Hair and Blood

So I’ve been thinking about periods – and no, not the punctuation kind.

That’s because I spent some time on the weekend thumbing my way through an interesting little book on menstruation. Called ‘Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation’, the book explores the impact that capitalist forces have had on our monthly periods. It’s by Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, a professor at Eastern Washington University.

I know, I know – I can hear you now: “this is a blog about pubic hair — why the period talk?”

Here’s why: because reading Kissling’s book about periods actually made me think a lot about women and their relationships to their own body hair.

Kissling’s interesting premise is that though it’s a regular phenomenon for half the world’s population, periods are typically seen as icky and gross — a troublesome interruption in the month that must be dealt with (ideally) in secret (god forbid your males friends should catch a glimpse of a tampon in your purse!).

What Kissling argues is that our periods have been sold back to us by corporations who capitalize on those negative attitudes in order to “sell us solutions for nonexistent problems.” She argues that although the hygiene industry has been good for women in some ways (ie. we have readily available, inexpensive and easy-to-use products which allow us to function ‘normally’ even as we’re shedding our uterine lining), the commercialization of an otherwise normal bodily process has also done us a disservice.

That’s because the capitalist agenda has women compelled to be constantly in pursuit of “freshness” — the preferred state, we readily learn, for women to exist in. I’ll quote Kissling here (from her conclusion):

“In the commercial world of so-called feminine hygiene products, menstruation is portrayed as a literal and figurative stain on one’s femininity. Women are urged by advertisements to “stay clean, stay fresh, stay free,” as if their freedom depends upon their freshness. The freedom (if not freshness) in women’s everyday lives enabled by modern menstrual products is truly transformative, but freedom is never really free, at least under consumer capitalism. To enjoy the liberty granted y products that reduce discomfort, relieve pain, and increase freedom of movement, women must participate in the construction of their own Otherness. In using these products, women are compelled to buy into the idea of the menstruating woman as one of tainted femininity.” (p. 124)

Kissling uses existentialist Simone de Beauvoir to investigate this idea of Otherness — something she describes as being an artifact of a male-dominated society wherein women learn to feel “an alienation from their own bodies.” As Kissling writes, “a properly socialized woman develops a sense of herself as object, an Other that is both venerated and feared, as she internalizes her society’s dominant ideologies about women.” (p. 3)

It helps explain why women feel such shame and disgust at the idea of their own periods. Our monthly bleeding is marketed to us as a “hygienic crisis”. Talking about ads for menstrual products, Kissling writes:

“It is a hygiene crisis that one must clean up, in secret, so that one’s public projection of ideal femininity is not damaged or polluted.” (p.12)

Kissling quotes another scholar, Tomi-Ann Roberts, who makes this wise observation:

“One of the obligations that women have in a culture that sexually objectifies their bodies is to conceal the biological functioning of their bodies.” (p.20)

And that’s where we come back to pubic hair.

Women learn early on to treat themselves as objects. And getting rid of body hair, whether it’s on our legs or between them, is just another way of doing that.

 

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  • Ellen H.

    I always hear people claiming “girls don’t poop,” and “women don’t sweat; they glow.” Even though it’s mostly in jest, the fact that people deny the bodily functions of half the world shows just how much they would like to objectify us. In contrast, I have never heard someone claim that boys or men don’t sweat, burp, urinate, defecate, etc. Males are allowed to be comfortable with their bodies, but females must control and hide large aspects of themselves. It’s a completely unfair double standard.

  • About 5 years ago, a friend of mine told me about menstrual cups. She had friends who used one of these during their periods, and reused their menstrual blood as plant fertilizer. I was all at once intrigued and disgusted. There has always been a lot of shame for me surrounding my period (coupled with male taunting that a grumpy female must be ‘on the rag’). It didn’t help any that my mom referred to the day one first begins menstruating as ‘Woman’s Day.’ (I remember crying and crying. I had been fine not having to deal with that monthly.) I hate the shame associated with the bulk of cotton products to tote around and bloody waste to dispose of. Also, learning about vaginal fluids while studying Fertility Awareness made me feel even more uncomfortable about needlessly soaking them up with tampons on light days. I did some research and ordered a Diva Cup. I’ve used it for two cycles now and I can’t believe I’ve gone without one for so long. This thing that cost me $20 online will last me 10 years? No more stained underwear, no more bloody trash. All that comes out is all my body has shed, and in its pure form, it doesn’t seem gross to me anymore. I feel like I have a more full understanding of my body now, and I look for opportunities to tell others about it… to the point where I have to catch myself and asses when it would be inappropriate to mention. Ha.

