Status passage, stigma and menstrual management: ‘Starting’ and ‘being on’
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- Newton, V. Soc Theory Health (2012) 10: 392. doi:10.1057/sth.2012.13
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The purpose of this article is to examine and analyse the different discourses acting on the menstruating body and influencing the ways in which women experience and manage menstruation, on a personal level as well as collectively. The article is thus concerned with menstrual etiquette and the societal norms informing how menstruation is managed. It offers an observational and theoretical interpretation of the practical aspects of menstrual management with reference to the sociological concept of a ‘status passage’ (Glaser and Strauss) and theories of impression management and stigma (Goffman). It also discusses the learnt processes of body watching and menstrual control and supports on the basis of ‘real-life’ accounts given by research participants. The theoretical framework of the article provides a way to move forward discussions about the historical and medical construction of menstruation by discussing how it is managed as an ‘everyday’ bodily process.
This article offers an observational and theoretical interpretation of menstrual management. The aim of menstrual management is to pass through the menstrual period without mishaps such as leaking, and without unduly drawing attention to oneself by changes in behaviour. Two aspects of menstrual management are discussed: the menarche and the menstrual period.
The processes by which women care for their bodies during menstruation (‘menstrual etiquette’: Laws, 1990) are cultural and differ between societies.1 However, menstruation is both a biological process and social construction. There is a need to account for the physical body in such a way that it can engage with discussions about the cultural body, to find ways of ‘talking about the body without fixing it as a naturally determined object which exists outside politics, culture or social change, […] whilst also holding on to the materiality of living bodies’ (Woodward, 2008, pp. 76–77).
The qualitative fieldwork on which this article draws was conducted as part of a study on contemporary discourses about menstruation (Newton, 2011). The fieldwork for the study was carried out in a North Midlands town with adolescents, young adults, people in their middle years and the over-60s, in order to give some generational perspective. As part of this study, semi-structured interviews that focused on informal knowledge and belief about menstruation were carried out with 62 females and males, from school age to the over-60s. The study was not intended to be representative or descriptive of the population as a whole, but, rather, set out to investigate in detail recurrent themes in popular knowledge existing within a specific geographic area, in order to provide insight into vernacular discourses and the transmission of informal knowledge within and between social groups. The study was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council under the rubric of ‘cultural studies’. Before conducting any fieldwork, the study was ethically reviewed and approved by the University of Sheffield Ethics Committee.
This article presents a fraction of the data drawn from female informants, which illustrate that although individual experiences of menstruation vary in specific detail, there are many shared common experiences, worries and stories about menstruation. This goes some way towards demonstrating how societal discourses act upon the body and regulate not only bodily functions, but also bodily experience. In my research, I found that informal education and vernacular knowledge were highly influential in the communication of attitudes towards menstruation, and that these often reflected tensions between menstruation as symbolic of womanhood and as a messy inconvenience (especially within an institutional setting such as school). To account for the cultural and material body, I have chosen in this article to combine oral narratives offering individual insight into ‘lived’ body experience, with a theoretical framework outlining the structures and processes that help to shape and perpetuate collective experiences of menstruation. This article presents the viewpoint that menstruation is perceived as something we do not talk about, but in reality there are many references to it in our immediate social and cultural environment and these influence behaviour and attitudes.
Walter (1994) acknowledges the clear presence of ‘taboo’ or sensitive subjects in our immediate cultural environment. Topics, such as in Walter's case ‘death’, that common perceptions posit as silent topics (ones we do not talk about) are in fact readily discussed in literature and media, but this is sometimes at odds with individual acts of, and needs for, expression. To follow Walter's example there are many published books professing the culture of silence and shame around menstruation. Previous literature has focused on discourses of menstruation in, for example, education (Havens and Swenson, 1989; Koff and Rierdan, 1995; Prendergast, 1995) and advertising (Havens and Swenson, 1988; Treneman, 1988; Park, 1996), and has debated the medicalisation of menstruation by questioning medical definitions of menstruation, the construction of menstrual disorders and the patriarchal framework under which it has been historically viewed (Martin, 1989; Laws, 1990; Scambler and Scambler, 1993). More recently perhaps, there has also been a movement towards the celebration of menstruation (for example, Kauder-Nalebuff, 2009; Stein and Kim, 2009). Menstruation as a ‘fact of life’ for most women in their reproductive years is also a factor in the ‘everyday lives’ of the wider population, which sees menstrual products in brightly coloured packaging stacked on supermarket shelves, advertisements on television depicting young slim women skipping through the heaviest days of their period in flimsy summer dresses, while at the same time women bemoan and chatter about ‘that time of the month’, but also make quips or jokes about Pre-menstrual tension (PMT). Menstruation is a fact of our everyday lives and ‘we’ do talk about it. However, when the focus shifts to the individual, and menstruation becomes ‘my menstruation’, then a level of silence descends around the subject. If it becomes known that ‘I’ am on ‘my’ period, then most women feel a certain level of discomfort that their status could be revealed accidentally by a slipped towel or leaking tampon. In this way, menstruation is still stigmatised. Scambler (2009) breaks stigma down into ‘enacted’, ‘felt’ and ‘project’ categories. ‘Felt’ stigma is the ‘internalised sense of shame’ and the fear of ‘enacted’ stigma (that is, discrimination by others for being ‘imperfect’) (Scambler, 2009, p. 451; also see Scambler and Paoli, 2008). Thus, the fear of exposure, of a visible blemish of blood or telltale behaviour, produces a culture of ‘body-watching’ by which women manage their monthly menstruation. Menstruation is a ‘felt’ stigma, one with an internalised sense of infringing the norms of shame (Scambler, 2009).
