When I did a series of blog posts about menstruation a few months ago, one of the themes that emerged is that most of us didn’t get a lot of helpful and supportive guidance about menstruation when we needed it. Even now as adults, there is still an element of shame about this most natural process.
Elissa Stein is on a mission to change that. Her new book is FLOW: A Cultural Story of Menstruation and it is chock-full of info on all things menstrual – including some disturbing advertisements from the 1940s in which Lysol was touted as a “gentle” yet effective douche. (Ouch!)
Elissa kindly answers a few of my questions:
What made you want to write this book? What do you think it offers that other books on menstruation don’t?
The first glimmers of FLOW came about 15 years ago, when my period stopped and I was too terrified/ashamed to tell anyone. It took a year before I finally went to a doctor who, after everything looked ok, handed me a pack of birth control pills and told me we had to jump start my hormones. No exploration as to why it stopped (anorexia), just a chemical quick fix. I was angry, frustrated, disheartened both by there not being anywhere to go for information and that the subject was so difficult for me to talk about. I wanted to create something that would take away the stigma I’d grown up with.
There are some great books out there, but FLOW is the only one that tells the visual story. In this society, where we get so much information from media and advertising, seeing what shapes our feelings and thoughts is a vital part of the whole.
Can I ask you about your own “first period” story? Were you prepared for it, or were you surprised and terrified? How do you think that first experience shaped your ideas about periods?
I didn’t get my first period until I was 14, years after the trauma of learning about it from that fifth grade film. I don’t remember discovering that it had started or how I dealt in the moment. I do remember begging my mother not to tell anyone. So, when my father announced at dinner, “I heard you started menstruating today,” as calmly as if discussing the weather, I was beyond mortified. I ran, sobbing, to my room and swore I’d never speak to anyone again. For the rest of my life. Obviously, that didn’t last.
As the mother of a tween daughter, how are you approaching the issue of menstruation with her? What do you think girls of this generation have going for them that earlier generations did not? What is not working in their favor?
Having worked on FLOW for three long years, menstruation is a matter of fact topic of conversation at my house. Both my daughter and my soon-to-be 9-year-old son are well versed in products options, how the system works, what PMS can look like, and how to make tampon rockets.
While on one hand, it’s heartening that so much information is available now compared to when I was growing up, the message of shame and secrecy is still being hawked. Plus, the rise of menstrual suppression advertising creates a whole new dilemma. The message that periods are an inconvenience that can be solved by popping a pill is being sold to girls on television, in magazines. Chemically altering natural cycles isn’t something to be taken lightly, but upbeat ads minimize side effects and potential long-term effects.
FLOW touches on some of the sad history regarding the way that women and their bodies have been maligned by religion, tradition and advertising. Unfortunately, I think we carry this history with us, even when we don’t want to and even though we know better than to believe it. Nevertheless, the myths and misunderstandings of the past seem to worm their way into the present. How do we move forward? How do we leave behind what isn’t true or helpful, and still embrace some sense of the sacred femininity that our ancestors seemed to understand — a connectedness to the rhythms of life that we don’t seem to notice.
At this point we’re generally so cut off from nature, from intuition, from what’s going on inside, it’s sometimes hard to see a way out of the prison that’s been built for us. One of the reasons FLOW is in the world is to start conversations, to get people thinking, and by talking and exploring, to start chipping away at those age old walls that have been built up.
We live in a unique time in history. Walk down the “Feminine Care” aisle at Target and there are a ton of options for pads and tampons. We also have a lot of choices when it comes to birth control. Yet most of us are woefully under-educated about what our choices mean for our hormone balance, our fertility, and the environment. Besides reading FLOW (which everyone should do!), what else can we do to become more informed?
So much of our education about menstruation and birth control comes from manufacturers, who have a vested interest selling us their products as well as their stories of convenience, of secrecy, of shame. This sounds ridiculous, but people shouldn’t believe everything they see in TV, print or online ads. People need to scratch the surface. Research. Read. Ask questions.
Ok, I’ll share my most embarrassing period story if you share yours. I was a teenager, maybe 16 or 17, and a boyfriend was over to my house visiting. We were in the living room watching TV when my dog drags in this bloody mess in his mouth. I knew instantly it was my pad from the bathroom trash and I hurriedly tried to grab it out of his mouth. I ended up chasing him around the house and trying to tackle him. They guy had no idea what was going on, and was like “Oh my God, what is that? What is wrong with your dog? Is he bleeding?” I think by the end of it, the guy realized why I was so embarrassed and we both tried to pretend it didn’t happen. Awkward!
Worst ever? Had to be eighth grade, woodworking class. I went to the bathroom and discovered my period had started and there was a huge reddish brown stain across the butt of my white carpenter pants. Total mortification. Panicking, I told my friend Paul I must have sat in puddle of wood stain. He very thoughtfully lent me his flannel shirt to tie around my waist for the rest of the day. I spent three more classes terrified people would figure out what was really going on.
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Listen to Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, authors of FLOW speaking with Dr. Oz on Oprah Radio.
Watch Elissa talk FLOW on The View on Tuesday, March 9.
Follow @ElissaStein on twitter