    • Ah yes- I feel the same way about my Diva cup…I don’t know what I didn’t get one years ago…
      (I cried when I got my period for the first time, too…)

    • Amber Bolton

      I was thinking about this while reading the article. I have been using a Mooncup (I think it’s basically the British version of the Diva Cup you mentioned) for a year now and my life during my periods is much better than it was. I always found the usual options extremely uncomfortable. Despite this, taboos about such things mean that I have never mentioned this to anyone other than my boyfriend, in fact I often lie to female friends and pretend I use tampons because I know they would regard me as dirty if I told the truth.

  • bob

    im a 34f gay woman and i still think my period is pretty gross. its not because im worried that a man wont find me attractive while im bleeding, its just gross to me. i accept that it happens on a semi-regular basis but that doesnt mean i have to revel in it to be considered a feminist or a “real” woman or a woman that is comfortable with her own body. i dont especially think theres anything worth sharing with the general public about my poop or sweat either.

    • hi Bob-
      Nope, I agree… there’s no need to revel in your period to earn your feminist status. I don’t know too many women who are huge fans of the monthly ‘gift’ (to use Tampax language), though I know of some who like the connection it gives them to the earth. Thanks for writing!

    • Kristie

      Are you 34 or 13? Way to miss the point, don’t worry some people just mature REALLY REALLY late -_-

  • Maria

    Its weird to me that women cried when they got their period. I wasn’t estatic taht I had to wear a goofy pad (what my mom had) for a week but to me and a lot of my friends getting your period was a huge step in growing up. It was exciting for me, even though it was kind of late in the game (13, almost 14) I was stoked to finally have gotten it.

    I’m not as keen on it now, but mostly because I have crazy painful periods the first and second day. But before I did, I liked the fact that I felt like I was part of such an ancient thing and that every other woman before me had done that.

    • Tia

      Hey Maria,
      I don’t think I was so excited when it happened (during swimming lessons week was kind of a bummer) but I WAS excited when my friends started talking about it and I already had mine! You shrug it off like yeah, I got it, whatevs but inside you’re gloating a little. It something special, I guess, it means you are no longer a child.

      I use the Diva Cup now and bygosh i swear by it and tell every girlfriend of its wonders! My bestfriend is hooked and I’m proud of that!

      I think its important that you don’t take your bodily functions too seriously. In high school one of my guy friends came up to me and said, “I really have to poop,” I laughed and he said, “you are the only girl I feel comfortable saying that too,” we weren’t even that close but that meant something to me. I guess it meant that I wasn’t someone who was so stuck up as to not acknowledge the existence of feces.

      So ladies, periods are whatev and (talking about) poop is funny (in our modern world of sanitary sewers).

  • Utterphaylia

    I got my first period at the tender age of 9 . I was terrified because I thought I was dying and was mortified when my mom cried and said that I was a woman now. I was utterly baffled when she went on about the moon and it being a gift, etc. My parents were split at the time and I still consider the talk my dad gave me about not being afraid to ask him to pick things up for me as one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life. Wearing a phonebook between my legs to school the next day was equally as uncomfortable. It took my a while to discover that there were products available to ‘teens’. I felt like a veteran when my friends started getting theirs in jr. high.

    For me, there was always shame and/or embarassment about my period because I was the freak who got mine so young. Now, I am still a freak as I rarely get one (like 18 months between) because of my PCOS. There was never room for the markets to shame me – I felt enough shame on my own.

