“In Mexico, women are said to carry luz de la vida, the light of life. This light is located, not in a woman’s heart, not behind her eyes, but en los ovarios, in her ovaries, where all the seed stock is laid down before she is even born.”
Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I want to talk about menstruation. Which sounds a lot more boring than it actually is. It also has the habit of making people turn off, as though the only possible thing I could talk about are period pains and PMS. As part of my ‘Going Local Going Green’ journey, I’ve been confronted with monthly cycles that are affected by my own monthly cycles. It turns out, at certain times of the month I am on top of my game when it comes to communicating my thoughts and feelings - which is a necessity with our Action Learning methodology. But catch me a few days before this stage in my cycle and I might not be able to look you in the eye, because that’s how I'm feeling. These cycles are to do with health, resilience, nature and the way in which I interact with others. And they all start in the womb.
I’ve always been aware of my period - how can you miss the searing cramps and bloating, followed by blood pouring out of a bodily orifice for a few days every 30 days? Recently I’ve started charting my cycle for the first time - not too seriously as some charting asks for daily body temperature, cervix probing and in depth analysis of your emotions, and I’m not quite at that stage of commitment yet. I started by reading some books. I found it incredibly hard to find a book that’s introductory and accessible and not completely wafty. One hurdle I’ve hit time and time again in menstrual talk is the gender binary and gender specific language that is bandied about. There is little recognition of women without wombs, or people who identify as female without a womb, or the cycles of men - and god forbid, some kind of definition of feminine that isn’t soaked in patriarchal language. In fact, to date I’ve found nothing about men’s cycles. Surely they must be cyclical creatures too?
Mostly, I’ve been talking about menstruation. A lot. With most people that cross my path. Women in particular are fascinated to hear more, as it turns out that it’s not just me. Other people also seem oblivious of what happens in their body each month. Now, I obsessively check the lunar cycle before bed, and try to listen to my body before I sleep. Sometimes, it gives me nothing (or it might be the food I’ve eaten that day), but sometimes, I can recognise the different dips or peaks in my emotions, revealing where I am in my cycle. But menstruation isn’t just about me, it’s about all of us. This is where we come from - we are all born of the womb. So why aren’t we respecting our menstrual cycles more?
Periods have been in the news a lot recently. In the positive corner; badass musician MIA’s drummer Kiran Gandhi running a marathon on her period free flow in support of women who don’t have access to sanitary products, and in the negative corner; Donald Trump insinuating that a female reporter was on her period during the Republican leader debate due to her fiery demeanour. More often than not, menstruation is seen as something that happens behind closed doors, it shouldn’t be spoken about, and if it is spoken about, it’s specifically about menstrual hygiene.
Of course, so much of this is to do with the patriarchy that we live in. The lack of menstrual awareness in our society is due to value not being placed on these cycles, deftly illustrated by this hilarious and profound 1978 article by Gloria Steinham - If Men Could Menstruate. These rhythms are natural rhythms, reminiscent of the seasons and of the moon. The rhythms are suppressed by patriarchy, therefore the way in which we relate to these rhythms is also suppressed. The need for culture change around menstruation is incredibly potent - with less silence and more openness to discuss and relate - there is a real opportunity to get to know ourselves and the people around us better. I’m not asking for a red tent to retreat to each month, but I am asking for some value to be placed in these rhythms, which affect the physical and mental health of 50% of our population (and the other 50% in return). I’ve seen first hand the power on a mass scale of the coming together of women. At Glastonbury Festival this year there was an onslaught of periods - arriving early, arriving late, making a surprise guest appearance. One glance down the compost toilets at the red river showed me that menstruation is a powerful thing. And if you want to get hippy about it - this was over the summer solstice at a pagan site. A perfect recipe for menstrual syncing. These days we tend to live alone, or in houses that separate us from other people, not allowing this closeness of women, and therefore the syncing of their cycles. I can’t help but feel sad about this. If we were all aware of our cycles and offered support to one another, would we not find ourselves in a much better place?
