My friend Rose B. Fischer’s interactive blogging project Redefining Disability: A Discussion of Pop Culture, Media, and Changing Perceptions (which you should check out if you haven’t already done so!) has led to many engaging discussions for the past months.
One of the most recent exchanges I had with her had to do with the impact of social constructs on our perceptions of disability and other stigma. This is the origin of this post. Please note that I speak from my experience being raised and living in France, so it is possible that some of this isn’t exactly applicable to other countries, including the USA.
One of the worst social constructs that remains and that still affects many women is how menstruation is considered taboo and/or something to be hidden. This is something completely natural and part of life, but girls and women still face stigma and are made fun of, negatively criticized or bullied because of this.
Mine were hell on earth until I reached my twenties and got on birth control. I remember the stress whenever I had long exams during which I couldn’t go to the restroom if needed. Even if you tried to explain why, people didn’t care. I’ll spare you one traumatic experience during one of these exams. Let’s just say… It was the good prologue for a horror movie.
Speaking of horror movies, menstruation has participated in the collective imaginary and media depiction of women to strongly link female bodies to the monstrous (I’d recommend Carol Clover’ Men, Women and Chainsaws). This has participated to a damaging view of femininity in society and is far from being discarded. I am happy to see solid and layered female characters in media narrative, including villains, but using menstruation and pregnancies as cheap plot devices is something I can’t stand.
I remember growing up with hearing friends in other schools or characters in media say that a girl could easily skip sport class in middle and high school if she just told the teacher she was having her period, especially if the teacher was male. Well, that always remained fiction for me. At my school, this wasn’t something you could “get away with”. I had to get a medical certificate to allow me one session off per month because of my menstruation and even like this, a couple of times, the teacher tried to get me to do sport anyway, which was bloody impossible, no pun intended.
Mentalities need to change. Boys (and men) need to be educated about menstruation, female bodies and understand that they are human beings to be respected. While boys making fun of girls because they’re dealing with their period is waved away by some (too many), this is insidious, this is damaging and this plays a role in sexism and rape culture at large. This may sound like a bold statement but everything is related.
Just as it is important to teach boys not to be rapist when most of the education is to teach girls how not to get raped, there is much to do in regards to the social constructs and perceptions society has of menstruation. It is also worth remembering that bullying can be perpetrated by girls/women (just as some of them can be abusers, including from a sexual point of view even when the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by men onto women). Girls and women also need to stick together and be compassionate toward one another and not fall for the pitfalls of becoming bullies. Seeing some teenage girls for example make fun of others who are suffering from their menstruation and deal with very difficult ones isn’t the right way and helps no one involved, especially the victims of said bullying.
Just like you teach girls what it means to get their menstruation, you should explain to boys how natural it is, that it can be a difficult experience when you go through it. Book such as Christiane Northrup Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom should be read by many, and b as many women as men. Boys have mothers, sisters, female friends and classmates, aunts and/or other possible female relative. Explaining to them what menstruation is, is important in their education. This post (thank you Rose for the link) is encouraging even when there is still a very long way to go.