I remember sitting on the stairs at home, talking to my mum, and I’d got a dress on, and she just went: ‘Oh! […] You’ve started your periods’, and I hadn’t realised, and there was blood on my pants, and she made such a fuss about it, and my mum and dad were split up, and I remember her ringing my dad that night, and I could hear her on the phone, and she’d rung him specially to tell him that my periods had started, and I was … I felt physically sick. (Interviewee 2, 31–45 age group)
This participant wished to control how knowledge of her menarche was shared, so that her changed status was not revealed in a way outside her control. She rejected the openness that would perhaps not have disturbed some individuals in favour of a more personal ownership of the event, which if exposed verbally or visually would for her provoke feelings of discomfort or shame.
The Menarche as a Status Passage
I mean – girls – it was a bit of this elitist thing. You would get a couple of them together, and they’d be talking about it as if they were really grown up, and they’d keep everybody else out of the conversation. You know, it was a bit, sort-of: ‘you’re still a child’, you know … it was looked at definitely as, you know … a passage, and you’d got to that stage where you were now a woman, and these people who hadn’t started their periods were just mere children. (Interviewee 3, over-60 age group)
I do remember when [daughter] did start, though, […] I used to find myself waking up crying at night … and tears. I used to wake up, and I couldn’t identify really what was worrying me; then I realised that she’d got her period, and I couldn’t protect her any more – she was vulnerable. I don’t know why … that was the only way I could interpret it … she was more vulnerable to the world now. (Interviewee 1, 46–60 age group)
When they start, they are, like … go to all their friends. They think they are better, ’cause they’ve started, and, like … say, other people haven’t […] It's like: ‘Oh, I’m growing up, and you’re not’. (Interviewee 6, 12–14 age group)
There was me and three other girls who were good friends at school, and I don’t think I was the first one to start, but I definitely felt there was a sort of competition. I didn’t want to be the last one out of the four of us to start. I don’t know why. Yeah, it's peculiar isn’t it, when you look back? (Interviewee 6, 18–30 age group)
The menarche thus marks a significant change in how the teenage female body is viewed, and also brings with it a status passage that a woman undergoes approximately once a month during her non-pregnant reproductive years, that of moving from being ‘off’ to being ‘on’ and back to being ‘off’, and the monthly practice of concealing menstruation and preserving the outward appearance of being ‘normal’, that is, non-menstruating.
Menstruation as a Monthly Status Passage
But I think there is still this kind of taboo about it […] if you have to go to the toilet […] people will pick up their whole handbag and take it with them, or hide them in a packet to go to the toilet – why? […] there is still that about it, where you don’t want everyone to see, or perhaps it's not that you’re that bothered, but you think everyone else would be. (Interviewee 8, 31–45 age group)
When we had the talk – when the girls first had to go and have the talk with one of the female teachers – and the boys thought that was absolutely hilarious, you know, and … erm … the idea that you might see a sanitary towel or Tampax, or anything – to them it was, like, you must hide from the boys, or they’ll be laughing, and think it was really, really funny. So yeah, I think there was quite a big thing going on there, really, in the sort of sense that you’ve got to keep it secret from them – hide it. (Interviewee 3, 31–45 age group)
The idea of menstrual management as concealment or ‘secretisation’ presented itself very clearly to me when I was observing at a ‘Puberty Day’ at the secondary school where I was conducting interviews with girls and boys from Y8 and Y9 (12–14-year-olds). ‘Puberty Day’ concerned female students only and focused on the changes experienced during puberty. The talk was given by the school nurse, who introduced herself to the students as an ex-midwife, thus confirming her authority to talk on the subject, which was described as both ‘messy’ and ‘sensitive’. In this way ‘felt’ stigma is taught. The girls were told that they would not be asked to share personal stories or to talk about the experiences of friends. Therefore, in the first instance the topic was outlined as one that should not be spoken about.
