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On the Rag and Proud of It: Celebrating Menstruation!!

Tampon art!

It's such a taboo topic in our society that we don't even call it by name. Instead, we say it's

"A visit from Aunt Flo."
"Raining down south."
"Calendar days."
"On the rag."
"Our period."
"Our curse."

Yet it represents the most beautiful aspect of being a woman -- our ability to create a human life. It's what separates us from men. It unites us as women. What am I talking about, ladies? You guessed it -- our menstrual cycles! So get ready, because today we're going to celebrate the fact that we menstruate!

Now what does menstruation mean, exactly? Well, a literal translation is "moon change." Our bodies pass through different phases over the course of a month, just like the moon. Every woman starts her cycle at a different point in her life. My cousin started when she was eight years old, but I didn't until the eighth grade!

Our first period -- also known as our "menarche" -- comes at a time of great change in our bodies. Our breasts are getting bigger, our hips are getting wider, hair starts growing beneath our arms and around our vulvas. At the same time we're experiencing these exciting changes on the outside, our insides are changing as well. Our reproductive organs -- which consist of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries -- start preparing for childbirth .

Nearly every woman has two ovaries -- both of which contain hundreds of thousands of tiny eggs. Every month or so, our ovaries release one egg in a process known as "ovulation." That little egg then embarks on a journey toward our uterus. If it happens to meet a sperm from a male's penis along the way, it gets fertilized. Guess what happens if that fertilized egg attaches itself to the lining of our uterus? That's right -- we get pregnant!

Before that little egg starts its journey, our uterus makes a nest for it out of tissue and blood. If the egg doesn't make it that far -- meaning it doesn't meet any sperm -- the nest will break apart and flow out of our body. This is called our "menstrual flow," or "period," and it generally lasts between three and seven days. The time that elapses from the first day of one period to the first day of the next (usually between 21 and 35 days) is known as our "menstrual cycle."

This is probably the most natural process in the world. Women have been menstruating since the beginning of time. Why, then, has it been taboo in so many cultures? In Central and Eastern Europe, for instance, Jewish mothers traditionally slapped their daughters across the face when they got their first period. Some indigenous cultures in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America banished menstruating women to isolated huts on the outskirts of their villages so they couldn't "pollute" anything. In the United States, Victorian women were taught that bathing, shampooing or swimming during their menses might back up their flow and cause strokes, insanity or tuberculosis!


Super-Flo! Funky alternatives to feminine protection

If you think that's crazy, check out what Pliny the Elder wrote in 65 A.D. "& But nothing could easily be found that is more remarkable than the monthly flux of women. Contact with it turns new wine sour , crops touched by it become barren, seeds in gardens dry up and the fruit of trees fall off. The bright surface of mirrors, in which it is merely reflected, is dimmed, the edge of steel and gleam of ivory is dulled. Hives of bees will die. Even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air. To taste it drives dogs mad and affects their bite with an incurable poison."

Wow! Pliny sounds pretty frightened, doesn't he! This all goes to show how powerful a woman's bodily functions can be in a society. Just think about it -- menstruation is one of the few topics that can make a grown man blush and leave the room. Maybe it's time we stop looking at our menses as evil nuisances, and start using them as a source of empowerment !

Of course, that's easier said than done. Consider our history of "feminine protection." Women have been using one form or another for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used papyrus, Romans used wool, Japanese used paper and Africans used rolls of grass - to name a few. In our own country, women probably used either rags or nothing at all. Belts were introduced in the late 19th century, which enabled women to hold their rags in place with hooks or tabs. Bandages originally intended for American soldiers in World War I became the first commercial disposable pads, but stores had a hard time selling them because no woman wanted to ask a male clerk for a box. Finally, clerks simply stacked the pads on the counter and allowed women to put their money in a nearby container rather than deal with them directly. Stayfree introduced self-adhesive pads in the early '70s, and they've been immensely popular ever since.

