Tackling A Feminine Taboo

In their new book Flow two authors take on a taboo topic—and target the new pills that suppress periods.

11.12.09 11:53 PM ET

Through period-suppressing birth control pills, it’s now possible to avoid “Aunt Flo” entirely. So what busy, jaded women who don’t even have time to bother with menstruation will want to read an entire book on the topic?

The authors of Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation believe the answer is: a whole lot of them. When Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, both published writers in their mid-40s, finished preparing their proposal for their book, they thought mainstream publishers would compete to snatch it up. Twenty-five rejections later (some of which were particularly nasty, they claim), the authors were undeterred.

After all, the whole point of Flow, as they envisioned it, was to fight the stigma that still plagues frank discussion about menstruation. The “ick” factor that turned most publishers off, they say, is part of the reason that women are shockingly uninformed when it comes to their periods. Research shows few women can explain the physiological processes of ovulation and menstruation—and between 5 and 10 percent of girls have no idea what’s happening when they experience their first “time of the month.”

In many ways, Flow—published by St. Martin’s Griffin—is a breakthrough. Nearly all titles on menstruation are geared toward preteen girls or are dry and academic, published by small presses. Flow, though, targets a mainstream, women’s-magazine reading audience. It is a tome on all things period, from vintage advertisements for feminine hygiene products to tips on the latest eco-friendly sanitary products, such as reusable (yes, reusable) pads.

The authors hope Flow will reverse any revulsion we feel when (get ready) “the tomato boat has come in” or “the Red Sox have a home game”; when a woman is “saddling up old rusty” or “riding the big red Cadillac down the Avenue of Womanhood." Their goal is to help women understand menstruation in order to make more educated choices about how to handle it. “Women have different reactions to their periods, different symptoms,” Kim told The Daily Beast. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all bodily function. More meaningful discussions would allow women to feel like they’re owning their decisions.”

Today the most basic choice is whether or not to menstruate at all. Since Barr Pharmaceuticals (now owned by Teva) introduced Seasonale, the first period-suppressing birth control pill, in 2003, a steadily increasing number of suppressants has hit the market. The drugs allow women to menstruate just four or fewer times a year. And while some women take a suppressant pill to curb debilitating symptoms, for others, it’s a lifestyle drug. (Some doctors stress that the long-term side effects of continually taking hormones are still unknown, and could pose risks.)

To help readers understand where we are in the cultural story of periods, Stein and Kim devote much of the book to where we’ve been. The history of menstruation is a colorful one. For centuries, society was baffled by the phenomenon, wondering, Why does bleeding usually signify distress, but not so when a woman is undergoing menses? Ancient civilizations believed menstrual blood possessed supernatural powers--that it was both sacred and toxic.

In A.D. 77, the philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that menstrual blood would make plant seeds infertile, kill insects, dull razors, and drive dogs insane—myths that lived on until the late 15th century. And as recently as the 1920s, menstruating women were banned from some churches for fear of “contamination,” and even from some wineries, due to a belief that they’d make the wine spoil.

Until relatively recently, menstruation was just one more excuse for patriarchal societies to regard women as inferior. In 1912, during the height of the women’s suffrage movement, the New York Times published this cringe-worthy opinion: “No doctor can ever lose sight of the fact that the mind of a woman is always threatened with danger from the reverberations of her physiological emergencies (i.e., menstruation)… He cannot shut (his eyes) to the fact that there is mixed up in the women’s movement such mental disorder.”

While readers might be amused by the book’s visual history of feminine hygiene--from rubberized underwear to sanitary belts and teeny tiny tampons—a darker message lies beneath. Woven throughout the narrative of Flow is a critique of the role that pharmaceutical companies and advertisers have played in shaping women’s (and men’s) concepts of menstruation. The authors suggest that drug-company marketing is responsible for reinforcing the notion that women should keep their periods secret. In fact, they note, the word “period” wasn’t even used in a TV commercial until 1985, when Courteney Cox Arquette uttered it in an ad for Tampax.

At times, Stein and Kim could be faulted for overstating their case—for smelling conspiracy where there isn’t any. They take issue with the terms “feminine hygiene” and “sanitary” products, for example, asking: What’s unhygienic about a natural process? What are we “protecting” ourselves against? (Maybe some people don’t want coworkers to know they’re about to insert a tampon! Maybe some don’t like stains on the backs of their pants!) And while the book is witty and fast-paced, because of the sheer amount of material the authors cover, it can occasionally feel glib—Feminism lite.

But ultimately, Flow educates and encourages readers to reflect on what menstruating means to them—a crucial process in an age when, with a visit to the gynecologist, we can all but eliminate a bodily function that has defined womanhood since the dawn of time.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Danielle Friedman has worked as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. Her writing has been published in the Miami Herald, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and on She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.