A Review of FLOW: A Cultural History of Menstruation


Growing up with hippie parents I was exposed to books such as Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Joy of Sex at a very young age. I’d like to think that my parents owning these books helped shape the sex-positive ideologies I embrace today. When my homegirl Nilki contacted me about an upcoming book focusing on U.S. women’s bodies, menstruation, marketing, and myths I was instantly sold and eager to read the book. FLOW: A Cultural History of Menstruation arrived at my home for review and I was instantly impressed.

A hardcover sturdy book with a pin-up image on the cover appealed to the femme in me. The pages are glossy and bright and almost every page had an image of some sort to break up the text on the page. My initial thought was that the book was accessible, which is always pleasant for books of this sort. At the same time, when I read the title I had some assumptions. As a child of immigrants, and a woman of color, the term “cultural” triggers many images/ideas for me. Basically, I expected to see myself represented at some point in the text. As an interdisciplinary professor, I know the term “culture” and “cultural” have various definitions, yet I still immediately think in an inclusive way with the term.

I noticed that with the exception of one image on page 96, that all of the images in the book were of racially White women and written in English. A majority of the images are of marketing ads geared towards women regarding tampons, sanitary napkins, and “cleansing” products. I found, and still find it, extremely odd that images in the early 80s to the present were not included to represent women of Color. After all Serena Williams is the latest spokesperson for Tampons®, and there is what I would consider a “racially ambiguous” woman on the Moon Cup advertisements. Neither of these are included.

I often joke that my time in graduate school made me too critical of research and theories, as that is how we are trained when engaging with various texts. Yet, I’ve tried to get out of that graduate school mode and understand that not every book can do every thing. Sometimes this is difficult to remember, especially when there are huge gaps in a narrative. Yet, we still live in a society where creating a text that is supposed to be inclusive of all women really isn’t and this is a problem. One of the ways I’ve appreciated some authors approach this issue is to say explicitly in their introduction what their text does, who it includes, how they know their scope is limited. I often admire when authors are aware of how this can help prepare readers for their text.

One of the many soapboxes I have is that the bodies of women of Color are not valued in the same way the bodies of other women are in this country. The text clearly showed how color-free and exclusive early marketing was for menstrual products. I wondered how the “flow” out of the bodies of women of Color were stigmatized, celebrated, seen as a rite of passage and those perspectives were not present in the text. Actually, I can recall two specific instances when they were presented, but they were done so in a way that “Othered” them/us. The examples were of women outside the US, especially in Africa, and how “primitive” the experiences of young women can be challenging in such “oppressive” environments.

This continues when the authors, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, mention international women of Color in examples as they discuss their text. For example, in their interview on The View Susan Kim discusses various terms and phrases people have used to reference and name their menstrual cycle. See a short clip below here.

Watching this short clip made me very uncomfortable (and not because I’m menstruating and can’t joke about some things). There’s also something about these examples in the clip that strike me as a form of name-calling that is inappropriate and perpetuates stereotypes. “Walking like an Egyptian,” was that really necessary? And to evoke that Egyptian people walk differently just makes me want to give them a reading list of texts by Nawal El Saadawwi. Was I surprised to hear this from the authors after reading the book? Not really, especially when there are sentences such as these in the text:

“…unless you belong to some kind of cult, chances are you are not bearing and breast-feeding babies every second of your entire reproductive life” (page XXII).

“(And we’re sorry no matter what any 15 yo tells you, vulgarity alone does not count as honest discourse)” (page 2).

“In a small study of women in New York City, 61 percent said they had had a period when they weren’t expecting it…and we bet the others were lying” (page 188).

As someone who has a belief system that is not part of an organized religion, which has been called a “cult” this wording really turned me off because it was extremely offensive. It clearly isolates women who do not fall into a specific value and/or belief system, women outside the US, women with a different perspective on their spiritual connection with various deities/spaces/texts/etc. The statement about youth and vulgarity really irks me. As one of my favorite bloggers, cripchick, once said (and I’m paraphrasing): “language is one of the only things youth have” to express themselves and we, as adults, often take that away from them.

