On Menstruation and Shame
Throughout ages and cultures, menstruation has had many negative words associated with it: taboo, unspeakable, unmentionable, dirty, unclean, and shame, to name a few.
But before society unanimously began to believe that menstruation was something women should be ashamed of, it was instead something widely respected and even revered among ancient cultures.
When Menstruation Became A Point of Shame
Feminist scholars like Vicki Noble say this shift occurred when societies switched from matriarchal to patriarchal. Women-centered societies had their heyday from the Paleolithic Era (around 1.5-2 million years ago) until about 3000 BCE. Then it all changed as humanity shifted away from goddess-worshiping cultures to warrior-dominated cultures.
Noble claims that by making menstruation—something that happens naturally and once a month—a point of shame, men could maintain control by instructing women that their own bodies were taboo. And if women were unable to feel comfortable with the natural occurrences within their bodies, their ability to feel empowered could be limited.
To Ancient Cultures Menstruation was Holy
In Shakti Woman, Noble writes about how menstruation was once something so respected, it was during a time when women too were widely respected for their role in have you society as leaders, mothers, and healers.
Throughout ancient cultures in the Americas, it was understood that this time of the month was sacred, as a woman’s cycle would link with the new or full moon (this relationship between the moon and menstruation is confirmed by scientists today).
And although the science behind menstruation may not have been fully understood back then, these societies knew that the monthly release represented a life force of sorts, because when pregnancy came, this holy energy went towards something else.
In certain Native American tribes, a woman’s first period was celebrated. A girl was expected to make blue cornbread and share it with the entire tribe to mark this momentous occasion (it was made blue because a drop of her blood was to be added to the mix to color the bread).
And though we may cringe at this thought, take a moment to notice why we cringe. Is it because we have been conditioned to think that this time of the month is disgusting? Or is it because the thought of telling an entire group of people we are menstruating brings up a conditioned sense of inherent shame?
Studies on Menstruation and Shame In Today’s World
In a 2000 study, researchers found the social stigma of menstruation is indeed a point that inhibits women. In management interviews (with all the interviewers being males), 30 women, some menstruating and some not menstruating were interviewed.
Out of menstruating women, some women’s male interviewers were informed that the woman was menstruating. The menstruating women whose interviewers had been informed reported feeling like their interviewer liked them less. And non-menstruating women reported more positive self-presentational features, feeling that their male interviewers liked them more. These results suggest that women were inherently made to feel less positive about their self-presentational skills when their interviewers knew they were menstruating.
Perhaps this is an outcome of many societies’ current overwhelmingly negative perception of menstruation.
A recent study found that menstruation’s impact on mental health widely affects girls and women in low and middle income countries.
The females in these countries reported a variety of experiences during menstruation, oftentimes citing how menstruation held a certain social stigma and affected gender norms. This was made worse by the fact that any knowledge and education on menstruation was completely lacking. Women reported a lack of confidence, shame and distress, and a sense of helplessness in containing menstrual blood and odor.
The study found these experiences greatly impacted psychological health. And, therefore, relayed that greater attention towards menstrual needs is essential to truly reach global health and gender equality.
Today, Menstruation is Taboo
As implied by the studies above, in today’s world, we have been told that women on their period are “hormonal, moody, emotional, unable to make decisions.” In some countries, a girl must forego 5-7 school days when she is bleeding because she does not have the proper materials to contain her menstruation. And in many cultures, a woman is not allowed in a holy place during this time and told she cannot touch any holy books.
Why has this shame become an innate part of our experience as women? Why is something that occurs naturally within us once a month something we should be ashamed of?
In reality, menstruation is beautiful. It is our bodies’ way of reminding us not only are we alive, but we can produce life. Without menstruation, there would be no humanity, and somehow we are convinced that the very force that makes life possible is something we should hide.
How to Do Your Part to Stop the Shame
- As taboo as it may sound, tell people when you are menstruating. I’ll start: I am menstruating as I write this.
- Though the first few days of your cycle can be excruciatingly painful, meditate on what menstruation represents: your life force.
- Become familiar with your blood, and try to view it with celebration rather than disgust. (Easier said than done).
- Send this article to a friend—female or male—to make them aware that the shame associated with menstruation has serious mental health impacts for women in today’s world.
Author Bio Sara Shah is the Founder of Mother Yin (https://www.motheryin.com/), a free holistic online resource created to help women find balance in their bodies, minds and lives through self-nurturing practices. Sara is a meditation coach, yoga teacher, and freelance writer currently based in Bali, Indonesia. She has trained with leading teachers in San Francisco, New York City, London, and Bali. Her practices are centered around self-compassion and healing the whole person step-by-step.