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The Mark of Blood

ndegeorge's picture

It's that time of the month again. The time to use coded phrases about the functions of the female body; the time to pop a few Advil and load up on "feminine products;" the time to pretend that there isn't blood flowing from between your legs. Of course, I'm talking about menstruation. It's the process that all women (of the appropriate age) experience once a month. When the lining of the uterine walls breaks down and travels down and out of the body. This discarded material, that we flush down the toilet, once held the potential, for a few short weeks, to become a nurturing environment for a new life. Menstruation is the constant reminder that we as women are meant to bear children. While it is a glorious (and terrifying) notion, we tend to forget it when that spot of blood arrives to interrupt our daily routine for awhile.

For me, (and many other women) menstruation is a nuisance. It is smelly, and messy, and more than an inconvenience. The accompanying pain can be both dull and sharp, manifested not only in cramps, but in headaches and bloating among others. The process affects not only the uterine area, but also wages war on the hormones. Not to mention the expense! Sure, a box of tampons may only cost five dollars, but just add those numbers up over a lifetime. And add on the additional cost for pads, painkillers, and clothes that might need to be replaced. That's what I see as the straight-up facts.

But when I start to look beyond that, menstruation becomes much more complex, and dare I say fascinating? The most interesting thing about menstruation is the embodiment of a paradox. For the mark of blood is usually an indication of violence, a wound on the body. Yet menstruation is also an indication of fertility, a sign that a woman can have children. Across cultures and also throughout history, menstruation takes on different meanings. Here in America today, we do our best to hide menstruation, clean it up and not talk about it. Elsewhere it is a cause for celebration. The process can be empowering, yet painful; full of wonderment and also danger. It can represent two things that occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. I will explore these themes some more and expand upon them later in paper.

My interest in the topic was first spiked when I read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It's a novel that tells the story of Jacob from the Book of Genesis, through the eyes of the women in his life. In that ancient world, women have their own culture separate from the men. When menstruation starts they all occupy the red tent together and remain there until the process is over. First blood is celebrated and respected. I was totally in awe of the fact that they simply took the time out of every month to let the body do what it needed. They let themselves be a part of the cycle, even treating it with reverence. It was a huge contrast in comparison to how we treat menstruation today. Additionally it made me analyze my own feelings toward menstruation. I realized that they were rather negative, but that a lot of the negativity came from external sources.

I guess I'll start from the beginning of my experience. I got my period (conveniently) on the last day of school in 7th grade. It wasn't a shock to me. These days the schools make sure that you know that it's coming and my mother provided all the proper literature (I devoured What's Happening to My Body book for girls in private). I think I got it in the morning too so that I had time to figure out what I would do at school. The first year (as they tell you) it was very erratic. I believe I had traces of it for a whole month at one point. Because of that taking care of it became a stealth operation. Every day before lunch I would slip a bulky pad from my locker into my pocket and carefully hold my lunch bag at hip level to hide the bulge (I'm sure it didn't). Then I had to make sure I went to the bathroom before lunch was over. The goal of the mission was to hide it because to acknowledge would have been tres embarrassing. Looking back it feels silly, until I realize that mostly we still try to hide it. Why, I don't know, seeing as it is merely a fact of life. Women talk to each other about it, but heaven forbid you try to confide in a man about it. They just don't want to hear it. I laugh when I think that the idea of blood may be too much for them.

Anyway, to return to my story: my mother tried to do a little red-tenting for me. She told me I could get my ears pierced when my period came. Looking back I can appreciate that, but at the time I didn't want the one badly enough to justify the other. Since then it has been pretty much routine. My cycle alternates between about 26 and 31 days. I learned that's because your ovaries trade off every month. I don't really need to keep track anymore because my body lets me know when it is coming. My breasts get sore a few days ahead and I sometimes get the hint of a bloody nose (though I never figured out why that is, blood coming out on both ends?). The cramps are usually the first two days and then die down. My flow used to stop at night (which was nice) but it doesn't anymore. I don't dread that time of the month but I don't hold it in any sort of reverence either. I wish that I did.

