Recent ads from Verizon and Always Sanitary Pads pack a powerful message to pre-teen girls on what it is like to be dismissed as "like a girl." In contrast, the latest video from menstruation marketer HelloFlo, which provides monthly "special delivery" packages for a girl's "hoo-ha," comes with a snarky kid narrator and her gleefully revengeful mother.
The advertised discrete brown box arrives every month from HelloFlo to take care of all those messy adolescent menstrual needs, plus candy to console cramps and monthly crabbiness. Meant to be a satirical and humorous take on modern mother/daughter communication, many moms found the HelloFlo clip to fall flat and farcical, with one NPR commentator dubbing it meanstration.
As a family physician (and mother of a daughter), I am dismayed by this type of marketing and what it says about mothers, daughters, and our view of menstruation. Sure, we love to laugh at absurdity; it makes us cringe and squirm at an uncomfortable underlying reality. But the message here is actually one of humiliation, not sensitivity to an early adolescent who so feels enough pressure to be grown-up that she'll fake it and lie.
The early desperation for our first period is a trope that goes back long before Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. I was a very skinny 14-year before my period started and definitely felt that pressure of being left behind, with my little "Kotex starter package" gathering dust in my closet.
As grown women, we may be baffled at our daughters' pleas for menstruation to start, knowing what a hassle and honest to goodness pain it can be, yet another timeless and recurring truth of womanhood. Humanity has always been ambivalent about the inevitable monthly menstruation cycle, and even today's primetime, in-your-face feminine hygiene, pad, and tampon ads haven't changed that. Let's face it, if we can find a way to avoid monthly cycles that doesn't involve being pregnant or prematurely menopausal, we're ready to sign up. (That goes especially for the many women who struggle with painful, difficult periods due to gynecologic disorders such as uterine fibroids, endometriosis, polycystic ovaries, severe premenstrual mood dysphoria or PMS, or other hormonal imbalances.)
So the modern demand grows for birth control pills, injections, implants, patches, vaginal rings, IUDs, and other suppressive hormone treatments. Some popular forms of birth control prevent cycles and bleeding altogether.
Birth control is in the news now, with our nation divided over the Supreme Court's recent 5-to-4 ruling supporting religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act. According to the court, Hobby Lobby and others have the religious freedom to choose not to pay for coverage of particular types of contraception that might interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg. This case provides one example of how many American women feel strongly that their health care is their business—not to be dictated or decided by their employer or their government.
Girls and women want to, and increasingly have to, work and play unencumbered by leaks, odor, and accompanying, sometimes incapacitating, symptoms. In my clinic, I see young women who dislike their natural bodily rhythms and periods so much they take contraceptives just to avoid their periods, even when they aren't sexually active and there's no clear-cut medical reason. I explain synthetic hormonal treatment is not risk-free, even in low dosages. I've too often seen life-threatening deep vein thrombophlebitis and pulmonary emboli from the potential increased clotting caused by the pill, patch, and ring, as well as vascular strokes in otherwise healthy women, particularly those with history of migraines. The increased convenience of no or limited periods can come at a price.
This generation's "birth control" in essence has become "period control" (or more specifically, "ovarian and uterine control"). As Christian women—knowing the value of our souls, minds, and our bodies, all created in the image of God—this should give us and our medical providers pause. For the first time in human history, we are raising a generation of women who are so disconnected from their bodies' natural rhythms that many barely know nor tolerate what natural menstruation feels like. Since continuous hormonal treatment can result in intermittent and random spotting or months of no bleeding at all, they are shocked when after years of suppressing periods and cycles, they actually have to go off their hormones for some medical reason... or to try to get pregnant.
Eventually, we may find there are more problems with cycle and fertility suppression than the benefit of convenience. Only time will tell as has happened with other reversals in medicine after years of treatment trial (i.e. estrogen supplementation in menopausal women to keep hot flashes under control and "bones strong and vaginal tissue young" is no longer routinely advised due to increased vascular complications and cancer risk).
Our daughters need not be confused about becoming emerging women – accepting themselves as they are, in all their diversity of size and shape, color and ability – while respecting their body's natural rhythms and learning to cope with the normal ebb and flow of emotions and endometrium.
American girls live with contemporary society's high expectations for academic and athletic success and at the same time are inundated with magazine covers, music videos, and TV shows promoting certain body shapes with the expressed sexuality of bigger breasts, smaller waist, visible thigh gap, pristine skin, whitest teeth, enticing scents, silkiest hair yet a carefully shaved "down there." As parents, mentors, and sisters in Christ, we must counter these messages and remind young girls—and each other— that as image-bearers, there is inherent, God-reflecting, God-created goodness in bodies of all types, even those with cramps.
Rather than celebrating menstruation with embarrassing parties and care packages in the mail, we should view our cycles as a monthly reminder of the vessel in which we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and which may in turn become the vessel for the next generation.