Flow | Elissa Stein

Summary of: Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation
By: Elissa Stein


Embark on a journey through the curious history and misconceptions surrounding menstruation in Elissa Stein’s illuminating book, ‘Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation’. Dive into the early notions of hysteria and their impact on women’s history, the influence of religion on period-related taboos, and the creation of commercial femcare products. We’ll also touch on the advertising techniques that reinforce outdated attitudes towards menstruation and explore common misunderstandings about menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and birth control pills. Finally, we’ll discuss modern pharmaceuticals that promise to eliminate periods and menopause, shedding light on whether these ‘solutions’ are necessary, or even harmful.

From Hysteria to PMS

Throughout history, women exhibiting signs of what we now understand to be premenstrual syndrome (PMS) were accused of being witches and displaying “hysteria.” The medieval stigma surrounding female behaviors can be attributed to ignorance about female anatomy and sexuality. Despite a gradual shift in medical understanding, hysteria remained recognized until the 1950s when it was replaced with the diagnosis of PMS. However, PMS and the more severe Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) still remain poorly understood, raising the question if these emotional and physiological reactions should be treated as problems that need solving or simply accepted as part of the human experience.

Unraveling Period Sex Taboos

Period sex remains one of the biggest taboos, largely due to religious beliefs that label menstruating women as unclean. However, science proves that it is not harmful, and engaging in it may even have health benefits. By understanding the roots of these taboos and encouraging open discussion, we can challenge stigmas and promote healthier attitudes towards sexuality and menstruation.

Throughout history, numerous religious doctrines have propagated the notion that period sex leads to impurity. For instance, in Orthodox Judaism, a woman is deemed unclean for two weeks during and after her period, during which she cannot have physical contact with her husband. To be considered “clean” again, she must bathe in a mikveh, a ritual bath, seven days after her period ends.

Similar beliefs exist in other religions worldwide, with only Buddhism being an exception. In Islam, women are forbidden from engaging in sexual activities, fasting, or handling the Quran during menstruation. Christian teachings dissuade men from even shaking hands with menstruating women. Notably, during Pope Benedict’s visit in 2006, Polish television networks banned all tampon advertisements.

Despite these enduring and widespread stigmas, period sex is, in fact, safe and normal. Modern science supports this conclusion, with a 2002 Yale University study suggesting that women who experience orgasms during menstruation may be less prone to endometriosis, a painful condition where the uterine lining grows outside the uterus.

Unfortunately, period-related discussions remain shrouded in shame for many women. It is essential to raise awareness about the origins of these taboos, debunk myths surrounding period sex, and promote open and honest conversations about menstruation. By doing so, we can challenge the misconceptions and empower individuals to make informed decisions about their sexual health and wellbeing.

Femcare Evolution & Women’s Rights

Before the advent of functional femcare products, women’s monthly challenges significantly limited their mobility and full societal participation. The introduction of more efficient menstrual products like Kotex pads in the 1920s and self-adhesive pads in the 1970s was accompanied by crucial political advancements for women – with the 1920s welcoming the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and the 1970s witnessing the women’s liberation movement that focused on equal pay and abortion rights. Today, the situation has vastly improved for women in the West, enabling them to pursue their education and careers unhindered by menstruation. However, in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, many girls still face absences from school due to insufficient femcare products, emphasizing the continued need for global progress in this area.

Debunking Period Myths

The femcare industry has historically manipulated societal opinions on menstruation, making it a taboo topic and promoting the idea that periods are unclean. This has led many women to feel shame and embarrassment about a natural biological process. Advertisements perpetuate this myth by avoiding any reference to period blood and using blue liquid instead. Companies have also exploited the fear of vaginal odors to sell douches, which can be harmful to women’s health. It’s important to challenge these misconceptions and recognize the truth about menstruation and vaginal health.

Menstruation, long kept in the shadows, has gained visibility in modern society through advertisements for feminine care products. Yet, this exposure often stems from a destructive viewpoint—that periods are shameful and must remain hidden. The widespread misunderstandings about menstruation have been fueled by marketing campaigns from the multi-billion-dollar femcare industry.

Advertisements for feminine care products typically feature beautiful women scantily dressed in idyllic landscapes, avoiding any mention or reference to period blood. By suggesting that menstruation is impure and necessitates cleansing, these ads perpetuate antiquated and harmful notions.

Surprisingly, even after the National Association of Broadcasters lifted the ban on femcare ads in 1972, period blood continues to be represented by blue liquid—a blatant indication that it is still deemed too unclean for American viewers to witness.

The femcare industry, not satisfied with exploiting women’s insecurities about their periods, now leverages fear about vaginal odors to sell douches. Ironically, a healthy vagina typically has no odor, and any noticeable smell might signal a potential health issue requiring medical attention.

Since the 1930s, companies have marketed products designed to mask non-existent vaginal odors, and touted them as solutions for marital problems. While products like Zonite and Lysol may sanitize surfaces in your house, applying them internally can cause bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and even pelvic inflammatory disease.

Despite empirical evidence of the dangers and ineffectiveness of vaginal douches, 20 to 40 percent of American women still use them regularly—an alarming testament to the depths of vulnerability cultivated by industry advertising. Confronting and debunking these period myths is crucial for empowering women and promoting accurate information about menstruation and women’s health.

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