In some ancient myths menstrual blood held a special sort of power. In the Yuchi tribe of North America it is the blood of the sun from which "sprang the first people." I think the associations there are obvious. The menstrual blood was also associated directly with power in ancient cultures, the power of creation and of nurturing. Ancient Jewish culture had a slightly different spin on it. There "sexual intercourse was forbidden during menstruation… not because a woman was to be regarded as dirty or disgusting. The period of abstinence was designed to prevent a man from taking his wife for granted: 'Because a man may become overly familiar with his wife, and thus repelled by her.'" In this view menstruation seems to have a function, to create a positive outcome based on negative assumptions. The power here is not really in the hands of the women, but neither is it taken away from her.

At some point though, I think that all traces of that ancient power have slipped away from us. Perhaps it is because we live in a much more sterile world now. Exposed blood is a sign of danger, of potential infection. It's true that we do live in a world of fear-mongering. Or maybe the negative connotations have appeared because blood is a stain that doesn't come out. I mean you can't wear your favorite underwear when you have your period. That's my argument at the most superficial level. What I mean to say is that there is a stigma surrounding menstruation. Maybe it comes out of prudery, maybe fear. My goal (if I could) would be to erase that stigma, as I see no need for it. We, as humans and especially women, are still uncomfortable about the natural processes of our bodies. And this one is so fundamental, that it becomes puzzling.

To bring in the feminist perspective I turn to second-wave feminist Gloria Steinem. In her essay "If Men Could Menstruate" she makes the argument that our attempts to cover up menstruation are just another form of oppression by a male dominated society. For if men could menstruate, it would again be a symbol of power. She says they would brag about the amount of blood and that all "Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free." Now if that's true, I would probably be very angry.

My biggest peeve with the whole ordeal is how we treat menstruation in public spaces. Like I said before, women feel the need to hide tampons and pads. They buy fancy little cases to carry them in or buy the ones that are so small that you can hide them in the palm of your hand. I personally don't want to hide it anymore.

Furthermore I find commercial ads to be nauseating. So many of them go with the message that says if you use our product you can function like "normal," you can still go swimming, still feel sexy. The women in the ads are always happy. I mean of course that's advertising for you but, seriously, who wants to do all those things when they have their period. I wish we felt less pressure to be "normal."

I'm not advocating the return of the red tent. I don't think our modern world could handle that. However, I wish there was some happy medium between that and what we typically do. In my ideal world a woman could take those first couple days for herself; the days when the pain is the worst. She could take those days if she wanted to and not have to create an "appropriate" excuse. She wouldn't have to call it a stomach bug or a migraine.

Of course I can already see the problems with such a utopia. Giving women time off for menstruation would only enhance that male opinion that women can't be leaders because their judgement is shot to hell once a month, etc. And of course the range of experiences that women have with menstruation is infinite. Some experience minimal side effects, while others actually require medical attention. There would be divisions between those camps. I'd like a world where a woman could make those choices based on her individual needs and where that wouldn't be a problem.

I have one final question; why in the world do we call it MENstruation?? (Okay, I actually know why because I looked it up. It comes from the Greek words menus, meaning moon, and men, meaning month.) But STILL, doesn't that seem a little silly ladies?


Anne- I know this still needs a conclusion. I also want to add some stuff about PMS and maybe TSS but I don't have enough information yet and I'm not sure where to fit that in.


One Student's picture

genderqueer menstruation

"(and many other women)"

I knew someone was doing their final project on menstruation, and I was planning to draw your attention to a brief section of my own rough draft anyway. But before I do that:

I'm not a woman. I menstruate. I'm biologically female and I identify as genderqueer (to be extremely brief). And if you're going to talk about people who menstruate I would appreciate it if you would talk about *females*, not *women*. Though I suppose at least some intersex individuals menstruate as well. Most languages are very poorly suited to talking about gender in this fragmented way, and if you choose to take my existence and the existence of other trans/genderqueer ppl into account, then you'll have to compromise with language (just as we do).

And when I say I would appreciate it if you would acknowledge the existence of trans people, I am not expecting it. That's too much to expect right now (it shouldn't be, but it is). A couple of times since I Stryker's visit and my coming out as genderqueer in my blog on serendip, I've seen in posts and comments on the forum the assumption that everyone involved in this class identifies as a woman, despite the fact that three or four of us are out to varying degrees. I haven't bothered to correct anyone before now. But the reason I'm picking on you ; ) is that the one period I've had since coming out as genderqueer has been indefinably, subtly, and so definitely more positive than ever before; many things about my body are now indefinably, subtly, and so definitely more positive than ever before. I transitioned in my mind (and do you have any idea how grateful I am that I don't seem to need a physical transition?) and now that I'm genderqueer I live more happily in this female body. It's more mine. Also, one of the things I've discovered is that my body is much more private than my thoughts, and so one section of my rough draft is written in a style that is very much endebted to GertrudeStein because it gave me a place to hide my body, or perhaps one might say that the words clothed my body enough.

