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Toward a Phenomenology of Menstration

Human bodies spur a fascinating combination of beauty and shame, disgust and pride. Exemplifying this paradoxical combination is the female experience of menstruation. Menstruation is many things. Some of those things are essential elements of menstruation, while some come about as a result of the context of the menstruator. It is a biological process, a societal inconvenience, and a secret to be concealed. Ultimately, however, it is an embodied experience. In this paper I will example the various ways that menstruation is discussed, and I will argue for the usefulness of a phenomenological account of menstruation in building community, creating ritual, and diminishing bodily alienation among women.

Existentialism and phenomenology are two areas of philosophy that have been particularly valuable for feminist philosophers. These philosophies reject the rationalistic, abstract thought that characterizes much of philosophy, and instead are “committed to elucidating concrete, ‘lived experience,’ including experiences of embodiment and emotion.”[1] Merleau-Ponty was a French existential phenomenologist who was particularly interested in the human body. For him, “phenomenological reduction always takes us back to embodied experience as the (usually ignored) ground that makes possible philosophical and scientific knowledge.”[2] Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology has been especially helpful to feminist philosophers because he offers a dialectical analysis of the human body as something that is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural. Although he does not expand on this analysis, later feminist philosophers were able to use his philosophy to write about a female body and a female experience that defies the classifications of both biology and culture, while still being a synthesis of both.[3]

One important feminist philosopher who made use of and re-worked Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about embodiment was Simone de Beauvoir. Merleau-Ponty’s rejection of biological determinism led to Beauvoir’s famous claim that: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”[4] Beauvoir wrote about the constraints that have come to exist on individual women—constraints that come about via human choice rather than via biology. Although these constraints come in many forms, “it is the values that men have imposed on these differences that cause women to be alienated from their bodies and to experience bodily processes as oppressive.”[5] This alienation will be an important aspect of my discussion of the phenomenology of menstruation. Beauvoir’s emphasis on individuals, freedom, and embodied experience are powerful existential and phenomenological ideas that will also inform this discussion.

The phenomenology of menstruation matters for a number of reasons, a primary one being its relationship to the alienation of women from their bodies. Martin’s research indicates that women who use the language of lived experience when speaking about menstruation appear to be less alienated from their bodies than the women who primarily speak about menstruation in biological terms.[6] This kind of alienation, which comes from a denial of the lived experience of menstruation, causes girls to “feel ashamed, soiled”[7] at this bodily experience that is unique to women. Beauvoir expands on this feeling of alienation: “It is during her periods that she feels her body most painfully as an obscure, alien thing. . .Woman, like man, is her body; but her body is something other than herself.”[8] Alienation, like the kind described by Beauvoir, is especially harmful because it can perpetuate the invasive notion that the female body is “other” than, or even inferior to, the male body.

Young girls experience menarche, the first occurrence of menstruation, in a wide variety of ways. Beauvoir describes its accompanying feelings of shame, disgust, fear, and even horror—but also sometimes joy and pride. Beauvoir claims that the negative feelings are much more prevalent than the positive ones, and she thinks that those negative feelings come from the false realization that menstruation “throws her into an inferior and defective category.”[9] Young confirms these attitudes towards menarche: “contemporary expressions of women’s experiences and attitudes,” she writes, “appear to confirm that Beauvoir’s is a common attitude that has changed little in the intervening half-century.”[10] Although recent advances in women’s rights make Beauvoir’s claims seem archaic, a closer look at the 21st century reveals that Beauvoir’s words continue to ring true.

These prevailing attitudes prompt the question of why, despite significant recent advances in women’s rights, there are still feelings of shame, disgust, and fear associated with this routine bodily process. Although women are both told and often believe that they can and should participate in society in every way that men do, “strong social pressures and our own internalized sense of decency tell us that we must vigilantly guard against revelation of our bleeding.”[11] Yet public spaces, such as schools and work places, are resistant to accommodating the needs of menstruating women. Although there seems to be discord between these ideas—that women can and should fully participate in society during menstruation, yet should give no indication of their status as menstruators, despite structural inconveniences with regards to menstruation—there is one message that easily brings these ideas into a coherent whole: “the normal body, the default body, the body that every body is assumed to be, is a body not bleeding from the vagina.”[12] This message implies that the masculine body is the normative body, and women are encouraged to fully participate in society as long as they are able and willing to conform to that norm.

