Tag : period

November 5, 2019 by

Period Talk

There is now an Instagram hashtag for #periodsex. This openness is one example of a new wave of menstrual and hormone awareness and positivity emerging in the digital realm, with its fast-paced conversation, a tendency for sharing (or oversharing) and cultivation of a new generation of outspoken feminism.

Comic by Rebecca Katz

Comic by Rebecca Katz

Whereas a self-respecting feminist might once have bristled at the idea that mood swings affected her outer demeanor, women now tag their cranky selfies with #lutealphase or snap pictures of their PMS snacks, discussing without shame everything from hormonal birth control to the value of diva cups. Pregnant people and trans people talk about the effect of shifting hormones, while some Jewish women are exploring new and interesting approaches to the mikveh, the ritual bath.

When you scan these social media posts, you net the usual suspects: memes about how it’s gross, stories from men who, to their horror, had mistaken blood for what they thought was arousal fluid, and an assortment of images ranging from stunning to disturbing. Sex during one’s period remains predictably stigmatized—but not utterly. That same hashtag calls up articles on why period sex can be great: orgasms relieve cramps; it allows for an intimacy you might not have previously had with your partner. Plus (if you’re into that kind of thing), having sex during your period could be an opportunity to confront some of your own shame and stigma around it.

Comic by Rebecca Katz

Comic by Rebecca Katz


A discussion about “period lifestyle” (a phrase borrowed from a 2019 Cosmopolitan.com piece about period trackers) wouldn’t be complete without revisting the concept of mikveh. Mikveh, or the ritual immersion undertaken monthly by observant Jewish women to restore “ritual purity” after menstruation, can be a contentious subject. Should feminists entirely reject the notion that one’s period renders you impure? Traditional Jewish law prohibits sex or touching when one partner is menstruating, so sex during one’s period is taboo. But the subject of menstruation comes up a great deal in studying Jewish laws and practices around periods.

Is there a way to see mikveh as celebrating the body, as selfcare, as time reclaimed for oneself ? This quandary remains intact after decades of argument, and while it’s far from resolved, the discussion does promote confrontation with taboo, and the consequences of enacting religious law on physical bodies. In fact, some people think that the “reclaiming” of the mikveh has become a victim of its own success, used now to mark a shift of any sort, whether a celebratory move from one state to another (a graduation, a marriage, even a divorce) and also a gender transition, without regard to mikveh’s original purposes. Here’s writer Tara Mendola on the Lilith blog: “Without a nod to that link between blood, water, and the Covenant that first wrote mikveh into the medieval Jewish imagination, liberal Judaism and the progressive mikveh movement miss an opportunity for sex-positive, body-affirming discussion of what it means to be a person who can get pregnant.”

An observant married Jewish woman would typically immerse in the mikvah every month, seven days after the end of her period, in order to render herself once again ready for sex with her husband (sex with a menstruating woman is forbidden in Jewish law, and she is referred to as niddah until the mikvah immersion). Mikvah is no longer the domain solely of religious, married Jewish women, however. Mayim Chayim is a mikvah and learning center in Newton, Massachusetts, where people of all genders can perform the mikvah ritual for purposes of conversion, marriage, healing from trauma, miscarriage, divorce, illness and other transformative experiences. A similar “progressive” mikveh experience in Manhattan is facilitated by ImmerseNYC.org

“I see more and more people who menstruate who are not Orthodox or becoming Orthodox and who are feminist getting involved with mikvah,” says Rabbi Sarah Mulhern of the Shalom Hartman Institute. “They are saying, Hey, Judaism has what to say about how I eat and structure my time and all the other basics of my life, why shouldn’t it have something to say about my sex life? About my experience of menstruating?” Mulhern says she’s surprised by the number of requests she gets to teach classes on mikvah and the laws of ritual purity, including from queer and trans folks, which she attributes to “an embrace of halacha outside of normative Orthodoxy more broadly, as well as a broader increase in comfort with and talking about menstruation.”

When cisgender straight egalitarian couples attend Mulhern’s classes on mikveh, men listen to their female partners talking openly about menstruation, and take part in a discussion about it, a phenomenon Mulhern says she assumes was not happening a generation ago. “This crowd,” she said, does not “pretend that much of the history of how these laws evolved did not happen in a context of misogyny and fear of menstruation. That’s real, and they know that. But there’s a sense that there’s still something in niddah that’s valuable. There’s less anger and more curiosity, which I think has to do with a sense that there is something deserving of sanctification in menstruation.”


In addition to an interest in menstruation linked to religious observance, there are now apps which allow people who menstruate to track their periods from a hormonal perspective, so they’re aware through the month of PMS symptoms, ovulation, heightened fertility, and more. Accompanying this shift in perception and value is an entire industry of period equipment. Beyond pads and tampons, there are now reusable pads, menstrual cups, and period underwear like THINX (that’s underwear designed to absorb menstrual blood on its own, with no addition of pads or anything else).


