University of Massachusetts professor Chris Bobel is the author of the soon to be released book New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. In the second part of this two-part interview she unpacks periods and the activism, advertising and controversy that makes them so very personal and so very political.
How does the marketing for Lybrel and Seasonique manipulate women's understanding of their periods?
I think it takes advantage of women's ignorance. How many women understand how conventional birth control works? The difference between menstruation and the withdrawal bleeding that comes with oral contraceptives? (Take a look at this study of 20 something men and women) It is pretty clear that most of us are in the dark.
Menstrual cycle researchers think of the menstrual cycle as the fifth vital sign, but how many woman grasp how the menstrual cycle functions and how it's related to more than the shedding of the uterine lining? Big Pharma breezes right into this knowledge void. As the beauty industry feeds on insecurity, the menstrual care industry feeds on ignorance and shame.
But I want to take a minute to acknowledge the many menstruators who experience periodic menstrual misery. There are women whose cycles are horrendous. But I wonder how many of them know why this is the case. Are they getting high quality health care? Do they suffer alone? Celebrating the cycle discourse may never resonate for women in pain. I want to be sure that in our critiques of the pharmaceutical and FemCare industries, we don't snuff out their voices, because menstrual activism is about them, too, and actually, they have the most to gain when we get talking, challenging and learning.
Have these pills opened up a discourse on menstruation that was previously not there?
Maybe. There's that potential. But what's happening is that we start pointing fingers at each other: Flaky Moon Worshippers vs. Corporate Dupes. I'd like to get past this as much as I'd like to get past a menstrual discourse limited to products and pills.
Really, the only acceptable menstrual discourse is complaint and joking (with women as the butt of the joke). But there's little-to-no cultural support for dealing with hormonal changes throughout the lifespan so there's appeal to 'shut up and take a pill and be done with it'. There's no room for a messy middle ground that acknowledges the menstrual cycle can be difficult and it is a vital sign. When you went to the doctor to get help, were you immediately given a prescription and that was it? Were other options explained? Were you given an adequate explanation of risks and benefits? If not, you got lazy health care.
I think many women are drawn to the conventional birth control pill and will take Lybrel or Seasonique because they are not aware of other options to deal with their misery. Who can blame 'em? Let's not fall into that old trap of horizontal hostility—where we see a problem and point at each other instead of those enduring culprits: capitalism, the medical-industrial complex and rigid gender hierarchies.
How can we address this knee-jerk sense of the 'icky' that is so pervasive in discussion of periods?
We have to start with the contradictions we live with. Assessments of what's icky or inappropriate are, like all assessments, subjective and shifting. Here's one: menstrual blood is taboo, but semen is sexy. Semen, of course, makes the 'money shot.' Fellow writer for the re:Cycling blog Elizabeth Kissling points out that there's blood everywhere, excepting menstrual blood. The hugely popular crime show genre loves to put tortured dead bodies on display.
Me? I find stylized violence pretty icky. Whenever there's a knee-jerk reaction to anything, my impulse is roll it back and put it in slow motion. What, precisely, are we pushing away and why? What cultural values are working beneath the surface here and whom do they serve? What's at stake?