The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies (open access): A personal review
Updated: Jan 2
I felt very much alone in 2013 when I first embarked on my journey researching periods. Realizing that nobody had paid significant attention to how menstruation or the menopause had been characterized in French literature and knowing that these are key moments that unite many of us as women, I decided that I would be the one to undertake this task. I therefore applied for funding for a PhD so I could explore the representation of the female fertility cycle in francophone women’s writing from Algeria, France and Mauritius. I was particularly interested in how the novels portrayed menstruation and the menopause as being shrouded in silence. As the first year of my PhD went by, it become clearer to me that these characters’ experiences were very much shaped by the society and culture in which they lived, as well as other factors such as their economic status and religion. I admired how many of the novels wrote candidly and affirmatively about menstruation and the menopause. As 2015 continued, I realized that I had started my research at the right time. A menstrual movement had begun, and the subject of periods became increasingly more mainstream. Women in India were challenging stigma through the #HappytoBleed campaign, Rupi Kaur publicly denounced Instagram for removing a photo of her with a spot of menstrual blood on her sheets, and Kiran Gandhi ran a marathon free bleeding onto her leggings to raise awareness of period poverty.
Elsewhere, unbeknownst to me, Chris Bobel, who has been dubbed “the mother of menstruation studies”, began to plan and co-edit The Palgrave Critical Handbook of Menstruation Studies with Inga T. Winkler, Breanne Fahs, Katie Ann Hasson, Tomi Ann Roberts, and Elizabeth Arveda Kissling. I initially heard about the handbook in 2018 when attending the very first meeting of the UK Menstruation Research Network. I was delighted that an enormous study would be emerging as I embarked on my research project on the impact of menstrual activism in the media. Speaking to fellow academics and activists about periods, I knew that I was not alone: a whole group of us were working in this flourishing field. My wait for the publication of the handbook began…
Finally, in summer 2020 the day arrived. I was thrilled to see the handbook was open access (therefore totally free to download!). Upon reading the titles of each chapter, I appreciated that the book covered many different topics, experiences, and viewpoints. It is truly an intersectional book, as I believe feminist publications should be, and includes chapters that consider how menstrual experiences are shaped by factors such as ethnicity, disability, and age. I was delighted to see that the writers hailed from across the globe and looked at a great variety of countries including India, Nepal, Kenya, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The handbook also includes testimonies concerning periods collected from people across the world. This polyphonic style is engaging and empowering, highlighting the truly collaborative nature of the handbook. Particularly enlightening is Deepthi Sukumar’s chapter on how both the caste system and patriarchy define menstrual experience in India. She supports her arguments by talking about her life as a Dalit woman who, despite being from a community that does not practice menstrual taboos, is perceived as “unclean” and “polluting” by “upper caste women”. The book also incorporates insightful testimonies from menopausal women across the globe. Many of these stories pay testament to the silence that continues to surround menopausal experience. For instance, a woman from Brazil states: “We learned about the menopause in a very bad way, because we did not even learn from our mother, as their generation also do not know much about it.”
I began my journey into the handbook by reading Chris Bobel’s introduction. She sets the tone of the handbook with a rallying cry to normalize menstruation: “It is transgressive to resist the norm of menstrual (and menopausal) concealment […] This is short-sighted and at the same time deeply revealing, as it shines a bright spotlight on the need for change. After all, a dearth of attention to a fundamental reality and indeed a vital sign is not only a profound knowledge gap, it is an exposure of the power of misogyny and stigma to suppress knowledge production. And when we lack knowledge, we cannot effectively act to effect change.” This sentiment resonates with the menstrual activist community. These activists seek to destigmatize menstruation and equip menstruators with the knowledge of how to have a healthy and stigma free period. Many academics, including myself, work with charitable organizations or independently act as advocates. Perhaps then, Bobel is underlining that writing about menstruation is a form of activism in itself since periods have long been “dismissed and derided”.
Many of the chapters reflect one of the most central ideas of critical menstrual studies since the 1970s: that patriarchal attitudes towards menstruation are at fault for negative societal perceptions of periods. Certain chapters consider these ideas within the 21st century and some coin new terms to label discourses that have their roots in patriarchy. Sally King, the founder of Menstrual Matters, which is a non-profit website that provides information for menstruators, makes a valuable contribution with her concept, “The Myth of the Irrational Female”. King argues that, even though physical symptoms are more common than psychological symptoms, PMS is still conceived by doctors as a mood-based condition. According to King, this misconception of PMS is based on a stereotype that “women are pathologically emotional, and thus have a reduced capacity for reason, due to their reproductive biology”. King’s theory rings true not only in the medical space but also in popular culture. For instance, I have discovered that the prevailing depiction of menstruators in humorous internet memes is one that characterizes women as emotional, irrational, or angry.
Another key vehicle for the menstrual movement has been art. By including art in the forms of comics, photography, painting, and needle work, the handbook foregrounds the power of creative expression to transform perceptions of periods. Particularly striking is Danielle Boodoo-Fortunè’s watercolor painting of a menstruating woman of color who manifests as a glorious fertile goddess, surrounded by flowers, birds, and a circle that resembles a halo. The handbook also includes comic strips that tell the stories of the difficulties faced by transgender menstruators such as the anxiety that they feel when they change their pads in public bathrooms. Comics such as these are vital in educating people about the experiences of transgender menstruators and ensuring that they are included in efforts by activists to destigmatize menstruation.
As someone who evaluates the impact of menstrual activism, the chapters of the book that captivate me the most are the ones that address how we should tackle menstrual stigma. From interviewing activists for my own research, I know that there is disagreement on what language is the most effective in eradicating menstrual shame. Some advocates, such as Chella Quint, call for a “period positive” language that celebrates menstrual experience. Other advocates have suggested an alternative discourse that focuses on the reality of having a period, such as cramps and difficulties some menstruators face in accessing menstrual products. Concerned that the “period positive movement” is easily appropriated by brands for capitalistic gain, Ela Przybylo and Breanne Fahs develop an alternative discourse of “menstrual crankiness” that acknowledges the “negative, troubling, painful and traumatic aspects of the period experience”. Since many of the teenagers who I have interviewed expressed that they desire more realistic and educational portrayals of periods in the media, Pryzybo’s and Fahs’ concept of “menstrual crankiness” has been an inviable idea within my own research.
At the online launch of the handbook, the editors and contributors toasted to their success. It is the only event that I have attended during the Covid-19 pandemic that had a truly international feel. As I watched the faces of the contributors while they talked from across the globe about why they were so passionate about periods, I realized that I was truly part of a pioneering, positive, and supportive community. As many of us have during lockdown, I have felt isolated, and I have started to question how my work relates to the current state of the world. This handbook and its launch have reminded me that I am part of a fantastic community that is seeking to empower women and people with periods through research, creativity, activism and, most crucially, a deep enthusiasm for turning a stigmatized topic into a normal aspect of everyday communication.