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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Global History of Menstrual Taboo - And the Origin of the Word

Written by: Khushi Salgia

The Many Euphemisms

Aunt Flo. Shark Week. On the rag. The euphemisms that are meant to refer to menstruation are abundant, encapsulating how a woman’s menstrual cycle has always been enshrined in taboo. In fact, the word taboo comes from the Polynesian word tabua which directly translates to “menstruation”. The idea that menstruation is shameful and private is so widely socially accepted that the word “taboo”, a word that is used to describe something forbidden, has been named after it. This begs the question: Why is menstruation considered a taboo to begin with? All bodily functions are to a certain extent, but what is it about menstruation specifically that shrouds it in an additional layer of shame in most cultures around the world?

The Origins of Inequality

Menstruation was not always as taboo as it often is now. In the ages of the hunter-gatherer societies, due to tasks, power, and resources being distributed evenly, there was less taboo on private matters. According to professor Chris Knight, there is a correlation between cultures that do not stigmatize periods and those that are more egalitarian, as these societies ensure, “that values such as sexual access and food were not nakedly fought over (…) but distributed fairly.” When societies are egalitarian, work and food are evenly distributed amongst men and women, and jobs are equally respected and valued. Following the agricultural revolution, which started about 12,000 years ago, people could produce more food with less time, effort, and resources; creating a surplus. Previously, all the food that was hunted and gathered would be consumed, but with the surplus, there is extra capital that people may (mis-)manage, thereby creating power imbalances amongst men and women.

A Natural Fear of Blood

One of the ways in which imbalances manifested was by ostracizing women, and menstruation was a convenient target, especially since human beings already have an inherent fear and disgust towards blood. The scent of blood is indicative of nearby danger and as a result, humans have evolved to become repulsed, not by the blood itself, but by the molecular component E2D which is in blood. According to Freud, certain fears and repulsions – such as the fear of blood – can be connected to a threat of danger. This can explain why we tend to cast aside anything that is associated with blood. It provides us with the illusion that we are mitigating a survival threat even though the presence of blood does not necessarily mean danger. 

Historical Texts

The discovery of fire and therefore cooking led to early humans requiring less energy to digest food. This allowed more energy for human thought to become increasingly complex, sparking the birth of writing and language. Menstrual taboo at this point was pervasive enough that it infiltrated its way into the most prominent works of philosophy and theology. The first Latin Encyclopedia states that, “contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour” (Pliny the Elder’s Natural History). The Bible states, “if a man actually lies with her so that her menstrual impurity is on him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean” (Leviticus 15:24). Similarly, the Torah states that, “a woman undergoing menstruation is perceived as unclean for seven days” (Leviticus 15:19). And the Quran warns us to, “keep away from wives during menstruation” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:222). Whether these texts created a prejudice or reinforced an existing one, the influence of religious texts on the values of billions of people, belief systems, and actions cannot be understated.

Modern Media Portrayal

It is not only through ancient relics that these ideas are perpetuated. Modern media and even advertising likewise promote harmful ideas about menstruation. Many pad and tampon commercials from the past several decades portray periods as being inherently impure, dirty, and a problem that can be ‘fixed’ by purchasing their product. They rave about how it is so thin, discreet, and invisible as if it is something to hide or be ashamed of. While it is common for advertisers to use marketing tactics to incite fear or other strong emotions, leading to increased sales, this can harmfully perpetuate stigma around menstruation, which has tangible consequences for women and girls.

Suffer Through the Pain?

On the flip side, many modern advertisements depict women on their periods playing sports or giving presentations, aiming to convey the message that this particular product is so effective that it makes you feel like you are not on your period at all. Yet, no pad or tampon can take away the side effects of having one’s period. According to the US National Library of Medicine, side effects include fatigue and depressed mood, which 77% of women report having while on their period, abdominal bloating in 83% of women, and joint pain in 29% of women. Period stigma is reinforced when we consider how society seemingly expects women and girls to act like their period does not exist and continue to perform their daily activities as normal with the same energy level they would have, for example, after menstruation. This expectation is especially damaging when we consider how a women’s menstrual cycle lasts up to 28 days, including four different phases, with varying energy levels throughout each stage – menstrual, follicular, ovulation, and luteal – while a man’s hormone cycle repeats consistently every 24 hours.

Knowledge and Judgment

The best way to reduce fear or bias is through knowledge and education. Menstruation is a normal bodily function that occurs in a healthy reproductive system. Talking openly about menstruation and female hormonal health, and teaching this in schools, can prevent it from becoming taboo among younger generations. Additionally, research shows a correlation between societies where men take a more active role in pregnancy, childbirth, and the raising of children, and societies with reduced menstrual taboo. When men feel like they are part of the reproductive process, it eliminates the fear of the unknown and makes the subject more approachable. With the presence of knowledge, there is the absence of judgment.

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