– by Karen Pickering and Jane Bennett –
We are going to tell you the story of menstruation and menopause from the perspective of thousands of women, but also situate it within a biological, political, social and cultural context.
We began by extensively researching the topic, building our own exhaustive literature review, about the experience of menstruation and menopause, here in Australia and overseas. We designed a major survey and, in the end, received over 3,000 responses. We asked about first periods, reflections on periods since. We asked about menopause. We asked how women obtained basic information about menstruation and menopause. We asked what would make things easier. We took the same approach throughout a series of 22 discussion groups with women and girls, in this case, across Victoria.
Reading the individual stories gave us a sense of the bigger picture but collating the data and producing statistics proved it categorically: we were shocked and not a little distressed by the clarity of what we found.
Girls and women find menstruation embarrassing and upsetting. So many women and so many girls report in the negative about their menstrual cycle, their experience of menopause, the state of their knowledge and understanding, the treatment accorded to them by others, and their feelings of ignorance, shame, awkwardness and humiliation.
How could it be that one of the most natural things in the world could be understood and experienced as gross and unmentionable? The views across generations were very similar too.
Period prejudice, it seems, is deeply ingrained and felt in a contemporary world of such relative sophistication and modernity. But with so many burning issues to capture our attention and occupy our minds, why is this one worthy of our energy and activist impulses, right now?
Firstly, it’s long overdue. There has been a paucity of productive, open, honest conversations in the public sphere about menstruation and what it means for women as equals in our society. Many factors contributed to the impossibility of this until now. But the dam has broken. There is no way to justify a continuation of the secrecy, shame and stigma that women live with, as menstruators, in a world that denies their bodies and minimizes their power. The harm done to women because of this collective fear and loathing must come to an end.
Second, menstrual silence, shame, ignorance and awkwardness is not only counter to women’s fundamental health and wellbeing, but also to the realization of their full human rights – to be able to avail themselves of the opportunities and resources in life, to live without discrimination; and to be able to participate fully and freely as citizens and consumers in their communities, workplaces and society at large. A world in which women are relegated and demeaned by negative attitudes concerning their bodies can never be an equal world.
A positive menstrual cycle
By developing and implementing a progressive and holistic menstrual awareness education program in schools, workplaces and government, we’ll change the future for girls and women, and give boys and men the chance to fully support equality too. We have the slightly immodest but completely achievable goal of guiding the national conversation, revolutionising collective knowledge of women’s bodies and bringing about meaningful and lasting social change.
We are living in a time of real impetus and momentum when it comes to women’s rights. The right to be free from violence, in our homes, workplaces and all public spaces. The right to equal pay for equal work. The right to have our unpaid labour recognised and valued. The right to empowered and fulfilling sex lives. The right to positive pregnancies, good births and supported motherhood. The right to equal representation and access to power. And the right to live in our bodies without seeing them as incorrect or substandard in any way.
A positive menstrual culture is a key to help us unlock so many of these seemingly intractable issues.
When girls are taught to see their bodies as incredible and powerful, we can break cycles of body hatred and low self-esteem. When women are able to inhabit their bodies with dignity and pride, they can make better choices for themselves, expect more from their relationships, and fully come into their power. Because it’s about bloody time.
Large scale social change
Our research and writing for this publication were a gender and social-justice initiative funded by the Victorian Women’s Trust and The Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls, with a special focus on the stated goal of the latter: meaningful harm prevention for girls and women, especially as it pertains to menstruation and menopause. As the project evolved, and more and more women shared their experiences, the full extent of this harm became apparent, and what also became clear was the near total inadequacy of existing structures to mitigate and improve it. Despite the dedicated work of menstrual educators and activists in this space for decades, it became obvious that large-scale social change would be required to not only address the pervasiveness and harmfulness of the menstrual taboo, but to conceive of a new way: to liberate women and girls and allow them the right to a positive relationship with their menstrual cycle.
Seeing the truth
Equity is not inevitable but rather the result of relentless dedication and commitment on the part of change agents in the community – not only organizers, campaigners and activists but ordinary people working together to make our society better for everyone. We want to see more respect and understanding for menstruating (and menopausal) women and girls in every sphere of their lives, and that means we take our message everywhere; to governments and schools, to universities and hospitals, courtrooms and workplaces, to sporting clubs and unions.
This menstrual revolution, perhaps ironically, won’t be bloody. Like all progressive social movements, it asks us to call on our better natures to see the truth of a former injustice, and it comes together as our way of getting to a future where we can all be liberated.
When the whole of society sees women’s bodies as dynamic, deserving of respect, and valuable in their own right, we will transform the world we live in. This is absolutely crucial to the broader project of achieving full gender equality. Contributing to that process; by helping girls and women to see their bodies as powerful and full of potential; is open to all of us. Breaking the deadlocks of shame, anxiety and fear, by connecting menstruation to vitality, health, integrity and dignity: this is what we mean when we talk about revolutionising menstrual culture.
The revolution has already begun and it’s about bloody time.
Feminist Karen Pickering and educator Jane Bennett’s book About Bloody Time digs deep into the menstrual taboo: how it came to be and why it’s so resilient. For more info contact Victoria Women’s Trust, Level 9, 313 La Trobe Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia ph: 03 9642 0422 fax: 03 9642 0016 firstname.lastname@example.org www.vwt.org.au