Ritualizing Disgust: On Menstrual Taboos

Thousands of years should have been a good time frame for us to get over our collective aversion to menstrual blood. However, communities are increasingly seeing – and colluding – towards an attitude of rejection of this daily occurrence. Evolutionary Biology and History offer clues to our notions of disgust.

From Cave Man to Mother Goddess

The aesthetics of human emotions are physiologically classified into the six broad affects of joy, anger, sadness, fear, however, two would do just fine in categorizing the breadth of experiences we undergo: disgust and delight. Both these emotions have shaped much of our discourse on what is taboo and acceptable, universally and topically. Take food, for instance. Many of us reject insects and bugs in our diet – the repulsion is physical, even though we know that it is a vital part of the diet for communities and populations across the world. The reason bugs are held as repugnant is not because by itself they are disgusting – otherwise, they wouldn’t be food for millions – they become so by virtue of the fact that we (certain groups) don’t consume them. Xenophobia works on the same principle, those who don’t belong to our group (religion, race, community, linguistic family) are by default alien, and therefore, to be feared – which is an emotion on the same spectrum of affects as disgust, anger or hatred.

Menstrual Lunar Calendar by vivalacraft

Does menstruation act as a stimuli in this affective spectrum? It makes sense from the perspective of Othering the female sex and her unique bodily functions, including overt physical changes on puberty, pregnancy and menopause, and the associative somatic and psychological changes that herald these biological stages. Carolyn Korsmeyer, author of  Savoring Disgust, offers compelling evidence from an evolutionary perspective in her research on our relationship with disgust: “in the case of the highly sensory disgust response, natural selection has programmed us for quick, protective recoil from things that smell or taste foul or are repellent to touch, and where ingestion or contact may be dangerous or noxious. Evidence for this can be surmised from objects identified as disgust elicitors across the globe, such as feces, pus, sexual fluids, and parasites, are also disease-bearing substances…this, what appears to be an irrational aspect of disgust, namely, that its range of objects far exceeds those that are truly infectious or toxic, is in fact, a kind of protective umbrella with an important adaptive function.”

So, are we to believe that historical progress and the intervening years did not have a civilizing effect on man’s innate aversions? Well, History and Science show that we have been able to adapt from a purely instinctual learning pattern to one that is more controlled, thoughtful and perceptive, especially when it comes to understanding natural phenomenon. This is especially true when you study the history of the ancient civilizations, beginning with Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq ) and Indus Valley (India). Thousands of years ago, these advanced cultures practiced goddess worship and the cult of fertility superseded that of even the sun. In ancient Egypt, menstrual blood was used as part of medicines, in ointments and drugs (Petra Habiger). Cultures that place emphasis on the curative and sacred powers of menstrual blood, like the East African Warundi, do “segregate completely the menstruating girl,” but would also get her to “touch every object in the house to confer magical protection on it” (Jenny Kien, The Separation of Women’s Bodies from the Cosmic Dance). Janice DeLaney writes of the ancient Indian expression for a girl’s first menstruation as “flower growing in the house of the god of love” (The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation), signifying a powerful and positive affect related to menarche and menstruation, associating it with rebirth, reproduction, sexual awakening and bodily autonomy. How did we go from worship to aversion?

Bearer of Meaning, Not the Maker

Pre-Christian and much later, Medieval attitudes towards menstrual blood help us understand how the sacred affect came to transmogrify into disgust and pass on as a universal cultural code that summarily dismissed women’s bodies as a site of something dirty. In Aristotle’s own words: (Women’s) lack of vital heat also meant that women could not be as intelligent as men. “…this made Aristotle believe that the Greek social structure that kept women strictly under men’s control was justified by women’s anatomy…he believed that a child was produced only from the male’s seed – the woman was a passive vessel in which the seed was planted, and the women’s pleasure during sexual intercourse was irrelevant” (Joyce E. Salisbury, Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World, 2001).

This line of thought that began with the Greek philosopher, reached its ascendancy with the Christian Church. Take the manuals of confession and pastoral care, written by clerics educated in the theological and law schools between 12-14th centuries. Thomas of Chobham, in Summa confessorum, insists that “it is dangerous to sleep with a menstruating woman because from such a union leprous offspring are born, and it is most shameful to lie with a puerperal woman while she suffers a flow of menstrual blood” (Becky R. Lee, The Purification of Women after Childbirth: A Window onto Medieval Perceptions of Women, FLORILEGIUM 14, 1995–96).

As we move towards the modern era and peek into the traditional American communities of the 18th and 19th century, we find that there is growing disconnect between the domestic realm and the medical profession. Housewives considered it taboo to enlighten (and initiate) their daughters into the first steps of being sexually functioning woman, where as clinics and hospitals reduced the monthly cycle to a physiological occurrence, with a focus on hygience and sexual reproduction. Conservative mothers did not think it appropriate to broach the subject with their pre-pubescent daughters, believing that “such things were not talked about and also not thought of”. While this may seem like an abdication of maternal responsibility and a clear indication of Victorian sexual repression, the relucatance to talk appears to have been a pervasive maternal strategy related to the middle-class mother’s desire to preserve her daughter’s innocence. As Constance Nathanson rightly observed, the suppression of sexuality was defined in the 19th century as necessary to the health development of a young woman’s reproductive capabilities” (Health in America, 2nd Ed.: Historical Readings, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt).

