Menstruation. I clearly remember my first years as a woman. I was in high school and I was so afraid that someone would discover that I was in my week. I feared more than anything that people could see the edges of my Maxi-absorbent-pad-with- self-adhesive-wings, or worse, that it had moved and that my clothes were stained.. (Fortunately, the new menstruating generation will not have these problems thanks to Mme L’Ovary!)
In the bathroom, I tried, as much as possible, to take off my pad. I deposited it siiiilently in the trash without making a sound, to remain incognito … With wisdom and years of hindsight, I realize that all the time I spent in the bathroom betrayed my efforts of subtlety.
Obviously, there was NO QUESTION of talking about it with my family or friends and, if it were to be done, I used my stern looks, my subtle signs (not so subtle at all), and totally incomprehensible metaphors worthy of the secret service. Well! Now I write blogs about it, one has to believe that no cause is lost!
Turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable. Nowadays, for cultural and social reasons, there is always a collective unease that hangs over menstruation. We’re scared to talk about it in public, to say the “ icky” words out loud such as premenstrual syndrome, sanitary pad and (sensitive ears abstain) mens-tru-al blood.
That’s why, over the decades, we’ve created a complete dictionary of figures of speech, metaphors, and euphemisms to avoid naming things as they are.
Just to have a good laugh, here are some pretty imaginative examples of expressions that are used here in Quebec!
- Being in her poop
- Being in her junk
- Ketchup week
- The little clown bleeds from the nose
- Niagara Falls
- A crime scene in my panties
- VOOS: vaginally out of service
- Being indisposed
Don’t worry, the french phrases are just as entertaining!
- “Red curse”
- Driving through the Redwood Forest
- “The Red Sox have a home game.”
- “The tomato boat has arrived.”
- Crimson wave: Crimson means dark red color. Crimson wave would therefore be a red wave that refers to the wave of emotions that women experience during menstruation or menstrual flow.
- “Bloody Mary”
- “Code Red”
- “Monthly visitor”
- “Lady friend/Lady days”
- “Your aunt Flo who’s come to visit.”
- “On the rags”: an expression from the 18thcentury which means that the woman is literally on the rags because, at the time, women used pieces of fabric to absorb their menstrual flow.
- “Red tide”
If we take a little trip around the world, we can see that creativity has no borders.
- In France: “The English have arrived” (definitely my favourite!) which refers to English soldiers in red uniforms, enemy number 1.
- In Germany: “Erdbeerwoche,” aka the strawberry week.
- In Finland: “Hullum Lechman tauti”: mad cow disease.
- In China: “The little sister has arrived.”
- In Denmark: “der er Kommunister I Lysthuset”: There are Communists in the House of Pleasure.
- In South Africa: “Granny’s stuck in traffic”
- In Spain: “Descongelar El Bistec”: thawing the steak.
- In Latin America: “Jenny has a red dress on.”
AVOID SAYING THEM TO BETTER STIGMATIZE THEM
Although these phrases are absolutely entertaining and creative, the discomfort and tension behind the taboo is palpable. The simple fact of avoiding naming the terms surrounding menstruation implies that they shouldn’t be spoken aloud, that they are a source of embarrassment and shame.
“IN ADDITION TO AVOIDING SAYIN THE REAL THING, SEVERAL PHRASES HAVE A STRONGLY NEGATIVE CONNOTATION.”
For example, we’ll say, “be in her poop,” “be indisposed” or “have a crime scene in her panties.”
Language forms our way of thinking, allows us to conceptualise the world in which we live, to understand it and to describe it. It determines the relationship we have have with what is around us.
Unfortunately, the expressions used to describe menstruation are mainly pejorative, which has a detrimental impact on the relationship that young girls have not only with their menstrual periods, but also their body.
THE BIG QUESTION: WHERE DOES THIS TABOO COME FROM?
It is particularly complex to target the exact source of the collective discomfort surrounding menstruation. Several theories have been set out, but none validated.
Here is an overview of the schools of thoughts on this subject which vary according to beliefs and eras.
Firstly, some believe that religion has had a role to play in spreading the stigma around the period.
We can read in the Bible:
(…) when a woman has a flow of blood and blood flows from her body, she will remain for seven days in the defilement of her blood. Whoever touches her will be unclean until the evening.
(…) Any bed upon which she lays shall be impure; any furniture on which she will sit will be unclean.
(…) Whoever touches her bed will have to clean his clothes, wash with water, and he will be unclean until evening.
(…) If a man sleeps with her, the staining of her period will reach him. He’ll be unclean for seven days. Any bed on which he will sleep shall be unclean. Leviticus 15
And in the Koran:
“Separate yourself from women during this monthly period, do not approach them until they are clean.”
Then many experts looked at the subject.
Freud, a psychoanalyst, said that the taboo came from the fear of blood.
According to anthropologist Clellan Ford, the discomfort surrounding menstruation in the 20thcentury comes from the false belief that they were poisonous and would make you sick.
In 1972, anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum was of the opinion that the taboo was put forward to control the number ofbirth. Wewere made to believe that menstruation was a form of pollution and that sexual intercourse should be avoided.
In the 2000s, historian Robert S. MC Elvaine launched the theory that men, feeling inferior and envious of the major role women play in reproduction, attempted to dominate them socially by stigmatizing menstruation.
Jane Ussher, Professor of Women’s Health Psychology at the University of Western Sydney, has also noted:
“Menstruation has long been associated with dirt, disgust, shame and some would say also fear. (…) What I would say is that it is a sign of misogyny, it is to position something that is essentially related to the woman to something else, dirty and alienating.”
Modern advertising also plays an important role in perpetuating the taboo of periods on a daily basis without anyone realizing it.
For example, on television, a blue liquid is used to mimic blood to demonstrate the absorption of a sanitary pad.
In addition, an actress will hide her tampon or pad in the hollow of her hand or insert it discreetly into her pocket.
In short, the theories are numerous, but the consequence is the same: a spreading of the idea that menstruation is annoying and messy, something to conceal.
A DROP OF HOPE FOR A SMOOTHER RELATIONSHIP WITH MENSTRUATION!
Although the majority of societies have associated menstruation with a negative experience, some stand out by considering the period as being powerful, protective and sacred.
These inspiring societies, including the Mbendjele tribe of Central Africa, are known to employ positive euphemisms, to highlight the passage of young girls to the state of women and to maintain egalitarian relations between men and women by putting in place systems that allow women greater autonomy, for example.
And in Africa and Ancient Egypt, menstrual blood has even been used as an ingredient in drugs for its purifying properties.
HOW CAN WE RECLAIM MENSTRUATION AND OUR BODIES?
From an early age, girls and boys are watching, listening, and imitating. During this crucial moment of their development, it is our duty to convey to them the real meaning of menstruation, the absolute role it occupies in the cycle of life.
To do this, use positive and appropriate terms such as vagina, vulva, blood, menstruation, menstrual panties, life creation, menstrual cycle. Let’s finally avoid using paraboles and dubious phrases to name them!
So let’s teach them that there is no discomfort in talking and help them develop a healthy, respectful and open relationship with menstruation. Let us embody the example we want to perpetuate.
Let’s make the word Menstruation noble again. That magnificent process that ensures the life of our planet.
«Flow: the cultural story of menstruation», Stein Elissa et Kim Susan, publié en 2009, edition St Martin’s Griffin, 288 pages.