The Shame of Menstruation

29 Jan 2012

written by Carolyn


Of all the topics I cover on my blog, the one I never thought I’d write about is menstruation.

I’ve been very fortunate with my periods. I reached menarche at a very early age – age 9 – but I’ve generally had regular, pain-free, short periods for most of my life. I’ve never had trouble with fibroids, uterine infection, excessive bleeding, cramping, or any of the other issues that make menstruation a monthly act of suffering for some women.

In the U.S., menstruation is pretty openly discussed. Period jokes are a sitcom staple. Ads and commercials for sanitary products are seemingly everywhere. Certain taboos remain – for example, sex during menstruation is still regarded as “nasty” in some cultures, though more people do it than will openly admit. But I naively assumed female menstruation was generally regarded as a normal bodily function.

Until this happened.

As you can see, Christina Aguilera appears to have something running down her leg during her performance of “At Last” at Etta James’ memorial service. People assumed the substance running down Aguilera’s leg was menstrual blood. And ignorance abounded.

Oh, really? A woman owes the world an apology for menstruating? If that’s even what it was? If you watch the video of Aguilera’s performance at the end of this post, you can see her twice wiping something off her leg. She even tries to surreptitiously rub her knees together a few times. But she carries on like a true professional.

It doesn’t matter what was running down Aguilera’s leg. Whether it was menstrual blood or – as many have suggested – a mix of sweat and self-tanner that hadn’t properly set – so what? Women menstruate. Even celebrity women. And accidents happen. Whatever it was, Aguilera did what she was supposed to do – she stayed on stage and kept singing. This wasn’t a concert. It was Etta James’ memorial service. Aguilera had the honor of singing James’ signature song in tribute to her. She was supposed to run off stage like an embarrassed adolescent?

Dear Kid Fury and anyone else making similar comments about Aguilera: Please. Grow. Up

When you’re a woman who menstruates, accidents happen, no matter how old you are. It happened to me in 2010 at the National Women’s Law Center annual awards dinner. The room was filled with lawyers, civil rights and women’s rights activists, politicians, judges, journalists, and the like. I was seated at a table of high-powered women attorneys and a federal judge. Hilary Clinton was one of the speakers. It was an inspiring evening.

After the dinner, when I rose to leave, I happened to look back at my chair. There was a spot of blood on it, about 2 inches in diameter.

I’d felt nothing during the dinner. No tell-tale rush, no “oops” moment. I’d had no warnings that day that my period was about to come on. Just – whoosh, there it was.

And I was wearing a light gray knit dress. I was staying in the hotel where the dinner was held, so I had neither jacket nor coat to cover myself. I’d simply come down from my room with a small purse large enough to hold my room key, my cell phone and a few business cards.

There were over a thousand people in that room, and no way for me to conceal what had happened. So I did the only thing I could do. I pushed my chair in, made sure I had all my personal belongings, and walked out – calmly.

Did people “see”? Sure they did. No one said anything. No one tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Ma’am, did you know you have blood on the back of your dress?” No one said “ew!” and ran away. In short, apart from being embarrassed, and ruining one of my favorite dresses, nothing happened to me.

There are places in the world where the shame of menstruation and the lack of affordable, hygienic sanitary products impact girls and women in devastating ways. They miss school while they’re on their periods. Working outside the home is out of the question. They use unhygienic items to try to stanch the flow of blood, risking infection. That is shameful. What happened to Aguilera, is not. From the RH Reality Check site:

“As it is, menstruation has becomes the undeclared basis for the social exclusion of young girls. Sanitary protection is an urgent need among women and girls and needs to be made affordable so that poor and marginalized groups can have access.”

Christina Aguilera owes no one an apology for her personal embarrassment. The world owes women an apology for not making affordable sanitary protection universally available in 2012.

14 Comments on The Shame of Menstruation

  1. MariaC

    How nasty are you people who think this is something to gawk at or attack someone over? Leave the poor woman alone!!!! She has brought extraordinary talent and joy to the world – what have you brought?

  2. TC Galltin

    I heard a lot about this. Thanks so much for doing the post about it. I am appalled at the behavior of “grown” people who are going to the nastiest of lows to shame someone for something that is natural. Just like you said, grow up. Accidents happen.

  3. Andrea Morgan

    Well said! Sad that it had to be said at all.

  4. Natasha Smith

    I’m still waiting for confirmation it’s not a photoshopped picture. None of the other photos from the funeral seem to show that. Nor does the video of her performance.

    And I can’t believe the tweets sank to that level last night. I had to log-off.

  5. MissZindzi

    Great article. I too, was disgusted and amazed by the horrible tweets I saw last night about this. The dumbest was “Even if a woman is irregular, she still knows when her period is gonna start”. HUH?? In the ideal world, every woman would have a light, pain-free, every 28 days period. But the reality is, a lot of women (like myself) have unpredictable periods that result in things from slight embarassments to serious and dire trips to the hospital.

    I wish people would educate themselves a little bit more.

  6. Tessism

    Excellent. Thank you for writing this and saying what I feel. Menstruation is natural. Accidents are natural. There need be no more shame heaped onto the process. RIght on, sis!

  7. Claudia Hall Christian

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience and your thoughts. I saw all this cruelty and thought maybe it was just me who was offended.

    In the last year or so, it seems like there’s so much of this on the Internet. It’s like since Perez stopped being an ass a billion people took up his call. I don’t understand it and I don’t really want to.

    thanks again.

  8. Carolyn

    I recall years ago, incivility was considered a huge problem. Now, incivility is just a part of our daily discourse. It is disheartening.

  9. Andrea Harvey

    I don’t care how poised and couth of a woman you are, every woman has had “that terrifying moment.” And you are so right, it’s not anything to be embarrassed about. It just is. It’s amazing the way we treat our bodies. Especially during “that time.” Thank you for this post. Well stated.

  10. Andrea

    Thank you for speaking on it. I was horrified when I heard all the things people said, and from women no less who just like everyone has had that moment. Yes, famous people have them too. Go Christina, she’s a trooper!!!

  11. Wendy Dumaresq

    Thanks for your wonderful article and the comments. For many years I have worked with women in my clinic and through community education about mentrual & menopausal issues, focussing on the how natural and healthy it is to menstruate. ( My book ‘Radiant Women’ presents strategies for optimising health and wellbeing in our reproductive years and beyond).

    What I have noticed over the years and also as feedback with Rad-Pads (cloth pads) is that women are becoming much more comfortable with their ‘womanhood’ in this regard, although for many there are still attitudes of shame and embarrassment.
    I have also noticed how much it can affect a woman’s menstrual and general health when there are negative attitudes.
    This type of dialogue you are encouraging helps women to be more comfortable and confident with themselves for what is a honored state – WOMANHOOD. Thanks Chritina A also for your courage!!!

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