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Symbolic meaning of menstruation across different cultures and perspectives
Name: Stine Rindstad
Student number: n8556041
Tutor: Judith Meiklejohn
Topic: Blood, Birth and Death
The Inner Wolf
Red is the Colour
ABOUT THE ARTEFACT
To the left is a collage and drawing of "Alice". The wolf mouth represents the biological nature of the female body. The red tongue is a symbol of menstruation as aggressive, frightening and evil. The portrait photograph to the right is one of twelve photographs from a feminist art exhibition created by Ingrid Berthon-Moine. It shows a woman wearing her menstruation blood as lipstick. The photograph is shot at eye level, making it personal and intimate as it challenges the viewer.
THE PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE
Both of the artworks symbolise common aspects of menstruation across different cultures and societies. On one side is the "evil"; the stigma, oppression and negative attitudes and experiences females experience. which may affect their social and emotional well-being (Chang, Hayter & Lin, 2012; Johnston-Robledo & Chrisler, 2011). On the other side is the part of it which is natural, a part that symbolises femininity and a distinction between childhood and adulthood. Berthon-Moinehe (2009) is presenting her message against gender stereotypes and menstruation as a taboo through this artwork.
In today's society menstruation is still a taboo topic: something people are not comfortable to speak about (Chang, Hayter & Lin, 2012). This makes it especially important to address so the physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological well-being of members of a society have equal chances of good health.
Menstruation is a physiological part of the human experience as a female (Severy, 2000). It occurs for approximately forty years for roughly half of the world’s population (Bobel & Kissling, 2011). Cultural and social aspects influence the way people experience and interpret menstruation, and therefore the symbolic meaning differs across different cultures and societies (Severy, 2000). In order to fully understand current beliefs and practices it is necessary to go back in time and look at ways early theorists have influenced the topic (Eldred, 1998; Grahn, 1993). Hence, this literature review will not only look at the current literature, but also use older literature relevant to this topic.
“Symbolic culture is an environment of objective facts—whose existence depends
entirely on subjective belief” (Knight, 2010)
Metaformic Theorist Judy Grahn hypothesises that ancient menstrual rituals have shaped today’s world and culture. These are known as metaforms and include rituals, myths, ideas, or stories created to explain menstruation. Anthropological data from the last 400 years are the root of Metaformic Theory (Grahn, 1993). Cross-culturally, the symbolic meaning of menstruation is commonly presented as something “good” or “evil”. Ideas and beliefs regarding menstruation are divided into three different themes; pollution, rites of passage and concepts of secrecy and seclusion (Britton, 1996).
Rites of passage
Nepalese girls' rite of passage
In some cultures the first occurrence of menstruation is marked by certain rituals and celebrations .These forms of celebrations symbolise aspects such as future childbearing ability, passage into womanhood and femininity (Britton, 1996).
Menstruation poison killing cattle and crops
There are several beliefs of menstruation as a polluting power, which are believed to ether harm the female herself, the people she encounters, or the nature (Britton, 1996; Ngubane, 1977; Helman, 2007). Amongst the Lele people in Africa, the menstruating woman cannot cook for her husband because they believe he may fall ill or die (Britton, 1996). Amongst the Zulu people of South Africa a menstruating woman is thought to be poisonous, and may kill animals and crops if she comes near them (Ngubane, 1977; Helman, 2007). Guatemalans share a similar belief but reason it with the woman becoming hot and getting a strong power (Britton, 1996). Opposing to this belief is the belief that menstruation gives strength (Eldred, 1998) and may be used in treating certain medical conditions (Britton, 1996). Some women also believe they are extra vulnerable during menstruation as they believe the uterus opens up and thus more susceptible to infection and germs. In modern societies women may view menstruation as a way of ridding herself of impurities that may be bad for her if kept in her body (Britton (1996).
