Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation
by Elissa Stein
Reviewed by Eryn Loeb
When I was in middle school, a friend and I thought it was hilarious to call the Tampax helpline and ask ridiculous questions. Through barely suppressed giggles, we also had a blast requesting that tampon samples be sent to the homes of male classmates we thought were annoying and/or mean, oh-so-cleverly turning their names into "Davida" and "Mattie" when supplying their home addresses (this was met with the obvious skepticism of the bored woman on the other end of the line). At that age, every girl I knew was totally obsessed with periods: the mechanics, the freighted symbolism, the accessories and advertisements, the question of who among us had gotten hers and who was still anxiously waiting. We were desperate to get our periods and become women already, but we also picked up on the idea that there was something humiliating about menstrual products.
Over the years, lots of writers have mined this rich territory, developing theories about the arguably blessed event that is menarche, and the culture swirling manically around it. Periods have been a dramatic seed for fiction: Most notoriously, of course, Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret; though the first I heard of it was actually in Tomboy by Norma Klein, which in third grade sent me running to my mother with big questions. Mostly though, authors of both fiction and nonfiction have taken up the cause of busting menstrual myths. The need for countering misinformation has hardly dwindled over the years; apparently, plenty of girls still think they pee and bleed out of the same orifice, and menstruation is still understood with a retro blend of embarrassment, fear and superstition.
As Elissa Stein and Susan Kim demonstrate in their lively new book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, the history and role of periods is also pretty fascinating stuff, with direct bearing on women's changing roles in society over many, many years. Stein and Kim's exploration touches on all aspects of menstruation -- from its relationship to old-school hysteria diagnoses and women's perplexing sexuality, to advertising and the rise of "feminine hygiene products" -- and is driven by their pure excitement about the topic, an enthusiastic "Did you know and can you believe it?" tone that feels chummy and genuinely enthralled rather than patronizing. Some readers may indeed know some of the many facts imparted here -- not all of us can claim, as the authors do, to have been ignorant of menstruation porn and the menstrual effects of birth control pills before engaging in serious research -- but that doesn't mean it's not fun to hear about them from a pair of women who are knowledgeable, candid, and totally psyched about how the pieces of the whole story fit together.
With a cute pin-up girl on the cover, the colorful, glossy volume is hard to categorize, falling somewhere between straightforward cultural criticism and coffee table book. In Flow, history and personal experiences are mashed up with debunked myths, frank health information, some light anti-corporate editorializing and many gorgeous reproductions of cringe-worthy advertisements for all manner of feminine products from as far back as the mid-1800s. Stein and Kim call our attention to some telling coincidences: Kotex pads burst onto the market the same year women got the right to vote, which was also the same year that saw the first Miss America pageant (that would be 1920). Along with fear and shame, twisted versions of freedom and liberation have always been used to sell women everything from tampons to cigarettes. Throughout the book, the authors are consistently skeptical about what's being promoted and how. Their chronicle of the marketing battles between makers of tampons and pads is especially great, as they the two sides launched what amounted to smear campaigns and fought over which form of "protection" was superior ("Tampax makes life worth living," boasted one 1939 ad). And we learn that as late as 1985, a pre-Friends, pre-Cougar Town, pre-Arquette Courteney Cox was the first person to use the word "period" in a TV commercial.
Stein and Kim's wide-eyed couching of information ("You may want to sit down for this part," "What's up with that, anyway?") can be a bit much, but their approach is likeable and reliably irreverent. "Vicarious menstruation," they write in a chapter called "When Good Periods Go Bad," "is one of those Ripley's Believe It or Not events that's good to trot out during long car rides or boring dinner parties." They describe a cycle as an "elaborate Kabuki dance of glands, hormones, eggs, and follicles," and helpfully point out that menstrual flow is "made up of familiar ingredients any woman has lying around her body."
It becomes clear that menstruation can be understood in relation to a pervasive and ongoing confusion about what women's bodies are capable of, and what the implications might be. This is true when it comes to men's perceptions of women and their apparently baffling cycles, but it applies just as much to women's understanding of their own bodies. Tampons, for example, were once promoted only to married women, and they were something of a hard sell (after all, proper ladies don't put things in their vaginas). Today, some people still believe that using a tampon is tantamount to losing your virginity (of course, some people also believe that Barack Obama is not an American citizen). If you use tampons knowing this history, are you laughing in the face of assumptions about what kind of woman does so? Are you happily liberated breaking free from the irritating demands of your body, or are you becoming a slave to a corporation that overcharges you for what amounts to a cotton plug? Are pain relievers and menstrual suppressants tools of liberation, or do they represent the pathologizing of something completely natural? Should periods be controlled or celebrated? Is it possible to do both? As always, there aren't clear lines between what limits us and what sets us free.
Stein and Kim want us to be more open about all of this, to stop smuggling our tampons to the bathroom like we're dealing with a dirty secret instead of something ordinary. Despite their affection for menstrual kitsch and the subcultural celebration of ladyparts (plush uterus-shaped pillows and environmentally friendly cloth pads printed with robots, anyone?), they're annoyed that "feeling comfortable in our own bodies is still considered so damn freaky and that exploring viable options to corporate femcare immediately puts one smack in the middle of some cultish, feminist ghetto." (Zing!) Flow revels in the awesome mysteriousness of women's bodies even as its authors try to counter it. It's hard to maintain both positions, though there's something appealing about being normal and mystifying at the same time. That's a central tension of how people have viewed women -- and how women have viewed themselves -- throughout history. Not surprisingly, the ambivalence about the role and significance of menstruation is equally entrenched.
Still, why talk about it? Stein and Kim are tuned in enough to pose that question directly, and their book stands as a pretty clear answer. Certainly, we don't have to talk about everything, but Flow shows that menstruation -- and women's many experiences of it -- are fodder for a host of worthwhile and often important conversations.