menstrual blood into the hearts of men goes back centuries. Wheeling also gives an example of a fitness center in Georgia that posted signage prohibiting menstruating women from swimming in the pool out of sanitation concerns.
So, I guess Fu kind of dropkicked that theory. The media lauded her for talking about it and as far as I know none of her competitors got ick’d out about swimming in a pool where she’d potentially menstruated.
Concerns about the power of menstrual blood to ruin lives (or crops, or bees) have existed throughout human history. While the intention has always been to sequester women away and to ostracize them, the blatant fear that is incited by menstruation has historically given women a kind of witchy-power, too. Think about women within communities who were ultimately shunned or even killed (as was the case in Salem): they were midwives, medicinal gurus, otherwise wise-women who were threatening.
They had power and not just any power: a power that men couldn’t understand. An experience that men could not match.
Menstrual blood doesn’t frighten men. I don’t think it even disgusts them.
Powerful women frighten and disgust a patriarchal society, and menstrual stigma doesn’t serve and protect women — it exists to serve and protect men.
But women can, and do, perpetuate beliefs that serve a patriarchial society, particularly where menstruation is concerned. Where do many young women get their introduction to menstruation? Who tells them about periods and sex and love? More often than not, it’s their mother. Or another older, wiser, woman in their community.
The patriarchial beliefs sublimated by generations of women are passed down to their daughters and granddaughters. Do we really expect men to stand up and dismantle a social construct that places them at the top?
Loathing the patriarchy isn’t about hating men. Men are people — the patriarchy is a societal structure that exists to serve them, but it does not solely exist because of them.
The mother who teaches her daughter that she should carefully hide her tampons and never let anyone at school know she’s on her period is strengthening the patriarchy.
The grandmother who chastises a young woman at Christmas for the length of her dress in front of her brothers, male cousins, uncle and father is serving the patriarchy.
The young women who gang up on each other, who slut shame, body shame and otherwise shame are serving the patriarchy.
When men hesitate to try to overturn a society that prefers them, I can almost understand why: from where they’re standing many things are good and fairly easy. A lot about life is made easier still because the society in which we live puts their needs first, like a self-effacing housewife.
But why do women hesitate? That’s what interests me. Why do women support an institution of thinking, of living — of being — that makes their life more difficult, more unsatisfactory? And often times, downright dangerous?
Why do women continue to perpetuate stigmas that hurt them and their daughters? Why, even in writing this, do I worry deep down about what men will think of me? Have I, too, sublimated patriarchial beliefs that exist to keep me quiet, to silence me?
Writing this addendum, I think about what I was taught about men, about relating to them with the ultimate goal of getting them to like me.
Behavior like this (writing about how I feel in relation to a society that gives men privilege) I was taught, would lead to one of two outcomes:
- A man who get angry with me, perhaps even become violent toward me,
- A man would not like me
And as a young woman I was not taught which one was supposedly worse.