Admit it. You read that headline and thought, “Eeeewwww.”
Women have been told for millennia that our bodies are unclean, swampy, smelly, rank with ooze and blood. We have been sent to huts, barred from ritual baths and religious services, denied pleasure and confidence. Even in our enlightened “modern period” era, with specially designed period panties and relentless encouragement to swim and hike at peak flow (because tampon manufacturers have never heard of cramps), a certain discomfort lingers.
Countdown, a supermarket chain in New Zealand, just promised to help sweep away that last bit of stigma. It will no longer refer to menstrual products as “feminine hygiene” or “sanitary” items—as though the wads of deodorized cotton were saving us from filth and germs. Instead, they will be “period products” or—steady now—“genital products.”
“Genital” should be a pretty word. So should “vagina.” They both have a soft G and three short, pleasing syllables. But these words are far more complicated culturally than they are phonetically. Few of us hear “genitals” and think happily of babymaking and the generation of life, or of creative energy and sensuous pleasure. We hear “genitals” and, in betrayal of all the joy they have brought us, we wrinkle our noses. The word is uttered willingly only by sixth-grade health teachers and docs who treat STDs.
A colleague once referred uncomfortably to the nether regions as “South America.” The usual directional is “down there.” Brits are cheery and brisk about it, dismissing those parts of the body as our “bits.” Others call them “privates.” Often the emphasis is on “parts,” small details of the whole, easily and gratefully overlooked. Whoever thinks of their stomach as a bit part? Stuck right in the middle, our stomach is a star, awash with our emotions, and imperious in its demands. It holds the power to make us miserable or happy. So, I would argue, do our genitals.
Men have been vulnerable in their own way. The unmistakable transformations that take place in their genitals remind me of a line in an Anne Sexton poem: “Love and a cough cannot be concealed.” Often, though, there is more swagger than humiliation in the reveal.
We, on the other hand, are trained to conceal. Every woman has at least one story of humiliating embarrassment, a spreading, bright red stain we scrambled to hide. Is it any wonder Hester Prynne’s letter was scarlet? Early in our marriage, I had to be persuaded, repeatedly, and with vehemence, that my husband really did not mind getting his bits a little bloody.
Increased societal openness (measured most handily by what could be shown on TV) brought a clinicalization that did women no favors. “Sanitary napkins,” really? Cleaning us up for a picnic? Tampon comes from the French, so the proper pronunciation is lovely, but it means plug or stopper, and was derived from a German word related to tap. Like beer. On draft.
Should we blame Kotex, which came up with all that sanitary language and emphasis on plain wrappers and anonymity? The company started resourcefully, using the cellucotton (wood pulp fiber) left over from World War One bandages. Affordable, disposable pads freed women from stuffing fabric between their legs and then washing the blood-soaked strips for re-use. For that alone, Kotex must be forgiven everything. Besides, its language was only responding to the shame already ingrained in the culture.
Granted, some menstrual euphemisms have a bit of whimsy. The bulky pads were “dolly mattresses,” and one’s period was a “monthly visitor” or, more familiarly, “Aunt Flo.” Even the slangy “on the rag” evoked instant female sympathy. And you have to admire Hypatia, the Greek mathematician who reportedly threw one of those bloodied rags at an unwanted admirer. The “ladies’ elastic doily belt” that came later would have had far less effect.
Still, a survey conducted by Clue with The International Women’s Health Coalition found, across 190 countries, more than 5,000 euphemisms or slang terms, some comical, some wry, many self-deprecating. France outdoes everyone, referring to le petit clown qui saigne du nez (the little clown with a nose bleeding) and une scène de crime dans ma culotte (a crime scene in my panties). Frenchwomen will even announce, “Les anglais ont débarqué”—“The British army has landed.” Denmark has some fun with “Der er Kommunister i lysthuset!”—“There are Communists in the funhouse!”
But while the slang bobs along the surface, the stigma runs deeper: In Spanish, we find estar mala and estar sonada—being bad or broken—and huele a pescado—smells like fish. In Portuguese, monstra invokes a female monster. Finland uses hullum lechman tauti—mad cow disease.
In many countries, including this one, the unavailability of period supplies keeps girls out of school for as long as a week every month, because either they cannot afford period supplies or have no running water to wash rags. Taboos drown information: A study conducted in Ethiopia found respondents who believed that menstruation was caused, variously, by fear, sexual desire, stress, or too much soda pop.
How did the shaming begin? One theory, which I suspect is simplistic, says that power shifted, and men needed every possible way to control and subjugate women. In matriarchal societies, menstruation had been respected, its onset celebrated. “That time of the month” was sacred. With the shift to patriarchy, everything intimately female was made dark and mysterious and locked out of sight.
This reminds me how many of our words start or end with men. Fe-male. Wo-man. Menstruate, and with it, menarche and menopause. It turns out that the latter three come from mensis, Latin for month. “Female” comes from femina, Latin for woman. In other words, “female” and “male” are not etymologically linked, which I find almost disappointing. On the other hand, femina came to Old French as femelle, and English chose “male” to end it, turning females into an appendage to males. As for “woman,” it came from the Old English wiffmon, or wife-man. What we wife-men hear in each case is ourselves being tacked on to the dominant gender.
Still, the shift to patriarchy cannot be blamed for everything. In fairness, there were sound public health practices woven into religious taboos, and it was no doubt hygienic to keep puddles of blood out of the agora. Also, it is not so bad to be alone in a hut when you are clad in your oldest flannel nightgown and doubled over clutching a hot water bottle.
The aversion may even be primal, bred in the bone. Anthropologist Mary Douglas described the disgust we feel when what should be contained within the body leaks out and is seen by others. It is now a contaminant. The leakage is taboo.
So, fine, all right, we will sop it up.