Thursday, May 24, 2007

Essentializing Women's Bodies and Body Functions

Tampon Toys:

Strange discussion in the blawgosphere today:

From Eugene Volokh, a discussion about the "Pill That Ends Menstruation":

Again, concerns about long-term health effects are quite sensible. But I don't see any justification for the feeling that it's not "right to sidestep" something that's "part of being a woman." I suppose it could be some esthetic judgment that argument won't much drive; but setting aside esthetics, why on earth should we want to accept natural but painful or unpleasant things?

Disease is a part of being a human. Headaches are part of being a human. Excruciating pain in childbirth is part of being a woman. They are bad parts.

A good part of being a human is being able to prevent disease and to ease pain. Why embrace the harmful, painful, or uncomfortable parts of human nature, and reject those parts of human nature — our species' intelligence and resulting scientific acumen — that diminish harm, pain, and discomfort?

But menstruation isn't about appearance. Women don't dislike it chiefly because it "occurs in association with being female," because it's "disgusting," or because it's "not-so-pretty." They dislike because of the cramps, because of the mood swings, because of the hassle. (I suppose that the desire not to get blood on one's clothes, and the concomitant need to use various products to prevent that, can be cast as a question about what's "disgusting" or "pretty," but both men and women generally and understandably don't like bloodstains of whatever sort. And in any case, as I understand it the physical discomfort associated with menstruation is a much greater concern for most women than just the universal desire not to get blood on things.)

Odd comment thread (but less odd than the one at Althouse), but I liked this one from Amber Taylor:

As usual, Althouse misses the point; all birth control pills cause cessation of menstruation. The fake period produced by conventional birth control pills is a withdrawal bleed, not a real period, and women have been taking conventional pills continuously, off-label, to eliminate all bleeding for years. This is not about skipping the nasty and uncomfortable (but natural!) cycle of menstruation, but about doing away with an artificially produced simulacrum thereof.

Follow-up from Volokh, a blog post with oddest title ever, "Seeking Input From People Who Have Actually Menstruated":

Humanity does derive meaning from some shared experiences — but not all. Shared experience that you bond over: pregnancy. Shared experiences that you don't bond over: hangnails, nearsightedness, tooth decay. Shared experiences that people sometimes seem to bond over, but that I'm sure they'd be much better off without: various illnesses or operations that some elderly people stereotypically discuss with each other, but which they'd be glad to avoid without any worry about lost "meaning."

My sense is that menstruation falls within the second (or, less likely, third) category of experiences rather than the first. To many women, pregnancy is a harbinger of their joy in becoming a mother, an affirmation of their fertility (something many women worry about before they become pregnant), a sign of a growing bond with their husbands, and more. Menstruation, it seems to me, is far removed from that: While it is part of the same system that may eventually lead to pregnancy, it doesn't have the directness of connection to a growing baby, it doesn't prove fertility in a way that would ease the woman's fears, it doesn't strengthen the marriage, and in general it lacks very little redeeming value.

But let's hear from some people who actually menstruate, and have been pregnant. When you menstruate, do you feel that you're part of the "in crowd"? If you chose to stop -- not because of menopause, which is a marker of age and of lost fertility, but voluntarily and reversibly -- would you feel "out"? Do you smile and talk to your friends about the cramps, the mood swings, and the like? Do you feel you derive meaning from the fact that you share menstruation as an experience with other women? Would you feel meaning subtracted if you stopped menstruating, because menstruation is so "central" a "female experience[]"? Do you find menstruation to be similar to pregnancy in any emotionally positive way?

Again, odd (but this time more interesting and useful) comment thread, and I like these:


wow... what a title to a post... I've talked about this with my friends, one of whom is going on the new pill that suppresses menstruation (she'll be the guinea pig). The only advantage to menstruation is that it's a monthly "nope, not pregnant" reminder. If (for various health reasons) I am capable of switching to that new pill, I'd consider the lack of a period a benefit; miss nothing about it; and stock up pregnancy tests from Costco. My friends and I bitch about menstruation together; we don't smile and talk about it. And the various travails of men, families and life are more than enough to give us shared bonding experiences without the added ignominy of bleeding for five days without dying.


I just *love* when men tell women what the Essential Feminine consists of. Men like that give women plenty to bond over -- no menstruation required.


What on earth is this topic doing in a legal forum? Although as someone who menstruated during the bar exam and had to put her sanitary supplies in a clear plastic bag to show that I wasn't writing any cheat notes on a sanitary napkin, I suppose it could have some connection. A bonding experience? Puhleeze. Look men, would you want to spend five or six days every month with blood leaking from your body, sometimes coming on with little warning, and potentially putting a very embarrassing stain on your business suit? Do older men who need Depends after their prostate operations, bond over the experience? Think about it.

I have great respect for Volokh as a scholar and blogger--and he's a really nice guy (yes, we've met, but I'm sure he doesn't know). I don't always--in fact I rarely--agree with him. And I admit, sometimes his posts truly bother me. Like this one (a great response here, and here). But this post doesn't make me as mad as you think it would.

