Aside from important dates and information, the most common topics covered at the residence hall meetings I’ve attended in college so far have been about cleaning up after ourselves in the kitchens and bathrooms. Most especially—cleaning up after our periods. Every bathroom stall boasts a flyer begging, “Ladies, don’t forget to wrap your personals!” God forbid.
Is this surprising to anyone? We set a standard of privacy around menstrual blood in shared spaces, because it’s a matter of health and safety that one not touch another person’s bodily fluids, in order to avoid spreading bacteria or viruses between bodies. However, when I think about the number of people I know who squirm at the thought of using a menstrual cup because it requires getting their own blood on their hands, I remember that the shame and secrecy about menstrual blood in our culture goes wayyy beyond simple health and safety concerns.
For those of you who’ve forgotten why chicks bleed for a week every month, here’s the Sparknotes version: the woman’s reproductive system can’t always be ready to conceive, so it works in a cycle instead. Every month an egg is released from the ovaries, travels through the Fallopian tubes, and hangs out in the uterus for a while getting excited to make a baby. While it’s hanging out, the uterus builds up a thick lining full of soft, pillowy nutrients with which to shelter and nourish the potential fetus. After a while, the egg gets bored waiting and decides to go out and see the world instead, so it leaves through the vagina, dragging with it that thick lining of bloody nutrients. Without a baby brewing, it’s no longer necessary. The process repeats a month later, which is why it’s called a cycle.
In other words, menstrual blood serves much the same purpose as regular blood: it is a vessel for nutrients. But as a society, aside from those who get a little squeamish, we don’t tend to freak out about regular blood the way we do about menstruation.
I bet some of you are thinking, “wait a minute—menstrual blood is a bodily excretion. Society thinks ALL of those are disgusting. Logic-duh!” Let me address that point now. A human being’s bodily fluids can be organized into four categories: nutrient, reproductive, maintenance, and waste. If I missed any, you can let me know.
On the societal disgust meter (outliers excluded), I have put these excretions in the following order, with 1 being least disgusting and 8 being most disgusting. I measure disgust by considering to what extent society deems touching the substance appropriate personally and tolerable socially.
- Saliva (maintenance) – Because it is a bodily fluid which spends most of its time in our mouths–the dirtiest place on the whole body, in terms of bacteria–spitting or dribbling saliva on anybody we don’t mouth kiss on a regular basis is deemed inappropriate and in some circles intolerable by society. Nevertheless, people do mouth kiss strangers quite often and don’t seem to find it that disgusting.
- Sweat (maintenance) – Sweat gets a bad name mostly because it smells nasty and it makes people slimy all over, which is uncomfortable for everyone involved. Nevertheless, sweaty bodies often have a sexual allure and most people find washing their hands or showering to be a reasonable and acceptable solution after touching sweat. No sweat! ;p
- Semen (reproductive) – Semen is a mixed bag, but I placed it at number 3 because, while our society keeps discussions of sex on the down-low, it quietly categorizes the consumption of semen as sexy and encourages it. Magazines nowadays talk about it all the time, it’s certainly depicted in pornography, and while some women and men are personally disgusted by the idea of swallowing semen, most probably wouldn’t mind touching it with their hands, especially if they could wash up after. Amirite? Moving on.
- Blood (nutrient) – As I mentioned earlier, this is where we move into the realm of health and safety hazards. Blood is scary because it connotes pain and death, risky because it carries bacteria and viruses, but otherwise considered quite normal. Any disgust factor likely comes from its thick, wet texture.
- Mucus (waste) – Ahh, our first waste contender. I placed this as the least disgusting of the waste fluids because we touch it so much when we cry or get sick. However, picking one’s nose is a taboo and certainly eating your snot is a big societal no-no. I mean, duh, your body wants to get rid of this stuff! It is by definition, as waste, toxic and worthless.
- Urine (waste) – Don’t eat yellow snow! Need I say more?? However, urine is a milder form of waste than feces, so if you pee on your hand by accident, no biggie, just wash up. Still, I’m astonished daily by the number of people who refuse to pee in a toilet that already has pee in it. I mean, really??
- Feces (waste) – Remember that scene in Slumdog Millionaire when the kid escapes an outhouse by diving into the shit? I mean, talk about disgusting. I can still recall the shudder that went through the theatre. And yet, we pick up dog and cat poop all the time, albeit with shovels or through plastic bags. Poop is a strange one, because while society strongly condemns it, people can be surprisingly cavalier about touching feces now and then. Like I keep saying, SOAP exists! Nevertheless, it is definitely the most disgusting of all the waste.
- Menstrual blood (nutrient) – You may have noticed this one is at the bottom of the list, more disgusting and shunned even than feces.
Menstrual blood has by far the most taboo of all these fluids. We go to extreme lengths trying to keep menstrual blood off our hands. What is the most commonly used and socially acceptable way to maintain our periods? Tampons! We put wads of gauze inside the vagina to soak up the blood before it ever even leaves our bodies! As if that weren’t enough, we attach a cardboard applicator to it and stick a long string on the other end so we don’t ever have to come into contact with our blood OR our vagina on the way in or out. Fantastic! Then we wrap it all up tight so we don’t even have to look at the blood in the trash can.
Then we pretend it doesn’t exist. You know the blue water in the tampon commercials. Women are taught to wear dark pants, pop a pain killer, and just keep on moving while they have their periods. Don’t make a big deal about it, don’t distinguish yourself from the men. No sick day, no societal sympathy, no recognition. This is a way to make us “equal” to men; progress since the days where women had to stay out of the public eye while menstruating.
And then there’s the term “sanitary products” or “feminine hygiene products” to describe pads and tampons. That is so cold and distancing. We don’t call a band-aid a “sanitary napkin,” do we? No, we don’t. We call it a band-aid. When somebody gets shot in the arm and blood seeps through his shirt, he doesn’t blush and hurry to cover it up or run from the room full of shame and embarrassment. He worries about taking care of himself! And in turn, we don’t wrinkle our noses in disgust or revulsion and whisper scandalously to our neighbors. We worry about taking care of him! The message is clear: regular blood is a normal part of life and the experience of the person bleeding is most important. Menstrual blood, on the other hand, is dirty and shameful and the experience of the person bleeding, rather than being important, is something to cover up.
Women learn to be disgusted and angry with their periods, because they “get in the way” of “normal” life (i.e. the way a man lives). We distance ourselves from our blood and feel disgusted by it, even though it is, for all intents and purposes, a clean and nutrient-filled substance. For God’s sake, babies are swaddled in this stuff for the first 9 months of life—it is clearly healthy and safe!
I guarantee you that menstrual blood is not “disgusting” for any logical reason. It is what remains of a moral construction passed down through the generations by patriarchs who only value women for their ability to gestate. Menstruation is seen as disgusting and unclean because it is the symbol of a baby unborn. It is the symbol of woman not being a mother, of woman separate from man, unfertilized and rebellious. Shameful, right?
No. Menstruation is not unsanitary or disgusting. It is a nutritious and beautiful thing, and we need to stop shunning it and start respecting it. Period.
It’s a society-wide project, but it starts with every individual woman. Don’t be afraid to touch your menstrual blood. It is a part of your body and it matters to YOU just as much as it would have mattered to a fertilized egg. You are more important than your reproductive functions. Be proud, stay connected, stay strong.