People who menstruate

She’s a senior editor at The Lancet. Her review starts well –

The silence, shame, and stigma surrounding menstruation are increasingly being challenged from various cultural domains…In some settings, period poverty, combined with shame and insufficient knowledge about menstruation, can lead to missing school, thus threatening girls’ education. From among a new wave of activists stepping up to address this issue came director Rayka Zehtabchi and producer Melissa Berton’s Oscar-winning documentary film, Period. End of Sentence. (2018), which follows a group of young women in an Indian village as they learn how to operate a machine that makes low-cost sanitary pads, empowering the women economically and challenging stigmas.

What a relief. Some people still manage to say the words “girls” and “women” when talking about subjects like menstruation.

And on the heels of that documentary is a new book by Anita Diamant, Period. End of Sentence. A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice (2021). Weaving together reclaimed traditions with personal accounts from menstruators around the world, Diamant shows just how much our stories matter.

Oh damn. I spoke too soon. That’s the very first paragraph, so…

 Taking a historical approach felt like a natural step for the Vagina Museum, according to its director, Florence Schechter. “One of the questions that we always get at the Vagina Museum is ‘what did people do in the past with their periods?’”, she told me.

People? Why would she say people?

It’s not a nitpick by the way. Menstruation is one of the aspects of being female that cause disadvantage, ostracism, disgust, fear, violence.

Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected—for example, the paucity in understanding of endometriosis and the way women’s pain has been seen as more likely to have an emotional or psychological cause, a hangover from centuries of theorising about hysteria.

Is “bodies with vaginas” there an evasion or an emphasis? Since it goes on to say “women’s pain” it could be emphasis rather than evasion, or it could be some of each.

Menstruation is a difficult topic to collate museum objects around, but although the exhibition depends heavily on text, objects are also displayed that help create a rich experience and reveal how people who menstruate have dealt with their periods at different times.

If it had been people, though, the whole subject would be radically different. It’s because it was only women who did that menstruation was seen as dangerous, witchy, toxic.

Punctuating the display are various artworks: enormous custom-made menstrual cups and tampons, complete with red sequins that glitter as if in defiance of the centuries of negativity; standing in front of them felt like a celebration.

What about that negativity though? Who was the target of it? Was it people? Was it men? No. Who then?

The final paragraph kind of contradicts some of the rest of the review.

The lockdown confinement has highlighted the importance of physical places like museums. This exhibition is particularly special in its focus on gendered histories, the medical visibility of women’s bodies, and the cultural movement against menstrual shame and period poverty.

I wonder if the concealing language was forced on her.

Updating to add: But the Lancet chose one of the “people” versions for the pull-quote.

3 Responses to “People who menstruate”

Leave a Comment

Subscribe without commenting