Shed Walls, Don’t Build Them

Today’s guest post is by Emilia Sanabria, author of Plastic Bodies: Sex Hormones and Menstrual Suppression in Brazil.

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Mark Dixon, CC BY 2.0, flickr.com/photos/9602574@N02/31638096493

One set of signs from the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration caught my attention. It read “Shed walls, don’t build them” over the drawing of a womb. Shedding walls, here, means menstruating (lest the point need to be spelled out).

The slogan is part of a move to normalize menstruation and put out into the public domain what continues to be a cultural taboo, something women are exhorted to conceal and manage, privately. In the wake of Trump’s outrageous sexist comments, his onslaught on sexual and reproductive rights, and the reintroduction of the global gag rule, millions of women took to the streets (again) to defend their right to dispose of their bodies, and to denounce the objectifying ways in which women’s bodies have been portrayed by the new president elect. Trump asserted that broadcaster Megyn Kelly, who steadfastly questioned him about his record of sexual harassment, had “Blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever,” which many took as a reference to the fact that she was irrational because she was menstruating. There followed a massive movement of women live-tweeting their periods to Trump using the hasthtag #PeriodIsNotAnInsult.

The invitation to “shed [uterine] walls” rather than build unaffordable, unbuildable and racist ones, speaks to a core issue I address in Plastic Bodies. The book explores the genesis, practice and discourse of “menstrual suppression”, which proposes that women’s monthly menstrual cycles are unnecessary: a useless waste of blood. Menstrual suppression involves the use of pharmaceutical sex hormones, from extended regime oral contraceptives (Seasonique™, Lybrel™) to hormonal injections (Depo-Provera™), implants (Implanon™) or intra-uterine devices (Mirena™). (Watch Giovana Chesler’s fabulous documentary Period: The End of Menstruation for a cinematographic analysis of the debate.) These methods are widespread in the Global South as part of the arsenal of birth control strategies. Brazil, where the ethnographic research for Plastic Bodies was carried out, has been a theatre of experimental hormonal practices for decades (yielding much of the data that legitimated menstrual suppression drugs for Western markets).

978-0-8223-6161-9In Plastic Bodies I trace the emergence of a (pharmaceutical industry-driven) discourse concerning the purported “unnaturalness” of regular menstruation. The menstrual suppression debate is founded on two claims. The first differentiates the menstrual bleeding pattern experienced by oral contraceptive pill users from “natural” menstruation and suggests that the former, because of its artificial nature, is superfluous. The second denaturalizes regular menstruation, arguing that this is a “new biological state”, since “in the past” or in “tribal” contexts women reached menarche later, had more children, and breastfed them longer than “modern” women do. Menstrual suppression is thus framed by its advocates as a means of returning the reproductive organs to their “original” (read: natural) state. This appeal to the distinction between nature and artifice carries, in Brazil, particular values as I detail in the book.

Menstrual activism of the kind associated with the slogan “Shed Walls” performs a particular kind of gendered politics. It questions the medicalization of women’s bodies and provides a feminist and anticapitalist reading of menstrual shame and the rationales driving the menstrual suppression and menstrual hygiene industries. However, menstrual activism positions itself ambiguously in relation to the “natural” female body.

Rather than side with or against the idea that menstruation (shedding walls) is a natural feature of women’s bodies, I suggest that the recognition of the body’s cyclical nature and the practice of using hormones to suppress menstruation construe the body as plastic. Plasticity refers both to the capacity to give and receive form. It points to a radical tension between biological contingency and technological possibility. What is at stake here is a question about the function of the uterus and the hormonal fluctuations of the menstrual cycle beyond reproduction. This indicates the extent to which the noncyclical (male) body remains an implicit norm. For, as my feminist colleagues are quick to note, sperm production in the absence of reproduction is never qualified as “unnecessary” or “wasteful,” let alone pathological.

When I wrote Plastic Bodies reproductive rights and gendered normativities continued to be acute in Brazil, but were perhaps felt less urgently at stake in the US or Western Europe. The momentous conservative backlash that marks 2017 reveals how fragile these hard-fought victories are and how ferociously they need to be defended. However, as I argue in Plastic Bodies, the distinction between nature/culture is not the place to ground our political response. Grounding a feminist resistance in women’s anatomy is risky and deeply problematic. It relies on an apolitical understanding of biology that is oftentimes blind to race, trans-, queer- and non-reproductive personhood. (As one African-American woman pointed out to a dear friend of mine when she saw the Women’s March pink pussy hats: “my pussy isn’t pink.”) In the leaked draft of a forthcoming executive order on religious freedom, marriage is upheld as the union of one man and one woman as referring to “an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics.” In this context, perhaps the concept of plasticity can serve as a tool among the important repertoire of feminist responses that can trouble such neoconservative appeals to immutable biology.

To learn more about Plastic Bodies or order a copy, visit its webpage.

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