Revisioning menstrual education By Kathy Walkling, co-founder of Eco Femme
In Part 1 of this 2 part blog series, we explored ways in which we, as a menstrual educators, can become more conscious of our ways of being and explained the importance of doing our own inner work to free ourselves from any negative bias towards menstruation so that what we impart in our teaching is authentic, connecting and models a way of being that can inspire a positive relationship to menstruation.
In this part 2, we will dive deeper into some specific activities and practices which we have found to be powerful ways to help cultivate embodied connection which we believe IS the game changer when it comes to menstrual education.
Re-inhabiting the female body and reclaiming cyclical wisdom
Positioning menstruation in too narrow a frame, and relying on technical language to explain it, can reinforce a sense of it being an abstract process, distancing girls and women from their actual lived experience. It can fail to foster a deeper, more embodied relationship with the menstrual cycle, instead perpetuating it as a problem that needs to be cleaned up, managed or hidden altogether.
In our educational sessions, we avoid using language that reinforces this kind of alienation. While we include topics that are typically addressed in mainstream MHM curriculum, our primary aim is to support girls and women to re-inhabit the female body. To a large extent, the body in general, and the female body in particular, have been denigrated and sidelined by patriarchal culture, and girls and women suffer notoriously as a result. In both traditional and modern contexts, the collective shame and silencing that result have led many to be ignorant of, and alienated from their bodies. Rather than simply disseminating information in an impartial way, then, we strive in our sessions to create a space for curiosity, wonder and mystery to flower. We invite participants to experience their bodies as their homes in the universe, a source of wisdom and power with which they can establish a deep and lasting relationship. This process might be viewed as one of intimate be-friending.
Establishing intimacy with one’s own body and menstrual cycle can be done in a number of ways.
Participants can be asked to place their hands on their bodies, where they imagine their uterus to be. They can then be guided to get a felt sense of the size and specific location of the uterus and the reproductive area. The intention is to make contact with internal organs which are invisible to the eye, but are the source from which menstrual blood arises.
A key part of our sessions is thus to teach the basics of menstrual cycle tracking. Participants are encouraged to start a daily practice of noting a few words in a diary, or making other creative representations to document the changes in their experience throughout their cycle. This involves paying attention to not only the obvious physical changes they notice (ie the presence and quality of blood, as well as variations in mucus), but also more subtle, inner experiences, such as emotional and mood changes, personal dreams, and fluctuations in energy. If they persist with this practice over at least three months, they become aware of their unique cyclical pattern.
The understanding evoked by learning to “read” the female body in this way is not merely physiological. Through menstrual cycle tracking, menstruation comes to be understood as a doorway to self-knowledge, a source of personal guidance into living with greater harmony, sensitivity, and confidence. A new sense of wonder may arise, as the girl experiences her body’s life-giving potential. This can help shift the negative cultural messages that tend to be internalised at puberty.
We have written extensively about period tracking in other blogs:
- Menstrual cycle tracking or charting
- Menstrual health education – reflections from the field
- How to track your cycle Part 1
- How to track your cycle Part 2
Re-embedding within the larger body of the earth
While the practice of menstrual cycle tracking is primarily concerned with supporting the development of developing body literacy, at Eco Femme we go a step further. We hold menstrual cycle tracking in its largest context: as a doorway into understanding our embeddedness within the larger cycles of nature.
Observing the various cycles of the natural world and our embeddedness within them has provided deep meaning and connection for as long as human beings have been on earth. It can be revelatory for a girl or woman to learn about how this great lunar cycle, readily visible in the night sky, is connected to what is happening in her own body every month. This can radically shift the way she relates not only to menstruation, but to being alive on this beautiful planet.
Along with using menstrual cycle tracking to connect with their own bodies, then, participants can be further guided to explore the question, “How do these cycles in our bodies relate to the larger cycles in nature?” The goal here is to promote the understanding that ever-changing cycles are an inherent property of life on earth. Humans are embedded within these cycles, part of the whole, rather than separate from them.
