A menstrual taboo is any social taboo concerned with menstruation. In some societies it involves menstruation being perceived as unclean or embarrassing, extending even to the mention of menstruation both in public (in the media and advertising) and in private (amongst the friends, in the household, and with men). Many traditional religions consider menstruation ritually unclean.
Different cultures view menstruation differently. Studies in the early 1980s showed that nearly all girls in the United States believed that girls should not talk about menstruation with boys, and more than one-third of girls did not believe that it was appropriate to discuss menstruation with their fathers. The basis of many conduct norms and communication about menstruation in western industrial societies is the belief that menstruation should remain hidden.
In other societies certain menstrual taboos may be practised without the connotation of uncleanness. According to the anthropologists Buckley and Gottlieb cross-cultural study shows that, while taboos about menstruation are nearly universal, a wide range of distinct rules for conduct during menstruation "bespeak quite different, even opposite, purposes and meanings" with meanings that are "ambiguous and often multivalent".
Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas abolished all forms of ritual impurity of people and things and stressed the importance of cleanliness and spiritual purity. Menstruating women are encouraged to pray and are not required to fast; they have the (voluntary) alternative of reciting a verse instead.
Some church fathers defended the exclusion of women from ministry based on a notion of uncleanness. Others held that purity laws should be discarded as part of the Old Covenant. In spite of the restrictions in Leviticus, Jesus allowed himself to be touched by a hemorrhaging woman and cured her (Mark 5:25-24).
In the Hindu faith, menstruating women are traditionally considered ritually impure and given rules to follow. During menstruation, women are not allowed to “enter the kitchen and temples, sleep in the day-time, bathe, wear flowers, have sex, touch other males or females, or talk loudly.” They may not mount a horse, ox, or elephant, nor may they drive a vehicle. Women themselves are seen as impure and polluted, and are often isolated as untouchables, unable to return to their family, for the length of their period.
In Islam, a woman is exempted from prayer and performing other religious activities such as fasting or circumambulating the Kaaba, but their Hajj will still be valid. This is in accordance with the law of the uncleanliness of any blood. Sexual intercourse with her husband is strictly prohibited during menstrual periods. However, she can perform all other acts of social life as normal. According to authentic traditions, Muhammad encouraged menstruating women to be present at festive religious services for the two Eid holidays, although they were excused from praying.
In the Torah (Leviticus 15:19-30), a menstruating woman is considered ritually unclean - "anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening" (New International Version). Touching her, touching an object she had sat or lain on, or having intercourse with her also makes a person ritually unclean. The extent to which these rules are observed in modern Judaism varies depending on the degree of conservatism/orthodoxy.
In Sikhism, woman is given equal status to man and is regarded as pure as man is. The Gurus teach that one cannot be pure by washing his body but purity of mind is the real pureness. They are not called pure, who sit down after merely washing their bodies. Guru Nānak, the founder of Sikhism, condemned the practice of treating women as impure while menstruating.
In Sikhism, the menstrual cycle is not considered a pollutant. Certainly, it can have a physical and physiological effect on the woman. Nonetheless, this is not considered a hindrance to her wanting to pray or accomplish her religious duties fully. The Guru makes it very clear that the menstrual cycle is a God-given process. The blood of a woman is required for the creation of any human being. The requirement of the mother's blood is fundamental for life. Thus, the menstrual cycle is certainly an essential and God-given biological process. In other faiths blood is considered a pollutant. However, the Guru rejects such ideas. Those who are impure from within are the truly impure ones.
Meditating on God's name is of importance. Whether one's clothes are blood-stained or not (including clothes stained from menstrual blood) is not of spiritual importance. Thus, there are no restrictions placed on a woman during her menstruation. She is free to visit a gurdwara, take part in prayers and do Seva. In The Feminine Principle in the Sikh: Vision of the Transcendent, Nikky Guninder Kaur-Singh writes: "The denigration of the female body 'expressed in many cultural and religious taboos surrounding menstruation and childbirth' is absent in the Sikh worldview. ...Guru Nanak openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation."
A survey conducted in 1981 showed that a substantial majority of U.S. adults and adolescents believed that it is socially unacceptable to discuss menstruation, especially in mixed company. Many believed that it is unacceptable to discuss menstruation even within the family.
One common way that sanitary-product advertising avoids depicting menstruation is by pouring a blue, rather than red, liquid on the sanitary product to demonstrate its absorptivity. Further evidence of the taboo is the creation of a variety of euphemisms for menstruation, including "Aunt Flo", "on the rag", "my friend", or even "the curse."
In 2010, the "Always" tampon brand created the first feminine hygiene ad to ever feature a tiny red spot, representing blood. The ad was created by an intern who was working at Always' advertising agency, Leo Burnett. Originally the ad was created for the intern's personal portfolio, but then it caught the attention of the chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, and was subsequently published as an actual ad. There was some controversy when the ad was first released. In June 2016 the presence of red blood in a UK Bodyform commercial was greeted with approval in social media for its attempt to challenge the stereotypical menstruation ad, by showing women who struggle despite bleeding from cuts, blows and bruises they receive while playing various sports.
