I’m not ashamed to menstruate. It’s a thing that happens to a lot of women, and it’s not a commentary on our character — just on the contents (or lack thereof) of our uterus.
I’m not afraid of menstrual blood — particularly my own, since I know I don’t have Ebola or any other kind of bloodborne pathogen that would make it a threat to me. And if I did, handling a tampon would be the least of my concerns.
But menstrual blood, to me, is gross, in the same way that any other bodily fluid is gross. It’s something that has been hanging out, perfectly happy, on the inside of me until suddenly it gets some wild ambition to see the world and I’m stuck making an unexpected detour to the loo. I don’t let any of my other fluids get away with such behavior, and I don’t see why I should have to make an exception for menstrual blood, just because it was hanging out in my uterus beforehand rather than my blood vessels or my sinuses.
There’s a sense among some women, though, that menstrual blood should be seen and treated differently. Specially. Reverently. Ingrid Johnston-Robledo, president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, blames tampon makers for pushing anti-menstruation hysteria and says that a woman who is truly comfortable with her body wouldn’t use one — that she’d be “more likely to use products where you really have to look at and interact with your fluid as opposed to clogging your body with a tampon and just tossing it into the toilet.”
Not wanting to “interact” with my bodily fluids doesn’t mean I’m uncomfortable with my body — it means I don’t like slippery, gooey, smelly things. I don’t eat beef aspic, either, and no one accuses me of being uncomfortable with my digestive processes. But there’s this magical thinking about menstrual blood that because it’s connected to womanhood and fertility and nature that it should hold some special place in my heart and that I should gaze into my maxi pad and thank it for its service before wrapping it up in toilet paper and throwing it away.
1, The essentialist association of menstruation with womanhood is in and of itself problematic, because it assumes that all women menstruate and that only women menstruate. While it’s easy to tell the tween who just got her first period that she’s “becoming a woman,” few people would similarly tell a postmenopausal woman that she’s no longer a woman. Non-menstruating women, whether because of menopause or hysterectomy or never having had a uterus or a dozen other reasons, remain women. Though, as I note above, I’m not afraid or ashamed of menstruating, it’s not actually something I do anymore — since I got a hormone-releasing IUD, my periods, if any, are few and far between. Does that make me any less of a woman than I was four years ago, right before I got the IUD in? When, immediately after that, I spotted for six weeks straight, did that make me more womanly because of the duration, or less womanly because it was kind of half-assed and passive-aggressive?
2. The connection to fertility is equally tenuous, because the presence of a period doesn’t automatically imply fertility. Plenty of women menstruate every month and yet are infertile. Plenty of women menstruate and yet have no interest in ever having kids. Plenty of women greet the arrival of their period with great joy, because it means they aren’t pregnant. But talk to a woman who’s been struggling for months or years to conceive and has, yet again, gotten her period, and see if she’s in the mood to celebrate it with a moon dance.
3. Natural things can still be gross. Slug slime? Gross. The compost bin two days after I add leftover zucchini? Disgusting — and the fact that its dark, nutrient-rich earthiness will soon bring life to more zucchini in my garden makes it no less so. Boogers are a sign that my body is doing its duty to protect me from allergens and pathogens, but I don’t celebrate them — I blow them out (rather than picking them and eating them, which could actually be beneficial to your immune system. True fact).
Menstruation didn’t make me feel at one with all of female humanity. It didn’t make me feel like a sister to the goddess. It felt like the lining of my uterus was sitting in my underpants, which is not where God intended it to be. And when it got on my pants, the fact that it was precious and beautiful menstrual blood made it no less a spot of blood on my pants. No less a permanent stain on my bath towels. No less a ruined pair of really cute undies because my period snuck up on me out of nowhere. Using a tampon to hide this wasn’t out of shame — it was out of convenience.
And it wasn’t out of vanity, either. Not that I loved the Pampers-profile of a super-plus maxi in a pair of snug jeans, but when I was getting my period, sex appeal was the least of my concerns. Johnston-Robledo asserts that a tampon is preferred by some women because it’s “less noticeable,” and thus they can still appear sexy even while they menstruate (which she connects to the sexualization of girls). Three days out of the month, I appeared greasy, bloated, and willing and able to shoot laser beams out of my eyeballs. (The other two days, I was crying.) I appreciated that I didn’t notice the presence of a tampon once it was in, particularly in contrast with a pad that kept that precious, holy uterine lining right up next to my bits.
Johnston-Robledo is right that much of the societal flailing about menstruation is because it’s woman-coded — it comes from your vagina, and you get all emotional, and it’s icky uterine lining, and you’re all impure and should be sequestered from society until you’re done. And that’s wrongheaded and unfair. But just because the patriarchy hates on it for misogynistic reasons and uses it as another opportunity to oppress women doesn’t make it reflexively awesome. My period was not a blessing, it was a pain in the ass. It was a burden, not because it was shameful but because it was uncomfortable. It made me tired and bloated and sweaty, and I didn’t want to do the things I enjoyed because I felt so lousy. And no reminder that goddess fertile life precious moon woman was going to make me look forward to it or see it as anything but a pain in the ass.
Here’s some blood I’m really proud of: the blood that came out of my knee after my first wreck on a mountain bike. I was charging up a steep hill, my wheel hit a rock that moved unexpectedly, my bike slipped out from under me, and down I went into the dirt. I came up with a scrape from elbow to wrist and about half a pound of gravel and Alabama red clay embedded in my knee. It was pretty awesome, honestly, because it was Blood Shed of Doing Something Awesome. And what did I do when I got home? I mopped it up, cleaned it off, bandaged it, and threw everything away. I didn’t frame the gauze in a shadowbox to put on a wall, I didn’t take a moment to silently commune with all my sisters and brothers who had also wrecked on bikes, and I felt no regret or longing as I threw it in the trash. Because no matter how proud I was of what I was doing when I shed it, there was nothing precious or sacred about it — it was just, y’know, blood.
If you want to surf proudly atop the crimson wave, go for it. If your Aunt Flo comes to visit and you cherish her presence, have at it. If your red moon is rising and you want to dance, bang a gong. But if I just want to put on a pair of snug, white pants and wait for the communists to march on by, don’t accuse me of succumbing to a stigma or promoting antifeminist ideology — I just don’t like blood and don’t want it in my underoos. I will not praise it to the moon. I will not fly a red balloon. I will not catch it in a cup, nor use a pad to sop it up. I will not paint it on a wall. I will not do anything at all. Because while perfectly natural, bodily fluids in general are gross and I do not like them, Fem I Am.