Das ist eine meiner sehr frühen Arbeiten aus Uni-Zeiten. Mein Englisch ist an vielen Stellen noch „Rhabarber“ und es fällt mir manchmal schwer den Gedanken, den ich auf Papier bringen will auszudrücken. Dennoch war es für mich selbst eines der bedeutenderen Essays und ein Thema, das mich immer wieder interessiert. In den 60er und 70er Jahren haben sich Frauengruppen viel mit dem Verhältnis zum eigenen Zyklus befasst. Später wurde es still um das Thema. Die Menstruation wurde ignoriert, bzw. mit Hormonen reguliert und in geregelte Bahnen geleitet. Das ging so weit, dass in den 90er und frühen 00er Jahre fast alle Frauen die Pille genommen haben, zur Verhütung, zur Zyklusregulation, für bessere Brüste und glatte Haut. Ob das gut oder schlecht ist, sei dahin gestellt. Dass wir Frauen in der westlichen Welt vergessen haben, die Dynamik (emotional wie physisch) unseres Zyklus für uns zu nutzen, würde ich als Fakt bezeichnen. Um ein Beispiel für das Nutzen dieser Dynamik zu geben: Viel schreiben in der ersten Zyklushälfte, alles editieren und korrigieren in der zweiten Hälfte. Am Ende des Zyklus‘ Pläne schmieden, welche Themen im nächsten Monat bearbeitet werden sollten.
Ich werde über dieses in der Zukunft noch mehr schreiben.
Why women in the western world struggle to develop a positive relationship with their monthly cycle.
Menstruation is a process that affects the majority of women. In an average woman’s life there are 2300 days on which they menstruate. That is 6 years and 3 months of potential fear, pain, insecurity, nervousness – or if they are lucky, the appreciation of feeling like a real woman. (Graf, 1987) Gynaecology strikes me as a fascinating theme in my biomedicine classes and I am surrounded by a number of women who complain on a regular basis about their cycle, which makes me aware of the necessity to seek to understand it. Chinese medicine has been proven to help women very well with problems associated with their menstrual cycle.
Many women have a negative relationship with their menstruation and often use externally administered hormones to control their cycle. These negative feelings are perhaps mostly built through cultural history, modern media and the first time experience with the menarche.
Most literature surrounding the theme is relatively old. Most literature is from the 70s and 80s. Bahl (2003) proposed a number of reasons for why the menstrual cycle stopped to be a public theme. The first reason in her eyes was the contraceptive pill. The pill reduces pain, excessive bleeding, regulates the cycle and deals with acne. In the UK 35% of the 20 to 44 year old women the cycle is regulated with hormones, the contraceptive pill most commonly.
Bahl (2003) underlines the trends towards individuality and against the joint experience of women and their menstruation, as it was common in the 60s/70s. An important point of exchange about the cycle is lost.
The third reason Bahl (2003) commented on was the pressure on women to function ‘normally’ in our now more equal society.
The menstruation is perceived as a disease by many women – every month going through a rocky a physical and emotional cycle, which needs to be managed and controlled in often difficult and stressful work environments.
What I find really fascinating about the menstruation is that it is the period where once a month your female body lets you know its health status. Everything normal, everything good. But if you have developed some unhealthy habits, your body is going to let you know, even if it has to scream at you and uses the words of pain, or else the period just leaves entirely.
Lein (1976) underlines that the incredible strong sensitivity of the female cycle to stress, nutrition and general lifestyle it is an important process in the body that should be regarded as a natural feedback mechanism, and should not be suppressed for the 35 years of a woman’s reproductive life with hormones or other contraceptive methods.
PMS, menopausal depression and other unexplainable symptoms should be considered as wake up calls for women that should be recognized, respected and dealt with without the direct use of hormones states Dr. Northrup (2006).