Thus, even in an environment aimed at learning, the girls were discouraged from talking about themselves, although they were invited to ask questions. At one point, when a male student came into the room to deliver a message, the girls were told not to ask any questions while he was there, because it was ‘a little sensitive’. A gender divide is clearly outlined – menstruation is a topic that should be kept back for the girls alone. The boys should not be permitted to know anything about it.
The problem is that when I started I had absolutely crippling pains, so much that I just couldn’t … arh, I just couldn’t hardly do anything, and my mum was like: ‘Right! You’ve still got to go to school’; ‘You’ve still got to do this’; ‘You’ve still got to do that’, and there was just no sympathy there at all. So I sort-of carried on as best I could, but the amount of times I’d been just … like … sat in the common room, or whatever, going: ‘Ouuuuugh!’, and they were killing me. It was just awful. Really bad with it, absolutely awful. (Interviewee 2, 18–30 age group)
The guidance that girls received about managing their menstruation effectively, as described above, appeared to depend on special instruction on how to use ‘sanitary’ wear and manage this ‘messy’ and ‘sensitive’ subject. The girls were told that although menstruation is a healthy, natural process, it was put forward as a hygiene problem that needed to be managed by means of commercial sanitary products, one where ‘freshness’ was an issue emphasised quite strongly. The nurse told the girls to change their sanitary towels very frequently, every 4 hours, even if there was not much blood on them. She added, ‘this is important and those of you who aren’t listening will go round smelly’.
Laws (1990, p. 32) states that ‘the treatment of menstrual blood as dirty represents a judgement on the “place” of menstruating women’. Indeed, telling the girls to keep menstruation ‘to themselves’ indicates that menstruation does not signal a ‘normal’ or ‘usual’ state, and private locations and processes are necessary for its care, so that they can pass off as ‘normal’ (that is, not obviously menstruating or complaining about menstruating). A menstruating body is to be kept screened from view and perhaps popular ‘public’ discourses about menstruation (advertising, medical discourses, vernacular slang terms and jokes) do not allow articulation of the personal event itself.
Women's bodies are disciplined by both collective/public and local/private discourses. Although advertising plays a role in portraying how women should conduct themselves, on a more individual level the management of menstruation is a subject that is kept predominantly between women and away from the male gaze. Information concerning how to remove a menstrual blood stain, how to be discreet about carrying a tampon or towel on one's person or where and how to dispose of sanitary waste in the home environment is communicated and passed around between females, from their initial introduction to menstrual etiquette.
One stigma confronted by approximately half of the population at some point in their lives is menstruation […] Although most modern cultures do not relegate women to huts when they are menstruating, menstruating women are clearly stigmatized. Few people believe that menstruation should be openly discussed, even within the family household.
[When staying with] my mother-in-law […] I was so pissed off … I was really pissed off, because I put them [tampons] in the bathroom, ’cause we were staying at their house, me and my husband and my son, who is … he was under two at the time, and I didn’t want to wake him up in the night by searching for tampons, so I put them in the bathroom, and I got up in the morning, and I was desperate for one, and they weren’t there. And I was. like: ‘[husband], where have they gone? Where are they?’, and he said: ‘Oh, I think my mum must have hidden them’, and later she said to me: ‘Oh, yes: I put them in my bedroom, because I didn’t think you’d want them in the bathroom’. And I just thought: ‘Oh! I need them!’ […] It's only my father-in-law that would have seen them and been bothered! (Interviewee 12, 18–30 age group)
Reflecting stigma and women's behaviour around menstruation, Kowalski and Chapple (2000, p. 74) note: ‘Whereas a discredited individual may make efforts to repair his or her damaged image, an individual who is discreditable may carefully behave in ways that will keep the stigma concealed’. Because having a period is not an everyday situation, occurring only 5 days out of every 28 or so, the woman's menstruating self does not align with preconceived perceptions about the ‘normal’ state of women. As a consequence, young women are taught, or learn, to undertake ‘backstage’ preparation in order to control how they appear to others (their ‘front stage’ appearance). It is not so much menstruation in itself that is the problem, but all the practical considerations that it brings with it, such as how to judge when and where she can take her next toilet break and whether her sanitary towel/tampon is sufficient to last until then. In this way, an appearance or an impression of ‘normality’ can be retained. If we view stigma as a ‘special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype’ (Goffman, 1986, p. 4), the stereotype of ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ can be divided into front stage appearances and backstage activities. In the public sphere, women are expected to appear well presented and sexually appealing, and there is no room for the leaking bodies of the backstage area. Backstage preparations, such as toilet habits and managing menstruation, as well as activities such as sex, are screened from public view. There is a gap between how women present themselves and the processes that go towards that management. Menstrual blood out of place puts out the signal ‘dirty’, and is a blemish on both physical appearance and character. Thus, it is generally understood that women should show no outward sign of their changing cyclic state.
