Menstruation: The Representation Essay

Pages: 6 (1947 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 14  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Sports - Women

Menstruation: The Representation of Menstruation in the Popular Discourse of the 20th and 21st Century

A 1948 Kotex pamphlet entitled "Very Personally Yours," published by the Kimberly Clark corporation is instructive of the contradictory cultural ideology attached to menstruation. Of course, becoming a woman should be natural, in theory, but the pamphlet presents menstruation as part a long, orchestrated socialized 'process' of a young girl becoming a woman. The young girl must embark upon changes spanning from improving her diet, to engaging in good hygiene, to exercising safely. The pamphlet is filled with pictures of a cartoon character stretching, riding her bike, and engaging in other activities with a happy, upbeat smile that give no clue that she is having her period. In Dacia Charlesworth's "Paradoxical Constructions of Self: Educating Young Women about Menstruation," the author says "the way in which we were being educated about menstruation" during the 1940s-1960s created a "linguistic paradox," where girls were told "the menstrual cycle is natural and normal" and, on the other hand, girls were encouraged "to keep menstruation a secret" (Lecture on menstruation, citing Charlesworth, p.6).

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Menstruation is always a paradox: it is presented as an unavoidable, biological 'curse' of womanhood, but on the other hand, because it marks the initiation into adult femininity, it demands a highly artificial response on the part of the girl to 'become' a 'normally' menstruating female. Just as one is not born but 'becomes' a woman in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, a girl does not become a woman simply because she has her period. Menstruation may hidden but womanhood is not. Controlling a girl's response to menstruation becomes a code word for controlling a girl's developing sexuality which must be protected, but must still be developed and artificially cultivated for a male (Merskin 199, p.947)

Essay on Menstruation: The Representation of Menstruation in the Assignment

Despite the 'naturalness' of menstruation, young girls have to be taught to navigate the biological function as a socialized process. In the health school pamphlet introducing girls to menstruation (authored by a for-profit American corporation) young girls are reminded they should be grateful for Kotex, given the bulky pads women suffered in earlier eras. Kotex is deemed more comfortable -- so young girls are taught to associate comfort and the 'natural' process of having their period with a consumer product they are being encouraged to buy (long before name brand soda and snack machines infiltrated schools). However, Kotex warns the young girl she must still be careful to wash herself, deodorize herself, and otherwise control her presentation to the world when suffering 'the curse.' The young girl is also supposed to use talcum powder to conceal any odors -- powder expressly manufactured for that reason by Kotex ("Very Personally Yours," Kimberly Clark, p.14). The carefully engineered pamphlet illustrates how menstruation is a scripted cultural narrative: "bodies are constructed through discourses and practices: (Lee 2008, p. 1326). The discourse is both educational and corporate.

Cultural taboos regarding menstruation may also be evident at home. As girls and women negotiate the complex rites of adulthood and puberty, the family dynamic, particularly with the girl's mother, often becomes more fraught: unlike other societies, there is no specific ritual a girl must undergo upon menstruation. Often the instruction is incomplete, as girls menstruate at younger and younger ages, mothers feel more comfortable discussing menstruation in terms of hygiene rather than sexuality (Merskin 1999, p.946). Younger ages of puberty may actually translate into less 'open' discourse about the 'secret.'

Our culture remains at a crossroads at how to approach menstruation, even after the sexual revolution, and this is evident in the home. On one hand, many mothers vow that their daughters will not feel the same shame that they felt about 'the curse' and take pride in their body's development. On the other hand this can result in mothers dominating the experience for the young girl and prescribing a specific response that is expected of the girl, which is just as controlling (Lee 2008, p. 1327). To some degree the mother's response understandable, given how ambiguous our culture can be regarding menstruation, it can be difficult for mothers to rewrite the negative attitudes to which they were exposed. Additionally, as girls can menstruate at younger ages, today, long before our culture considers them marriageable or adults, the idea as to what menstruation means becomes even more uncertain. The lack of direction about how to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood makes it more, rather than less certain for mothers to know how to behave, and in many ways consumer culture 'fills in' more than ever before for mothers, by creating the appropriate new identity of womanhood for young girls.

