Monday, July 5, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: Flow: A Cultural History of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Found via: Campus Progress

Flow: The Cultural Story of MenstruationI debated whether I should review this on the blog. On the one hand, it's a fascinating book and considering most women experience menstruation during their lifetimes, it's got broad appeal. On the other hand, it's not aimed at teenagers - or really even young adult women, specifically, especially if you consider the quotations from "real women" sprinkled throughout the text (the youngest woman was in her 30s). However, reading the book inspired some thoughts on YA for me and, well, it's pretty obvious by now I've decided to run with a review!

Flow: A Cultural History of Menstruation is pretty much exactly what it says in the title. Focusing on US culture, primarily in the 20th century, Stein and Kim explore how women's periods have been treated by the media, the medical establishment, and the enormous "feminine hygiene" industry.

Why the focus on the 20th century? Well, because prior to then we don't really know much about how women handled their periods. History is primarily written by men, who focus on major societal events. The first hand accounts we do have from women (usually in the forms of letters or diaries) don't really discuss menstruation, since it has historically been seen as something shameful and dirty and not fit for public discourse. In the 20th century, periods took awhile to become part of public life, but the first feminine hygiene advertisements began to appear (and some of them are hilariously vague, looking more like fashion photography than anything about periods!). Earlier this year, Kotex started a new ad campaign highlighting the ridiculousness of contemporary pad and tampon advertisements - but really, not a lot has changed in the 100 years or so since such advertisements first appeared!

(Disclosure: I'm totally a cynic about advertising but Kotex's plot totally worked on me. Of course, I might have switched brands anyway 'cause the black boxes really do stand out in the "feminine hygiene" aisle's sea of pastels)

Despite being an ostensibly adult, academic book, the book is accessible to younger and non-academic types. Citations are given in text, by which I mean instead of endless footnotes to check up on where a fact comes from, Stein and Kim incorporate the origin of a quotation in the text and an extensive bibliography at the end so you can find everything yourself, if you're so inclined.

I was disappointed that when testimonies about women's actual experiences with their periods were included, it was entirely from older women. Okay, 30s isn't exactly "old," but it's older than I am, and gave a very narrow view point. I think it would have been more educational for audiences of all ages if a wider variety of women were excerpted in the text.

Aside from menstruation, there are also brief forays into the history of how women's health has been treated, as many conditions in women were ascribed to our uteruses (uteri?) and menstrual cycles. Often, women were just written off as being "hysterical" - and all sorts of fun treatments were derived from that, from hysterectomies (not fun) to "pelvic massage" (probably slightly more fun - link to Wikipedia contains mildly NSFW images).

Stein and Kim's primary goal here is to demystify our periods, since so many women still talk about them in whispers and euphemisms, when they're discussed at all. This is where I think this could be especially useful to teen readers, because I know while I haven't been afraid to discuss my period since high school, I was probably in the minority.

And this is also how I got thinking about periods in YA lit. Actually, I think of it periodically (ha, see what I did there?), but this book helped crystallize some of my thoughts. Primarily, does anyone else think it's weird how rarely periods are mentioned in YA lit? There's the infamous Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and the menstrual cycles of Fire's eponymous heroine actually had an influence on the plot. Nina de Gramont's Every Little Thing in the World (review upcoming. Spoiler alert: I loved it!) mentions periods, as the protagonist is on a month long wilderness trip so of course most of the teen girls are going to end up having a period at some point or other. But off the top of my head, those are the only ones I could think of. Occasionally a teen girl will fake cramps to get out of doing something, but otherwise you rarely see periods mentioned. Considering periods are a huge part of the lives of teenage girls (I don't think I angsted about anything more in middle school), it seems like a suspicious absence. If you know of any other titles, please leave them in the comments!

Nonfiction Monday
Today's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by 5 Great Books!


Rachel said...

While it's definitely not a YA book, and is a bit more on the academic side, I think you'd really enjoy Hanne Blank's "Virgin: The Untouched History":

I'm pretty sure that it goes into some detail about periods, as well as the idea/ideal/fetishization of virginity.

Angela Craft said...

Thanks for the rec, Rachel! I'd heard of Virgin but have never gotten around to picking it up. Maybe I will now!

fourth Musketeer said...

I have another entry for your period titles. In Bloody Jack, by L. E. Meyer, there's an extensive part about Jacky (a girl pretending to be a boy on a British naval ship) getting her period, having no idea what's going on, thinking she's dying, but she can't tell anyone on the ship since they don't know she's a girl (a real problem!) so she goes to see a whore when they dock at an island, and the whore explains the facts of life to poor Jacky!

This is all handled in a really funny but also realistic way!

Angela Craft said...

Fourth Musketeer - that sounds awesome! Thanks for the rec!

Anonymous said...

Yours is the third blog in my Google Reader to recommend this book; it's definitely going on my list.

I don't remember if you're a Twilight fan or have written about this before, but that saga immediately comes to mind as YA lit that does *not* discuss periods - which is particularly odd, as Edward is drawn to Bella by the scent of her blood...

Stephenie Meyer has excused this by saying that menstrual blood is "dead" blood so doesn't have the same effect on vampires. Which brings up other interesting points, since she's wrong.

Thanks for the review!

Angela Craft said...

I've been hearing conflicting reports about whether menstrual blood is dead - and FLOW doesn't address the issue either (I also haven't been curious enough to actually go search for an answer on my own). I have read interviews and articles with Meyer though where she refuses to address fan questions on the subject, since it's "gross," and THAT is exactly the attitude FLOW argues against.

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