jueves, 29 de noviembre de 2012

Of menstruation and other demons

Beverly Strassmann wanted to know more about an essential force which has shaped the evolution of our species: the natural pattern of sexual cycles and reproduction in humans. Dr. Strassmann, an anthropologist, made her way to Mali in the 1980s to live for two years in a Dogon village and follow the menstrual cycles of all the women in this village. Dogon women reach menarche (the first menstrual cycle) at the late age of 16, after which they will menstruate on average 7 times per year until their first pregnancy. The ten first years following the first pregnancy are a seemingly neverending cycle of pregnancies and breastfeedings that reduce the frequency of menstruations to only 1 per year and finally, menopause creeps in around the age of 50. Thus, an average Dogon woman will menstruate around 100 times in her life. Meanwhile, an average Western woman will reach menarche at 12, menstruate 350 to 400 times in her life and reach menopause at age 51. Meticulous statistical analysis is unnecessary to conclude that women taking birthcontrol to delay their first pregnancy are having many more menstruations than they're supposed to. In my so far sterile 15 years of fertilty, I estimate to have had around 190 periods, which is twice as many as any woman under natural circumstances would have in an entire lifetime. 

Still, despite what every other woman with who I have discussed the topic has ever told me, I must confess that I don't mind having my period. Actually, I'll go as far as saying that I like having my period and I know I will miss it when it's gone. Every single menstruation is a reminder that I'm still young and healthy and that I have the infrastructure to bear a child (a hypothetical child who makes me feel a mixture of motherly horror and misdirected tenderness).

Ruminating on the internet, I came across an article that discussed women's sexuality in wars and conflicts. Menstruation, both its presence and lack of, were a big deal for women in concentration camps in World War II. Most women stopped menstruating shortly after arriving to the camps, both due to stress and malnutrition. Testimonials from these women reveal that they felt as if yet another part of them had been ripped away and they had been deprived of their youth, their femineity and their ability to bear children. For many of the survivors, being able to conceive a child after the war was a major achievement and proof that not all was taken away from them. Meanwhile, the few women who still menstruated in the concentration camps had difficulties dealing with these unexpected and especially unwelcome menstruations, as they didn't have anything to help them keep clean and often their menstrual blood would stain their clothes. Menstrual blood stains would be a reason for public exposure and degradation and these women would be beaten by the camp guards, humiliated and forced to clean after themselves.

Humankind has invented an extensive catalog of devices to deal with menstruation and menstruating women, ranging from menstrual huts to temporarily ostracize women, bedikah cloths, rags, reusable pads, disposable pads, tampons (made of papyrus, wool or cotton), menstrual cups and yes, even menstrual belts. Call me a feminist, call me a radical second-wave feminist (or don't). But I honestly think that menstruation has a worse reputation than it deserves. 

Now, I'm not saying we should rip our sanitary napkins off, throw out those tampons, embrace our menstrual blood and go back to the medieval days of indifferent bleeding into our clothes. After all, we are having periods 3 or 4 times more frequently than we're evolutionarily designed to. But I do think that the concept of menstruation as some sort of ethereal punishment that women have to endure or as a state of non-kosherness is obsolete and that idea is something that we should rip off and throw out. 

I was slightly horrified when I got my first period because my first assumption was simply that I was dying. At the young age of 12 and in seemingly good health, there I was, bleeding to death for no good reason in a bathroom stall at school. I could see the headlines "Promising student dies tragically at school. Family grieves her death". Quickly enough, I realized that this was probably one of the most illogical deductions I could have made and understood that I wasn't experiencing near death, just my uh, debut into womanhood. My mother however went on a motherly menstruation shopping spree and got me flowers, a package of sanitary napkins and a box of tampons. Her friend gave me a big kiss on the cheek and hollered "Welcome to the club! Some of us are joining, some of us are dropping out!". I guess I'm only halfway there.

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