Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who Put The Men in Menstruation?

That's not meant to be seriously! But last night, while trudging through the slosh, I noticed myself making little ditties like that to cheer my tired feet on, and it was all because I had just read Flow. The Cultural Story of Menstruation, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim.

The book answers questions about what took the place of feminine napkins or tampons in the past (the answer: rags, moss, sponges and partly nothing but letting it flow!), discusses menarche, menopause and difficult periods and has an awesome collection of old ads about menstrual aids and devices. The coded language of the earlier ads is fascinating! It's as if the firms were trying to sell illegal drugs under some secret code.

Which is of course the ultimate point of any book like this. Menstruation, something which affects almost all women, has until recently been a public secret: Something no polite person would openly discuss. Both completely natural and completely taboo! And traditionally one of the main reasons for the fear and loathing of women, too. The Old Testament tells us that women are impure for large chunks of their lives and menstrual taboos have been common all over the world. A menstruating woman is as powerful as Satan, pretty much, and to be avoided if at all possible. But of course women can't avoid themselves.

While splish-sploshing through the wet snow (get it, eh?) I also thought how very difficult it must be to write a book on menstruation. Honest. How do you keep it on the healthy aspects of the monthly flow, especially given the way the cultures have indeed tried to "pathologize" that? How do you explain the mostly negative cultural connections without falling into a premenstrual psychosis of anger and rage? How do you discuss the science when so little of good science seems to have been carried out?

Stein and Kim don't do too badly, given that difficult setup, though I wish they hadn't been so very careful to distance themselves from feminist movements while applying the very lens those movements constructed. Still, their discussion of the corporate interests in this field is very good.

So is their treatment of the premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and its cultural connotations. I had no idea that it is predominantly Western women who seem to suffer from PMS or that men might suffer from it, too, if only it was labeled something else:

And who knows, maybe being cyclically moody is part of our human nature. In 1996, two researchers named Heather Nash and Joan Crisler came up with a study in which they listed classic symptoms of PMS, but replaced the term with the gender-neutral Episodic Dysphoric Disorder. A surprising number of men felt that they had suffered from it, and their female friends agreed with them.

This doesn't mean that PMS wouldn't consist of real symptoms for its sufferers. But self-diagnosis is not unaffected by the culture one lives in and the definitions of what is normal vary by culture, too. -- Much to discuss there, eh?
My copy of the book was provided free of charge. I received no other fee for this review and it was not commissioned by anyone. (Must add all this nowadays, sigh.)