I was a month after my 10th birthday […] I went to the toilet – and in those days we wore navy-blue knickers – ‘bloomers’ – and I had a job fathoming out what it was at first. I felt it, and blood came away on my hands, and I just about screamed the house down, because I thought I was dying. Nobody told me about it, but me mum was prepared – she’d already got sanitary towels in and a sanitary belt specifically for me, because my physical changes were there. […] my mum knew about it, but didn’t tell me anything about it, and all she said was: ‘Oh, it just shows that you’re grown up now … but you’ll have these once a month, until you are about 50’, and that was it. (Interviewee 3, 46–60 age group)
I think that by the sounds of them, they are a bit bad. I don’t want to start till later on, ’cause everyone says that you can get really bad cramps, and I don’t want cramps. (Interviewee 4, 12–14 age group)
The fear of starting during a swimming lesson was particularly strong, as this is a time when the body is more exposed to the gaze of others than it would normally be: I’m a bit scared of when it’ll start, like, I don’t want it to be in a swimming pool (Interviewee 4, 12–14 age group).
Body-watching and menstrual management often start before the menarche, when adolescents anticipate the arrival of menstruation. There is an awareness that the performance is fragile and can be shattered by very minor mishaps (Goffman, 1990, p. 63). It is particularly clear that women put pressure on themselves to police their own bodies, and expect similar practices from others: ‘Menstrual etiquette depends most fundamentally for its success upon women's ability and willingness to watch themselves’ (Ginsburg, 1996, p. 373). If we draw on Foucault's work (1971, 1977), it is clear that social control can be exercised through the external observation and sequestration of problematic individuals and behaviour, as well as through (internal) self-control. In Foucauldian terms, bodily functions such as menstruation are ‘confined’ and sequestered, kept in their place by discourses that compel us to carry out activities in their proper place, to do the accepted thing.
Modern women have at their disposal a variety of contraceptive methods, many of which perturb monthly vaginal bleeding. OCs are still widely used to regulate monthly menses but, in addition, women now have the option of extended pill regimens to decrease the number of vaginal bleeding episodes, or to use progestogen-only methods of contraception and potentially eliminate bleeding altogether. (d’Arcangues et al, 2011, p. 10)
For me, it's a pain in the arse, and I hate it because I had the pleasure of not having periods for years, and now the hormones in my implant have just sent me wappy, and I hate it, and so all the sort-of stories about people having accidents and things are all happening to me now, and it's horrible, and I hate it! (Interviewee 10, 18–30 age group)
[T]here was no security of not showing […] leaking was common garden at school, particularly with them summer dresses … horrendous uniform. My memories of starting are not particularly clear. I don’t think I could have started at school, because you would have, at that time … I think I would have remembered the [shock of] it happening. Erm … and you didn’t do games, and you certainly didn’t go swimming, because there was nothing else to use. […] You didn’t do anything, because there wasn’t decent sanitary protection, basically. […] It must have been horrendous if they were in competitions for, like, sport and stuff, if you think about it, in those days …. (Interviewee 7, 46–60 age group)
In the market place of contemporary sanitation, a further, more ‘advanced’ concealment of menstruation is promoted by products such as scented tampons and scented sanitary towels. This suggests a negative judgement of the cyclic state of menstruating women, as the menstruating body is at odds with evermore visible images of sexually active women, who, by way of marketing campaigns and other media coverage are presented as apparently always ‘available’. It may be that a continuation of the menstrual-sex ‘taboo’ has been influential in promoting the high visibility of the sexualised woman in contemporary society over that of the menstruating woman, who, with her sexual unavailability, has been ‘hushed away’. This can be seen in television advertising campaigns for menstrual products, which present images of fashionable and attractive young women who are only able to keep up this sexualised ‘front’ by using the product advertised, and imply that if women do not use the product in question, they run the risk of exposure, shame and stigmatisation because of the revelation of menstruation (Newton, 2011, pp. 182–190).