My mother used to work on equal opportunities projects in Berlin, Germany. She worked on many projects for girls and woman, their professional development and supporting projects that planted a can-do attitude into female heads. When I told her about writing an essay about the sociology of the menstruation, she said to me:
„If I could do one last campaign, I would do one encouraging young girls to celebrate their menarche. Like Christmas, Easter and birthdays get celebrated in the family; the menarche should be celebrated, so that girls develop a positive relationship with their womanhood.“
I have a lot of respect for the wise embodied knowledge of old cultures, especially when the knowledge was carried by a variety of independent societies, but the cultural history of menstruation, is in the majority of cases, too downbeat, too upsetting. Until the 19th century the reason for the periodic bleeding wasn’t understood and different cultures were very creative in their explanation about what was going on.
The calendars of most ancient cultures are based on the lunar cycle. The lunar cycle and female cycle are very similar. Following the female/moon calendar the year has 13 months with 4 weeks, 28 days each. These 13 months of the menstruation calendar lead to a deep respect for the number 13 in Paganism and Christianity and explain the special status of the cycle since time immemorial.
Hippocrates explained the process of menstruating as a result of temperature changes in the body and therefore a release of the four juices or humours – blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm within the human body. During pregnancy, according to these old theories, the menstrual blood is used to feed the growing child, which explains why the period stops. (Schlehe, 1987). Aristotle saw in the menstrual blood the core matter out of which a human being is created. The man plants his seed; the woman gives the matter. (Schlehe, 1987).
The first person in the western world, to consider the menstrual blood as something poisonous was the Roman thinker Plius in the first century AD. He provided the basis for centuries of believing that the menstruating woman makes wine sour, ruins fruit, blunts weapons and knives, makes metals rust and tarnish, and that men having coitus with menstruating women will be in danger and will get sick. But there are positive aspects to menstruation in his view. Menstruating women can influence the weather, and kill pests by walking around a field. (Schlehe, 1987) The ideas about the menstruation in the Christian culture were shaped by Plius and a passage in the Old Testament. Menstrual blood was considered to be poisonous, had weather-controlling faculties and could also, if used in the right way, heal as noted by Delaney, Lupton, and Toth (1976). Babies were thought to be made out of clotted blood. Only in the 19th century the concept of the zygote was discovered.
In the patriarchal world of Plius’s time, the female body was considered as owned by men. Did Plius give women some degree of protection through these theories or did he just contribute directly to modern discrimination?
But the uncleanness of women is not just based on the theories of ancient Greek doctors.
Walker (1993) explained that all cultures have clear rules about how to deal with a menstruating woman. In African cultures women leave the group when they menstruate, move to a secluded place, and it is forbidden for the men to visit their women. Muslim men are allowed to talk to their woman, touch her, hug her and eat what she has prepared, but sexual intercourse is not allowed (Quran 2:222). Jews are stricter. Everything she touches, everywhere she lies on is considered to be unclean for the rest of the day. No interaction is allowed for seven days (Leviticus 15:19-24). Christianity reflected this approach and bases its philosophy in a similar vein. It is worth noting that some cultures saw healing properties in the menstrual blood.
So why would menstruating women be treated badly? A German journalist, who made a well-known documentary about the search for happiness, for which she travelled the world for 2 years explained that these rules, which seem so unacceptable to me might be a patriarchal way of protecting women – a way to give them a break, give them space. She explained that sexuality in most cultures is not lived as beautiful and consensual as I imagine, and that a certain degree of violence in sexuality is common in African regions for example where female genital mutilations are still practised. Submissiveness and the permanent sexual availability of women is expected in many cultures. She explained that these rules, though they sometimes seem bizarre, might be not as bad for the individual as it is perceived from the outside.
Historical attitudes towards the menstruation are obviously shaped by unusual and dated ideas and theories which seem in many cases humiliating and from my modern perspective essentially wrong.
Menarche, or the beginning of a bad relationship
Everything starts with the menarche for girls between 11 and 16. I could present any number of qualitative research studies about young girls and their menarche and the relationship between mothers and daughters surrounding the menarche but they all basically say the same. As a young girl, having blood in your panties for the first time is a shock. It’s a clear reminder that you are becoming a woman, but at the same time perhaps being far from ready. Boys can choose their sexual identity much more, swing between the wish to become a man and climbing on mama’s lap to take a break for a bit. Young girls are pressured into womanhood at an increasingly early age. It does not matter how well the menstrual cycle was explained by their mother, sister or teacher, young girls are always surprised about it.