Now, I know that my opinion and cripchick’s may be unpopular, however I find that things such as graffiti writing, use of slang, and fashion are forms of media that youth create. They are media makers and when we attempt to censor them it’s not the most effective way to build and gain their trust. It also reeks of class and age discrimination. On the age tip, there were also quotes by women discussing their experiences with their cycles, and the youngest was 37 years old. I wondered why women younger than 37 were not quoted in the text. Were we even included?

To be clear I’m not advocating that youth are not introduced to and learn the scientific or what others may call “proper” terminology for our body parts and genitals. I think this is important, I just don’t think because a young person is more comfortable code switching that they are not capable of being engaged in “honest discourse.” Positive youth development is essential. So is affirming identities. Language has power and I’m not comfortable debunking the power in the language young people use to express themselves.

Then the idea that the authors will “bet” that some women in a small study were lying if they did not remember or recall experiencing an unexpected period; defeats the entire purpose of the book which I read as: trust women. There is also the issue that “women” only refers to cisgender women. There is no discussion of trans communities. At all. In the discussion regarding how menstruation is constructed in US society, there is nothing regarding how transgender men may experience their menstrual cycle, and this may not always be something that is celebrated. At the same time, there is no discussion about how conversations and values of menstruation exclude transgender women. How does menstruation confirm rigid ideas of gender and gender identity? I thought this type of discussion could have fit nicely in the list of questions the authors identify on page XXIII. Even to simply ask the questions is a sign that they recognize the term “woman” and “women” are often used in an exclusive context.

Finally, the book is an interesting, yet color-free and limited history of menstruation in the U.S. I was intrigued by chapter two “Where Are We Today” with discussions of menstruation and connections to current and future birth control methods. People of Color are mentioned in chapter seven which focuses on religion. Unfortunately, almost all of the examples from a religious space are negative. “Scent of A Woman” is the title for chapter nine and the advertisements focusing on scent and menstruation are overwhelmingly heterosexist. Almost all of them discuss pleasing a husband, which I found very interesting and troubling. Chapter 10 has the most discussion of rites of passages among women outside the U.S. and specifically in Africa and the Philippines, yet these examples are one’s I learned about over 15 years ago when I took an introduction to Anthropology course.

The list of resources and bibliography at the end of the text was not what I expected and were a pleasant surprise. There were limited citations on some of the research that was presented (except for the Kinsey Reports and such) and a majority of the citations were online. I see the author’s inclusion of these resources as useful and important from a historical perspective. They are also great examples on how to reference a website, which surprisingly not too many students know how to do these days. I’m saddened that there was no reference to some of the amazing forms of art that have been created regarding menstruation, contributions to popular culture if you will. Sandra Cisneros’ poem “Down There” in her book Loose Women Poems comes to mind, Ani DeFranco’s song “Blood In The Boardroom.” I agree with Cisneros, “I find the subject charming,” and hope that there is a second part to this text that will be more inclusive to the “culture” aspects the authors implied in the book.

At the end of the day, I expected to see myself in this text, have my experiences affirmed, and my community represented. This did not occur, however, to be fair this rarely occurs in books that come out in the field of sexuality and reproductive health unless the text is specifically devoted to communities of Color. As they said in their text “Femcare has been so long monopolized by manufacturing, medicine, advertising, and religion that any fresh, individual voices seem like cool water in a blazing desert” (p. 251). That’s right, fresh, individual voices. Klein and Kim started the work and there is still a lot more to complete.

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  • soclosetolife

    I also just finished reading Flow, and, while I am disappointed in it for reasons different from your own, I am still discontent to let it speak for the entire experience of menstruation. The biggest problem I found was their general disregard for facts.

    Broad sweeping gestures would be back up with either nothing or a study of 60 women. They confused early on in the book historical religious practices, asserting that the oldest religions known to man disregarded or disrespected women (were they asserting that Jews were the first ever known religion?). They have a clear bias against modern medicine and especially against birth control. They try time and again to make the point that your period on BC is not really a period but fail to evoke any science in support of that statement.

    Overall I would say the book was a step in the right direction but needs more (much more). It needs the transgender POV and the lesbian POV and the WOC POV, but it also needs real scholarship to pull it into a cohesive book. I am afraid Flow really just needs to start all over again.