Things I’ve learnt so far
I discovered that I really don’t know anything about my monthly cycle. My body that I live in every day of my life. My womb - the organ that could potentially grow life one day. And apart from dealing with my monthly bleed, I didn’t realise there was much more to know. There is so much to learn.
The phases - In lots of the literature I’ve come across, the 4 main stages of the menstrual cycle are referred to as the seasons. Summer is pre-ovulation, Spring - ovulation, Autumn is pre-menstruation, and Winter is menstruation. Similarly these phases are also attributed to female Archetypes, the Maiden (pre-ovulation), the Mother (ovulation), the Wild Woman/ Enchantress (pre-menstrual) and the Crone/ Wise Woman (menstruation), reflecting the state of mind/ hormonal balance that might be affecting us. These are also reflective of stages of the moon (with which I am slowly becoming obsessed), in terms of waxing, full moon, waning, and new moon.
Menarche - also known as your first period. Some people think that the way in which we process having our first period can affect your relationship with our entire menstrual cycle, forever. For some, periods were awkward and embarrassing, so making sure that first period is celebrated properly is really important. If this first time was particularly traumatic, reliving and reframing can also be useful when it comes to your menarche.
Mittelschmerz - this is a term for pain during ovulation - the second stage of the cycle. This is when the eggs are released and there is a dull aching pain near the ovaries. Now I know when my ovulation is about to happen, I have a better awareness of this pain that i hadn’t previously attributed to anything in particular - just random stomach cramps.
Discharge - I think part of me truly hates the word discharge. I think because it’s only ever used for period-talk, or for battery leaks. But discharge is completely fascinating and it takes a huge role in fertility and keeping our yonis really happy. Discharge is different throughout the month. There’s some great information about what all the different consistency, colour and types of discharge mean on this blog here.
Diversity - Just like the names for a vagina (my favourite is yoni) there are lots of different looking vaginas out there. These Betty Dodson drawings popped up on facebook for me the other day and I love them (think Georgia O’Keefe meets luxury folded fabrics). They are real, beautiful and diverse.
Fertile - Some Journalists have been using their menstrual blood to water their plants, which is supposed to be quite effective (I haven't tried this - yet.)
Yoni steam - There is also a cleansing ritual called a yoni steam, which has been around since the Maya. You basically steam clean your vagina. Although it sounds extreme, it’s just like steaming your face, but lower. It really helps if your menstrual blood is dark and thick at the beginning or end of your period.
I signed up to the Red School Online. It’s run by two very inspirational women Alexandra Pope & Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer, and it is designed to raise ‘menstruality consciousness’. I learnt some home truths about my cervix - which you can easily touch at certain times of the month) and changes in my hormone levels that finally explain that left-eye-migraine I get on day 21 of my cycle (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say).
One of the best books I’ve read on this so far is Code Red by Lisa Lister. It’s an easy to read, easily to reference book about the different ‘seasons’ of your cycle. Once I got past the ‘inner warrior’ speak (and the inevitable ‘lady parts’) there is some really good stuff in here. I refer back to it every month to see which of my archetypes is around that day. I’ve also dipped into the Wild Genie by Alexandra Pope, the Red Tent by Anita Diamant and my new favourite book ever 'Women Who Run With The Wolves’. There is nothing like a short story about La Loba (she-wolf in Spanish), the original 2 million year old wild woman, to put you to sleep empowered by the history and story-telling of strong women across the world. Who needs superheroes?
I plan on coming back to this theme of menstruation, trying to pull apart how I feel about it. I have learnt that one of my friends is a menstruation mentor, that Bristol has a dedicated herbal medicine course for women’s cycles with the Rhizome Clinic, and that there are such things as womb yoga classes, dedicated to finding balance with your cycle. I'm also thinking about setting up a menstruation group. Not meeting up to bleed together, but a reading and sharing group to talk about what we know and have learnt about our cycles. Let me know if you'd be interested in this (and tips and advice are very welcome).
If you can get through the repetitive use of the words ‘lady parts’ (I’m still not sure why we can’t call a vagina a vagina - I feel a whole blog coming on around the use of language in menstrual talk) then this talk by Alisa Vitti is really interesting.