When they are small, they develop a sense of consciousness and identity, they get certain perceptions from the media, they expect to become pretty older girls, pretty and cool young women. They believe that they grow into that, and that they are going to feel sexy. And what happens then? They start bleeding once a month. The cycle is not easy at the beginning; It hurts, it is not always regular and at some point they learn that they can use it to get round sports lesson at school. Often their mothers are brain-washed from the daily dose of hygiene, sex and youth adverts. They are on the brink of becoming women, but growing up they imagined it to be a sexy process and not a bloody, messy one requiring sanitary towels and face wash for the possible spots in their faces. It smells, it gives them mood swings, it hurts and they feel out of control. And that is a bad feeling.
Sooner or later, somewhere between the ages of 11 and 17, a girl visits a gynaecologist for the first time. It’s not a comfortable feeling. They talk about their menstruation. The gynaecologist might be the first person to speak to the girl about the whole cycle. They might even feel too young for these talks, feeling the horror of it always being like that.
If they have lots of pain while menstruating or have a few issues with their skin, doctors are very likely to give them the contraceptive pill. Maybe they try two or three different products until they find one that controls the hormones, eases the pain and blood flow, clears the skin and makes them feel like women. Sometimes it seems like using contraceptives makes them women, not the period.
So, their cycle has been under control for a few years, and they do some research and start looking for other products. There are more than 22 different products on the UK market such as Sticks, coils, IUDs, diaphragms and cups. Overall 35% of all females in the UK who are of reproductive age take the contraceptive pill.
Results from the Office for National Statistics from 06-2007 shows how many women in the UK were using the contraceptive pill.
That is about half the female society in the age group 16-34.
Media and modern thinking
Our society, as evidenced in the media, expects women to understand their cycle as something natural that women should go through without making a fuss and without making it visible. Nothrupp (2006) states that media and society expects women to be in control of their cycle, of their moods and of their blood. It seems like everything that’s needed to be in control is out there on the market. Female hygiene products are advertised with promises to feel fresh, free, wear white trousers, feel feminine, to be soft – and last but not least the tampon is always going to be clean. The marketing communicates that woman who are good consumers are going to be in control of the monthly mess. Yet, no one will ever be in control. Every month, the media, marketing and society will remind women of their inadequacy.
They buy coloured hygiene towels in black, red and white to make sure they are camouflaged against the underwear. In Asian countries there are even hygiene articles whose packaging doesn’t make a noise so that in public toilets the woman in the neighbouring cubicle doesn’t hear that the woman next door is currently menstruating. That shows the degree of embarrassment related to the menstruation.
Women not just suffer regarding the choosing of the right products to manage their bleeding, many of them suffer common period problems like heavy bleeding, premenstrual syndrome or painful periods. But even for that there are the right products on the market, like hormonal contraceptive products from the gynaecologist that reduce the symptoms.
Contraceptive products that reduce the blood flow in general are particularly popular. According to an Emnid survey carried out in Germany in 2000, only 29% of women want to keep their period, 70% would like to get rid of their period, period. The reasons are inapplicable menstrual problems (67%), easier hygiene (54%) and generally higher life quality (53%). If you look closer at the statistics, you see that, out of the 70% only 41% want to get rid of their menstruation entirely, 20% like the idea of quarterly bleeding, 4% would prefer every 6 months and 4% once per year.
Lein (1976) wrote that western medicine cannot explain where the symptoms that we call premenstrual syndrome come from. He states that 60% per cent of women fight with these symptoms once a month. Lein wrote that in 1976 but none of the information he presented is wrong today. The top end results of modern statistical research state that even up to 80% of women suffer with PMS. The treatment options tend to be the contraceptive pill or SSRIs. It is difficult to treat dysmenorrhea or painful periods with western medicine where the pain is considered a result of uterine contractions that occur before the start of the period. All the women I have spoken to about this feel particularly tense in the time before and while the period. Some say „I could kill someone,“ others „I need a rest, I am sensitive and much more likely to cry“ and another group sees premenstrual syndrome and menstruation itself as a problem for their career. They ignore the process as much as they can in order to function – „No time for this stuff.“ Women do not want to be dominated by their cycle even though Lein (1976) lists loads of examples that they are: 40% of women entering hospitals for psychiatric illness are either about to begin or have already begun their period. More women are arrested for violent acts during the premenstrual stage then at other times of their cycle. The cycle is something powerful.
