Book Reviews

The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation
By Karen Houppert
Review by William A. Spriggs, August 22, 2004

This is the first of three book reviews that I will devote in my studies surrounding the menstrual cycle. I am currently working on several theories concerning the negative connotations attached to this natural biological event and the reasoning behind those thoughts. Specifically, I argue that the origin of misogyny may have begun with conceptions and social norms surrounding the menstrual cycle.

The Curse is a chatty, witty, and lucid piece by a progressive feminist who truly wonders what the big fuss is all about concerning menstruation, and vents her anger at big business and the underlying 'hiddenness' that they perpetuate behind this normal biological event. The book does some research into the sanitary protection industry and delves into myths surrounding PMS (pre-menstrual stress); it gives us citations to back up its research, but, by-in-large, it is largely an anecdotal work. Now, that does not imply that it is not a useful book, because, once again, even though we stress the evolutionary perspective on this website, we must remember that culture imparts the majority force behind human behavior; it is from these non-scientific locations where we will mine the greatest yield of understanding on social norm behaviors that have a major influence on human behavior.

She opens her book with a lucid, no nonsense explanation of the cycle.

"Once a month, the lining of the uterus, acting on signals from estrogen and progesterone hormones, thickens with spongy, blood-filled nutrients. If the woman has had sex and an egg and a sperm join, this uterine lining (endometruim) will be used to sustain the developing embryo. If fertilization doesn't take place, the egg travels down the fallopian tube, through the uterus, past the cervix, and out the vagina. Approximately twelve days later, when the levels of estrogen and progesterone have dropped and the uterus has gotten the message that no pregnancy has occurred, the uterine lining - blood and mucus - simply flows out. In total, each period consists of four to six tablespoons of blood." P. 4.

The most important message that emerges early in the book is that there is a definitive belief amongst modern American women, and for that matter, many humans in different cultures, that there is something inherently abnormal about this process and that all efforts possible should be done to conceal it. The book confirms this behavioral mechanism with its historical critique of sanitary menstrual product advertisements. The one that I thought the most important in terms of imparting knowledge to us is the one from 1936, which declares -"that after 2000 years…the woman alone with her troublesome days…", implying the arrival of her monthly period leaves the female isolated and that "help" has finally arrived in the form of the sanitary napkin - (and the hidden message is that big businesses controlled by males brought this "life-saving product" to market). Also importantly is the advertising phrase from the 1949 Good Housekeeping ad featuring Kotex: "You don't know you're wearing one - and neither does anyone else." P. 4.

So now we can begin to ask questions that relate to behavioral mechanisms associated with the menstrual cycle. Why is it so important that no one know your wearing a sanitary device? Why the concealment? Why the embarrassment if revealed? Why is there a taboo over revealing a natural biological process and why is there the fear of exposure? These are some of the questions that sprung to my mind early in the book, which Ms. Houppert does not answer; but in her defense, the book was not written from an evolutionary or human behavioral perspective, but does reveal to us the embittered thoughts of an well educated woman and her angst over social norms placing restrictive social rules concerning a natural event occurring in her body.. What she does present to us is a lashing out at society in general, and the sanitary protection industry in particular, about the ridiculousness of making a big deal about hiding the fact that at least 25% of the child-bearing aged females in any country at any moment in time are presently having their monthly periods; and that is a mind jogging thought.

One of my thoughts that emerged was that there may be a deep innate fear in all humans of revealing a biological "defect" to others, such as bleeding, that may have indicated in the Pliocene that one is in the process of dying; if so, then assistance of any kind from others around you may have been withheld; the second possibility is that is just part of our determination to put a stoic face on hardships that push us forward toward survivability. (I even think that that those two theories are pretty thin). I think this next one is a thin, but a little more on target: Since human survival depended so much upon on one's acceptance into a particular group, the "inability" of a female (or a male) to control their own bodily functions may have emerged as a form of social norm behavior - "If you can't control your own bodily functions," like an old person who can't wipe their bottom any more or a person with excessive flatulence, (or a broken leg that no one could fix in the Pliocene) "then that means that you are 'defective' and we don't want to be near you."

However interesting those three arguments may be, I think that when we begin to examine how a group sets "standards," "rules," or social norms concerning one's acceptance into a group, and start considering theories surrounding the possibility of the social rules dictating "cleanliness" associated with menstrual bleeding, then I think we are starting to encroach into the truth about why there is a "fear" amongst women in revealing this normal biological event.. It is here that, I believe, The Curse makes its most important contribution to our knowledge base from the information mined from early advertisements.

"Consider this: since the dawn of Kotex, advertisements for disposable pads have been full of dire warning about odor. For example, one 1920s scenario shows a "dean of women" discussing modern hygiene and odor with a troubled student. 'Many women are unconsciously guilty. At certain times they are seriously offensive to others. With realization comes constant fear.' Fast forward fifty years and Playtex plays on the same insecurities. 'The nice thing about a tampon is it keeps you odor-free. Or does it?' This 1972 double-page spread depicts an anxious woman alone at a party, a swirl of revelers in the background. Playtex assures this lonely pariah that its tampon 'reduces any doubt about intimate odor, but in a very gentle, totally feminine way that's very reassuring.'" pp. 37 & 38. So, from the evidence of the 1920s upward until the 1970s, advertisers have been promoting a solution that would solve the "odor problem" associated with the menstrual cycle. To the best of my knowledge, there are no studies that have been done measuring the "offensiveness" of menstrual odor, and I make a plea to science that such studies be conducted.

