Not Buying Into It: On Language, Capitalism and Menstruation

On July 27, 2011, I added a new post on my feminist coming-of-age blog (now inactive) This Girl on Girls, titled ‘Why is Menstruation Taboo?’ In it, I discussed the sexist stigmas attached to menstruation, including but not limited to the prescribed silence and shame around the process. It was certainly a well-intentioned piece, and I still believe that society (or more specifically, sexism) uses menstruation as a marker of the dirtiness or impurity of the female body and female sexuality.

But what I can now recognize that I didn’t at the time is the way in which discourses about menstruation, whether they are medical or academic or everyday and whether they are sexist or feminist, are prone to falling into a cissentric trap of framing menstruation as inherently a ‘female’ experience. In my post, I wrote things like “menstruation is completely normal and natural,” and that when a woman menstruates, “her body is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. We should all embrace that.”

I can see what I was trying to do: destigmatize menstruation and work towards accepting and potentially celebrating it. I think this is a worthwhile project but that it needs to be executed with care and intentionality and not, for starters, by emphasizing the heightened stigma in “other cultures,” as I did at the time.

Talking about menstruation as if it is something only women-identified people experience erases the experience of people who may not identify as women but still have uteri, as well as of those who do identify as women but do not have uteri, like trans women. And are they not women? There are also cisgender women who, often for health-related reasons, do not menstruate. Are they not women?

While on a conscious level most of us who talk about women and menstruation are not intentionally trying to exclude the experiences of trans, genderqueer or gender non-conforming people, our language can and does have that effect. This kind of essentializing language reflects our binarist conceptualization of gender, sex and the body as neatly corresponding to either male or female—that, I would argue, is the larger problem.

In summary: not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.

Another layer I’d like to add to my initial discussion of menstruation is how it relates to industry and the environment. The tropes used to convince people who menstruate to buy a particular product often involve presenting menstruation as a problem to be fixed or avoided, and this product is often a bleached tampon that puts users at risk for Toxic Shock Syndrome. It’s not healthy and it’s not environmentally friendly—a person who menstruates and uses tampons/pads will produce 62,415 pounds of garbage over their lifetime—but hey, you should buy it!

As the video above mentions, there are other options: there are menstrual cups like the Keeper, made from latex, and the Divacup, made from silicone. Because they are non-absorbent, they don’t harbor bacteria like tampons, and there’s also no risk of TSS. For people who menstruate who don’t want to or can’t use internal products, GladRags are the reusable counterpart to more commercially available pads.

Of course it’s crucial to recognize that these choices still involve purchasing a product and that, though they save money and waste in the long run, these particular products are more expensive than the non-reusable options on the market.

The arguments I’ve put forth, particularly in relation to cissexist language, are also applicable to other ‘women’s issues’ such as reproductive justice. And while many argue that changing the language would muddle the message, I’m not interested in a political movement that privileges progress for cisgender women at the expense of trans women or other gender-oppressed people. The project of resistance to sexism necessarily entails resistance to cissexism, and to pretend otherwise means getting nowhere, fast.

By Sophia Seawell, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Image via Vice, by Emma Arvida Bystrom

3 Comments
  1. I love this! I highly recommend reading New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation for a deeper critique of menstrual politics and a history of feminist activism around the menstruation industrial complex. The author, Chris Bobel, uses the term “menstruator” to include trans* bodies which moves away from a very cissexist and cisgendered narrative. This book completely changed the way I thought about these issues.

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