Lein (1976) shows as well plenty of examples of how the emotions impact on the cycle. If a young girl believes she is pregnant it can result in amenorrhea and pseudocyesie, sometimes referred to as a phantom pregnancy. Anorexia nervousa can cause amenorrhea, as can the desperate wish to be pregnant.
In standard western medicine the contraceptive pill is routinely used as a solution to period problems – taking on a new function, in addition to contraception itself. I believe that this new function of controlling the cycle is even over taking the role of contraception of the pill itself.
The normal woman can get pregnant on 36 to 60 days per year. For a 60-day fertility rate per year, the couple has to be a perfect genetic match and live stress-free and tea-total. A more conservative estimate would be 48 fertile days per year. With normal rates of sexual intercourse, women might be in ‚danger‘ of getting pregnant seven to eight days per year. I am not proposing here to take the risk, just mentioning it. So taking the contraceptive pill on 300 days per year may be excessive. Dr. Northrup (2006) compares the contraceptive pill with taking painkillers every day to rule out the possibility of getting a headache one day a month and states that by using the contraceptive pill you lose all connection to your cycle and the feedback that it gives about the state of the female body.
The contraceptive pill helps a lot of women dealing with their menstrual problems, gives even the chance to push the next period a bit forward but it leads to a medicalization of the menstruation and does not help with making the menstruation more popular.
We live in an over-medicated society, and one manifestation of this is the routine use of the contraceptive pill to suppress and regulate the menstrual cycle – in many cases throughout a woman’s entire reproductive life. This is a direct consequence of modern society’s belief that the period is unpleasant, troublesome, and ideally would be eliminated.
In my view, this has disadvantages that are often overlooked. It prevents the appreciation of the period as a healthy process and a positive part of being a woman. It should be valued as a feedback mechanism keeping a woman in touch with the state of her body.
Of course women have the right to take whatever medication helps them deal with physical pain and discomfort, but medication should be a last resort, not the first port of call. Acupuncture can provide solutions to many gynaecological problems, without disrupting the body’s natural hormonal balance. Women should have freedom of choice, but that requires knowledge. Our history, culture and modern media and our medicalised society do not transmit the knowledge necessary to make an informed decision. The image of menstruation has been tarnished by modern society and I believe it is a hugely meaningful and significant process in a woman’s life that needs a resurgence of understanding, honour and respect.
Bahl, D. (2003) Menstruationserleben Heute. Clio. 57 (11). P. 24.
Blume, A. (1986) Das praemenstruale Syndrom, Krankheit oder Chance? Hamburg: Rowohlt.
Delaney, J. Lupton, M.J. Toth, E. (1976) The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. New York: Dutton.
Emnid Survey. (2000) Bevoelkerungsexplosion. Zukunftsperspektiven der Verhuetung weltweit. Gyn-depesche. 5(9). P.26
FPA Factsheet: Contraception, patterns of use. (2007), accessed 11. January 2013, http://www.fpa.org.uk/media/uploads/professionals/factsheets-non-printing/contraception-patterns-of-use-factsheet-november-2007.pdf
Graf, H. (1987) Menstruation und Frauenstaerke. Clio. 26 (3). P. 4.
Groth, S. (1987) Das praemenstruale Syndrom. Clio. 26 (3). P. 17.
Lader. D. (2007) Contraception and Sexual Health 2006–07. London: Office for National Statistics.
Reichel, M. (1987) Menstruationsbeschwerden und Schulmedizin. Clio. 26 (3). P. 21.
Schlehe, J. (1987) Das Blut der fremden Frauen: Menstruation in der anderen und in der eigenen Kultur. Frankfurt Main: Campus.
Walker, B. G. (1993) The Women’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: HarperCollins.