This cultural trope materialized in fiction as well, as seen in an essay on American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) The Birthmark, where critic Jules Zanger “explores the implications of the curious red mark (a tiny hand) on the heroine, Georgiana’s cheek.” Zanger traces the meaning of Georgiana’s imperfection to nineteenth century menstrual attitudes, demonstrating that because of its tabooed nature, menstruation demanded a set of euphemisms. The monthly euphemism is an evasion of menstrual reality” (DeLaney).

Bloody Horror
When I experienced menarche, my first reaction was one of horror. This had nothing to do with the patchwork bloodstain on my white slip, or the cramps, or acclimatizing to your own mutating body. It had to do with how, all of a sudden, I had to become this girl who had to learn about appropriate physical boundaries with her brother or father, or the neighbors. We are taught to be alert about who is looking at us and the self-learnt mantra of our body being something to be kept safe. Having your period meant your body could now be violated, because it was now a body capable of sexual intercourse. We are taught how to dress appropriately in consideration of the visible breasts; the legs need to be covered as well as they now incite feelings in men. I couldn’t keep up with the litany of do’s and don’t’s my mother impressed upon me, never overtly as diktats, but in subtle head shakes and shrugs, in the admonitions passed on by the eyes, in the visible frowns and thinning of the lips – I was just not learning to be a suitable mature girl!

Traditionally, a ritual celebration accompanied the menarche of girls in my community. There would be a feast, a couple of hundred relatives and close friends would be called, we would stage a mock ritualistic marriage between the menstruating girl and another girl who has not yet hit puberty, and basically let the entire world know that a rite of passage has been achieved. I used to wonder whether this rite of passage was benevolent; after all a ritual that celebrates the coming of age of a girl must obviously mean that the community has a progressive outlook towards a woman’s body and the naturalness of her bodily fluids. However, this ritual – now mostly practiced in the village and not much in the cities – marks the commencement of the reproductive readyness of the girl. Having your period means it’s time for the family to get the girl settled with a boy of suitable age – the sooner the better. It reminds me most disturbingly of the ritual slaughter of animals for a festival, where the sacrificial creature is first venerated, fed good food, paraded in the community and then, following holy words and prayers, cut open in front of its god.

Describing the taboos of modern day India, particularly in towns and villages, Rose George, spoke to girls post their menarche and the horror, seclusion and fear they undergo every month in the name of tradition. She writes in The New York Times about the injunctions that young Indian girls from a particular community receive from their mothers or elders: “when you menstruate, don’t cook food because you will pollute it. Don’t touch idols because you will defile them. Don’t handle pickles because they will go rotten with your touch…The taboo of menstruation in India causes real harm. Women in some tribes are forced to live in a cowshed throughout their periods. There are health issues, like infections caused by using dirty rags, and horror stories, like that of one girl who was too embarrassed to ask her mother for a clean cloth, and used one she found without knowing it had lizard eggs in it. The resulting infection lead to the removal of the girl’s uterus.”

Remedial Prescription

Menses by itself is not disgusting, but the practices that led to the isolation and segregation of women during their menstrual cycle got codified into ritualistic codes. The construct of tradition works just like an Infinite Loop, “a sequence of instructions in a computer program which loops endlessly, either due to the loop having no terminating condition, having one that can never be met, or one that causes the loop to start over.” These codes are not only entrenched, but are regenerative, as can be seen by how each one of us subscribes to a prescriptive model for behavior based on our family traditions, religious affiliations, national identity, and the meta-narrative of culture. These subjectivities form part of our tradition and act as a navigational compass guiding our performance.

If a mother’s response to her daughter’s period is one of anxiety, disgust and prudish codes of conduct, then it sets a precedent for others in the family and community to emulate that affect. It becomes ritualized behavior, something that is not questioned but performed. Laura Mulvey beautifully captures this transmission of code when she categorizes women as “the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning”. Yes, our learned affects don’t make sense most of the time because a million years of mangled evolutionary code separates our current affect from our evolutionary past. It’s easy to connect the dots backwards and understand how we have precriptions for clothes, for body art, religious practices, rules for social participation, for rites of passage, marriage and burial rites, and so on.

It also explains why it’s so difficult to reset ritualistic codes and throw off the yoke of tradition. What we fear the most is losing our sense of bearing and rituals act as signposts in our daily iterations. “Rituals reveal values at their deepest level…men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expressions is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed. I see in the study of rituals the way to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies” (Victor Turner, 1969). Anthropology offers an insight into our pre-historic affects. So, while it is true that modern society has sanitized and deoderized the more visible aspects of the human stain, people have yet to examine and unlearn their learned aversion to menstrual blood.

Unlearning is a gradual process and it must first begin with us, women ourselves, and our rejection of this monthly cycle. Let us question the narrative of hate, of refering to it as a curse, and using euphemisms and puns while talking about ‘it’as the red sea, or the floodgates having opened, or it being that time of the month. Let’s step back from the reification of our biologies, the thingification of what is natural. It’s only then that we would be better placed to construct a positive affect of our living body. Anne Frank writes: Each time, I have a period – and that has only been three times – I have the feeling that in spite of the pain, the unpleasantness, and nastiness, I have a sweet secret, and that is why, although it is nothing but a nuisance to me in a way, I always long for the time that I shall feel that secret within me again.” Perhaps the time will come, when we have evolved neutral affects; not celebratory, neither derogatory or shameful.


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