Secrecy and seclusion
Seclusion - Zulu menstruation hut
There are numerous rituals and beliefs regarding menstruation that influence the action of seclusion. These are often involving beliefs about light (fire, sun and moon), earth and water (Grahn, 1993). In some cultures women are secluded to a separated menstruation hut once a month. This is for example common amongst the Yaracares tribe, Parivarams and Zulu people (Grahn, 1993). In order to keep menstruating females away from the earth (touching the ground) they may be confined to a hut, cage or hammock which is build up from the ground (e.g. amongst the Loangos, New Irelands and South Americans) (Grahn, 1993). The reason why the female cannot touch water in certain societies is explained to be because they believe that the water source will dry up. She cannot even look at it because it may flood, or according to the Tiwi people the spirits may be angered and kill her. Amongst some cultures (e.g. the Jews) the menstruating woman could not bath during seclusion. She would then have a special bath after menstruation was over, called a "mikveh" (Grahn, 1993). The belief that menstruation is a polluting power, as previously mentioned, is another reason why they may be separated from the rest of the society (Eldred, 1998).
Eldred (1998) suggests that the view on menstruation as evil may stem from misinterpreting of the story of Adam and Eve, where some people believe Eve was punished for eating the forbidden fruit and thereafter “cursed” by menstruation. Other reasons may be due to the mystical and powerful side of it with for example syncronisation, which is found to be heavily influenced by nature such as the moon and sources of light (Grahn, 1993 p13).
The experiences girls have at menarche (first period) along with societies’ attitudes and meaning of blood are thought to influence how they feel about menstruation later in life (WHO, 1983). For example, Severy (2000) and Britton (1996) point out that the negative symbol of discomfort and pain commonly presented by the media influence how women think about and experience menstruation (e.g. advertisements of hygiene products and ways to lessen pain).
“Inconvenient. Messy. Overemotional. Unpredictable. Nasty. Smelly. Overt.
Impossible to hide, incompatible with men.
Too red, too bright, too loud, too thick, too much.” (Corinna, 2011)
It is important to consider the implications that negative social beliefs and symbolisms of menstruation can have for females. Britton (1996) points out that although it is common with education regarding menstruation, it is merely focusing on the reproductive aspects and leaves out the psychological and emotional responses girls may experience. There is currently limited research regarding this aspect and the implications different cultural and social beliefs may have on females and their mental and emotional well-being. Severy (2000) and Britton (1996) suggest that this may be because speaking about the topic and interviewing women about it has historically been associated with taboo, and still is in many cultures. Hence, anthropological researchers have often been using qualitative studies to deal with this sensitive matter (Britton, 1996). This provides in-depth information through personal interviews. However, they tend to be conducted over a short period of time and using retrospective methods (Van Boven and Ashworth, 2007). McFarland, Ross and DeCourville (1989) discovered through their study that females’ recollection of the experience of their period may be biased.
Corrinna (2011) is sceptical to the research various health professionals and organisations (e.g. Association of Reproductive Health Professionals [ARHP] (2006) and Dr. Lesslie Miller (cited by Corrina, 2011)) have conducted on period suppression methods. This is because pharmaceutical companies often fund them, which may have biased the research. Britton (1996) highlights the importance of further anthropological research in order to incorporate different cultural beliefs, element and symbolic frameworks for policymakers responsible for education of the topic.
CULTURAL AND SOCIAL ANALYSIS
In today’s western world the action of suppressing menstruation, hiding it and keeping it away is a form of body modification and a way females are ‘’supposed” to control their bodies, in order to fit in with the society’s norm (Corrinna, 2011; Bobel & Kissling, 2011). There are several questions to ask regarding this. For example, who decides what the norm is and how does culture and society influence it?
From a feminist perspective, today’s society focuses too much on the female body as objective rather than subjective as well as being too controlled by the society (Bobel & Kissling, 2011). They criticise the medicalising of normal body functions (such as menstruation) into being symbols of pathology; the female body becomes something unhealthy that needs treatment. (Litva & Eyles, 1995).
The view of menstruation as something bad results in ‘othering’, which means that those who ‘other’ (e.g. cultures, societies and males) secure their own identity by making themselves ‘normal’, whilst secluding the other group; in this case, menstruating women (Grove & Zwi, 2006). This may disempower and marginalise women, making them socially inferior (Grove & Zwi, 2006; Krumeich, 2001).
When looking at the issue through a symbolic interactionist’s perspective it gives the opportunity to take a step closer and individualise people and the social structure in order to discover how they interact (Litva & Eyles, 1995). This will therefore highlight differences between societies and cultures. For example, from this perspective it is the meaning of the practices and symbols menstruation represent that are meaningful (Litva & Eyles, 1995). Agency and active bodies are also emphasised in this theory (Hancock et al., 2000). The individual female’s social interactions influence her feeling of well-being or good health.
