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Flow summary

Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

The Cultural Story of Menstruation

4.4 (21 ratings)
20 mins

Brief summary

Flow by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim explores the concept of achieving optimal experience by being fully absorbed in a task. It shows how to harness flow to increase productivity and enjoyment while reducing stress and frustration.

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    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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    What is Flow about?

    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.

    Best quote from Flow

    So little is actually known about menstruation that its hard to predict what the unintended effects of widespread suppression might be.

    —Elissa Stein and Susan Kim
    example alt text

    Who should read Flow?

    • Those interested in the history and cultural significance of menstruation
    • Women who are afraid to ask their friends and family about periods and sexual health
    • Women experiencing puberty or menopause

    About the Author

    Susan Kim is the writer of the stage adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. She has received five Emmy Awards nominations for her work screenwriting children’s programs and a documentary.

    Elissa Stein is an author whose published work includes subjects such as kids hanging out in New York City, a visual history of pop culture and interactive notes expressing gratitude.

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