“The medicalization of our [women’s] bodies is particularly ironic because historically, women served as society’s healers, a role that combined wisdom, nurturance, intuition, and skill.”
This quote from Women’s Health Advocate Sibyl Shainwald points to the medicalisation of women’s bodies as usurping traditional feminine wisdom in favor of androcentric medical practices which pathologise the ontological nature of women. Speaking at the conference for Hysterectomy Education Resources and Sources (HERS), she says:
“According to the Western medical model, pre-menstrual syndrome is a disease, menstruation is a disease, pregnancy is a disease, childbirth is a disease, and menopause is a disease. From this model, I have reached the conclusion that being a woman is a disease.”
You can read the full speech here- Sibyl Shainwald Talk
From my own perspective, in considering who ultimately benefits from the wide spread consumption of menstrual suppressants, there is the question of economics: Barr pharmaceuticals earned a $50 million profit in its first year (2013) of launching Seasonale; the company also has a sizable part of the menopausal pharmaceutical market and breast cancer medication.
Does economics play a part in how menstruation is viewed? Anthropologist Alma Gottileb believes that it does:
“This score comprises the statistical base for testing various hypothesis, including one to the effect that menstrual taboos are not strong in societies in which women make significant economic contributions” (Gottileb 1988, p11)
Based on Dr Gottileb’s thesis it is reasonable to conclude that menstrual taboo is not strong in the Western world, however I would argue that the taboo simply takes on a culturally suitable guise and in the case of the contemporary West menstruation is in fact so taboo that it is in danger of being permanently deleted from our cultural, emotional and spiritual landscapes. Women’s bodies and the control of them is big business and in controlling women’s bodies through medical intervention, women are better placed to be ‘productive’ members of society contributing significantly to the GDP.
Within the Seasonale message is the construction of female purity repeatedly emphasised by the wearing of white clothes; Fosket and Mamo read the subtext as an indication that female purity is no longer connected to sexual discernment but is linked instead to cleanliness: “The dominance of white is also a symbolic move to signal purity…. purity as a feminine characteristic of Seasonale is produced by limited menstrual flows and not by limited sexual behaviours” (Fosket and Mamo, p.928). Within the advertising message are layers of meaning one of which is that the female body, without the messiness of menstruation, is in a clean and receptive state, prepared for penetration at any time. A non-menstruating woman is also more reliable in the work place, ready and able to function as well as a man. In Scripting the Body, the authors say:
“Furthermore, another implicit assumption is that, with Seasonale, women are free to engage (or compete) in the professional world with bodies more similar to those of men. Menstruation is produced as a constraining process that, with Seasonale, becomes something to be overcome: a part of every woman’s and girl’s wellness” (ibid).
For Lara Owen these shifts point to a deeper issue: In her book Her Blood is Gold, Owen says, “When you find the place where culture splits form a natural truth you have found a key- a way inside the disease of a culture” (Owen, 1991, p.146). While Western medicine is commendable in its capacity to save and enhance the quality of lives, the deeper issues of disease are still not being addressed. Furthermore, ‘biomanipulation’ for the sake of attaining cultural ideals that run contrary to nature are in the main not being challenged. In raising this challenge we need to know what it is we are defending. For myself, I am defending the wisdom of nature and the feminine principle as a fundamental and necessary condition of life that if transgressed could result in catastrophic consequences. Jungian analyst Helen Luke puts it like this:
“There can be no doubt that if civilized humankind is to survive the dangers of this century of transition, when all familiar landmarks are disappearing and the collective structures that used to protect us are crumbling, we must turn to the goddess, to the long-despised values of the feminine, to the feeling heart and the contemplative mind…. perhaps then our culture may see the rising of a new day” (Luke, 1989, p.28).
In the introduction to Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Teresa Brennan says that the book draws on the feminist critique of reason to argue that “The master form of rationality of Western culture has been systematically unable to acknowledge dependency on nature” (Plumwood, 1993. Preface). And writing at the turn of the 20th century, the mystic and philosopher Rudolf Steiner preempts the point at which human consciousness reaches a level in which it is able to co-opt nature:
“Until now, the human being has only mastered the inanimate forces of nature. Transformation of the living forces, of what sprouts and grows in plants, and of what manifest in animal [and human] reproduction, is beyond his power. But just as human beings have gained mastery of inanimate nature and gravitational forces, so in the future they will come to control what in the present they receive only as a gift from nature or divine powers- that is living forces” (Steiner, 2010, p.102).
How humanity uses this power remains to be seen; scientific and technological advancements are in the main socially and culturally permitted – the benefits are extolled high above the consequences and deeper implications of interfering in the matrix of life. With regards to menstrual suppression I would argue that a huge step is being taken in redefining the feminine – this redefinition, far from acknowledging the wisdom of the feminine and her life-enhancing ways is being eroded. The rejection of the feminine body is not alone in the human redefinition of science, as eco feminist and scientist Vandana Shiva says, “The rejection of the female body is part of the whole rejection of embodiment in Enlightenment thought” (Shiva and Mies, 1993, p.226).
History shows that these ideals of mastery exist not only in the minds of men of the enlightenment but is also expressed in the dialectic of many feminist thinkers. Shulamith Firestone’s radical feminism of the early 60’s, desired a “human mastery of matter”, so that an “artificial ecological balance could be created where the natural one failed” (Firestone, quoted in Mellor, p.81). For Firestone and other radical ‘anti-essentialist’ feminists, female biology is a burden and binding oppression in which, “the only way to escape fundamental biological conditions and the tyranny of the biological family” is to use productive technology to eliminate sex/gender differences” (Quoted in Mellor, 1997, p.80). Firestone would no doubt be gratified to see the developments in uterine control today. Indeed, biomedicalisation and the manipulation of the human body does appear to herald the age of the eradication of sex/gender difference.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says, “We can imagine a parthenogenetic or hermaphroditic society” (Beauvoir, 1949, p.390). It seems as though one way our culture is dealing with the complex issues of sex, gender and biology is to eradicate difference both medically and socially, however much like the issue of menstrual suppression we must consider what it is we are losing in going against the matrix of life in our pursuit of dominion over nature.