Unless she's had a feminine hygiene product malfunction, you can't usually tell when a woman has her period just by looking at her. And, of course, that's the way most of us prefer it. For any number of reasons, we tend to view our menstrual happenings as private (or worse, if you had a particularly scarring junior high experience). But by keeping our crimson tides shrouded in mystery, we may have been depriving ourselves of a special kind of female bonding — call it the Sisterhood of the Bloodstained Pants.
The idea came to researcher Nicki Dunnavant, a graduate student at University of Chicago, when she studied abroad in Nepal. She had to comply with local customs that isolate women when they have their periods and make it clear to everyone when a woman is menstruating. She at first resisted the restrictions but came also to see them as somewhat empowering:
It really became sort of a communal experience that I could share with the women in my village and with my female teachers, and offered me an entirely new perspective on how communal menstruating could be.
This inspired her to investigate how women in the U.S. felt about the experience of getting their periods. So she teamed up with Tomi-Ann Roberts, a psychologist at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, to conduct a survey. Their research included 340 women between 17 and 62 that lived in western states. Of the women surveyed, 70 of them belonged to religious traditions that required menstruating women to follow certain practices, including Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Another 162 of the women were religious, but were not required to follow any period-specific rules. And 136 of them were not religious at all.
They gave all of the women an online survey to gauge their attitudes about their period, and they discovered that women who belonged to religious traditions that had menstrual rules felt more shame surrounding their period and had a sense of seclusion during it, but oddly they also reported that they had an increased sense of community. Dunnavant and Roberts did follow-up surveys with 12 of the women who followed strict religious traditions, and they found that the women saw the restrictions as a "blessing in disguise."
Interestingly, all of the women expressed that being in a relationship made them feel better about having their periods. The strict religious women said it was the freedom to say no to sex during their time of the month that they enjoyed, but the secular women said it had more to do with not having to be secretive about the fact that you're menstruating. Roberts said that for them it pretty much boiled down to the whole being comfortable having period sex issue.
Roberts also explained that while American women as a whole don't necessarily have explicit period rituals, we do operate under certain expectations: "We are obliged as Western women to sanitize and deodorize and wear white clothing and appear not to be a menstruating being at all." Meaning there is a subtle message being sent that we are somehow unclean or disgusting when we're riding the cotton pony.
So what does all of this reveal about us? Well, obviously it's not a huge sample of women, so it's hard to make sweeping generalizations. But it is telling, though maybe not surprising, that most of the attitudes they had about their periods were quite negative. The ultra religious ladies may have seen it as a blessing in disguise, but for those of us who don't follow strict religious customs, we get all of the bad parts of having a period, without any of the communal aspects that could make it a positive bonding experience.
Roberts thinks we need a movement to make ourselves feel better about our periods,
To the extent that we can help girls and women feel good about their periods and get more of a positive attitude toward it, they're going to feel better about their whole selves. I want to bring menstruation out of the closet.
None of us should be ashamed of our periods, certainly, but it's worth remembering that the reason a lot of us think of it as a curse is not because of society's feelings of disgust with us but rather because it can be fucking painful and inconvenient. So I'm not sure you're going to get a huge number or people clamoring to see their monthly round of cramps as a blessing, even if it is ultimately a sign of good health.
As for the communal aspect of menstruating, the typical American woman may not be stuck bonding with Aunt Flo and her friends in some back shed, but it seems like we do have informal ways of communing about the experience. Even if we don't publicly advertise that it's our time of the month, we often bitch to our friends about cramps and all the accompanying fun. Of course, that's not to say that most of us aren't unnecessarily ashamed of and embarrassed by the idea that someone might find out we have our period. And we could go a long way toward coming "out of the closet" (maybe we ought to be coming out of the bathroom instead?) on that front.
But in terms of bonding with our fellow menstruaters, the difficulty is that the whole reason the communal thing works is because the women are turned into outcasts of a sort during their time of the month, and they can then identify with their fellow outcasts. So if we want period powwows that don't make us feel like rejects, we're going to need to find a way to connect on a different level, not one that relies on us being shunned from the main group. Maybe this is where technology can help us connect? We could all start doing Google+ hangouts during our time of the month and chatting with our felllow wearers of the red badge of courage. Or even better (since how many people really use Google+?), we can get an app for our phone that will alert us to menstruating ladies in our vicinity—like Grindr, only it'll be called Bleedr. That way we could find our Kotex Kompatriots and feel for a moment like we belong to something bigger than ourselves.
Why Women Should Bring Their Periods 'Out of the Closet' [LiveScience]