Periods are touchy subjects for both men and women. But, given that more than half the population either gets them, will get them, or has had them in the past, this is a fairly silly state of affairs, and Elissa Stein and Susan Kim aren’t afraid to call it just that. This is a history of menstruation and everything to do with it, from uncomfortable symptoms to advertising to the pill to just what women did before pads or tampons ever existed.
I first came across this book when Rebecca at the Book Lady’s Blog raved about it nearly a year ago. After it failed to show up in local bookstores or in my library, I finally got a copy of my own for Christmas. I was surprised to find that it’s textbook-sized and bound, but on opening it, it’s fairly obvious why because the inside has lots of old ads and paraphernalia devoted to periods. These were oddly delightful as well as worrying; the authors poke at the problems with them and the misconceptions they delivered, especially the earlier ones, but I had fun imagining my grandma and my mom looking at them when they were brand new.
As for the actual content of the book, I had a sort of mixed reaction to it, simply because I can’t really understand empowerment around periods. I’ll spare you the details, but I’ll certainly never love my own period, and encouragement to do so never sits quite right with me. The authors take this fully into account as they do discuss the many reasons women struggle with this aspect of their lives, and though they blame a lot of the stigma on advertising, there is not really much question that periods can be painful and unpleasant.
One of the most valuable chapters for me was the amount they question PMS and other familiar medicalizations of classic “female” symptoms. Yes, it’s a serious problem for some women, but it’s honestly frustrating when someone else (usually a man) dismisses a genuine complaint by asking if a woman is about to have her period. When surveyed, a large percentage of people agreed that men had cyclical mood swings too – so a lot of what is simply our nature as human beings can be happily ignored by people who think we’re just complaining because we’re about to start bleeding. This is a worthwhile thing to mention; it frustrates me and no doubt many women to be dismissed because of bodily functions, and is something straight out of the nineteenth century that annoyingly persists.
My favorite sections were also those that dealt with history, as you might expect. I was appalled to learn what women did before pads and tampons, which is why I mentioned it in the summary, and am now actively relieved that I live in a time when they are readily available. But the way the whole advertising business built up around feminine products and feminine hygiene is quite a fascinating look into what happens when you have a product half of the population must buy at one time or another, and how you can use that condition to make them buy even more of your brand and not another. All very interesting, if not a little off-putting. I was also very surprised to learn that a huge percentage of women stick to the same brand throughout their lives, which explains why the industry works so hard at advertising. And this is true, so I don’t know why I was surprised – no matter where the sale is, at the risk of TMI, I go for the same brand, which always perplexes my husband who thinks I should just get the cheapest kind.
Flow is a great, chatty book that encourages women to open up about their periods, providing essential knowledge for today as well as a look back at where we’ve been. Highly recommended – for both genders, although I don’t think too many men will be brave enough to whip this one out in public!
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