Although scientists now believe that the coincidence of women's periods is a myth, there's a high degree of synchronicity in the timing of several recent discussions about menstruation. The topic has been creeping up the political agenda for a while, with growing outrage both here and in the US about the so-called 'tampon tax' and corresponding calls for sales tax to be removed from sanitary ware.
These campaigns seem to indicate an increased public willingness to discuss menstruation, an acknowledgement that it is a normal and regular part of women's lives for several decades from puberty to menopause. This openness has important implications. Professor Chris Bobel of the University of Massachusetts Boston, whose research focuses on menstruation, argued in an interview earlier this year that silence renders health problems invisible. She states 'When we don't talk about our bodies, then we make it possible to not pay attention to when things aren't working out. If we don't educate each other and talk openly about menstruation, then anomalies of the menstrual cycle, including ovulatory anomalies, we are not noticing them and not providing information and resources and support to people. Menstrual silence and invisibility can really undermine health, in addition to making people feel badly about themselves and perpetuating shame. There really can be serious health consequences when we don't pay attention to this natural and regular bodily occurrence.'
However a desire to simply get them out of the way as quickly and easily as possible continues to characterize many women's experiences of menstruation. A recent survey by tampon brand Lil-lets found that one-third of women have cancelled social plans due to their period. The same study of 2,000 women also found that women wore different clothes (as well as different underwear) when on their periods, while also suffering unpleasant physical effects such as pain, cramps, mood swings and generally feeling unwell. Small wonder that attitudes towards menstruation remain ambivalent among women, let alone men (I can't be alone in hearing male friends utter supposed jokes such as 'Never trust an animal that bleeds for five days each month and doesn't die').
Yet there are moves to counter this negative mindset. A new cabaret show at London's Soho Theatre, 'Dr Carnesky's Incredible Bleeding Woman' (running until 7th January 2017), promises to 'put the magic back into menstruation'. Theatre publicity refers to periods as 'last unmentionable taboo', claiming the performers 'expose misogynist menstrual shame' and reinvent menstrual rituals. A Guardian review situates the show in a longer history of menstrual art, one that has its roots in the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 70s - epitomised by Judy Chicago's Red Flag photolithograph.
More mainstream commercial forces are also getting on board with this move towards reclaiming 'the crimson wave' (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist using the euphemism that was popular back when I was at senior school in the 1990s). Knickers seem to be a vital tool in these efforts. In response to their survey, Lil-lets joined forces with TV present Cherry Healey and lingerie designer Iris London to create 350 pairs of limited edition pink and white pants (RRP £15). Each pair is embroidered with the slogan 'Any time of the month', to encourage the wearer to move away from the widespread habit of wearing our oldest, ugliest knickers during our periods, a practice which their study claimed fuelled low self-esteem.
This week I found myself similarly embroidering a pair of white knickers with stars and my initials at an event for the new initiative Betty.me. Betty.me provides a monthly service targeted at eleven to fourteen year olds, sending subscribers a box containing sanitary ware as well as goodies to make the experience a bit more pleasant, such as fun socks, hot chocolate and lip balm. Alongside the subscription service, there is a free to access online magazine providing advice about periods ('When should my periods start?') as well as other topics from the body to relationships.
The traditional teen magazine market may have collapsed with the rise of the internet, but the content provided by Betty.me indicates that girls and young women still want guidance and, just as crucially, reassurance, particularly when it comes to experiencing menstruation. Hopefully they, and older women too, can find the answers and encouragement they are looking for, whether from academics, the art world or a box called Betty.
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