  • Lila

    Love this! Thank you, Stumbleupon. It also reminded me of this http://www.mum.org/ifmencou.htm

  • Julie

    I’ll agree that often times the advertising is a bit offensive. But only a little bit. I totally understand that women should not be treated as pretty little objects that never poop, pee, fart, etc. and that advertisements shouldn’t make us feel ashamed about it. But I agree with Bob; I’m not going to go around talking to everyone (besides girl friends) about it. Advertisements say it’s messy. Well, it is. Should I just let it flow and not bother to clean it up? I really don’t see a problem with having a wide range of products to choose from to keep from getting stains all over my clothes.

    What I hate most is the attitudes men have toward it. That’s not something that’s really advertised, men just learn it from each other. They get grossed out by the sight of tampons still in their packaging. Don’t even get me started how they are with period sex.

    I personally have a very hateful relationship with my period. Some of it is the idea of it being inconvenient and gross that is shoved upon us. But that whole being one with nature that some women feel, I just don’t get. My periods are very painful the first two days, even if I take ibuprofen. Something natural that happens once a month should not have to feel like that.

  • Hannah

    I’ve never really had a bad relationship with my periods or my body for that matter, but I hate how most men find body hair and a little blood gross. I guess I got lucky with my boyfriend because he doesn’t mind a little fuzz down there and neither of us get grossed out about having sex while I’m on my period. Period sex is some of the best sex 🙂

  • Ibanez

    “The freedom (if not freshness) in women’s everyday lives enabled by modern menstrual products is truly transformative, but freedom is never really free, at least under consumer capitalism. To enjoy the liberty granted by products that reduce discomfort, relieve pain, and increase freedom of movement, women must participate in the construction of their own Otherness. In using these products, women are compelled to buy into the idea of the menstruating woman as one of tainted femininity.”

    Now that is just not true. To enjoy the liberty granted by tampons or cup or whatever someone uses to control the flow of her menstrual blood, women just need to buy them. Or craft those divices themselves.
    Experiencing menstrual blood as something “alien”, as something” other” is not the price for using tampons etc., it’s the REASON why women would want them in the first place.

    You don’t need to think that menstrual blood is gross to experience discomfort from it: Like any kind of blood, it’s wet, it smells like blood, it’s red. It’s just not very nice to have it in/on your pants. It is true that the period was and still is culturally connected with misogynic ideas. But this is no ontological neccessity – we can just NOT look at the period as something metaphysically unclean. But blood coming out of your sexual organs is still unclean – in a very pragmatic sense. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s still something you might want to control. Like sweat, tears, hair, dandruffs – whether you’re a man or a woman or anything in between and beyond.

  • Jess

    I’m a 16 year old girl -17 in a week- and I got my period for the first time when I was 12. I can even remember the date. I remember seeing the blood for the first time, and I felt detached, apathetic. I called my mom in and she gave me a pad, and I’ve been using them ever since. I do see your point, and I completely agree that some women worry far too much about their bodily functions in public, but I also think that women should still uphold… I don’t know, a kind of decency. Men sweat and fart and everything else they want to in public, and I find it -depending on the person, to be honest- either funny, disgusting or just normal. I feel that women are pressured from a very early age to be good-looking, and this is not a new topic at all. I just want to point out, though, that as comfortable as men seem, they are also dealing with their own pressures from society – they have to be stoic, muscular, deep voiced and athletic. This is why so many people my age are picked on: because absolutely no one, no matter what age or gender, can conform to society’s expectations without some suffering on their part. Even those who seem just the way we want them, and yes I say “we” because everyone pressures everyone else whether they realize it or not, can have underlying mental stress from their environment. In short, what I’m trying to say is that yes women are expected to be a certain way, but men are too, and we must remember that.

    • Hey Jess – thanks for writing. You’re totally right – those are excellent points about men feeling their own pressures. I just posted today about the new pressure for men to have all their body hair now too, on top of staying masculine and strong and sporty and everything else they are expected to be. I guess the only way to change things is to live the best way we know how, and to try to change things by being who we want to be.

