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Period Politics

Menstruation myths remain at large

The F-Word

Anyone who has ever seen a tampon commercial knows that menstruation is a topic best broached by euphemism. Downward dogs in white spandex, slow-motion runs on the beach, blue liquid seeping into a quilted pad: All both infer and idealize that which cannot be named. On par with the opacity of perfume ads, they leave the viewer with almost no information about either the product or its function. After viewing one of these spots, periods may remain mysterious and—let’s face it—totally gross, but having one sure seems like fun!

Recent research reveals that menses may do more than predispose women to spontaneous bouts of exercise. The ovulating woman, indeed, is species unto her own. She gravitates toward the Prince-Eric-ilk: manly men with symmetrical features, deep voices, and chiseled cheekbones. She exudes intoxicating odors that signal her sexual earnestness to all men within sniffing distance. She is more likely to be unfaithful to her hubby, particularly if his beer belly suggests a sub-par genetic make-up. If she works at a strip club, she grosses more money in tips—the thought of sanitary napkins being, of course, a potent aphrodisiac. And, as last month’s Journal of Consumer Research argues, she dresses skankier. Forget sweatpants: only sexy garb—low-cut blouses and slinky skirts—appeal to the female on her flow.

Such subtle mannerisms, these studies emphasize, are performed unconsciously. Unlike others in the animal kingdom, women fail to register when the time is ripe for reproduction. Female chimpanzees may experience red, inflamed rumps, but the Homo sapiens is a special breed: Her eggs offer no telltale signs of their imminent jaunt across the Fallopian tube. Moreover, the reports imply, such techniques of slow, steady seduction are geared toward one end: baby-making. The aforementioned ovulating-women-dress-to-impress study is explicit on this point. While men can spread their seed at will, women must be more discriminating about whom they bed: their womb, after all, is what ultimately will reap the consequences. Because desirable sperm donors are in short supply, the fertile female must do everything in her power to out-slutify her same-sex competitors. The more skin she shows, the better her odds of reproductive success.

These studies stem from a single scientific premise: the Ovulatory Shift Hypothesis. Articulated in a 2005 paper, the Hypothesis contends that natural selection has selectively shaped the female psyche to “shift” when conception is possible. But note the operative word here: “hypothesis.” Far from definitive fact, this theory remains highly speculative. What’s more, it has historically relied on research of limited scope and dubious methodology. Take, for example, this 2007 study concluding (surprise of surprises!) that menstruating women wear shorter skirts—based on a sample size of thirty. Complicating matters are the broader controversies surrounding evolutionary psychology: a field perennially plagued by charges of reductionism.

The question of whether women discreetly divulge their fertility certainly merits scientific study. Not all work on this issue, however, aims toward a purely epistemological end. Certain studies, like that in the Journal of Consumer Research, are motivated by commercial concerns. Indeed, according to a separate 2009 study, ovulating women constitute a distinct and, as of yet, unexploited market niche: one prone to overspending on lingerie, high heels, and other frivolities. If retailers could only target females during their peak impulse-buying phase, cosmetics’ sales would surely spike—or so the logic goes. Yet, as Slate’s Jessica Grose notes, this economic rationale proves untenable. How would retailers gauge when their customers were optimally fertile? By collecting urine samples en masse, testing for pre-menstrual hormones, and timing catalog mailings accordingly? Instituting “ovulating-only” sections in department stores would be equally insane. No woman wants to be ghettoized because her estrogen levels happen to be high.

Menstruation has long been shrouded in stigma and taboo. In pre-modern societies, menstrual blood was alternately feared, revered, and fetishized, imputed with the power to both cure lepers and devastate the harvest. At the dawn of the 19th century, the female flow remained an enigma governed by religious notions of impurity and sin. By the mid-20th, psychoanalysts had variously associated menses with castration anxiety, penis envy, self-injury, disease, witchcraft, blood-sucking, and even vampires. Contemporary discourses surrounding menstruation are no less expansive. P.M.S. now doubles as noun and verb, drugs like Seasonique promise women only four periods per year, and an “iPeriod” app allows smartphone users to fastidiously track their monthly cycles.

Menstruation, therein, is more than a biological occurrence: It is a socially constructed phenomenon, emanating as much from cultural stereotype as from women’s own wombs. The studies elaborated above overlook this crucial fact. Reducing women to hysterical bodies motivated by a singular telos—finding a mate and having babies—such research smacks of essentialism. It reifies tired stereotypes of women as irrational, catty, and intensely competitive over a presumed “limited supply” of attractive men. What’s more, it advances an understanding of woman as Nature’s passive playtoy, forever enthralled by biological forces beyond her control.

The psychology of my clothing selection is one “discovery” I can live without.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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