Along with the lunar cycle, a similar exploration can be done with the four seasons of the year. Pope and Wurlitzer(2017), in their groundbreaking book Wild Power offer an approach of viewing the phases of the menstrual cycle though the lens of four seasons (with Winter corresponding to the time of bleeding, Spring corresponding to the end of the bleeding phase and the start of a new cycle, Summer corresponding to the mid-cycle phase of ovulation, and Autumn corresponding to the internalizing energies typical of pre-menstruation). While biased towards northern hemisphere seasons, this model can be adapted to the seasonal pattern of any bioregion. For example, in South India, where we work and where autumn and winter could seem like abstract concepts, we may instead talk about pre monsoon (correlating to pre menstruation), monsoon (menstruation), spring (pre-ovulation) and summer (ovulatory phase).
What is essential here is to see that, like the cycles of the moon or the seasons of the year, each phase of the menstrual cycle is a necessary part of the whole; one cannot discriminate one phase as being better or worse than any other. This is of great value in cultures where girls and women carry internalised feelings of shame and inferiority related to their body processes. Recognising that nature requires periods of rest and dormancy in order for new life to flourish, may also shift how we relate to our own bodily cycles, challenging cultural expectations of ceaseless productivity.
Restoring personal agency through informed choice
Having experienced group sharing, peer-to-peer inquiry, and the embodied exercises recommended above, we now move in our sessions to applied action: the conversation on product choice. Towards the end of the session a range of product options, both disposable and re-usable, is introduced. Each product is shown, handled, and discussed in the group, in terms of how it is used, the materials it is made from (thus introducing the idea of the problem of plastics and chemicals), and the means for disposal (thus introducing the idea of sanitary waste, the limits of disposal mechanisms, and the issue of who manages the waste, and under what working conditions). In facilitating this conversation, the intention is not to be attached to any particular outcome or product choice, but rather to encourage critical thinking and personal agency, by providing information on all the factors – health, social, economic and environmental – involved in each choice. Too often, the impacts of our personal choices – on our planet, on society, and on our personal health – are hidden from us, which is why harmful practices can continue.
We have seen time and again that girls and women become deeply concerned when they learn about the health and environmental risks of dumping or burning disposable pads. They may also share stories of developing rashes and allergic reactions from using disposable pads, or being disturbed by the piles of plastic waste in their neighbourhoods. They may feel relieved that they can continue to use cloth, which they have been led to believe is culturally backwards and unhygienic.
Some participants, having considered the various options, may still choose to use disposable products, or a combination of reusable and disposable. It may also be the case that using cloth pads is not advisable in a particular situation (ie due to a lack of water, or a lack of outside spaces to dry the pads appropriately). What is essential here is to honour the sovereignty of girls and women; to trust in the capacity of each individual to make intelligent decisions when given the full information, aligned with her own needs and situation.
Patriarchal conditioning has often deprived women of their autonomy and trust in their own instincts. When girls and women no longer buy into the belief that menstruation is dirty and shameful, and instead connect with it as a source of power and wonder within themselves, they may naturally feel called to make more life-affirming choices from this place of self-care and connection. Furthermore, as they learn about the relationship between their personal health and the health of the planet, and the impact their personal decisions can have on both, they may feel empowered to make more sustainable choices in other areas of their lives.
Conclusion – Seeds for a New Story
In its widest sense, we can understand our work as menstrual activists and educators to be aimed at two primary objectives: deconstructing ingrained cultural conditioning that leads to the degradation of women and the earth, and empowering girls and women by providing ways for them to reconnect to their embodied knowledge and voice. This vision spans individual, social and ecological concerns, and ultimately aims for large-scale collective transformation.
From this perspective, the recent surge of interest in menstruation, which is unparalleled in history, may be seen as part of a larger restorative movement, which is happening in many different spheres at this critical time. This movement is calling on all of us to radically revision the trajectory we are on. It is calling on us to shift from the old story of shame, denial, and separation, to one in which the natural world is experienced as rich with meaning and intelligence, an intelligence in which we are all embedded, and which reflects itself through our bodily experience of menstruation.