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Adventures in Menstruation: Time to Dump Those Silly Taboos

Menstrual activists confront shame, secrecy and the medicalization of a perfectly normal thing that all women do.

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In 1970, Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, “If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood. If it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go.”

In 2013, "menstrual activists," or menarchists (menstrual anarchists) are tasting, baking, making art and painting their lips with their own menstrual blood as a gesture of defiance toward the shame and secrecy that still attends periods, even in ostensibly modern, Western, secular culture.

Germaine would be proud.

These fearless feminists are just some examples of a recent wave of menstrual activists who are refusing to see themselves as biohazards just for doing what comes naturally and occupies a sizable portion of a woman’s lifetime. Other activists are questioning the medicalization of premenstrual syndrome and the over-prescription of anti-depressants to treat its symptoms. (Although some women certainly do suffer painful physical and sometimes psychological symptoms around their periods, the problem arises when Big Pharma sees big dollar signs.) These mostly young women are taking on the menstrual products industry, the mega corporations behind it, like Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly Clarke, and the shame-based advertising that has always been the hallmark of selling period products to women.

There’s also the environmental wing of the movement, which points out that the average (Western) woman will use somewhere in the vicinity of 11,800 tampons in her lifetime, tampons that are not particularly well-regulated in terms of their pesticide and dioxin content and which will fill both landfills and oceans. “Friends don’t let friends use tampons,” writes RandomGirl. In the U.S., the environmental impact is exacerbated by the fact that tampons are generally inserted with applicators—not so in Europe.

Finally, there are activists who are questioning the way we educate young girls about menstruation. “We teach them that it is a hygienic crisis,” says Chris Bobel, author of New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, “rather than what it is, which is an important gateway to talk about our bodies, our sexuality, our health, how we mature and age, as well as body image issues.  Talking about menstruation can be a way to begin teaching girls that they are not products for consumer culture, to be improved upon, sculpted and cleaned up. It opens up the discourse about all sorts of issues.”

Clearly, not every woman loves her period, or sees it as an occasion to celebrate. There will be those who will be tempted to try the latest birth control pills, which suppress periods altogether, like Lybrel made by Pfizer, and largely made up of an estrogen-based compound. But where some see liberation, others see Big Pharma declaring that those messy, disgusting periods are outdated, and now women can be “clean,” “more sexually appealing” and available. The lack of scientific studies on the long-term effects of these hormonally based, period-suppressing oral contraceptives is also troubling.

However you feel about your period, menstrual activists just want to see a whole lot more openness about the whole bloody topic. “A lot of energy is expended on claiming that it is a non-issue,” Bobel says, “when clearly, it’s still a charged topic.”

Which is why those body outlaws, those menarchists are painting their lips with their menses. To shock us into a discussion. “We think menstruation is funny,” reads the menstrual zine, Adventures in Menstruating, edited by British activist and comic Chella Quint. The online pub promises “highly unsanitary comedy,” and features plenty of hilarious leakage stories. Anything to get the conversation, ahem, flowing.

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