In all civilizations and still in our day women inspires man with horror: it is the horror of his own carnal contingence, which he projects upon her. The little girl, not yet in puberty, carries no menace, she is under no taboo and has no sacred character… but on the day she can reproduce, woman becomes impure… since patriarchal times only evil powers have been attributed to the feminine flow… Woman is part of that fearsome machinery that turns the planets and the sun in their courses… and of which men must undergo the disturbing radiations… menstrual blood is… halfway between matter and life… and this is less because it is blood than because it issues from the genital organs… through menstrual blood is expressed the horror inspired in man by woman’s fecundity” — Simone de Beauvoir (1949) The Second Sex, pp. 180 - 182.
Over the last year, the topic of menstruation has exploded on social media as performance artists, sports personalities, and the like, have publicly grappled with their daily lived experiences of, what our mothers called, ‘the crimson tide’ (or more endearingly ‘my granny in a little red car’). You may recall the outcry caused when marathon runner Kiran Ghandi deliberately decided to participate in the London Marathon while menstruating without wearing a tampon, thus allowing the public to see her menstrual flow! Or when Rupi Kaur entered into a head-on battle with social-media giant Instagram for removing thought-provoking images depicting her soiled bed-sheets and clothing—Instagram’s reason for doing so was that these images did not follow their ‘community guidelines’ and somehow made Instagram unsafe for its members! And of course, who could forget the vaginal knitting of Casey Jenkins—a performance artist from down-under. The overwhelming responses to these women suggest that while Beauvoir appears shocked (above) that “still in [her] day women inspires man with horror”, there has been little attitudinal shift in contemporary society when it comes to the sight of menstrual blood (come on, we still use blue liquid in adverts for sanitary products)—and in particular, a public display of it.
But why hasn’t this changed given successes in other areas of the women’s liberation movement? Why is it that menstruation is still such a taboo topic? Beauvoir’s suggestions in 1949 are echoed in research findings at a global level indicating that, while stigmatised responses may differ according to context, there appears to be an abiding, universal culture of silence and taboo surrounding menstruation. In the South African context, in particular, this is evidenced by the fact that it is seen as inappropriate for mothers to discuss menstruation with their daughters, that menstruation is to be concealed from men and boys (including one’s father and brothers), and that young boys are either not taught about menstruation at all or are taught not to discuss menstruation with girls. It is precisely this culture of silence that is broken and challenged by the actions of Kaur, Gandhi, and Jenkins, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the public largely responds with fear when what has previously been confined to the ‘private’ realm (where so many of women’s experiences are confined) is brought to public light and is used to begin a conversation across and between the genders. It is also not surprising that those who are trying to maintain these networks of taboos have condemned these actions, while those who are trying to break them down have celebrated them.
Whether or not we should condemn or celebrate the actions of these women, they nevertheless have managed to spark interest in what remains a very real, pressing social issue for women today. In our research, for example, we have found that one of the most pressing needs of young women (and men) in contemporary South African society is for reliable, non-stigmatised information about menstruation. A second, and equally important need, is to open up spaces for dialogue which foster understanding of, and empathy for, the challenges faced by menstruating girls and women in our societies. While actions and artworks like these have the potential to open up these spaces, the shock value entailed by these particular examples can cause reactionary responses, which can lead to the further stigmatisation, shame and humiliation of vulnerable members of society, and, ultimately, could close down networks of communication which need to be built. In all our attempts to open up these spaces, then, we must be cautious not to finally reinforce and perpetuate the very problems we seek to undermine.
Posted by: Lindsay Kelland and Sharli Paphitis
Rhodes University, South Africa