Layering Meaning: Why popular menstrual lingo might be doing more harm than good
An Article by Rita Agha
Picture this: You are in a classroom, and your lecturer asks you a question on a topic you're passionate about. The unexpectedness of the question takes you by surprise. Overwhelmed by your nervousness, you start stumbling over your words, feeling nervous. A classmate leans over and casually says, "Hey, is it that time of the month or what?" This story underlies how language reveals our perception of menstruation. In this piece, I reflect on the significance of language in menstrual discourse based on my personal experiences.
Is it that time of the month? The Language of Irrationality
A seemingly harmless question that often reinforces the perceived irrationality of menstruating bodies. Not only does it trivialize the menstrual health concerns of Menstruators. It also justifies the exclusion of people based on their menstruating status. Reports of historical menstrual discourse have revealed the inherent danger of this approach. Surely, this is not the direction of menstrual discourse in 2023.
Personal Care - Language in Commercial Spaces
During one of my grocery shopping sessions in Canberra. I tried to get a pad at one of the local stores. My search for a pad at the store on this day felt like the ultimate hunt with zero per cent chances of success. Every aisle had products with clear labels, from snacks to toiletries. Well, everything except for pads! They labelled the section that had only menstrual pads as 'personal care.' This labelling was intriguing to me. Why were sanitary pads the only items categorized as "personal care"? This commercial definition of pads as a personal need raised my concerns about menstrual stigma. Why are the products distinctively labelled in a way that reinforces the need to make menstruation invisible in public?
Blue Blood and Dancing Menstruators -Unrealistic Representations
Media representations of menstruation are another facet of the issue. This is usually characterised by menstruators bleeding blue blood or dancing with joy to purchase the perfect pad.
I find such representations unappealing. Not only because I have never seen any menstruator bleed blue blood. But also, because it is paradoxical with the logic of “personal care” with which the product is delivered to the consumers.
The purchase of menstrual products while labelled as a personal care activity is also externally portrayed in the media as a cause for public celebration in a way that contrasts with the reality of menstruators. For something supposedly personal, it's surprising that many external stakeholders have a say in shaping how it is experienced by users.
We will see - The Medical Language of Uncertainty
Then there are those awkward trips to the doctor's office when I seek relief for painful cramps and nausea but come out more uncertain about the state of my menstrual wellness due to aloof and reoccurring answers like “we will see” to my questions of “will this work?”. It is not the uncertainty that terrifies me the most but the indifference with which many medical practitioners have expressed this uncertainty.
Why it Matters.
These languages and common terms with which menstruation is addressed in discourse reflect several menstrual challenges of contemporary society. Among these are, the need to make menstruation invisible and a secret in public spaces, the perceived irrationality associated with the menstruating body that often justifies discrimination against menstruators and the underprioritized state of menstrual research. I have experienced them and from engaging with fellow menstruators, it's clear I'm not alone (See Lauren Wisgard’s Opinion piece on the ugly truth about gender bias in medicine on this blog).
The Way Forward:
Considering the impact of language in menstrual discourse, criticality and reflexivity is imperative. We must ensure that everyday interactions and discussions about menstruation are not perpetuating the same injustices we are advocating against nor undermining the advocacy efforts of stakeholders. We should hold stakeholders accountable for the choice of language in the media, and marketing messages. We should also be reflexive in our choice of language while interacting with friends, family, and colleagues. The language we choose matters, as it influences experiences and practices related to menstruation.
Note: This essay reflects moments from my perspective as a menstruator. I acknowledge that there are diverse menstrual experiences, which may not be fully captured in this writing.