Generally speaking, it is maintained that menstruation is a biological process, a socio-cultural stigmatised phenomenon and a disguised personal human experience. However, it is noticed that menstrual experiences also have existentialist underpinnings. Women and other marginalised genders, as menstruating subjects, keep their menstrual bodies within the boundaries of certain norms and prescribed rules of etiquette.
The most simplistic understanding of the idea of menstrual etiquette may be uncovered through the following examples: Menstruators are expected to observe menstrual etiquette by keeping silent about their menstrual experiences, by keeping a check on their clothes in order to confirm that it is stain-free, by hiding the purchase of sanitary wear, by storing and using it secretly, etcetera. Hence, menstrual etiquette is plainly related to concealment, silence and surveillance.
It is a fact that the status of women and marginalised genders as menstruating beings has changed and improved remarkably; nevertheless, there exist various socio-cultural taboos and stigmas related to the menstrual experiences of menstruators which further take the pattern of sexual oppression and subjugation.
The ensuing closeted experience of menstruators during menstruation involves the idea of considering menstruation as a shameful, discomforting and disgustful event. As the idea of the menstrual closet is founded on the motive of concealment and masking up the episode of menstruation, it is important to mark that the main intention behind this act of concealment is distinctly correlated with the idea of a normative body (clean and proper body).
Since childhood, women and marginalised genders have been motivated to menstruate politely. By polite menstruation, we may refer to the disciplinary measures that menstruators follow as repeated upholders of etiquettes related to menstruation. These measures are directed toward one core goal, which is to conceal or cover the facts about their menstruation. For instance, a few efforts towards this concealment include the following: “Look at the back of my skirt; is anything showing?” “Here, take my sweater and tie it around your waist; I’ll walk behind you.” “Can you pass me a tampon in your algebra book?” We dwell in the delicious space of shared secrets and protect one another from ridicule” (I.M. Young)
In addition, the potency of polite menstruation also lies in the directive demands of creating a balance between a menstruating body and the socio-cultural situation that prevails. This balancing act communicates a lot about the existing power dynamics. Power dynamics accentuate the parallelism between what we may call the “normal body” and the “menstruating body” in light of the closeted experiences of menstruators during menstruation. The normal or the default body is one which is socially acceptable and which functions customarily; to be precise, it is the cis-masculine body. However, the idea of a normative body directly implies two things. First, menstruators must conform to the norm and second, this can be done by concealing menstrual episodes in a public forum.
A menstruating body is also easy to persuade and control. It acquires the status of docility in an active way indicates two things. First, a docile body is active with regards to the actions that are other-directed, referring to the fact that menstruators physically and verbally actualise this panoptic discipline in response to the power structures that foster such regimes and second, docile bodies as active also entails the act of self-policing. Thus, a menstruating body is glued, frozen and deserted!
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Organised menstruation does not refer to deliberate or scheduled menstruation; rather, it refers to a well-planned, strategised and managed menstrual experience. Menstruators in our society still choose polite menstruation over the proposed idea of organised menstruation. The question is: “Why does this form of choice transpire?” The extensive climate of menstrual shame and women’s attribution and ascription to it could be considered as one of the catalysts for the selection and transpiration of this choice. Menstrual shame, as a phenomenon is a subjective experience; a product of internalisation of external norms and menstrual shaming is a product of objective/ external influence on women’s bodies and bodily events.
In Indian society, taboos around menstruation reflect the consistent perception that a menstrual body is impure and dishonourable. The range of limitations and secrecy which are associated with menstruation create a negative impact on menstruators. One such negative impact could be specified as polite menstruation. When we are speaking of the subjective act of menstruating politely as one of the negative impacts, this indicates that there is an undermining impetus that is originally guided and governed by the prevalent socio-cultural design. Therefore, we may simply state that choosing politeness or planning is actually a product of the act of shaming.
All in all, it can be moderately said that the relation between menstruators and their lived menstrual experiences encompasses not merely the biological subordination of women but also their socio-cultural subjection.
Featured image source: Ritika Banerjee for FII