The most obvious locus of the normative male body and the resulting disadvantage for the menstruating woman is the workplace. Menstruating etiquette requires that women continue to conceal their menstruation from co-workers and employers even when it may cause their work to be more difficult. While a non-menstruating co-worker may complain about a cold that is slowing down his or her work, a menstruating woman is not allowed even to mention her condition.[13] Yet even while women are required to conceal the fact that they are menstruating, they are often not allowed the time or space to do so. For example, many work places have scheduled breaks for using the restroom—breaks that do not account for the unique needs of a menstruating woman.[14]

Although there are many causes for the dissemination of the notion of the male body as the normative body, puberty education classes in schools are a leading source of the perpetuation of this idea. Dacia Charlesworth is a researcher in the area of communications who is interested in the social construction of societal roles. She has found that these puberty education classes cause alienation by the advancement of a paradox between the biological and cultural narratives of menstruation as well as the creation of the menstruating woman qua menstruator as consumer. Although these same ideas reach girls through other types of media, the overwhelming source is the classroom. She writes that “in general, menstrual and puberty education lessons are the only rituals in which American adolescents mark their transformation from child to young adult.”[15] These lessons are particularly important because they induct girls into the world of menstruation and teach important lessons to both girls and boys about how menstruation and menstruators should be treated.

Charlesworth discovered that these lessons promoted a number of destructive attitudes toward menstruation. To begin with, girls and boys were generally separated for the lessons about puberty, reinforcing the idea that girls and boys are only to talk about issues related to sex and puberty with other members of their own sex.[16] This attitude causes many girls and women to experience embarrassment or shame when their own status as menstruator is revealed to men. More importantly, however, she discovered a paradox in the way that menstruation was taught to young girls: the paradox of the positive biological narrative and the negative cultural narrative. Educational pamphlets described menarche as “a miraculous change” and “Nature’s perfect plan.”[17] Girls are encouraged to celebrate this biological change in their bodies because it means that they are now able to reproduce. In order to solidify the connection between reproduction (the cause of celebration) and menstruation (a messy inconvenience), the educators emphasize the importance of understanding the biological narrative of menstruation. In order to construct this narrative, impersonal scientific language is used to describe the biological process. This process itself is described in negative terms: “The body always has a way of dispensing with material that is not needed.”[18] This kind of language, which equates menstrual blood with excrement and speaks of it only in terms of failed pregnancy, actually negates the intended positive biological narrative.

By emphasizing the importance of understanding the biology of menstruation, educators undervalue the importance of the phenomenological experience of menstruating. The closest thing that Charlesworth found to actual discussion of the physical experience of menstruation came from resources provided by companies, such as Tampax and Kotex. These resources emphasize the importance of keeping menstruation a secret and provide practical advice to girls for doing so. Female students are encouraged to keep their menstrual products in a small handbag in their purses so that onlookers will not be able to see the unused products. The products themselves are described in terms of their abilities to keep menstruation hidden: “because tampons are completely invisible, there’s not a chance of ridges or bulkiness showing,” and “you can simply flush [Tampax tampons] away . . . It’s a good way to help keep your period private.”[19] They also provide assistance in the form of special calendars for girls to keep track of their cycles, so that they will not be caught unaware and be discovered as menstruators—a status that has serious social consequences. Although this type of advice does address the experience of menstruation, it does so by categorizing menstruation as “just another form of dirt to be disposed of.”[20] This categorization both causes girls to feel ashamed of their bodies and become consumers of products that will help them manage this waste.

Because the rituals of Western education only teach girls the biological language of menstruation and the practical advice of how to conceal it, many women do not have other ways of describing menstruation. They talk about menstruation as “messy,” “gross,” and “a hassle”: “most centrally no one must ever see you dealing with the mechanics of keeping up with the disgusting mess, and you must never fail to keep the disgusting mess from showing on your clothes, furniture, or the floor.”[21] The unease and practical complications that this level of concealment causes in women are a large portion of what make some women so strongly dislike this routine bodily function.[22] One girl described taking a tampon to the restroom at school: “It was like a whole procedure, to make sure nobody saw, that none of the guys saw. From your notebook and into your pocket or take your whole notebook to the ladies’ room which looks absolutely ridiculous.” Other women described other ways of concealing their menstrual products—by hiding them up their sleeves or in a sock.[23]

The real experience of menstruation—rather than the biological processes or the societal processes of menstruation—remained unspoken for many of the women that Martin interviewed. She found that many of the women who did not, or could not, talk about menstruation in terms of actual experience remembered their first periods as “full of anguish.” They remembered wondering, “Is the color of my blood all right? What do I wear? What if I skip a month? How often do a change pads or tampons?” Although they had a solid intellectual understanding of menstruation, they had “difficulties dealing with the actualities of menstruating,” and many of them were bewildered despite having a detailed knowledge of the biology.[24] In stark contrast to these women were those who had family members and friends to give them advice and information that was helpful for actual menstruation. One woman, when asked to describe menstruation as if to a young girl, responded with something along the lines of a phenomenology of menstruation: “What happens in menstruation is that something that looks like blood. . . comes out of your vagina and it—you—it has to be kept clean . . . You have a flow coming out of your body for anywhere from three to seven days, and it changes. Sometimes it comes out very heavily, you can almost feel it coming out and sometimes it’s very light and sometimes it stops during that time.”[25] Women who described menstruation along these terms lacked much of the angst that characterized many of the other interviews.

