Introduction to Society and Menstruation: A Vicious Cycle of Stigma

Women have not always had the right to vote. Women have not always had birth control pills. Women have not always been respected, nor have they always been objectified. In general, women’s history has been a narrative focused on change. The study of women’s experiences, however, must also examine what doesn’t change. And there are few continuities in women’s experiences across time and culture as constant as menstruation. This monthly experience is objectively characteristic of the female sex. But culture has also attached social significances to menstruation that shape both women’s and men’s attitudes about the bleeding, cramps, and bloating that the female population regularly experiences. A society’s portrayal of menses divulges a rich commentary of their deeply ingrained gender beliefs. This blog series aims to explore American society’s treatment of menstruation, how that has affected this innately female experience.


Ingrid Johnston-Robledo and Joan C. Chrisler are both professors of psychology, Johnston-Robledo at the State University of New York-Fredonia and Chrisler at Connecticut College. Both have published numerous articles addressing women’s bodies from a psychological lens. In this article, they collaborate to tackle the taboo of menstruation, how American society stigmatizes this natural part of womanhood, and how (and why) that stigma should be expunged. Choosing a particularly evocative definition of stigma – “any stain or mark that sets some people apart from others” – they securely connect “stigma” with menstruation on both literal and metaphorical levels. Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler delve deep into the etymology of “stigma,” explaining that the word has its origins in ancient the Greeks’ practice of branding criminals and slaves. Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler suggest that this flagrant physical demarcation saturated with shame endures still thousands of years later, though for a much larger constituency than criminals and slaves. The collective mind of American society views menstruation more as a shameful mark than purely Nature’s stamp on women. Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler divide stigma into three main categories: “abominations of the body,” “blemishes of individual character,” and “tribal identities.” Menstruation, they argue, fits into all of these categories. First, the event of bleeding every month seems an aberration from the “normal” condition of human bodies. Second, individual girls tend to be avoided if it is known that they are menstruating (refer to the study discussed later in the article). Lastly, menstruation is a distinguishing feature of women, who have historically been marginalized as a group.  Beyond the sub-categories of stigmatization, sociologist research has shown that the measures by which people assess stigmatized individuals and groups are as follows: perceived danger, visibility, and controllability. Of all bodily fluids, menstrual blood is the treated as the most averse. Even through the first decades of the twentieth century, American scientists theorized that women oozed dangerous “menotoxins” in their sweat, saliva, and tears. Though the perception that menstruation and its byproducts are perilous has subsided in the past century, some fear still persists. The measure of menstruation’s (in)visibility is a potent force working in men and women today. Menstruation is much better tolerated when not visible. One study cited that 75% of teenage girls showed great anxiety about leaks during menstruation. The leading promise in female hygiene products advertises their guarantee against leaks. Because, the ads teach, a blood stain would be a horrific experience fraught with social consequences. This fear-inducing message affirms the stigma of menstruation. Contributing to women’s attempts to conceal the visibility of menstruation is men’s general abhorrence to menstruation and its associated products. A study revealed men’s negative conditioning toward menstruation in observing that male participants judged a female research assistant considerably harsher if she dropped a tampon than if she had just dropped an innocent bobby pin. If visibility is minimized, so is the stigmatization. Additionally, controllability has tremendous influence over how individuals linked with a stigma are judged. In general, if people perceive that an individual is responsible for their flawed condition, that individual will receive harsher criticism (e.g. a homeless man who lost his money from gambling). Conversely, an individual with a condition that people perceive to be outside of their control will receive pity or sympathy (e.g. genetic disorders causing disabilities). Embedded deep within our cultural mindset is the connection between menstruation and uncontrollable, irrational, emotional, and irritable women.  PMS – a term loosely used in reference to the uncontrollability factor – is a linguistic tool utilized to distance female behavior during menstruation from “normal” female behavior. In the 1960’s, oral contraceptives introduced greater controllability over the process and effects of menstruation, but judgment continues over women’s appropriate level of control over menstruation.

Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler argue that the powerful stigma shrouding menstruation is conveyed by a variety of means. Feminine hygiene companies – who are the chief informers about menstruation – emphasize secrecy and concealment as the primary priority during menses. Sexual education pamphlets reaffirm the negative aspects rather than instilling positivity and excitement about women’s natural cycles. Entertainment promulgates the stereotype of violent, unstable menstruating women; colloquial exchanges reflect the power of that stereotype. Although there is a taboo that shushes open and free discussion on menstruation, countless euphemisms avoid the word “menstruation” while finding a way to talk about it. The consequences of these stigmatizing customs are more harmful than many American men and women realize. The dreaded “mark” of menstruation results in self-objectification. Many women go to great lengths to ensure that any signs of menstruation don’t show, subconsciously viewing themselves through a critical societal lens. Sexual avoidance – based on fear and ignorance –  is also a consequence of this stigma. In a passionate request to help eradicate the taboo and stigma, Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler encourage the following steps: as Americans, open frank and sincere discussions about menstruation, reevaluate our culture’s attitude, treat menarche as a cause or celebration instead of complaint, and lastly, actively petition healthcare providers for better treatment of the subject. Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler conclude with the conviction that by appreciating menstruation and its function in our lives as womankind and as humankind, we can improve women’s well-being and their standing in society.

In writing this piece, Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler rely on a vast number of psychological and sociological research studies, as well as many research articles written by other scholars. All of this evidence lends to a thorough defense of their thesis that menses is heavily stigmatized, based on their given definition. Though their focus was primarily on American society, they connected some broader historical aspects of the cultural treatment of menstruation, including the Jewish tradition of Mikvah, or ritual baths to cleanse the unclean menstruating woman. A full understanding of the current attitudes and conventions surrounding menstruation requires an understanding of how peoples around the world from decades and centuries past felt about and dealt with menstruation. By acknowledging the dynamics of a stigma’s development, we can be better equipped to redefine it in a more positive way. Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler lightly touch on this historical development, but their attention is more concentrated on how menstruation is stigmatized than why. They also omitted important commentary on how the stigma has lessened in recent decades. Furthermore, the scope of their article was fairly broad, which limited the depth of their analysis. Nevertheless, this article provides an enlightening introduction and initial overview to the intricate topic of society and menstruation.

Source: Johnston-Robledo, Ingrid, and Joan Chrisler. 2013. “The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma.” Sex Roles 68, no. 1/2: 9. MasterFILE Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 26, 2016).



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