In the '30s and '40s, women had to attach pads to belts 

A landmark in menstrual history occurred on July 26, 1936. That's the day Tampax gave America the first commercial tampon. Its ads declared, "Welcome this new day for womanhood. No belts. No pins. No pads. No chafing. No binding," and showed images of women riding horses, dancing, playing tennis and sunbathing. This was all very liberating, of course, but the ads still hinted that menstruation should be women's dirty little secret. "You don't know you're wearing one -- and neither does anyone else," the ad promised.

Regardless, tampons seemed to be the feminine protection of the future -- until 1980. That's the year 38 women died of toxic shock syndrome from using a new line of ultra-absorbent tampons called "Rely." The rayon fibers that made Rely such an absorbent product also turned out to be a breeding ground for bacteria present in approximately 15 percent of all women. As you can imagine, Rely quickly went out of business, but all of the major commercial brands continue to use rayon fibers to this day. That's partly because menstruation is so taboo that no one wants to press charges against them. These same brands also use chlorine bleach, which can produce life-threatening dioxins . This is really scary, considering the fact that we may use as many as 11,000 tampons in our lifetime. I have personally vowed to buy only 100 percent cotton sanitary products that are not chlorine bleached, from now on. Not only will this protect me against toxic shock syndrome, it is far more friendly to the environment. I can also be proud that my money no longer supports these companies. See my sidebar for details on feminine protection alternatives.

So we've seen how menstruation has unfortunately been treated as taboo in cultures and advertisements around the world -- including our own -- throughout history. But did you know that for every society that disdains women's menses, another one celebrates it? Some cultures throw parties to which the entire community is invited; others have elaborate religious ceremonies filled with sacred rites. Nayar girls in India, for instance, sit in seclusion for a bit so they can meditate on their new womanhood status before they are dressed in a new sari by their female neighbors, taken to a ceremonial bath, and given a feast . A number of Native American tribes also celebrate menarche. The Apaches host Sunrise Dances, in which a girl's transformation to womanhood is marked by a four-day initiation. Trekker Nick's tribe, the Oglala Lakota Sioux, also holds initiation rites.

Stephanie, Kristen and Jacinda discuss

About a year ago, I helped my friends Rache'l and Dawn throw a menstruation celebration for a group of fifth graders and their mothers back in South Texas. We started the night off by gathering around a small, round table and lighting white votive candles -- one for each of us -- while we introduced ourselves. Next, we drummed to get our rhythms in sync, and Rache'l told us about the cultural history of menstruation. Then we women told the women-to-be about our favorite aspect of being female, plus what we wished we could change about it. After we shared our wisdom, the women-to-be had an opportunity to ask us questions. Then Rache'l gave each of the mothers a medallion swirled with different shades of red that said "Go Inward." The moms presented these necklaces to their daughters and told them why they loved them. After our little ceremony had ended, we ate strawberry sundaes and talked late into the night. The women-to-be left the celebration feeling excited about entering this new stage in their lives .

"Honoring menstruation is important because it empowers you, and it says you are special. It is important for the women of today to begin to change the message of menstruation for the women of tomorrow. If we don't do it, no one will," Rache'l said.

Even if you've already started your menses, you can still mark your time of the month as a sort of celebration. I always try to take a few hours out of the day to relax with a cup of hot tea, listen to my favorite women's CD and write in my journal. I also reflect on the wise words of Simone de Beauvoir: "Menstrual blood... represents the essence of femininity."

(Photos courtesy of the Museum of Menstruation, New Carrollton, Maryland)


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Hooverized dresses? WWI in the first person
Stephen - Those crazy-sexy-cool sufferin' Suffragettes
Daphne - Women voters: You've come a long way, baby!
Daphne - An "untouchable" tour of a former gangster's paradise
Nick - Margaret Sanger: The stork's got nothin' to do with it!
MAD - Domestic violence: Not behind closed doors anymore