Because historically – and contemporarily – so much “ickiness,” embarrassment, shame and mystery have surrounded women’s monthly periods, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim have written a book with an admirable purpose. Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation aims to demystify the one common experience that all women have but few celebrate. The book’s high production values clearly reflect Stein and Kim’s ethos; packed with pin-up girls and examples of feminine product advertising, it’s kitschy, colorful, cute – coffee table material, something to display rather than hide. All of which is their point – women shouldn’t feel like we have to hide during our periods, nor should reliable information about them be hidden from us.
Stein and Kim’s first chapter, on “Language,” highlights the way that gendered norms regarding feminine passivity versus male activity are embedded in the language we use to describe even the most basic of biological processes, with “depressing, loser-ish” verbs that imply deterioration used to describe menstruation while “sexy, empowered, action-hero verbs” are used to describe ejaculation. This type of language leaves us, they note, “with the impression that the sad-sack uterus… has once again not been asked to the pregnancy prom, so it just stays home and lets it all go – that menstruation is, essentially, a lame combination of inertia and failure,” even though that’s an inaccurate portrayal of the complex and dynamic menstrual process (8). (Karen Houppert is cited in this particular section; Emily Martin’s 1991 article “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Gender Roles” is an even earlier source of similar material.) Stein and Kim urge us to question the language of disgust, embarrassment, weakness, sickness, etc. that is taken for granted as the way one describes the menstruation, because not doing so grants those words the power to shape not only our perceptions of that monthly process but our experiences of it.
As narrators, Stein and Kim take on the authorial personas of chatty big sisters or cooler, wiser friends. While this is clearly by design, the gossipy, ingratiating tone does grate on one’s nerves after a while. Eventually, one wishes they would just present the facts without all the editorializing and exclamation points. Oddly enough, I found this sentiment also applied to their deep affection for the introductory adverb.
At the heart of my concern with this rhetorical approach, and more importantly, is an issue that goes beyond simple irritation at its contrived intimacy. One of the authors’ oft repeated phrases in Flow is some variation of “Take it from us…” or “Trust us…,” which is inevitably followed by some assertion, e.g.: “While fibroids aren’t caused by the menstrual cycle, their growth is stimulated by estrogen… and take it from us, boy, can they grow!” (208) This imperious assumption of authority contravenes the authors' message by coming across as another form of the very behavior by the vested interests that they criticize. Stein and Kim’s salient point is that for years women have been encouraged to trust (often unreliable, dangerous, misinformed, ignorant and/or biased) sources for information regarding their biological processes. The best way to encourage critical thinking about this information is not then to continually proclaim one’s own trustworthiness, which implies that we can’t interpret the evidence for ourselves. It’s unfortunate that with every “trust us,” one hears the chatty cheerleader narrators morph into Joe Isuzu. I found myself wishing that Stein and Kim's editor would have been a bit more heavy-handed with the red pen when it came to the avowals of integrity. It's a classic case of show vs. tell. Rather than telling the reader how trustworthy they are, the authors would better serve readers by simply demonstrating that integrity - which Stein and Kim do; they simply needn't trumpet it, as that's a rhetorical strategy which undermines their credibility rather than strengthens it.
While this is a book clearly not written for the academic or the feminist who is already well-versed in women’s studies, at times Stein and Kim curiously omit certain items from their narrative that seem basic to a study of feminine cultural history. For instance, I was surprised that the section on the lore of destructive female deities omits any mention of the Hebrew demon Lilith, an incubus who also caused harm to infants. Somewhere between the eighth and the tenth century, Lilith’s legend was augmented to cast her as the first of the Biblical Adam’s wives; because she was made out of clay along with Adam she was equal to him and refused to submit, particularly sexually (as opposed to the later Eve, made of Adam’s rib and thus his subordinate). Stein and Kim tell us that Adam’s name means “bloody clay,” the connotations of which now survive contemporarily as “red earth.” Lilith’s role is an important part of the context of this information, yet it remains mentioned.
Flow’s fourth chapter, “Hysteria,” leads us to an interesting conclusion: that the “discovery” of PMS, first so-called in 1953, closely following the American Pyschiatric Association’s removal of hysteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1952, suggests that hysteria has simply been renamed and rebranded as “pre-menstrual syndrome,” a condition as difficult to diagnose and define as hysteria once was. Certainly, Stein and Kim present compelling evidence to support such an idea, and I think it’s worth considering. In this chapter my quibbles are not with the conclusion, but again with some of the information left out in the lead up to that conclusion. Just before presenting the conclusion I’ve noted, Stein and Kim tell us that “The 1950s may not have been a feminist mecca, but women had more rights than ever before in history.” As Susan Faludi discusses at length in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, what’s also true about the 1950s is that it saw a backlash against the gains in women’s freedoms engendered by the peculiar needs of wartime. Now that the men had come home from war, they needed to go back to work, and the prevailing thought was that the women who had gone to work in their stead now needed to be gotten out of the way to make room for the returning men. Thus women were actively encouraged to get back into the home and guilted into becoming the perfect housewives, stereotypical gender roles (re)enforced with a vengeance. Surely, making the connection between this particular social circumstance and the addition of PMS to the lexicon would be useful in strengthening Stein and Kim’s argument.
In the lead up to the conclusion of Chapter 4, Stein and Kim ask,
“…can we get both political and conspiracy-theorish for a moment? Could what was historically called hysteria – widespread instances of clinical depression, unhappiness, anxiety, anger – have been a simple product not so much of sexual or maternal frustration, but of actual systematized oppression? After all, throughout history, women had no rights or autonomy, and were routinely barred from higher education, property ownership, the right to vote, careers. Could it be that when anyone is faced with such fundamental obstacles to happiness and self-actualization, even a whiz-bang orgasm isn’t enough to make things all better again?”(62)
Conspiracy theories are associated with paranoia, delusion and a lack of objectivity. Yet the
notion of hysteria as bodily protest against the conscripted feminine
gender roles conferred on upper middle-class women of the nineteenth
century is well-established. This argument has already been cogently made by a number of
feminist scholars over the years, notably by Susan Bordo in her 1993
book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, but whom aren’t cited here. To
cast the idea of the sociological origins of hysteria as
“conspiracy-theorish,” as the authors do, is to confer hysterical
properties upon that idea, thus Stein and Kim unfortunately contradict
themselves via the dint of their own rhetoric.
It may sound as if I mean to be entirely critical of this text; I don’t. Overall, as I mentioned in the introduction, Stein and Kim have written a book with an admirable purpose; their work addresses a subject far too often left in the dark and does so in a way that’s to be welcomed for its positivity. Academic criticisms aside, this cheeky book in all its quintessential Third Wave sex-positive girliness is the sort of thing I would gladly give to my (hypothetical) pre-teen or teenaged daughter when she hit puberty. It provides an attractive and nonthreatening source of information for girls. Points of disagreement with the text could become useful entry points for discussion and teachable moments in critical thinking and encouragement for further research.
*Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation is published by St. Martin's Griffin, an imprint of Macmillan. The video below features an interview with author Elissa Stein.