When Iris Marion Young meditates on menstruation in this week’s reading, she sets out with the goal of celebrating a woman-centered account of experiencing menstruating as something glorious. However, Young write that the “socially caused discomforts and oppressions associated with the experience of menstruation” make that celebratory account a difficult one to tell (p. 97). Instead, she devotes the majority of her words to a discussion of the social oppression of women as made evident through the shame that leads women to conceal their menstruation and through the general lack of accommodations provided for women in institutional settings like schools and workplaces. Similarly, Janet Lee argues that with a woman’s first period comes a new experience of the body as a sexualized object and initiates the internalization of negative scripts associated with the female body (contaminated, alienated, anxious). I would like to focus on a different aspect of menstruation, the mentioned but somewhat downplayed positive side: menstruation as a specifically female experience.
Before I reflect on my own experiences, I want to re-emphasize a comment made in a previous post. Sadiecatie’s words really resonated with me when she wrote:
Janet Lee described menarche as an experience of alienation from one’s own body – something that happens to a young woman rather than within her – but my continued experience actually made me feel more aware of and connected to my body. I enjoyed this intuitive understanding of my own body that I developed, despite the pain and discomfort that sometimes came along with it.
I too feel a unique connection with my body through my experience of menstruation. Unlike the participants in Lee’s article, I don’t think I ever refer to menarche or menstruation more generally as “it.” For me, the experience is deeply personal. It is MY period. Which is likely very different from YOURS. MINE. That’s part of what makes the menstrual experience special. My cycle can serve as an indicator of my health, my anxiety level, my fertility. As Sadiecatie mentioned, with menarche, I did feel like I developed a more intuitive understanding of my body.
I was a fairly curious child, so as my body changed, I read whatever I could to develop my understanding beyond or outside of intuition. I remember learning fairly early in my development that when women menstrate, they shed their uterine lining. The idea that our bodies performed a monthly excretion of this sort was fascinating to me. Fortunately, I have never experienced extraordinarily powerful menstrual cramps, so when I felt the slight pressure that indicated my period was nearing, I imagined the experience to be somewhat akin to peeling itchy dead skin from a sunburned shoulder to expose a fresh new layer. Therefore, I have long thought of my period as a monthly renewal– a process of shedding and regrowth.
This positive account is not to suggest that I love everything about menstration. I don’t love everything about urinating or defecating either, but they are normal bodily functions that are occasionally inconvenient, embarrassing, or painful. I don’t want to downplay the significance of the particular social implications of the negative cultural scripts surrounding menstration either. I just feel that Lee and Young dealt with that topic well enough in their articles and I want to consider another angle.
With that caveat, I will say that I didn’t associate my first period with sexuality or shame so much as I finally felt in on the secret. Throughout my life, I have actually had several male peers ask me what it feels like to have your period. So, although Lee quoted an interviewee who felt that the boys got some important secret in the middle school sex ed lesson, since my menarche, I have always felt a little special because I experience something that boys can’t understand. There is a wonderful mystery to the experience.
Young acknowledges the solidarity women feel for each other by sharing in this mysterious experience, but she situates that connection within a need to protect one another from shame– an interpretation which I understand and agree with in many ways. However, I felt that solidarity in other more positive ways as well. When my cycle adjusted to closer approximate the cycles of female family members, friends, and teammates, I felt a strange affinity to those people. We had a mysterious connection so strong that our bodies were coordinating with one another! Amazing! Furthermore, the “Look at the back of my skirt” comment that Young attributes to women’s attempts to conceal menstruation transformed into a coded game for my girlfriends in high school. If Jennifer is on her period, she makes eye contact with me and says, “Apple or banana?” and starts to walk away. Banana meant no stain; apple meant stain. Yes, the goal was to save the other person from the embarrassment of walking around with a menstrual stain on her bottom. But we also thought it was fun to see the confusion on boys’ faces, knowing that we were speaking in a code that they couldn’t understand about experiences that they also couldn’t understand. We possessed a special knowledge that they could not gain and, as Foucault tells us, knowledge is power.
So, as I look at my word count, I realize I have gotten quite long-winded. To summarize, as I meditate on menstruation, I am intrigued by the ways that our bodily experience allows us to, in the words of Young, “dwell in the delicious space of shared secrets” (p. 112). I look forward to tomorrow’s discussion!