Today we're so lucky to be sharing space with Chris Bobel, Professor and Chair of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.We connected with Chris to talk about real, sustainable change in menstrual equity and ending period shame. She brought so much insight to the table, and we're so thrilled to share with you. Read more about Chris here!
A: What is the biggest challenge facing menstrual health management?
CB: It’s frustrating from the beginning - we have placed a frame around these issues—the menstrual equity frame—that is just not sustainable. Menstrual equity should not be reduced to just products. Our frame, overall, on this issue, is too tightly focused on access to materials - and don’t misunderstand me, access to materials is crucial, but we need to hold two truths at once. We cannot just stick pads over stigma. It’s not sustainable to build a frame that that serves to benefit product makers and especially corporate CSR. The endgame has to be dismantling period stigma.
That’s not to say we don’t need to be practical and material. People need menstrual materials. But we want to support a world where—at least in theory—it’s comfortable and safe to free bleed, to let your hair go grey, to grow out your leg hair. We need to push innovation and access, but we cannot reduce the movement to just “having something to bleed on”.
A: So, the problem is still located in the patriarchy.
CB: A lot of the language in menstruation is still bound up in sexism, racism and capitalism. We don’t evaluate menstruation as a vital sign or as part of a lifecycle. We’re not engaging with the body as a system—we think about menstruation as a problem to be solved with a product. This is even true of the menstrual equity movement.
But we have to be careful. We can’t overcorrect, if you will. When we talk about menstrual transgressions, we can be tone deaf to people with gender dysphoria, bodies of colour, or others who occupy bodies and lives that are already in a transgressive position. A white middle class body can often cope with being transgressive; privilege protects. We need to understand where menstruation can be perilous, and how that is a consequence of period stigma and a cocktail of misogyny and racism.
A: How do we start undoing this, in a responsible way?
CB: I really want funders—NGOs, corporate execs responsible for social responsibility initiatives, social entrepreneurs—to invest in the movement beyond a time frame of a few years. And that’s really hard for them. We have to resist the urge to go bigger, better, faster. We’re working closely with WASH, but that development sector is one that is very fixated on SCALE. Install a toilet. Get a well. Given the complex cultural meanings around menstruation, it is tough to scale up interventions. Each place, each community needs something customized. So, we need to think differently.
We can learn from and partner with folks working in fields like birth control promotion, or genital cutting, or partner violence. Activists working in these movements have been engaged for decades. They know that change is slow. We have to learn from them. Menstrual stigma is not going to be undone by a year of free pads.
A: We’ve discussed how important disrupting the period taboo is to moving forward; often this is rooted in tradition. Is disrupting these traditions always helpful?
CB: When I was doing the fieldwork for The Managed Body, I travelled to rural Kenya to see the work a small organization—The Golden Girls Foundation—in partnership with Ruby is doing around menstrual education. In this area, there is a cultural taboo against touching certain plants while menstruating because people believe that doing so will cause the plants to die. So, one of the activities organized by the Golden Girls Foundation is maintaining a garden plot together where the leaders would work with the local girls and women. While the women and girls are working in the garden, if the leaders are menstruating, they might casually mention that and demonstrate the fallacy of the taboo—not in word but deed. I like this example because it is subtle and gentle. If we are going to work to challenge some menstrual traditions, we have to do so in ways that are culturally sensitive and these challenges are best when they come from WITHIN communities.
A lot of the discussion around managing menstrual restrictions has a very disrespectful tone. Its levels judgment against those in the Global South, deeming their cultural beliefs backward, silly or foolish. That’s naive. These taboos can be rooted in very significant and important things—such as celebrations of maturity or fertility. They can be connected to hygiene, or diet and lifestyle and at one time, they may have made a lot of sense.
As we introduce new information, as we question the appropriateness of longstanding and deeply held belief and practices, it is unethical to suspend the girl between tradition and modernity. This disrupts her relationship with her family and her culture. Yes, the taboos can be harmful, but our response has to be culturally sensitive. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, can’t raze the chhaupadi hut and leave the woman sleeping outside. After all, menstrual practices are tied with performing “good womanhood”. To choose NOT to follow traditions can be read as putting one’s family at risk—to be a bad wife, daughter, sister, mother. We might take a more harm-reductionist approach. We need to prioritize the safety of those we want to help and above all, ensure that any and all interventions are conceived in collaboration with those directly impacted.
A: How does the burgeoning menstrual equity operate ethically and helpfully in this case?
CB: Well, to start, we cannot tell people how to menstruate.
We need culturally sensitive, intersectional menstrual literacy, in both domestic policy as well as in efforts across the globe. You can’t talk to a group of black schoolgirls in NYC the same way you talk to a middle-class moms in North Carolina. Standardizing messaging and materials will not do the job because it is hard to create a one size fits all solution. So, we have to work hard to tailor our programs so that everyone can access the information they need to know about their bodies. I hope we can find creative ways to teach body literacy—so that menstruators everywhere can make informed choices about how to care for their bodies.
Chris Bobel is Professor and Chair of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Chris is the author of The Managed Body: Developing Girls and Menstrual Health in the Global South (Palgrave Macmillan), New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (Rutgers University Press), The Paradox of Natural Mothering (Temple University Press), and the co-edited collections (with Samantha Kwan) Embodied Resistance: Breaking the Rules, Challenging the Norms (Vanderbilt University Press) and Body Battlegrounds: Transgressions, Tensions and Transformations (Vanderbilt University Press) and the forthcoming (and first ever) Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies (Palgrave Macmillan). Chris is past president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research and is often consulted by the mainstream media about the rapidly growing menstrual activist movement. She is at work on a new ethnographic project exploring contemporary activism inspired by grief and trauma. Go here more information about Chris’ publications and media engagements.