A history lesson by Mariah on taboos & menstruation
At Yoni we’re in the business of breaking the taboo of menstruation and everything related. However, Mariah started thinking: what are taboo’s exactly and how did menstruation become a taboo? Let’s read on and find out!
According to the dictionary a taboo is something forbidden or sacred based on religious beliefs or morals. It signifies unacceptable behaviour, generating an emotional reaction and generally a strong feeling of disgust. So a taboo is not just something immoral like gambling or stealing.
There are 2 types of taboos. Those which are generally constant and those that are ever changing – like menstruation. Those that constant arise from their evolutionary advantage and are often shared by animals like cannibalism or incest.
On the other hand there are ever changing taboos. These are taboos that vary widely between culture, religion, geography and time period. Examples are adultery, food taboos, inter-racial or religion marriages.
In my research I identified 4 main categories of taboos:
- Sex like masturbation or pedophilia
- Differences between people like bigotry or racism
- Murder or death like abortion or euthanasia
- Bodily functions like spitting or menstruation
A long standing taboo: Menstruation
The English root for the word “taboo” comes from the Polynesian word “tapua”, which meant sacred as well as literally menstruation. Looking back in time, all major religions view menstruating women as unclean or impure in one way or another and hence spiritually, physically or both unfit for ceremonial practice or daily behaviour.
But how did this happen? Looking even further back in time, it’s clear that menstruation was never fully understood (and still isn’t!). It was therefore seen as something sacred & powerful but also something evil & poisonous:
- Plato (400BC) for example saw the uterus as something autonomous to the female body and as something with its’ own (mostly negative) emotions, which explained its’ need to bleed.
- It wasn’t until the 1800s that menstruation was connected to ovulation.
- In the 1920 a popular American physician conceived the term “Menotoxin” concluding that menstruating women excreted toxic substances from their skin causing flowers to wilt.
When something isn’t fully understood and seen as both sacred & powerful but also evil & poisonous, therefore carries a threat of danger and therefore needs to have certain rules to contain the potential threat. This explains how and why rules were put in place to isolate or exclude menstruating women from religious as well as normal life.
The view that menstruation was no longer part of normal life, has medicalized the term, making it something medical in nature, requiring medical solutions instead of practical ones. This is clearly reflected in the negative vocabulary relating to fem care products for example terms like feminine hygiene or sanitary pad clearly implying that menstruation is something dirty.
The medicalization of menstruation has also led women to feel shameful and has severely impaired any open discussion on the topic.
Did you know?
- That it wasn’t until 2005 that “menstrual huts” were banned by the government of Nepal.
- That many girls in India are still not allowed to touch pickle or flowers during their period.
- In the Western world there is a widespread belief that 80-90% of all women suffer from the mental disorder PMS even though there is no scientific research to back this up and the diagnosis has been narrowed down to PMDD to which only 4-6% of all women suffer.
- 1 in 10 African girls miss school during their period, leading to school dropout with a real social and economic impact on society.
- A lack of knowledge and education keep women away from being able to adequately take care of their health as well as to deal with the actual source of their negative emotions.
- The taboo contributes to the stereotype of women being more irrational and less competent than men, which in part contributes to the persistent wage gap and glass ceilings.
How to break the taboo?
Unfortunately there’s no easy answer but part of the answer is definitely to get ourselves better informed on the topic as well as on the consequences the taboo has itself on real people. Public discussion will play a key part in ditching the shame and normalizing menstruation again.
Who plays a role in normalizing menstruation and the female reproductive system in general?
- Clue app founded in 2012 with as mission to “take female reproductive health out of taboo land and to start a reproductive health revolution”
- Thinx founded in 2014
- ‘Whisper‘ campaign in India (from P&G / Always)
- TV show Girls; Lena Dunham says “reflects part of the population that wasn’t reflected in “Sex in the City””.
- Artists like Rupi Kuar (artist, activist and poet) and Mandy Smith (artist and paper-sculptor) “No more cutting project“
- The Guardian’s Vagina Dispatches (2016)
At Yoni we’re on a mission as well to break the taboo around menstruation. Last week Mariah was asked to speak about taboos for Creative Mornings. Curious? You can watch the full video and presentation here. We’d love to hear your opinion on this topic as well via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header via Sophie Delaporte