Within symbolic interactionism is another theory, which is used when explaining health: the labelling theory. (Litva & Eyles, 1995). This theory explains that various persons participate in labelling an illness in the goal of developing a treatment regime. However, these labels may also stigmatise individuals or communities that are being labelled (Litva & Eyles, 1995). This is what also happens with menstruation when it is viewed as pathological. For example in 1987, PMS was officially listed as a psychiatric disorder (Severy, 2000).
Australia is a culturally diverse country, and it is therefore essential to consider cultural competency when dealing with people from different cultures and backgrounds about this topic
. It focuses on integrating culture into the delivery of health care services by building the capacity of the health system.
National Health and Medical Research Council [NHMRC, 2005).
Awareness and future focus
This issue does not affect people equally for natural reasons. The most affected are young females around the time of puberty through their adult lives to menopause. However, males’ negative attitudes towards menstruation are likely to worsen the situation in making women feel more ashamed, dirty and anxious (Chang, Hayter & Lin, 2012). Thus, it is important to work on raising awareness of it and aim towards openness and acceptance instead of taboo and disgust for the sake of females’ optimal health and well-being. The focus of public health experts should be on educating health providers, sexual education teachers, and parents, so that they can improve the way they teach young people about menstruation. Doing more research on male behaviour and attitudes towards menstruation can also be beneficial as there is currently not much research on that aspect (Chang, Hayter & Lin, 2012) It will also be important for public health experts to work with the media on improving the types of messages and symbolisms they are showing to be more positive.
ANALYSIS OF THE ARTEFACT AND LEARNING REFLECTIONS
I think the artefact is a good representation of the topic, in that it represents the different perspectives and points out what needs to be worked on; the idea that menstruation is viewed as negative, disgusting, and something that should be hidden, when it in fact is a natural part of being a grown-up female. Personally I believe it is very important for everyone to have a sense of belonging to the society in which they live, which females do not have when they have this "bad thing".
As a result of this assignment, I feel that I have learned several valuable skills. I have learned to look at the world in different ways when assessing a topic. This enables me to understand the ways people from different cultures and backgrounds may think and experience things, let alone why the society is shaped the way it is. In a future career within health, I will most likely come across several people who have different beliefs and cultural experiences to me. This assignment has broadened my horizon and helped me prepare for when that time comes. Additionally, I am sure these skills will be valuable for future group work at University, where I may be working with students from other backgrounds and cultures or topics regarding this.
For the future, when I come across new or different ideas (e.g. on the news, through friends or professionals), I will consider different aspects of the topic, as there are many different social and cultural influences over how different people perceive the world in which we live.
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LEARNING ENGAGEMENT AND REFLECTION TASK
Reflective comment 1:
I found your report very interesting and engaging. It highlights an important topic that many people do not know enough about. I agree with you (and Alice) that education is vital in aiming for making a change in the communities. Furthermore, I must admit that I previously shared a similar view on FGM as you. However, from learning about so many different ways of thinking about a topic and all the different aspects of in throughout this unit, it has changed my perspective on FGM (and other topics). As you mentioned, we cannot fully understand how they, in their cultures, experience it. We are looking at it based on our cultural morals, values and ethics, which influence the views we hold. Have you heard of Waries Dirie? She has written a book (in a series of three) named “Desert Flower”. She writes about her personal story of her life as a nomad girl in Somalia and about her experience with FGM. She is now a spokesperson for the United Nations about FGM, and is working on educating societies and relevant people about it. I would highly recommend it if you are interested. Overall, I must say you have done a great job, and the artefact was very inspiring.
Reflective comment 2
I found your report very interesting, especially the part where you write about the difference between people with collectivist and individualist cultures. I agree with you that cultural awareness is important to consider in public health and health care services. We live in a multi-cultural society, something that enhances the importance of cultural safety. I also find the limitation of the studies interesting; the fact that there is not much research conducted other that in a few countries. This may very well have biased some of the studies. Your artefact caught my eye and made me very interested to read your topic. I found the artefact amusing at first. However, I felt that I understood the deeper aspects of it after I had finished reading it. Well done with your report!
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