Complex, Period.

by Cassandra Euphrat Weston

In seventh grade, the only girl who used tampons lent some boys one of her supply so they could dip it in ketchup and stick it up another boy’s nose. It was basically the funniest joke ever. Responses to menstruation have always combined “ew, bodies” and “ew, women” at just the right pitch to become downright mythical, as the fact that I still remember that prank attests. Pliny the Elder claimed in the first century CE that a menstruating woman could cloud mirrors, blunt steel, and scare a swarm of bees to death. A few hundred years later, the mathematician and astronomer Hypatia hurled a used pad in the face of a jerk who wouldn’t take no for an answer, and now she’s remembered almost as much for that encounter as for her scientific thought.

This one’s not a myth: Once upon a time, that is, before the 1980s in the United States, pads were attached to special belts. The photos look something like a cross between an Ace bandage and a set of suspenders, twisted around your middle; the pads would often button into the ends of this device. The entire contraption seems specifically designed for mortifying wedgie-like adjustments in the middle of geometry class: a prime set-up for a sitcom episode on the horrors of puberty, if the details weren’t so completely unglamorous.

Of course, those with bleeding uteri have had to find some strategy to absorb menstrual blood in any place and at any time. But things get interesting when capitalism elbows into the picture. Advertisers vie to proclaim the benefits of their particular sanitary solution while avoiding any mention of actual biology. The online Museum of Menstruation showcases a famous series that simply read “Modess… because,” beside images of women in ballgowns, as well as myriad examples of smiling women in spotless white pants. The aim is to keep blood out of the picture and the conversation as much as the clothes. Even today, ads like Hello Flo’s recent “Camp Gyno” commercial are the anomaly in an ocean of freshness and floral fragrance claiming to outdo other brands in obscuring the evidence of actual bodies.

Real-life non-corporate humans tend to veer into menstrual sanctimony as well. The advent of disposable pads around the 1920’s seemed revolutionary, but nowadays eco-advocates laud the return of washable pads all over again. And I have had multiple friends swear to me by their Diva Cups.

A Diva Cup, for the uninitiated, is a menstrual cup. In fact, my more research-minded friends have explained that there are multiple brands of menstrual cups on the market, of which Diva Cups are only the most well-known. All menstrual cups consist of silicone cups that rest in the vaginal canal and catch the blood as it passes – somewhat like a diaphragm in reverse, I suppose. The miracle of it, I’ve heard, is how little you bleed: the one small cup lasts twelve hours, according to the Diva Cup’s website, despite the spreading stains on sheets or favorite pants that suggest absolute torrents pouring from your womb. But the only mess of the Diva Cup happens in insertion and removal.

And, of course, the cleaning.

I imagine washing a Diva Cup in the communal kitchen of Harvard’s co-op, where I live; sneaking in a little past midnight, when the rush has died down and I’ve got the stove to myself until—

“Whatcha cookin? Oooh, midnight snack?”

“No, uh. Just a menstrual cup?”

Blank stare. “You know, this rubber thing I stick up my—? Don’t worry, it’s sanitary! Because I’m boiling it!”

Though I mean—it is the co-op. Who knows how many Diva Cups lurk in the sock drawers and bathroom cupboards of the co-op’s denizens, ready to emerge in all their eco-friendly triumph the moment I bring up the topic. Everyone loves to bond over Diva Cups. They’re prohibitively expensive for a mere experiment, so once you’ve made the leap, you’re ushered into the club for good.

That tendency to bond over menstruation is just the problem, though. Around the time I turned twelve, my cabin group spent three full weeks of summer camp discussing tampons: quizzing our college-aged counselor, weighing their pros and cons, and of course, dissecting several examples as a hands-on experiment. Tampons were, and still are, nothing but bleached cotton fibers, but they felt like a mystifying window into a femininity we hadn’t yet obtained. Of course, I soon found that menstruation wasn’t the magic key to performing perfect womanhood. Femininity and I are still not on very friendly terms, though it took me years to realize it was okay to be uncomfortable with “girls’ nights” and nail-painting slumber parties—and the establishment of eternal sisterhood over furtively asking to borrow a pad.

The equation of menstruation with some quintessence of womanhood turns especially ugly for those whom this essentialism actively excludes: that is, women who do not menstruate, and those who menstruate and are not women. A new app called Mcalc boasts completely gender-neutral menstrual tracking, in an effort to escape from the pink flowers and even more ubiquitous female pronouns that characterize all other menstrual accompaniments; but the pink and the “she” remain in discourse and packaging, down to the supposedly progressive Diva Cup’s daisy-adorned magenta logo and even the “girl power” connotations of the name Diva.

Will seventh-graders ever stop finding ketchup-dipped tampons hysterical? I doubt it. Puberty is just that fascinating when you’re thirteen. (Pun totally intended, by the way. Sorry.) And I won’t claim that everyone should embrace menstruation, as some feminists urge. It’s okay – hell, it’s downright feminist – to find our bodies gross or irritating, however we might fit our gender into and onto them. But I would like to live in a world where my complicated, obnoxious, sometimes irregular, occasionally miraculous, and inescapably bloody internal workings cannot be reduced to a doodle of a small, ubiquitous weed.

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