  • Megan

    Ya know, I always stumble upon blogs about women constantly being objectified and oppressed by social double standards and the media, but I rarely see the opposite sex forcing this upon us. Ladies, if you constantly show that you are embarrassed about your period around men, they are going to eventually assume that your period actually is something you should be embarrassed about. The majority of them understand it’s natural to have a period, pubic hair, leg hair, sweat, etc. And they will even go out of their way to go buy you tampons if you ask 😛

    I also think that regardless of what feminine hygiene companies advertise, most women want to feel clean and fresh while on their period. Having blood and uterine lining gushing out in between your legs all day for a week is just plain annoying! Instead of pointing fingers at the people trying to sell you a product you don’t need (let’s say, scented sprays for your coochie), why don’t we just educate ourselves on what is really necessary to maintain comfort while aunt flow is in town, and learn to recognize products that could potentially be harmful to your sensitive lady parts? If women don’t buy these unnecessary hygiene products, then the companies that make them will stop making them because it isn’t selling.

    Be responsible. Take care of yourself and your body. Help others to do the same.

  • Sillabub

    I’m a girl, and menstruation is a messy, uncomfortable, painful experience. Should I be proud about it?

  • Brooke

    Look, I’m a huge feminist and all, but this article is a little bit ridiculous and over the top.

    “a troublesome interruption in the month that must be dealt with (ideally) in secret (god forbid your males friends should catch a glimpse of a tampon in your purse!)”

    Look, I talk about my period all the time with my female friends. Anything from “AUGHH guys I’m on the rag right now” to “Shit dude I’ve been wearing this tampon for 12 hours straight.” There’s nothing “secretive” about it. I also don’t know any woman who would be embarrassed by their male friends seeing a tampon in their purse. Probably because I don’t hang out with insecure idiots.

    “Women are urged by advertisements to “stay clean, stay fresh, stay free,” as if their freedom depends upon their freshness.”

    Uh, I don’t know why this isn’t obvious to the author of that quote, but it’s pretty obvious to me that you don’t feel “free” when you can’t do things like swimming because you’re on your period. That’s why tampon companies advertise that tampons make you “free…” because tampons DO make you free to do things like go swimming. This is common sense, not a clever marketing ploy forcing women to believe that their freedom depends on their freshness.

    “It is a hygiene crisis that one must clean up, in secret, so that one’s public projection of ideal femininity is not damaged or polluted.”

    Okay, first of all, I don’t really get the use of this “in secret” phrase. I mean, should I be public about it? “Hey guys, hold on a sec while I change my tampon in front of you.” No. I mean, the fact that you have to go to a bathroom to change your tampon is certainly “private,” but I would never make a huge secret about it. I often say things like “Lol guys I’m about to change my tampon so I don’t get TSS.” Sometimes even-gasp!-in front of MALES. Does this “damage” or “pollute” my projection of feminity? No, I just don’t care.

    I mean, look, I think I speak for most women (and men) when I say that periods are NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL. This article is extremely overexaggerating people’s opinions of periods. I don’t know, maybe the reason that I don’t think periods are a huge deal (and the reason that I don’t treat them as such) is because I don’t hang out with women who are ridiculously insecure about their periods like this article suggests. And like I said, I am a huge feminist, but sometimes feminism can go over the top, like in this article…

    • Cassidy

      As much as I’m sure you think you are a “huge feminist”, what this article is NOT saying is that you should be free to change your tampon in public or something of the sort. It discusses how advertising is used to make people who menstruate feel like a normal function of their body is gross and bad and an issue for them to sweep under the rug because it makes them less feminine. Did you really read this article? There is a point about how menstruation ruins the sexuality women are expected to have all the time, as media using women as objects to sell a product the idea is that a woman should be a sexual thing. This is not an overreaction and the fact that you can read something like this, misinterpret it and then call it an overreaction shows that maybe you as a feminist need to do some more thinking about the nuances of things like this and how the media’s way of othering women is detrimental to your own gender. Don’t call something over-the-top if you clearly don’t fully understand its message.