In October 2018, Aurora Tejeda wrote in Vice magazine about her experience of “free bleeding,” reflecting on how seeing musician Kiran Gandhi run the London Marathon while openly menstruating (without a tampon) changed her own perspective on her period. Tejeda documented what it was like to bleed without using any kind of menstrual product at all. While she worried about staining clothing and sheets, she ultimately found that her cramps were not as bad as usual, and she didn’t bleed onto things as much as she thought she would, even after taking a yoga class on her heaviest day. And if she did bleed through her clothes for all the world to see? “Honestly, who cares?” she wrote.

Free bleeding and period sex, as well as menstrual cups— and, to some degree, even period underwear—invite people who menstruate to confront their bodies directly in a more uninhibited manner. Letting blood flow from our bodies without attempting to confine or limit it allows us to be vulnerable, and menstrual cups necessitate that users get acquainted not only with anatomy, but also with the realities of leaking, spilling, and potentially cleaning up in public places. These options further emphasize that menstruation need not be hidden, and that menstruators need not live in perpetual fear of reveal.

While it’s still not totally unheard of to slip a tampon into your pocket or your sleeve on the way to the bathroom, people who menstruate are distancing themselves from the idea that getting and having a period is something to hide and deny, taking advantage of a new openness around menstruation to be more open about other issues of sexual and reproductive health that were once considered taboo.

“I do talk about my period. With everyone!,” says Sue, who’s in her 40s, and uses the Clue app to track her menstrual cycle. “I won’t go into gory details with someone who isn’t there for that, but I refuse to be silent about it either. I have three kids, ages 16, 20, and 29. The oldest and youngest identify as male and have always been brought up hearing women discuss their periods and are educated about what they’re like for people who bleed and thus they can be supportive. It comes up at the dinner table on the regular.” Sue has also created a zine—a self-published magazine—entitled Bleeder, about her period, as well as about intersectional feminism, her identity as a witch, and social justice.


We might well be in a sort of period renaissance, during which we’re hunkering down and getting to know what our hormones are doing, how it feels when we ovulate, and how much we really do or don’t need to micromanage our periods. But what about when our bodies make us feel powerless and frustrated? What about when our menstrual cycles aren’t predictable, when they’re much longer than 28 days, when we struggle to manage their unmanageable pain? How then might we feel about reclaiming menstruation?

A woman we’ll call P., 30, has endometriosis and adenomyosis. She needs to report symptoms like pain, period length and heaviness of flow to her doctor, and so she tracks her period. “As a result of these illnesses, I really, really hate my period,” she says. “When I was a teenager I felt ashamed of my period, but as I learned more about feminism, I tried to embrace it. I felt like the reason I was ashamed was because society taught me it was shameful. I learned to not be embarrassed, and I think I would have kept feeling more positive about it if my endometriosis/ adenomyosis symptoms hadn’t increased in severity.” After P. began having prolonged, extremely heavy periods in her late 30s, menstruation, which had once given her peace of mind (it meant she wasn’t pregnant and that she was healthy) became a source of anxiety and fear. “When I started getting the depo shots and my period stopped entirely, I didn’t miss it, because instead of being an indicator of all being well, it was a portentous sign of my demise. Not having a period became my wellbeing.”


And then there’s the art of the period, literally. Initially part of a movement for body pride in the 1970s and early 80s, at the height of the second wave of feminism, artistic reclamation of menstruation has had something of a renaissance now also. Artists like Casey Jenkins have been creating art using their menstrual blood. In 2013, Jenkins wove a scarf with yarn she inserted into her vagina every day for 28 days, through her entire menstrual cycle. Part of Rhine Bernadino’s “Working from 9-5” series involved her sitting on a white chair in front of a white table, eyes closed, completely still until she removed her menstrual cup and poured the contents into a jar on the table, without spilling a drop. Back in 2008, when Aliza Shvartz created performance art that involved allegedly self-inducing miscarriages, the media could not get enough of the “controversy,” but she has quietly been reclaimed as a pioneer of feminist performance art, whose work illuminated out some of the murky distinctions between abortion, miscarriage and menstruation.

Today, Google “period art” and you’ll find a litany of projects by artists throughout time creating work that not only calls attention to what it means to live in a menstruating body, but also its political and social implications. What if menstruating bodies were seen as powerful instead of requiring outside control? What if they were regarded as art instead of reviled and feared? And what if we allowed ourselves to truly embody that reality?

Chanel Dubofsky writes fiction and nonfiction in Brooklyn, NY.

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November 5, 2019 by

Period Positivity

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 2.35.34 PM

Before you turn the page and enter a world where menstruation is a subject of performance art and hormones are being touted as the drivers of all aspects of our lives, let’s acknowledge the whiplash of living through rapid shifts regarding our hormonal selves. There was a time—well into the 20th century, in fact—when women’s concerns, be they personal or political, were considered “hysterical,” originating in the womb. Periods, like pregnancies in the Victorian era, were to be concealed and were never discussed in public.

Not only was period talk taboo, but menstrual blood itself was actually considered dangerous. Citing a 1934 article, here’s what appeared in the pamphlet Jewish Family Life: The Duty of the Woman, published by Agudath Israel Youth Council of America in 1953 and provided to Lilith by Sheri Sandler, who found it among her late mother’s papers: “a toxic substance is present in the blood serum, blood corpuscles, saliva, sweat, milk, tears, urine and other secretions of women at the time of menstruation.”

