Health Society

The Taboo of Menstruation

Auntie Flo, on the rag, girl flu, back in the saddle, jam and bread, going to Oklahoma, howlin’ at the moon – these are just some of the many English expressions used to avoid the embarrassing subject of menstruation. The time has come to speak plainly and directly about this straightforward biological function of the human body.

As you read this today, more than 800 million women worldwide are having a period. None of us would exist without it and yet it remains one of our most tenacious biological taboos. Writers and broadcasters happily discuss sex, digestion and blood circulation – all natural processes – while menstruation is still off-limits.

Few mammals menstruate – humans are unusual in this. While the hormones oestrogen and progesterone work together to precipitate ovulation, blood is directed to the uterus to make a spongey, nutritious endometrium (lining of the uterus) into which the fertilised ovum can embed and develop into a baby. If conception does not occur, the endometrium disintegrates, leaving the body through the vagina as a period. The thick endometria of humans means that, unlike dogs, we can’t just reabsorb the blood and tissue. So, five to 15 teaspoons of menstrual blood have to be dealt with over a few days. Buying and using menstrual products is inconvenient for most women, and disposing of all the pads and tampons is an increasing environmental problem for the world.

Menstrual literature all states that a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle is 28 days – any shorter or longer, or otherwise irregular, is ‘abnormal’ even though the woman can still conceive. At school, I associated ‘regular’ periods with tidy girls with neat hair who always did their homework on time. My own irregular periods were obviously a symptom of my lazy and disorganised mind.

Women have more periods now than in the past, because until the advent of contraception and bottle-feeding, women were either pregnant or breastfeeding for much of their lives. Also, poor diet and hard work meant that until the 20th century, most girls did not reach the menarche – the first period – until 17 or 18 years. The average age of menarche has dropped over the past century to 12.5 years.

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All kinds of taboos and myths surrounded menstruation. The ancient Greeks believed that if a girl’s menarche was late, blood would accumulate around her heart, and her uterus would wander around her body. This could produce erratic behaviour, from violent swearing to suicidal depression. Right into the 20th century, any inappropriate behaviour or poor mental health in women was termed hysteria, after the Greek word for ‘uterus’.

Pliny the Elder, who died in 79 CE, warned: ‘If a woman strips herself naked while she is menstruating, and walks round a field of wheat, the caterpillars, worms, beetles, and other vermin, will fall from off the ears of corn … bees will forsake their hives if touched by a menstruous woman … linen boiling in the cauldron will turn black, the edge of a razor will become blunted.’ But then he also believed that drinking the blood of a gladiator would cure epilepsy.

Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote that leprosy – which she believed was caused by either lust or intemperance – could be cured by washing in the ‘nourishing properties of menstrual blood … as much as he can get’. In medieval times, it was believed that if a man’s penis touched menstrual blood, it would burn up, and any child conceived during menstruation would be possessed by the devil, deformed, or red-haired. A woman with a heavy menstrual flow was advised to bind the hair from an animal’s head onto a young tree. If this failed, she could drink comfrey or nettle tea, while reciting numerical formulae; or she could find a toad, burn it dry, and put its ashes in a pouch around her waist.

Such was the taboo against the subject, that the historian Laura Klosterman Kidd of Iowa State University found not a single direct reference to menstruation in the 19th-century diaries, letters or inventories of wagon-trains of North American pioneer women. In 1878, letters to the British Medical Journal claimed that menstruating women would cause bacon to putrefy, and in 1916 the medical registrar Sir Raymond Crawford wrote that farmers still believed that menstruating women would prevent milk from turning to butter, or hams to cure.

The paediatrician Béla Schick (1877-1967) believed that menstruating women released plant-destroying substances called ‘menotoxins’ through their skin. In 1919, he ‘proved’ it by asking women to arrange cut flowers. Sure enough, the flowers arranged by menstruating women died sooner. This claim was repeated in The Lancet in 1974, with the addition that a permanent wave would not ‘take’ to a woman’s hair during menstruation. As recently as 1980, I was told by a farmer’s wife in Shropshire that if a menstruating woman touched meat it would go rancid. When I queried this, she asked: ‘Have you ever seen a female butcher?’ It was true, I had not.

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June 2017
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