Martin suggests that the reason for many women’s angst about menstruation might arise from its description in terms of failed production. They see menstruation solely in negative terms—as the waste products of a failed process. This view ties menstruation closely to pregnancy, but for the majority of her life, a woman is not trying to get pregnant. It causes many women to despise menstruation, describing it as useless, wasteful, or as the “ignorance of the uterus.”[26] Discussion of menstruation in terms of failed pregnancies can be especially alienating for women who do not want to have, or cannot have, children.

If speaking about menstruation as a secretive, private bodily routine that functions primarily as a biological process is alienating, the question of how one can helpfully talk about menstruation remains. The women that Martin interviewed inadvertently offered a suggestion. Even while the women would talk about menstruation as a “disgusting mess,” many of them did so with the implicit knowledge that there was another side to menstruation that would be unspoken but not unnoticed: “it is part of what defines one as a woman, and it is something all women share.”[27] Although this is not entirely true as it excludes transgender women and women who suffer from amenorrhea, it is, nonetheless, a powerful statement. Another woman responded by saying “It joins you together. It’s like the one thing that all women have in common. It’s great if your friend has a Midol.” One woman admitted that if all women could stop getting periods without it adversely affecting their health, it “would be a wonderful thing,” but she continued by saying, “If someone said that to me individually, I’d have second thoughts . . . Women get their periods and I’m a woman so I should get my period.”[28] There are also stories about girls who felt like they entered a new community when they began menstruating for the first time—they could participate in conversations that they were otherwise excluded from and share menstrual products and Midol with their friends.[29]

The communal aspect of menstruation seems to be the most positive aspect that women recognize. There is something special about an entire group of people sharing an experience that is unique to that group. Although many of the women that Martin interviewed expressed some recognition of this community, it was mostly implicit knowledge. Young writes that “women need shared meanings to give their menstrual experience reflective significance.” She suggests that the ambivalence and alienation that many women experience with regard to their own menstrual cycles “may arise partly from the lack of cultural recognition and well-defined rituals surrounding it.”[30] Ritual celebration of menstruation would establish it as a process that is embodied by an entire community, rather than just an individual.

Although ritualization of menstruation would look different in every community, it should always be practiced by communities of women who come together to celebrate their womanhood. One community may be especially motivated by environmental concerns and may gather together to make their own menstrual pads. Another may celebrate as girls reach menarche, perhaps in way that is similar to baby or bridal showers. Celebrations such as these could include many generations of women—girls who have not reached menarche, women who are currently menstruators, and women who have reached menopause. Having spaces where the phenomenology of menstruation is emphasized would build community among women, as well as being helpful in the process of women overcoming the bodily alienation that is so often associated with menstruation.


[1] Kruks, Sonia. “Existentialism and Phenomenology.” In A Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. Alison M. Jaggar, et al. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 66.

[2] Ibid., 69.

[3] Ibid., 69

[4] de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. (New York: Random House, 1952), 267.

[5] Kruks, “Existentialism and Phenomenology,” 73.

[6] Young, Iris. On Female Body Experience: Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 103.

[7] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 310.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 315.

[10] Young, On Female Body Experience, 101.

[11] Ibid., 107.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 116.

[14] Ibid., 117.

[15] Charlesworth, Dacia. “Paradoxical Constructions of Self: Educating young women about menstruation.” Women and Language, 24:2 (2001), 13.

[16] Ibid., 14

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 15

[19] Ibid., 17

[20] Young, On Female Body Experience, 104.

[21] Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 93.

[22] Young, On Female Body Experience, 107.

[23] Martin, The Woman in the Body, 94.

[24] Ibid., 108.

[25] Ibid., 107.

[26] Ibid., 111.

[27] Ibid., 103.

[28] Ibid., 101.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Young, On Female Body Experience, 104.

 

References:

Charlesworth, Dacia. 2001. “Paradoxical Constructions of Self: Educating young women about menstruation.” Women and Language, 24:2. 13-20.

de Beauvoir, Simone. 1952. The Second Sex. New York: Random House.

Kruks, Sonia. “Existentialism and Phenomenology.” In A Companion to Feminist Philosophy, edited by Alison M. Jaggar and Iris M. Young, 66-74. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998).

Martin, Emily. 2001. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon Press.

Young, Iris. 2005. On Female Body Experience: Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.