Then, as women staked claims to some share of the power and the pie in the heyday of the women’s movement, from the late 1960s through much of the 1980s, no women with any feminist cred would have wanted her behavior labeled hormonal in origin. Granted, some iconoclastic artists dabbled in painting with menstrual blood, but mostly women wanted to think of themselves as just like men, capable of advancing in the universe as long as the costume included, for a certain stratum, power pantsuits. Children at home? Never mentioned at work. A migraine because of one’s period? Not at all—merely the result of a late night working on a report. Parody aside, keep these rigid standards in mind as you think about the current evolution of “period talk.”

Interestingly, at the same time as Jewish women were eager to advance in a “man’s world” by keeping hormonal matters out of sight, there were women creating new traditions around a typical distinguishing characteristic of female bodies— bleeding once a month from menarche to menopause. (Some of these rituals for a first period or for marking the cessation of periods spotlighted in Lilith.) Jewish law is pretty specific and matter-offact about women’s periods, what one cannot do while menstruating (have sex with one’s husband) and how to determine when a period has ceased (examine one’s vaginal canal with a clean piece of cloth; if in doubt, show the cloth to a rabbi).

The idea that we’re all embodied selves had to be stashed away so women could go to law school and rabbinical school and business school without being told (as many students were as recently as the mid-1960s) that their gender rendered them unfit to occupy the classroom seats they were so obviously seated in. Today, posts on social media will announce a person’s “phase of the moon” with the same forthright conviction used a few decades ago to discuss the implications of one’s astrological sign. And as you’ll see when you look at the titles of the new books on hormones and periods, we can now safely take our bodies out of the storage unit where, presumably, they’ve been renting space for quite a while.

Enter a new era of hormonal glory—the age of period positivity.

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November 5, 2019 by

Like Toilet Paper, Free Tampons in Every Restroom!

Last year when I was a senior at Brookline High School, I wrote an op-ed in the student-run newspaper about the stigma and cultural shame surrounding menstruation in our society. The article caught the attention of local legislator Rebecca Stone, who took action to combat some of the concerns I voiced in the piece. This past May, Brookline became the first municipality in the country to provide free menstrual products in every public restroom.

MenstrualMs. Stone’s response to my original article, as well as the public support for the (now passed) warrant, goes beyond anything I could have imagined. Among many things, this experience has renewed my faith in the power of storytelling.

High school was also when I learned how to use stories in the service of lobbying. I had several mentors in this endeavor, and their advice was the same: Make it personal. Statistics are great for showing the big picture, but numbers are even more effective when a legislator can see a face behind them. When my peers and I visited political offices in downtown Boston and in Washington, D.C., we became comfortable telling stories about our experiences with the health- care system and sex ed in school. Even though these stories were personal, our sharing was in the service of something greater. At least for me, this completely justified any discomfort I felt.

The seeds for the menstruation article were planted when I participated in an activity for a group of campers at the sleep- away camp where I was a counselor. The campers were 13- and 14-year-old girls about to start their freshman year of high school. The campers could ask a group of counselors any questions about what high school was like, and we would try to assuage their fears as much as possible. The discussion turned to periods, and after sharing some horror stories about inopportune bleeding, the other counselors and I inevitably began telling the girls where we would hide our tampons—in sleeves, our shoes, pencil cases. But then, another counselor spoke up. “I don’t understand why everyone feels like they have to hide their tampons,” she said. “We should just be able to get one and go to the bathroom.”

In that moment I realized how complicit I was in society’s system of menstrual stigma and period shaming. As soon as a young person gets their period, they are trained to experience it covertly and discreetly. Even when talking to other people who menstruate, we speak in euphemisms and in hushed voices. We are trained to see the act of menstruation itself as disgusting, inappropriate, and shameful, even though it’s not something we have any control over. The more I thought about it, the more baffling it was: Why was I (and almost everyone I knew) afraid to be caught holding a tampon?

Periods, as well as sexual and reproductive healthcare, have been stigmatized for far too long. This comes with consequences. For decades, period stigma has barred menstruating people from proper healthcare, adequate economic support, and in some cases, even their education. We all must embrace the discomfort of breaking the silence until the shame disappears completely.

I have been trying to work on this myself. Since the publication of the article in my high school newspaper, people have come up to me to talk about their periods. Everyone seems to have their own menstruation horror story, especially when it comes to their first period. (Mine, for instance, was when I was twelve and at sleepaway camp for the first time—my mother will never forget that letter home!) Across my community, the country and even the world, it is wonderfully empowering to watch this new wave of menstrual activism take hold. I am grateful for the work Rebecca Stone and other local legislators and activists have done to pass the historic warrant in Brookline and other legislation across the country. Someday, tampons will be as common a healthcare product as toilet paper and paper towels—and that someday is looking sooner and sooner.

A Massachusetts native, Sarah Groustra currently attends Kenyon College in Ohio. She was a 2015–2016 Rising Voices Fellow at the Jewish Women’s Archive. A version of this piece appeared on jwa.org, and on the Lilith Blog.

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