Few researchers explore the topics of menstruation and breast milk. Why not, when these fluids affect so many of us in our daily lives?
“Many people, including researchers, tend to think body fluids are ‘disgusting’. They are unclean and should be kept inside the body, or at least they should not be visible when they come out,” says Anne Kveim Lie, a Norwegian physician.
“It’s a fact that biology has been used as an argument against women’s participation in politics and work life. Critical gender researchers used to disapprove of research on the body and physiology because they didn’t want to reduce women to the biological processes of their bodies,” says Hilde Bondevik, a scholar of the history of ideas.
“This is unfortunate, because they handed over this crucial field to the natural scientists. The price was that body fluids remained unanalyzed. These fluids, though, have more ambiguous dimensions, and can’t be meaningfully described strictly in terms of nature or culture,” Lie adds.
Bondevik and Lie are co-editors of the book Rødt og hvitt (”Red and white”), a cross-disciplinary anthology that explores menstrual blood and breastmilk from the vantage point of several different research perspectives. Historians, physicians, sociologists, anthropologists and midwives discuss women’s body fluids as both biological and social phenomena. It is a rather unusual research topic, not only in the field of gender research.
“In the US there has been a lot of medical research conducted on PMS, for example, but in Norway this topic has not been seen as particularly important, not even for medical researchers. The medical science community is not concerned with ordinary phenomena that do not lead to major illness,” says Lie.
In the 1800s, however, medical science linked women's blood and menstruation to women’s illness. For instance, it was believed that women became weaker and should rest during normal menstruation. Doctors also described cases in which menstrual blood found other paths out of the body, such as through the back, the oesophagus or the left nipple.
“Ask adult women, who are not distorted by feminism, if they are not more or less insane certain days every month […]. During that period it would be a crime for us to, for example, serve as judges.”
Lie’s article in the new book describes how doctors’ beliefs about menstrual disturbances impacted contemporary ideas about gender in the 1800s.
These ideas were manifested in discussions about women’s voting rights and educational opportunities, as the Norwegian author Hulda Garborg expresses in the quote above.
“Today some girls have strong ideas about cleanliness and they even stop their menstrual flow with birth control pills, not because they need contraception, but because they think menstruation is disgusting. It would be fascinating to study this phenomenon more closely,” says Bondevik.
In an article by Finnish sociologist Elina Oinas, young women’s own stories about their experience with their first menstruation are analysed.
She finds that they seldom talk about the blood. They dwell on the practical aspects instead: How to deal with their menstruation so that it does not become a problem.
Oinas writes that culture gives the girls a framework for how they should talk about it. It is impossible to set an analytical boundary between the girls’ experience with the actual, biological body and the significance that culture gives to having menstruation.
“We wanted to show variation and ambiguity in this book. We didn’t want to describe what menstruation actually is or what kind of breastfeeding policy we should have in Norway."
"We wanted to shed light on these phenomena from various angles and perspectives. We didn’t want to be limiting or clear-cut,” says Bondevik.
Anthropology is one of the few fields that have devoted some attention to menstruation. For instance, a menstruation house – a place where women stay during their menstruation – is used by many ethnic groups around the world.
Western missionaries and humanitarian aid workers have often perceived these houses as something negative, a “prison” where women stay because they are regarded as unclean.
In some cases, aid workers have made sure that the houses were torn down.
“Hanssen shows that in many cases this made the situation for the women worse, not better. The function of the menstruation house is not only to ‘protect’ the rest of the village against an unclean woman. It also serves a social function: Women gather there, they can relax and talk to people passing by,” explains Kveim Lie.
In contrast to menstruation, breastfeeding is frequently discussed in the Nordic public sphere, partly in connection with how parental leave should be divided up between the mother and father.
In Denmark and Norway more children are breastfed than anywhere else in the world.
However, the belief that “breast is best” is not universal: The article by Danish historian Anne Løkke describes how the people of the Øst-Jylland region used to believe that children grew strongest if they were fed ordinary food from birth. In 1874 a doctor commented:
“One now finds that a fragile child should eat cabbage and peas, sourdough rye bread, salted meat and pork ..... And one must almost agree with the population in this belief, because the children who survive this menu must truly be strong.”
Løkke writes that childhood mortality was much higher in this region than in the region of Fyn, where children during the same period were fed breast milk exclusively until they reached for other kinds of food.
Fortunately people have stopped feeding newborns peas and pork – but Norwegian sociologist Anne Lise Ellingsæter shows in her article that things can go too far in the other direction as well. She says the official belief that breastfeeding is best is so strong in Norway that women who cannot or do not want to breastfeed often receive poor information about the alternatives.
Many of them also suffer from a feeling of being a bad mother, even though modern baby formula is almost as good as breast milk for most babies – at least in the Western industrialized world.
“The Norwegian breastfeeding policy we see today began as a feminist project in the 1970s, in a period when it was practically impossible to combine paid work with breastfeeding. Today it is not so.
"Today it has become medical doctrine that breast milk is best from a health standpoint. And it is almost a taboo to criticise Norwegian breastfeeding policy", says Lie, who thinks we gain new insights and perspectives when social scientists study the consequences of a medical recommendations and biological phenomena.