Have Some Fun With Menstruation (And Stereotypes)

May 16th, 2012 | Categories: Gender

On today’s Weblog Wednesday, I invite you to read a blog posted at The Society for Menstrual Research website. The author, Alex Epstein, discusses her realization that menstruation isn’t and shouldn’t be a cause of embarrassment and, thus, something to hide. As you read her short post I encourage you to think about the stereotypes of women that make hiding menstruation a popular thing to do. To start you off on this fun endeavor I relate hiding menstruation to the four stereotypes of women discussed at the Hello Beautiful website.

1. “You Have To Have A Baby To Be Complete” (Stereotype= all women can and should have children)

To be pregnant is to NOT have your period. Showing you have your period by, for example, discussing it openly or flaunting a tampon communicates that you are definitely not pregnant. If pregnancy and birth is the standard for women to be “complete” according to this version of the stereotype, then, hiding it has the allure of making your pregnancy status a mystery.

2. “You Need To Be A Wife To Be Complete” (Stereotype= all women want to do is get married)

This stereotype about women ties into stereotypes about wives in general. Wives- albeit stereotypically AND I certainly don’t fall into this category- are those, who put dinner on the table and keep the house clean. These actions are also metaphors for the more subtle duties of being wife. Wives, according to this metaphor, always need to keep the appearance of being tidy and be discreet even when things are messy. Well, menstruation is often viewed as gross or disgusting to have as well as to discuss. After all, in the absence of tampons or sanitary napkins, women would essentially bleed all over the nice white carpet in that stereotypical wife’s home. So, according to the stereotype, being a woman who eventually wants to be a wife requires being discreet about her period.

3. “You Cannot Have A Successful Career And A Husband” (Stereotype= all women want true love AND true love means heterosexual marriage and unconditional love which cannot be accomplished if a woman’s time and devotion is split between work and a husband)

The crux of this stereotype is that, for women, working outside the home and a personal life are mutually exclusive. Working outside the home limits a woman’s ability to be dedicated to her husband and being dedicated to one’s husband limits a woman’s ability to be dedicated to a career. So, the advice to women here is to keep your personal life and career life separate while, nonetheless, dedicating yourself 100% to each. Because menstruation falls under personal life, hiding menstruation is a prerequisite to pursuing a career.

Keep in mind that there is not a similar stereotype for men. For men, the workplace is not verboten. So now add in the gender stereotype that women need to “act like men” to succeed in the workplace. Thus, the idea of hiding menstruation takes on a profoundly symbolic role. Hiding menstruation, which is uniquely female, promotes women’s ability to “act like men.” Hiding menstruation not only enables women to act like a man (i.e., someone who does not menstruate) but it also normalizes hiding one of the most fundamental qualities of being a woman. To not hide menstruation and, thus, to not give in to the pressure to cover one’s gender in this way, becomes tantamount to proclaiming “I am woman hear me roar!” The merits for a woman’s career path for merging the workplace and personal life by making such a proclamation will depend largely on the organizational culture of a specific workplace.

4. Prince Charming Will Come and Swoop You Up And Solve All Of Your Problems (Stereotype= Men want to solve problems. Women can’t solve their own problems)

The idea of menstruation as messy is certainly relevant here. After all, Prince Charming sits atop a white horse!! But, since I have discussed this already in #2 above, I will focus on the “solve all your problems” part of this one. How does one solve the “problem” of menstruation? First, pads and tampons (Thank you Doctor Earle Haas)! Most recently some birth control pills make the duration between periods much longer. Regardless of these options, menstruation is essentially inevitable. Making matters worse, for some women, along with menstruation comes one or more of the following symptoms: headaches, migraines, stomach cramps, back pain, and so forth. Many a person has sat helpless watching a friend or romantic partner suffer from these symptoms (on the occasions when medication is out or reach or not working well). As wonderful as Prince Charming may be, even this is out of his ability to control. According to male stereotypes, men like to solve problems. [Note: my husband, seeing my long to do list, neatly stacked piles of papers, and watching me frantically type this post literally just now asked “Is there anything I can do to help you? He looked up to see the title of the website and we both laughed hysterically! But I digress…] Hiding menstruation- and its symptoms- enables women to avoid frustrating their potential Prince Charmings with an unsolvable problem.

Tracing stereotypes as a partial cause of behavior like I have done with the four stereotypes above is fun (at least for the stereotype guru). Read Alex Epstein’s post about her experience realizing that menstruation isn’t something to hide. While you read it have some fun too and think about the other stereotypes of women with which you are familiar and make your own connections.

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