Regardless of her background, even in America today an adolescent girl must still bear the weight of cultural baggage that presented menstruation as a curse, something that was once, in earlier societies said to make "meat to go bad" and "wine to turn" (Merskin 1999, p. 941). In the past, menstruation has been 'written,' culturally speaking, as a disease which weakens women, which requires them not participate actively in sports, and which renders them fragile and symbolically fertile (even though they are not fertile during menstruation, the fact that a woman is capable of menstruating indicates she has experienced menarche and is therefore capable of reproducing). Ironically, despite its highly feminized presentation, the Kotex pamphlet encourages women to actively engage in life while still having their periods. However, it is Kotex, the product that is liberating women from their oppression, not the act of throwing off the chains of sexism and discrimination.

In general, for all of their ideological problems in constructing femininity, sanitary napkin advertisements at least communicate that menstruation should not limit women's lives, in contrast to previous cultural messages. (on the other hand, a girl who never though it was a big deal might wonder 'should I think it is a big deal' after being told about the anxieties of others in such advertisements). Today, the advertisements suggest that cultural of menstruation have 'come a long way' from the days when "women receiving higher education was regarded with apprehension was there was a widespread, but unconfirmed, belief that if women developed their intellects they quite literally would dry up their wombs" (Lecture, p.6).

However, another, equally significant part of the 'industry' of femininized medicine markets PMS (premenstrual syndrome) as a disorder. This often conveys just the opposite message -- not only are women 'good for nothing' during their periods, but the week or ten days previous to their period is said to render them emotionally fragile creatures, requiring medication just to function. Eli Lily, the manufacturer of Prozac, was able to craftily substantially expand the market for Sarafem, a pharmaceutically identical medication to Prozac that was marketed as 'pink' Prozac for PMS. The Lily marketing blitz occurred right before Lily's patent on Prozac ran out and featured images of women melting down in the grocery store and during other ordinary tasks because of raging PMS. PMS remains a contentious, but psychologically 'approved' diagnosis of biological pathology, but it seems, at least in part, to partially be created by drug advertisers.

In their article "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde: How PMS Became a Cultural Phenomenon and a Psychiatric Disorder" Joan C. Chrisler and Paula Caplan point out that women who suffer severe PMS often show symptoms of other disorders that suggest that, at least in part, some of their psychological problems may be projected and shaped by the Jekyll/Hyde cultural narrative rather than inherent to their physical condition. Self-identified premenstrual subjects even report that they expect they will do more poorly on cognitive tests than how they actually perform (Chrisler & Caplan 1999, p.281). PMS only became popularized as a diagnosis in the 1950s, when women were being demobilized from their wartime factory jobs to 'make room for men' by going home (Chrisler & Caplan 199, p.283).

More resonant with the 'freeing' sanitary napkin advertisements was the television campaign for Yasmin, a version of the birth control pill that was supposed to reduce hormonally-based moodiness. In contrast to the anxious women of the Serafem commercial, women supporting Yasmin are presented as 'choosing' to be free of PMS -- like choosing a boyfriend, the advertisement states. Like being sexually liberated, modern women taking Yasmin 'choose' to be free of PMS, even though it has the risk of blood clots and other severe side effects. A woman is 'choosing' her personality, from a presumably naturally angry, raging state, to a calm and 'in control' state. But being 'in control' means denying one's femininity and one's physicality, as expressed by nature. Choice is gained through better living through pharmaceuticals and to be a modern woman is to be in control of one's sexuality and one's moods.

Kotex's contemporary advertising campaign suggests a line of continuity between its current self-conception and the image of womanhood it offers to young girls. It stresses the empowering aspects of using its products and created images… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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