You’ve booked a trip to Menorca. Take a deep breath and relax. The next seven days will be filled with farm-to-table food, the sound of lapping seawater, sunset beach yoga, soft white sand, and…your period. Normally that would be an insignificant or just mildly annoying detail, but this time, it’s the whole reason you’re there.
In the year 2018, there is such a thing as a period retreat — a time to reset, to rest, and to get in touch with your body. It’s just one example of a bigger movement among young women (who work in fashion, in tech, in pretty much every field) to reclaim their period in some very interesting ways. These are celebrations of Femininity with a capital F, and of Menstruation with a big fat M. Perhaps that word makes you cringe. That’s precisely why a pro-period moment is a welcome development.
“Western cultures have labeled periods as dirty for a long time — as something that should be experienced in secrecy,” says Iris Josephina Verstappen, the 28-year-old founder of Cycle Seeds. Her company arranges biannual getaways (mostly for twenty- and thirtysomethings) to beachy spots like Menorca and Malta, as well as shorter weekend retreats in the Netherlands. “It’s an opportunity to connect with other women, with yourself, and with your cycle.” (Her emails are signed “At your cervix, Iris Josephina.”)
An average Cycle Seeds retreat involves goodie bags of sustainable menstrual products, sessions in which you learn to chart your cycle, and group excursions to carefully selected megaliths, aka stone monuments, aka “ancient vortexes of sacred feminine wisdom,” says Verstappen. “Every individual has their own journey in connecting with their cycle, but I always suggest taking a moment to sit with your blood.” And by that, she means looking at it and “observing what happens in your mind and body when you do.” Other period retreats may ask even more of you: so-called “moon lodges” involve celebrating your womb while free bleeding (which is exactly what it sounds like). “When you’re comfortable with your cycle and in charge of your own body,” says Verstappen, “it can be empowering.”
And empowerment is the tipping point where silence becomes activism. One email to the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research elicited countless emails back from women who are spreading period awareness, whether they’re fighting taxation on pads and tampons, educating women in East Africa about menstrual health, distributing feminine products to low-income communities, or organizing Period Con, a convention for women to come together and talk menstrual politics. There are women like Constance Finley, who develops medical marijuana to alleviate menstrual pain (her company is called Constance Therapeutics). There’s Kiran Gandhi, who ran the London Marathon while free bleeding in order to encourage other women to be unashamed of their periods. There’s activist and lawyer Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, who’s an outspoken advocate of menstrual equity — the idea that tampons and pads should be made available and affordable to all women, in all communities.
“It’s a conversation that has been 3,500 years in the making,” says Alma Gottlieb, a professor emerita in the department of anthropology at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. “Social media has made it easier for women who do not live next door to each other to have it. The attitude is changing as more women connect. It’s a backlash against the Eve story, a feminist movement.”
Consider where we are right now: Not only are we proud of being women; we’re finding power in it. We’re protesting on behalf of Planned Parenthood, making donations in Mike Pence’s name. We’re posting pictures of our stretch marks on Instagram. We’re saying #MeToo and #TimesUp. Why shouldn’t we find strength in periods, as well?
And period empowerment doesn’t just come from hashtags and megaphones; simply having options and choosing what’s right for you can be liberating in and of itself. That was the thinking behind DivaCup, a reusable menstrual cup that’s as innovative as it is divisive: You leave it in to collect blood, wash it out after a few hours (that would be the divisive part), and reinsert. Even though only about 5 percent of women are using reusable products like cups, DivaCup sales nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017. The market research firm Mintel predicts that menstrual cups could disrupt the tampon market over time.
"Period empowerment doesn’t just come from hashtags and megaphones;
simply having options and choosing what’s right for you can be
liberating in and of itself."
“When we started in 2003, we were shocked at how many women didn’t understand their cycles,” says Carinne Chambers-Saini, the CEO of Diva International, the maker of DivaCup. “With menstrual cups, you interact with menstrual blood while cleaning the cup, so you’re more in touch with your body.” And that can be liberating: “Periods have been shame-y and sterilized for so long that the only way to really connect with it is just by looking at your blood and accepting it,” says Sable Yong, a digital beauty editor at Allure, who switched to DivaCups last year.
