Call me a rebel, but I don't think menstruation needs a public relations initiative or a political movement.
I don't think women are oppressed or even repressed if they don't want to broadcast the inner workings of their reproductive systems. I don't think it's tantamount to “body shame” if you get embarrassed when your purse falls open and spills out all manner of personal-care items (I'm talking not just “feminine products” but used tissues and crumb-encrusted Chapstick tubes, which are cringe-inducing in their own ways). I don't think modern feminism hinges on being able to post an Instagram photo of your bloodstained sheets and calling it a political statement.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, allow me to refer you to the recent Newsweek cover story on the “fight to end period shaming.” It featured the above-mentioned photo (which Instagram twice removed from its site, setting off an uproar) and cited myriad examples of what might be called menstru-activism. Like much activism, the efforts of this movement consist of the largely symbolic, such as the hashtag #FreeToBleed, and the long overdue and deeply necessary, such as educating women about endometriosis and making sanitary products readily available in developing nations and to poor and homeless women in the United States.
You might also want to do a search on Thinx, which is underwear designed for getting your period in. Thinx is approaching cult status thanks to a slickly provocative ad campaign involving, among other visuals, sliced grapefruit sections and runny eggs. Currently, the ads plaster New York City's subways, where an early effort by the transit authority to suppress them proved to be a publicity coup for the company.
I can't stand these ads. I can't stand hashtags such as #FreeToBleed, which sounds to me like a license plate motto in a rabid gun-rights state. In fact, I can barely stand to write this column.
I even disagree with Gloria Steinem's 1978 satirical observation (in a piece that has been adopted as a sort of rallying cry now) that if men had periods “menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy masculine event.” Later in the piece she styled it “men-struation” — haha.
Steinem is great, but her premise strikes me as about as reductive as the logic behind the infamous fish/bicycle slogan (which is often misattributed to her but actually first appeared, fittingly enough, on a bathroom stall). In fact, if men had periods, I suspect the ones who boasted about it would be considered boorish and pathetic. As for the rest, they'd probably talk about it with their buddies as readily as they'd talk about their feelings, which is to say hardly ever.
Admittedly, I'm squeamish about bodily functions, and not just about the ones that go on below the belt. When I see someone spit on the sidewalk, I'm nauseated. Snoring agitates me so much that I want airlines to set aside sections for apnea-prone passengers. Knuckle cracking puts my nerves on edge, except when I'm the one doing it, in which case it's soothing.
I'm sure if I could be freed from the shackles of my self-loathing, I'd find visceral pleasure and political purpose in shouting my private physical business from the virtual rooftops of social media. Except not really, because there's something that gives me even more visceral pleasure: being discreet. There's great satisfaction to be found in not saying something, not tweeting something, just generally shutting up.
The problem, though, is that the concept of discretion has been subsumed by the concept of shame, especially when it comes to our bodies. Some activists have forgotten that being discreet isn't the same as feeling toxically bad about yourself. Not wanting to display the contents of my purse doesn't mean I'm ashamed; it means what's in there is no one else's business. Suggesting that sanguinary selfies aren't necessarily a political act is not the same as “policing” people. It's a way of wondering whether some of the optics might be sabotaging the more constructive aspects of the message.
Which is too bad, because there's an important conversation about women's health to be had in here somewhere. It just doesn't require my showing you what's in my purse. And you can thank me for that.