Menstruators Beyond Feminism: Body Politics and Menstruation
Updated: Jan 12
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Sharma, K (2020, November 1). Menstruators Beyond Feminism: Body Politics and Menstruation
The aim of this article is to present the view of menstruation as discussed amongst gender theorists. The article will focus on dismantling the present theories about queer menstruation and understanding the menstruating body. The article will also aim to place menstruation and related experiences in the broader narrative of the Queer Theory and body politics. It will try to blend in different narratives about the experiences of menstruation, and add to the larger understanding of menstruation.
Menstruation and Body Politics: A History
Over the last few decades, American artist Vanessa Tiegs (menstrala.blogspot) and German artist Petra Paul (mum.org) have created a unique ripple in both the feminist and the artistic worlds. They have used collections of their own menstrual blood as their preferred painting medium. The final canvas art, displayed on white backdrops, ranges from intricate patterns of red swirls complete with feathered brush strokes. While a small number of bold admirers have praised the ingenuity and crude representation of these paintings, a larger majority of people have expressed indignation and disgust toward this visual display of bodily art. Some have gone as far as denouncing the works as ‘tasteless excuses for artwork’ and have labelled them as medical biohazards. Through a radical menstrual lens, such negative responses raise essential questions as to why menstrual blood evokes such passionate social judgments rooted in aversion, disgust, and fear.
Menstruation, historically associated and understood as a female biological process, has been ceaselessly connected to the body politics for power. The radical menstrual consciousness calls for redefining the way menstruation has been termed as a taboo, often seen as a weakness that “women” passively endure with no agency. Menstruation is not only a marker of the menstruator’s difference from non-menstruators, but it has been inscribed as a weakness upon the former that cannot be manipulated or controlled in the same ways as other bodily fluids. The menstruating body has largely been constructed negatively and passively in all dominant cultures. The corridors of social power are structured to accommodate the associated characteristics of male, heterosexual bodies of dominant racial and ethnic groups.
This is even more obvious for menstruators who do not identify as ‘women’ per se, or who do not fit neatly in the gender binaries. The power structures in the society are neatly constructed in a way that places the non-menstruating male body at a pedestal while simultaneously creating a notion that all who menstruate are “feminine” and “impure”. Specific narratives of queer menstruation often get lost in such a binary understanding. Advancement in such a society requires assimilation to the norms associated with powerful bodies: women must dress like men and warehouse their babies far from the breasts at which they feed, and everyone must menstruate in private, away from the public conscious. While the emerging discourse on menstruation is trying to be more inclusive and queer affirmative than its feminist predecessors, there is a dynamic history of body politics that played a catalytic role for that change.
The ‘Political’ Narratives of Menstruation
Much of the contemporary literature on menstruation has limited its scope to the female body, understanding it through the traditional categories of tradition, modernization, and patriarchy, all through an inherently male lens. This is true especially for the feminist literature on menarche and menstruation, which still functions in the binaries created by patriarchy. The rituals, taboos, and cultural beliefs, albeit dynamically changing with the onslaught of modernization in the world, have given a structural form to our understanding of menstruation, but it has done little to free it from the narrow binaries of gender it has been stuck in for generations. While exploring the many narratives of menstruation, many writers have examined the interrelation between menstruator’s body and sexuality. What is missing from these, however, is the understanding of how menstruators are increasingly using their bodies in their social interactions, how the body might be a potential resource for power, and how non-menstruators respond to this power. Studying adolescents’ menstrual talk and experiences can shed light on these complex power dynamics.
The most dynamic narrative of menstruation understands it as a biological act fraught with cultural implications, used historically to produce the body and menstruators as cultural entities. It is seen as a symbolic form upon which the norms and rules around the body are structured, while simultaneously being regulated by it. Male desire and has been consistently scripted over the menstruating body, with the parts that appease the male gaze being deemed acceptable to be socially present. Even though it is considered despicable to show any signs of menstruation, including the slightest hints of menstrual blood in public, it is unspokenly acceptable to consume hypersexualized versions of the female body, for the former distresses the male gaze by humanizing the menstruator. While the experience of menstruation and its sensationalization has impacted certain activities for menstruators because of the social connotations and norms rendering them shameful, bewildering, and disempowering, there is a growing idea that people also use menstruation as a source of power.
Reclaiming the Body Through Menstruation
While most of the urban USA quivered with the slogans of “Personal is Political”, it became clearer than ever that seemingly personal issues related to the body were affixing their position in the political discourses. Body Politics has been a term used extensively in the feminist and queer discourse to signify the politicization and emergence of seemingly personal body issues- including pregnancy, contraception, and menstruation- into the public discourses. For most feminist scholars, the body and its presentation are central to social interactions with others. Embodiment researches place the human body at the forefront of interaction, representing the self and identity.
The menstrual cycle has long been cited as the starkest biological difference between men and women, a process which is inherently related to the female anatomy. Most of the works on menstruation created by the feminist scholarship have focused on understanding the social and biological connotations of menstruation. There is a strong growing understanding that challenging the shame, secrecy, and silence surrounding the menstrual process encourages embodied consciousness or a more meaningful and complex appreciation of bodies across the lifespan.
The answer to that question is complex and laid down in dismantling the deep-rooted patriarchy in the discourses around menstruation. The link between the body and menstruation has been evoked to vilify, sensationalize, and hide the menstruating body from the public consciousness. The queer narrative is now actively seeking to reclaim the body using menstruation as a powerful medium since it lies somewhere on the periphery of both gender and sexual identity. Most social interactions do not involve direct physical demonstrations of sex identification. Sex itself relies on socially constructed parameters in which bodies are assigned, but medically grouped markers such as genitalia, chromosomes, and hormones are rarely known in an interaction, yet presumed via socially gendered signals including clothing, makeup, hair, and externally observable body characteristics. Given the pervasive nature of the gender/sex binary in all aspects of social interactions, people who do not conform to the binary face obstacles to participation in normative social spheres. Therefore, maintaining the identity for people who do not fall in the gender binaries through external gender/sex appearance and behaviours is often a survival mechanism in interactions with friends, family, strangers, and doctors.
The Way Forward
As argued previously, the body is consistently negotiated by the self and within interactions, particularly with gender/sex symbols and meanings. Mainstream ideas have tended to treat bodies as an unproblematic category stemming largely from a presumption that bodies are part of nature, hence “natural” and, furthermore, apolitical and unchanging. Research and data about menstruation within LGBTQIA spaces and identities are scarce; inquiries about menstruation in trans lives have been somewhat unsuccessful. For instance, Bobel (2010) found it difficult to recruit participants to discuss menstruation. The current research indicates that people may experience deeply negative sentiments and discomfort about their menstruation and that menstrual management can be a source of stress, anxiety, and dysphoria for those outside the gender/sex binary. However, the emerging queer discourse actively seeks to change this situation.
“Not all women menstruate, and not all who menstruate are women” is emerging as a univocal radical warcry for menstruators across the intersections. Some menstrual activists and menstrual cycle researchers have permanently switched to “menstruators” instead of women. While this linguistic choice is still a starting point, it locates menstruation beyond the confines of gender as socially constructed and expresses solidarity with women who do not menstruate (due to illness, age, or some aspect of their physiology) and with individuals who do in spite of their gender identity. Refusing to assume who does and does not menstruate is one way of challenging the rigid gender binary that perpetuates privilege and oppression and in the essence of reclaiming one’s body.
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