Today, we can address our periods in pretty much any way that suits us: organic-cotton tampons and pads, like the ones from the Honest Company and Seventh Generation; probiotics made to maintain healthy vaginal yeast levels, like the daily supplement from Queen V; or a tampon subscription service, like Rael, Lola, or Easy.
It’s even more impressive when you think about how far we’ve come. “The book of Genesis is the starting point for the modern world’s attitudes toward menstruation — the attitude that it’s a curse for evil deeds done by a woman is rooted in the story of Eve,” says Gottlieb. “That’s permeated cultural thinking for thousands of years, to the point that the most common euphemism for menstruation is ‘the curse.’ It’s created a very negative image that has essentially socialized young girls into expecting to suffer.”
And so this very normal bodily function has been seen as something to fret over or hide. A typical tampon commercial uses innocuous blue liquid that looks like laundry detergent, suggesting ignorance is bliss, and the less you notice your period, the happier you’ll be. For a very long time, owning your period was just not a part of the conversation.
And sometimes it still isn’t. Thinx CEO Maria Molland Selby experienced surprising backlash to ads for her period panties, underwear that’s designed to absorb up to two tampons’ worth of blood while wicking away moisture, reducing or eliminating the need for pads or tampons. A campaign featured a runny egg yolk next to a woman in Thinx underwear — and an agency that reviews ads for the New York City MTA reportedly balked at allowing it on public transit. “I was furious because look at what they do allow. There are ads for breast augmentation with women holding up grapefruits in front of their chests. Talk about sexualized. Talk about teaching young girls and boys negative things,” says Selby. “We were talking about something very human that should not be taboo. A whole community came forward to defend us, and the MTA allowed the ads. Girls need to learn that their periods are not something they need to be afraid of. It holds us back when we don’t talk.”
The silence “is an artifact of misogyny,” says Chris Bobel, an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Periods are a contradiction of what we consider to be feminine. The menstruating body is untidy, so you put rules around it. We get rid of any evidence of that bodily process because femininity relies on strict discipline — we pluck, we shave, we conceal — and menstruation refuses those norms.”
But not all cultures have seen periods as a curse or a source of shame, proof that negative views of menstruation are societal constructs. Traditionally, the Yurok tribe in Northern California “organized their calendar around women’s menstrual cycles,” says Gottlieb. “They were so revered, it was at the heart of their concept of time.” The women were synced (by way of exposure to lunar light) to menstruate at the same time — and the Yurok believed that during
menstruation, women were at the height of their powers. Likewise, women in parts of Ghana are celebrated when they begin menstruating. “The woman sits on a throne under an umbrella, and people will shower her with gifts. She’s treated like a queen,” says Gottlieb. In the Beng community on the Ivory Coast, men view women’s menstrual blood as “the bodily equivalent of a flower on a plant.”
Believe it or not, the rest of us are getting closer to that kind of thinking than we’ve ever been. “When you teach young kids about their periods in a way that’s joyful, it’s not so scary and mysterious anymore. I think if Sesame Street did a song about periods, no one would care about them when they grew up,” says Chella Quint, a period activist based in Sheffield, England, who created the popular #periodpositive hashtag. She’s an advocate for better education about menstruation and partners with local schools to do workshops and comedy shows for kids about periods. “Periods can feel awful. No one is denying that. But gallows humor can be a great way to embrace it. Without positive discourse, where does that leave us? Girls don’t know the difference between a vulva and a vagina. I’ve had a few kids in my classes that actually think periods are blue. We need to reclaim this from advertising.” Quint suggests, jokingly, that I refer to her as a “period superhero” in this article.
A period superhero may be just what we need to raise a new generation of women: empowered, proud — and certainly not cursed.
A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Allure. For fashion credits, see Shopping Guide. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.
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