Essentializing women by their body parts and functions (menstruation, childbirth, "maternal instinct") drives me nuts. But I don't think that's what Volokh is doing here. In fact, it seems to me that he's arguing against essentializing women via this particular body function. At least that's my interpretation, that he's responding to a commenter at Althouse for conflating women's identities with their body functions. And he seems genuinely interested in wanting to know what women think. Odd blog post aside, and odd way of framing the question ("smile and talk"?! "in crowd"?! "meaning/emotionally positive/female experience"?!) I trust his bona fide curiousity.

Still, I am very amused by this response by my blogfather Ann Bartow:

Well, one thing I’ve learned is that if you want all the men to leave a room at breakneck speak, just uttering the word “uterus” will sometimes do the trick. Bu I think Eugene needs to be educated gently and incrementally, so the first thing I’m going to do is send him a copy of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume. Then, when he seems to have grasped the thirteen year old perspective, in a decade or so, I’m going to send him a package of Always and a bottle of Pamprin, and urge him to enroll in an introductory course in Women’s Studies.

I'll answer Volokh's questions anyway, since I'll take his curiousity in good faith:

I get personal enough here, probably too much (hence pseudonymity), but I will say that I don't define myself by this body function. Maybe there was an "in crowd" for at the age of 12 or 13, when we were waiting for the sign that we were "women." "Eve's curse" shouldn't mark the fall from "innocence" to "maturity," but I was too young and stupid then to know that being a woman isn't defined by when my body releases a certain amount of hormones. Actually, at this age of wanting to grow up quickly (believing anything other than the present is better) it seems like any first experience that marked a transition was anxiously desired, pleasant or unpleasant. Just because girls (and boys) brood anxiously for/about their first date, kiss, sexual experience, driver's permit, hair growth, menstrual period, or wet dream doesn't mean that each experience is equal in meaning or value. It's all a part of a very odd time in life when everything is new and everything makes you older than you were yesterday. Eventually, the novelty wears off.

I have two older sisters. We rarely talk about this, and if we have, they were not salient bonding experiences, except: 1) when I was 14 I got my period in the hospital after an appendectomy and swore I was bleeding out and dying (they told me I was stupid and that if I was bleeding out I'd be dead by now); 2) when my sister got fibroid cysts and I made her see a specialist, marking a time when she took my advice as from one adult to another. I think of these experiences a medical discussions, not "we are women, let us bond over something that happens every month" experiences.

In law school I lived in all women's housing, and none of us ever bonded over the synchronization of periods or the jokes about Aunt Flo coming to town. Yes, if one of us was out of "feminine napkins" there were always some to spare, as well as Advil for those in need. But I think I got the same commiseration whenever I had a cold--chicken soup, hot ginger tea, and the awesomeness of Nyquil. Women do talk about and share over their periods--but it's no different to me than when I commiserate over some other bodily affliction.

Menstruation is not "central" to my feminine experience. It's a good reminder that I'm not pregnant, but cycles can be irregular--and so it's not always a reliable indicator. In fact, when I went off the pill my cycle stopped for a couple of months--this often happens, and can be helped with a progesterone supplement. Did I feel less like a woman for these two months? No. Did I lack ability to commiserate with women over the experience? Because I hardly talked about it anyway, I didn't miss it, and if my friends brought up their experiences, I listened the way anyone would to someone complaining about a headache. With tepid concern and an offer of Advil.

In fact, when my cycle stopped for a year and a half due to hormone conditions (but I was healthy and yes, still reproductively viable, and yes, it's over now) I stopped thinking about the entire enterprise. I stopped thinking about bloating, cramps, headaches, tiredness, mood swings as being part and parcel of the feminine experience. I stopped noticing if whenever I felt any of those conditions, whether they were tied to a certain time of month. Even though I had never defined myself by the experience, I became even less attached to it. And I was no less a woman. My body goes through tons of changes and all sorts of conditions. And it will continue to do so as I age, and when I have children. But I define myself by what I, as a sentient being, do with my body--not by what my body does to me or for me.

I spent a good 2-3 years in college being a women's sexual health columnist for my campus feminist newspaper. I don't feel any particular qualms about discussing this or any other body functions. But I don't think bodies should be defined by their parts and functions. We are more than the sum of our parts. Women are more than their functions and body parts. A woman who has had a masectomy is no less of a woman. A woman who has had a hysterectomy is no less a woman. Both are still able to relate to other women and share in the "feminine experience" in whatever ways they define that experience. Menstruation by no means compares to childbirth and rearing as a bonding topic, and I am loathe to define women by their reproductive capabilities anyway. If you are unable to bear children, are you less of a woman? If you cannot breast feed, would you be less of a mother? I would hate to limit the "feminine experience" to functions that form such a small part of the universe of experience.