Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Flow: The cultural story of menstruation" by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Go with the Flow! In this hip, hilarious, and truly eye-opening cultural history, menstruation is talked about as never before. Flow is a fascinating, occasionally wacky, and sometimes downright scary story, covering everything from mikvahs (ritual cleansing baths) to menopause, hysteria to hysterectomies - not to mention the Pill, cramps, the history of underwear, and the movie about puberty they showed you in fifth grade. Flow answers questions such as: What's the point of getting a period? What did women do before pads and tampons? What about new drugs that promise to end periods - a hot idea or not? Sex during your period: gross or a turn-on? And what's normal, anyway? With color reproductions of (campy) historical ads and (excruciating) early femcare devices, it also provides a fascinating (and mind-boggling) gallery of this complex, personal, and uniquely female process. As irreverent as it is informative, Flow gives an everyday occurrence its true props - and eradicates the stigma placed on it for centuries.

I love the cover of this book, and let's face it, it sounded like it might be interesting. This time the cover art and the description did the book justice; it was interesting, and fun to boot.

The authors are women, and often I found myself thinking this sounded more like a day out with the girls than a primer on the history of menstruation and all things associated with it. The writing has a very nice, easy "you-are-there" style, which helps as sometimes the subject matter is just - well - yeah, it's a bit on the "icky" side.

The history of "femcare" as the authors dub it isn't all that long, surprisingly enough. Way back in the day there was no such thing. What did our intrepid ancestors do, you may ask yourself? Um, bled. Sorry, but that's the truth; our foremothers pretty much bled on whatever it was they were wearing. Yes, some of them tried to use various things to handle the flow (some of them what you'd expect, like wads of cotton) but most just bled onto their clothes. As the authors are quick to point out, why do you think our clothing back then had so many petticoats and such? It wasn't to look feminine after all; it was to hide all that icky stuff going on down there.

Perhaps the authors' biggest complaint is that femcare is almost always presented as a problem, and thus, a solution. But pretty much every woman is going to need it at some point in her lifetime, so it's really not a problem so much as it's simply a matter of biology, and the authors want to know why it can't be presented as such. Think about it: have you ever seen an ad for tampons, pads, douches or the like that didn't talk about making your life better somehow? And keep a close eye out for the "not-so-fresh" type comments, as almost every ad has one of some sort. Women's flow is almost always presented as an obstacle to overcome, and a very yucky one at that.

Then we get to the whole idea of not having a period at all, which is now possible through the miracles of modern medicine. And the authors want to know two things: is this really a good idea and why is it being pushed on us? Well, it's sort of a good idea if you're concerned about ovarian cancer. The Pill gives a woman a leg up (so to speak) on cutting down her chances of ovarian cancer due to the fact that the eggs don't burst out of the ovaries as they normally would every month. No bursting means no repairing the ovary which means less chance of the cells going haywire and becoming malignant. And yes, I had pretty much forgotten everything they taught me in my sex-ed class and was fascinated by this information. It makes sense to me now why some of my friends know when they're ovulating, as they feel the discomfort/pain of that little tiny egg kicking its way through the ovarian wall. And if you're on the Pill, you don't really have a period, either. You have a pseudo sort of thing happen every month, something that mimics a period but doesn't supposedly have all the usual aches/pains/icky stuff that those not drugged up experience.

To that I say, my sweet a**! Sorry but in the name of full disclosure, I've been on the Pill since I was eighteen. Most months I would say I'm pretty OK, no PMS or anything to really clue anyone in that "Aunt Flo" is visiting. But sometimes, look out - it's love you one minute, hate you the next, and where's the damn ice cream?! I do get some pain (cramps, occasional backache, etc) and I still have some bloating. So if my body isn't having a "real" period, what's all that about? Is it all in my head? Sure doesn't feel like it, and sadly, the authors don't explore this enough for my taste.

Overall though it's an interesting, and yes, fun, book. Even if you have no intention of reading it, pick it up for the pictures alone. There are some fabulous old ads for the various products. My favorite are the ones used for the "Modess...because" campaign: high fashion photography that look more like artwork than femcare ads. In fact, if you saw them elsewhere you'd never know they were hawking tampons/pads!

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