Below is the excerpt from my rough draft. And if you find any of this useful to your project, and would like to talk with me further, just let me know. (my email is

Why is that only now do I admit that one of my favorite smells in the world is the smell of my own menstrual blood right up there with the smell of the air when it has just begun to rain the smell of the air when it has just stopped raining but this mine my body makes more sense now I see it I see it I can tell you that much now I see it the first thought that crosses my mind when I see the blood a surprise as always is that it’s such a beautiful color like poppies my favorite flower which don’t grow in the american northeast but I’ve seen them in california and israel so I know that red I’ve seen that red I’ve read that red it’s my red.

gail's picture

female communication


Thank you for this powerful and courageous sharing.

Thank you for taking the added risk.

Thank you for your words, beautifully written

Thank you as one female to another

Thank you for the reminder of color and smells

Thank you for your red.


gammyflink's picture

The Blessing of Menstruation

 I'm so glad you chose to explore this topic as it is important for women to reframe the experience of menstruation.  I too loved The Red Tent and wish that we could incorporate some of its essence into our lives.  Here are some passages and poems for you to ponder: 


"The monthly arrival of a period is a great spiritual gift.  It is a symbol from The Source of Life that all life is given to us not only for working time, but for waiting time.  When the moon changes each month, and we change in its company, we are being reminded to be still, to listen, and to rest in our bodies so that our spirituality will have time to flourish.  Bleeding is a blessing.  It is not, as too many of us were told and found ourselves believing, a curse."

                                            Maria Harris 


                        "The moon's hands rest 

                         Lightly on my shoulders

                         She whispers to me proudly

                         and names me daughter.

                         I love the moon's fullness

                         I need her.

                         Every month

                         she tells me woman's time."

                                  Robin Lysne


               "This cup, this chalice, this primordial cauldron

                of real menstrual blood

                the color of clay warm with promise,

                rhythmic, cyclical, fit for lining the uterus

                and shed for many,

                for the remission of living.

                Here is your bread of life

                Here is the blood by which you live in me."

                            Robin Morgan


I look forward to reading more of your work.  Good Luck!

   Barbara  '57

Anne Dalke's picture

Disabling Menstruation

I am coming late into a rich conversation! I, too, find Gail's sculptures of menstruation powerful, and a powerful juxtaposition to the culture of shame and fear that Nora describes.

My questions are really about where, and how far, and in what direction, Nora can go from you want to learn more about the biology of menstruation (that nose bleed...?) Do you want to interview some other women, of different ages, about their experiences? How do the experiences of women in different countries differ from or resemble ours here? Is that something you can find out about? As it is, your essay focuses on your own experience, but doesn't really have that "auto-ethnographic" quality that Susan Stryker talked about, in terms of writing out from your own experience, enlarging it, making it more generally applicable.

So what I see is a range of possibilities, which I could describe in terms of the three divisions of the college: you could do some scientific research, some social science research (in terms of ethnographic interviews or anthropological study), or some exploration in the humanities (in terms of viewing art like Gail's, or reading poems, plays and stories that represent menstruation; I recommended a few of these in response to your proposal).

Maybe you could do some combination of the three directions of study-- but right now your paper stops very short; it needs some added dimensions, and to work towards--not just a "wish" for a different, utopic world, but--a hypothesis, an argument, a claim. One possibility might be to use our current attitudes toward menstruation as an index to a larger normalizing project and attitude; if that angle interests you, you might start with McDermott and Varenne's Culture as Disability and On the Inevitability of Cultural Disabilities.

Looking forward to hearing where you're heading!


ndegeorge's picture

I can't get my tabs to hold

I can't get my tabs to hold when I edit. (I really do know about proper indentation/punctuation!) Ann, do you know how to work around that?
admin's picture

tabs don't work the same in HTML

As you've already found out, you can't use the tab key to have it work on a web page, which is written in HTML and displayed in a web browser. Probably what you want to do is to click the HTML button above the text box where you're editing, find where you need extra spaces, and then put


(stands for non breaking space) as many times as you need it.