Movies and television also reflect the taboo nature of menstruation. Typically menstruation as a topic is avoided, except for scenes involving menarche or the first period. For example, as Elizabeth Arveda Kissling explains in her article, "On the Rag on Screen: Menarche in Film and Television," the early 1991 movie My Girl contains a scene where the main character, Vada, experiences her first period. The explanation given to her by a female role model of what is happening to her is done off-camera and the subject is never mentioned again, save when Vada pushes Thomas across the porch telling him, "Don't come back for five to seven days."
In the movie Carrie, the title character has her first period in the school gym shower, and the other girls tease her by throwing tampons and sanitary pads at her. The gym teacher tries to calm Carrie down, and eventually must explain the concept of menstruation to Carrie (because Carrie's mother had never done so). When Carrie returns home, her fanatically religious mother yells at her and throws her into a closet because menstruation is apparently a sign of sin. Later in the movie, her classmates mock her menarche again by pouring pig's blood on her at the prom.
In Only Yesterday, one of the girls is found to be going through menstruation and is later teased about it, especially when a group of boys tell the others not to touch a ball she had touched by saying, "You'll catch her period".
In the 2007 movie Superbad, Seth discovers menstrual blood on his jeans after dancing with a woman. He reacts with disgust, as do other men in the scene.
Uta Pippig's 1996 Boston Marathon victory
In 1996, during the running of the 100th Boston Marathon, Uta Pippig, the first woman to cross the finish line, had visible blood and severe cramps. This was incorrectly attributed to menstruation. Commentators on radio and TV were uncharacteristically tongue-tied. "Physical problems and diarrhea," said some commentators. Others stopped at the phrase "physical problems", or "stomach pain." Eileen McNamara's Boston Globe article that said she "bled all the way from Hopkinton to Boston" was subject to mass criticism.
As Pippig recalled, "I started having stomach cramps about 5 miles into the race, and shortly after I had diarrhea. I was self-conscious [about it] not only for me — but in a caring way for our sport." She considered dropping out 7 or 8 miles in and even walked a little. Although uncomfortable, her focus shifted from winning the race to staying in it and running as well as she could in this situation. "I was frightened when I felt blood flowing down my legs." That red trickle was widely attributed to menstrual problems, which Pippig says was a misconception. After winning the race, she was diagnosed with ischemic colitis, or inflammatory bowel disease.
With the recent FDA approval of menstrual suppression medications, researchers have begun to shift their focus to the attitudes of American women toward their periods. One study in particular found that 59% of the women they surveyed reported an interest in not menstruating every month. Of these, 1/3 said they were interested in not menstruating at all anymore.
Menstrual activism (otherwise known as radical menstruation, menstrual anarchy, or menarchy) is a movement that addresses menstrual taboos. Overcoming this taboo is a point of contention amongst feminists. The primary argument behind this movement is that if menstruation is normal, there is no reason why the topic should be avoided: "After a while it becomes psychologically disorienting for women to look out at a world where their reality doesn't exist."
Menstruation can be conceptualized as a stigmatized condition that both reflects and reinforces women’s perceived lower status in relation to men. Feminist scholars extend this theory to explain negative attitudes towards women's bodily functions. Such stigmatization occurs when menstrual blood is viewed as one of the "abominations" of the body and reflects a gendered identity among women, which leads to consequences for women's psychological and sexual well-being.
Feminists such as Chella Quint have spoken against the use of shaming in advertising for feminine hygiene products. She created a zine, Adventures in Menstruating, to "help alter the visibility of menstruation, so that it's at least normal to talk about it. Because, right now, it's not". Other menstrual activists include Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, who published My Little Red Book; filmmaker and academic Giovanna Chesler, who created the documentary Period: The End of Menstruation; and artist Ingrid Berthon-Moine, who exhibited a video and series of photographs at the Venice Biennale.
- Culture and menstruation
- Grandmother hypothesis
- Menophilia, colloquially menstruation fetish
- Arunachalam Muruganantham (subject of the 2013 documentary Menstrual Man)
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- Buckley, T., and Gottlieb, A., eds. (1988). Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation. Berkeley: University of California Press. (p. 7)
- Smith, Peter (2000). "purity". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 281–282. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
- "Women were considered ritually unclean".
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- Only they are pure, O Nanak, within whose minds the Lord abides. ||2|| (Siri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 472)
- "By coming together of mother and father are we created, By union of the mother's blood and the father's semen is the body made. To the Lord is the creature devoted, when hanging head downwards in the womb; He whom he contemplates, for him provides." (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p.1013).
- "Should cloth be reckoned impure if blood-stained, How may minds of such be deemed pure, who suck the blood of mankind? Says Nanak: With a pure heart and tongue God's Name you utter: All else is worldly show, and false deeds." (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, pg. 140).
- Kaur-Singh, Nikky-Guninder (1993). The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent. Cambridge University Press ISBN 0521432871. pp. 4.
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- Houppert, Karen (1999). The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-27366-9.
- Johnston-Robledo, I.; Chrisler, J. C. (2011). "The menstrual mark: Menstruation as social stigma" (Sex Roles). doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0052-z.
- Johnston-Robledo, Ingrid; Stubbs, Margaret L. (3 September 2012). "Positioning Periods: Menstruation in Social Context: An Introduction to a Special Issue". Sex Roles. 68 (1-2): 1–8. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0206-7.
- Quint, Chella. "Adventures in Menstruating: Don't Use Shame to Sell". TEDxTalks.
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