Advertisers are promoting the idea that menstruation is a female affliction for which numerous care products or ‘cures’ must be purchased. Park (1996, p. 165) notes: ‘A post-modern marketing strategy […] masks this renewed version of female biology as destiny, making it appear we can cure our ailments by simple consumption’. As new products come on to the market, with added ‘safety’ features to prevent against leakage and to keep menstrual blood within the bounds of the product, women are led to believe that if they do not buy into the latest gimmicky sanitary product then they are at risk of their menstrual blood staining and ‘contaminating’ their clothes and also their reputation. The need to be in control of one’s bodily functions is key to understanding how the influences and pressures of menstrual advertising and etiquette act on girls and women. ‘Self-discipline and policing through the everyday acts of feminine bodily care and the use of menstrual products and other commodities perpetuates corporate capitalism at the same time that it creates disciplined bodies’ (Lee and Sasser-Coen, 1996, p. 69).
The individual performance of menstrual management becomes a collective practice. Women practise techniques of menstrual management in order to appear ‘feminine’. Although ‘backstage’ bodies are leaky and perceived to be ‘smelly’, a ‘front stage’ feminine body is contained and perfumed to olfactory perfection. Women manage their bodies to ‘become’ themselves during menstruation, in order to keep up the illusion of physiological, and social consistency, even though their bodies are cyclical and changeable. Unfortunately, menstruation is subject to strong stereotypes – we are presented with images of menstruating women as unattractive, bloated, spotty, bad tempered and sexually unavailable. This striving to remain immaculate and to present a consistently beautiful body is at odds with naturally functioning bodies.
[M]y sister had a belt, and she was 2½ years ahead of me … so it would have been 1975 when she probably started, and mine was about 1977, and she had to have a belt with these loops on for the sanitary towel, and somehow in that short period of time they’d developed quickly, and you just had a strip where, you know, you peel the thing off … and they weren’t very decent at all, but you just felt that they were … you know, that they were better than having to have a belt – and I remember thinking: ‘Oh, thank God for that!’, you know – some progress had been made. (Interviewee 4, 31–45 age group)
On the other hand, however, very little ‘progress’ appears to have been made in the ways in which we think and feel about menstruation. Menstruation for girls in school lessons is simple ‘blood management’, when in fact it calls for a rather more nuanced understanding and appreciation of life cycles, bodies and reproductive capabilities.
They are good and bad: I mean they’re good because it means that you can have children when you are older, if you want to, but they are bad, because they’re sometimes really painful, and prevent you from doing things like swimming, if you don’t like doing swimming when you’re on your period, and then it's a bit embarrassing sometimes. (Interviewee 5, 12–14 age group)
This is not to suggest that menstruation is of concern to all young women, or should be of importance to all women. Nevertheless, it is worth considering whether a more liberal, more appreciative educational discourse might go some way to allaying the concerns of teenaged young women, such as those to whom I spoke, who worry about when ‘it’ will start, what will happen, whom they will have to tell, and most importantly, who might know they are ‘on’, should their performance slip. Despite a more open cultural space where menstruation is spoken about and ‘cures’ put on sale to hide it, we need to consider what function the secrecy around personal menstruation serves in a world where we are witnessing the ‘death of privacy’ and where people share and document the minutiae of their everyday lives on social networking sites. Although there are many references to menstruation in our immediate social and cultural environment, it is only when menstruation is experienced as a personal event that continued silence pervades. The women in my study readily offered stories of their own experiences with menstruation, the most vividly remembered ones being those where their ‘secret’ had been allowed to slip. Therefore, it is worth considering whether this perceived silence surrounding personal menstruation may serve a positive purpose for women in an environment where ‘being on’ is still perceived as a messy and sensitive subject.
In closing, I would argue that studying ‘everyday’ discourses about menstruation provides insight into how, by using the words and terms of ordinary people, this ‘fact of life’ is managed and articulated as both a ‘sensitive’ and ‘everyday’ topic, a theoretical standpoint that draws on Goffmanian concepts of ‘impression management’ and ‘stigma’. This theoretical approach to body management and ‘status passages’ has implications beyond the study of menstruation, and must provide an avenue for further discussions concerning the individual and collective management of body function or health conditions.