If you can imagine what it must have been like for our ancestral sisters back at least 75,000 years ago before our species began to migrate out of Africa, you might be better able to relate to her situation: Her monthly cycle of discharge, in combination with equatorial heat, (and in the Middle East today) most likely emitted an odor that was considered offensive to some and perhaps bordered on "disgusting." Disgust is a powerful human emotion, and an important one, because it helped to indicate to our primal ancestors the possible dangers associated with "foul" taste or smell. I don't usually quote from another book while doing a book reviews, but this is too important; the following quote is from my book review of Dr. Helen Stevenson's book, Women's Roots:

"Puberty rites for girls were and more inclined to mark them in a tabooed condition, that is, with red power on their bodies to mark their "untouchability" or menstruation visible so nobody will come near them." p.14.

"Menstruating women, and women after childbirth, were then, and in some major religions today, and in all tribal groups, considered contaminators and polluters...In most societies a special hut is provided to which women must resort during their menstrual period." p. 18 & 19. "The Hebrews attached the greatest importance to the primitive taboo. 'If a woman have an issue and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until evening. Anyone who touched her bed or anything that she sat upon was required 'to wash, his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.'" p. 20.

Along this theme of "contamination," we can't ignore this gem from The Curse: "In 1878, when doctors were faced with the question of whether to admit women to medical schools, the British Medical Journal published a discussion about whether menstruating women spoiled meat when they touched it. Checking in on the debate, one doctor…wrote, 'If such bad results accure from a woman curing dead meat whilst she is menstruating, what would result, under similar conditions, from her attempt to cure living flesh in her midwifery or surgical practice?'" p. 152.

To me, it would appear that taboos and myths emerging from hunter-gatherers regarding menstruating women "cursing" a male hunter with bad luck and then morphing throughout the years into a "requirement" for cleanliness before entering a holy place and "meeting with God," and then morphing again into "modern medical" workplace restrictions seems to make the logical progressive sense - at least, when we consider, how dominant male fundamental tribal, religious, and "doctoral" male elders controlling the local cultures in their timelines worked the system to their advantage. It is a subject that requires more study, but I feel that this path will lead to many of the myths and misinformation surrounding the "inferiority" of females; including the masthead, misogyny.

The Curse then meanders into the realm of advertising aimed at pre-menstrual females and is mainly a continuation of a criticism of the sanitary industry for its advertising policies. However, there is a brief detour into girls pre-teen magazines that all have advice columns with "I-could-have-just-died" of embarrassment articles that help to perpetuate the myths surrounding the "negative" affects the revelation of one's period would have on one's mating prospects. This section is important because it sheds light on how culture is spread within a "community'; in this case, a community of young pre-teenagers relating tales of how to progress though the various stages of their lives and how to solve those problems, only in this case, it is found in the context of a magazine designed to sell products to young pre-teen girls.

But it isn't until part three of her book, titled: "The Adult: PMS: The Scourge of the Nineties, does Ms. Houppert hit paydirt.".

"After the end of World War II, when the supplemental women's army was looking to downsize and male soldiers were returning to their jobs, Rosie the Riveter was sent home with a rash of new studies "proving" that children needed their moms at home, that the workplace was potentially hazardous to women's cycles made them less-competent workers than men. Enter Dr. Katharina Dalton, circa 1950, with a name for this sweeping and debilitating affliction: premenstrual syndrome.

"Historically, women's hormones - or, before those hormones were identified, women's uteruses or menstrual cycles - have been blamed for consumption, insanity, dyspepsia, nervous prostration, rheumatism, hysteria, headaches, muscular aches, weakness, depression, indigestion, paleness, troublesomeness, 'eating like a ploughman,' erotic tendencies, persecution mania, and 'simple 'cussed-ness," masturbation, attempted suicide, pp. 158 & 159. Later, when PMS entered the popular lexicon, women's hormones became responsible for marital strife; poor job performance; depression, anxiety, and tension; feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anger, and irritability; interpersonal conflicts; decreased interest in work, school, friends, and hobbies; difficulty in concentrating; overeating; hypersomnia and insomnia; breast tenderness; joint or muscle pain; bloating; achiness; acne; aggressiveness; constipation and diarrhea; dizziness; edema; fatigue; food cravings; forgetfulness; headaches; hot flashes; mood swings; nausea; palpitations; restlessness and lethargy; tearfulness; tension; weight gain; social withdrawal; asthma; child abuse; car accidents; shoplifting; and even murder."
pp. 158 & 159.

I do not have the time to devote to arguing the fine evolutionary points concerning the "disorder" of Pre-Menstrual Stress syndrome except to say that it is widespread enough to be considered a medical "disorder" found in the DMS-IV. I will leave this book review with a sentence that I know will not endear me to radical feminist: That there are females out there that "embrace" this "disorder" to free ride - that is, they use the disorder to excuse themselves from particular functions, and in life in general, and perpetuate the myth that they are "dysfunctional," "weak," and in need of assistance. Some of my more conservative evolutionist colleagues call this, "medical welfare for women." Of course, as a liberal progressive, I don't take this stance, but I can see where this could be a gray area of controversy. As always, I believe that there is a small group that may view their lives in this light, and of course, it works to the detriment of the majority of hard-working and deserving females.

Even though, The Curse, is not written from an evolutionary perspective, and therefore fails to meet my Recommended Book list, I believe that it is an excellent first start to students who are brave enough to immerse themselves into such a controversial, yet extremely important feminist subject.

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