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The Cultural Story of Menstruation

By Elissa Stein and Susan Kim
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Flow by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Flow (2009) explores the historical and cultural context of menstruation. By doing so, it seeks to debunk the myths that surround periods and address the misperceptions people have of the basic bodily process of menstruation.

Key idea 1 of 9

Since ancient times, menstruation has been taboo and surrounded by misperceptions.

Before the age of scientific knowledge, myths provided explanations for why young girls and women bled from their vaginas on a monthly basis. Though these stories portrayed menstruation as a powerful process, ancient people also perceived it as a marker of women’s inferiority. Thus, period blood was simultaneously understood as a sacred substance of life and a toxic matter.

So, though they often believed that this vaginal bleeding was the sacred remains of an unborn child, ancient peoples also condemned it as evil and dangerous.

According to Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder in his book Natural History, written in AD 77, period blood could cause a horse to have a miscarriage and the extermination of flowers, among other things. These assertions remained uncontested for more than a thousand years. Furthermore, the belief that period blood is toxic persisted well into the twentieth century. Even today, certain cultures still believe it.

Based on the ancient belief that menstruation is the process of the body cleansing itself from the toxicity of menstrual blood, doctors developed a procedure called bloodletting. Bloodletting was a process in which illnesses were treated via the draining of blood from a vein.

Bloodletting was used on both men and women. But since menstruation was a wholly feminine phenomenon, the myths and misperceptions surrounding it were used to subvert women’s position in ancient society.

Back then, a woman on her period would have to go away to a menstrual hut. Unbelievably, this arcane act still exists in some parts of the world. Not only that, but menarche, or the onset of menstruation, would be followed by rituals. One such ritual in British Columbia forced girls out into the wilderness; one in New Ireland kept young women in cages for up to four years.

Menstruation was also used as an excuse to exclude women from different types of institutions. Even in the 1920s, for example, menstruating women weren’t allowed to enter churches around the world, wineries in Germany or opium labs in Vietnam.

Today, menstruating women are banned from partaking in Islamic rituals. These outdated beliefs surrounding periods have had a significant effect on contemporary societies all over the world. We’ll explore this more deeply in the upcoming blinks.

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