DIVINE FEMALE NATURE
WITH BROOKE PEDERSEN
In 2016 Brooke Pedersen completed an honours project on menstrual technologies in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University in Wellington. An old lecturer of mine put me in touch with her so that I could read her honours project in the hopes of conducting an interview and starting a discussion about menstruation, society’s disregard for the female body and the beauty of menstrual cups.
Alex: Tell us a little bit about yourself, what is your educational background? What led you to conduct your research assignment at the time?
Brooke: In my second year of study I found anthropology and fell in love, there was no turning back. I felt so fortunate to be offered the time, space, and resources to learn about all the aspects of the world that had fascinated me for so long. For me, my focus on menstruation came from a 10-year long relationship with my body which was unsatisfying to me. Not only did I experience often very uncomfortable periods – cramps, back ache, mood swings, the works – but my perception of my body, particularly at the time of menstruation was not very positive, healthy, or helpful. I had fallen into the trap of seeing my body as machine-like, something that should function round the clock in the same way. As a consequence, anything that was a hindrance for me continuing my day-to-day life was viewed in a highly negative light. I had no respect or honour for the incredible natural cycles and rhythms of my body, and the place they had in connecting me to the grander cycles of our planet.
A: In your essay you talked of the inferiority of the female body in comparison to its male counterpart and menstruation as a source of ammunition to keep women from participating in the public arena. Could you talk to me about the ways you think society undermines menstruating women?
B: In essence, simply observing the emotions that surround menstruation should tell us enough about the narratives that are circulating in our society and how unhelpful they are to everyone. It’s not often that you meet a woman who feels empowered at the time of menstruation, let alone who consciously harnesses the power of menstruation as a tool to guide her life in a direction she chooses. Most people express some degree of discomfort when even talking about the subject of menstruation, whether that be shame, disempowerment, sadness, frustration, this alone can tell us that something is seriously out of balance when you consider that approximately 1 in 4 women are menstruating at any one time. In my opinion, this indicates a significant problem that needs to be looked into and resolved.
I think one of the main ways menstruating women are undermined is simply by exclusion. For example, there is next to no media, whether that be film, books, music, that acknowledges the existence of menstruation, let alone addresses the complications it introduces into everyday life. I would love to read a book that included the main character’s interactions with menstruation, whether that be man or woman or other, and whether they be positive or negative. Just to normalize a completely normal bodily function would be enough to shift attitudes in a positive direction.
A: What practices of sexism do you think are exercised over female bodies in our society?
B: To put it broadly, the standards that women are expected to uphold in regards to their bodies. Whether this be what their bodies look like or what they are supposed to do with their bodies, there are so many expectations put upon women that can lead to incredibly damaging states of mind or actions. These are not isolated events either. Thoughts women have been told to think about their bodies can become self-perpetuating and stay with them for a lifetime even if they are removed from the situations in which they learnt them. High school is a clear example. The messages we receive about the female body, whether consciously or subconsciously, are coming to us at a most delicate time in our development and many of the women I have spoken to about their relationship to their bodies, to menstruation and sexuality, can trace their thinking back to the educational and social set up of New Zealand high schools.
A: Have your practices of concealment in relation to your period changed over the years?
B: Oh yes, dramatically. I have recently been part of a women’s circle at a gathering in nature where we spoke positively about free-bleeding, that is not using any menstrual products, but simply letting it flow, and washing in the river when desired. We also talked on the subject of using menstrual blood to nurture the garden, or holding ceremonies of acknowledgement and empowerment which gave respect to the menstruating woman. These are concepts which would have been completely shocking to my perspectives of menstruation from ten years ago.
A: What are ways in which you believe menstruation can offer an opportunity to ‘raise feminist consciousness’ and open up new dialogue for women with their peers?
B: Menstruation is an incredible tool in reminding us to connect with our divine nature as females. To be more specific, women have an incredible power in their natural energy cycles and rhythms which can be harnessed to bring more flow and ease into their lives. On a biological level, this can mean organising the social calendar to line up with natural hormonal fluctuations. For example, when a woman is ovulating, approximately halfway between menstrual cycles, she is more likely to feel energetic, social, outgoing, verbally articulate, sexually attractive, the list goes on. Where at the premenstrual phase, it is common to feel more inwards, reflective, thoughtful, in-tune with the natural world. Becoming aware of these natural fluctuations can really encourage women to be more forgiving with themselves when their inner state does not match their outer world, and hence, life becomes a bit easier and more enjoyable.
A: I loved your thoughts on the contrast between sperm and menstruation and have thought about the contradiction often. You quoted Emily Martin in that ‘sperm is seen as “remarkable” in stark contrast to the “failure” of menstruation because sperm produces something valuable while menstruation does not’. Have you got any other thoughts on this?
B: This one requires a deep rethinking of the way we perceive the body and its purpose on a more fundamental level. If we have a machine-like capitalist perspective of the body in which it is expected to function in a way that is helpful to mainstream society and the continuation of its ideals, then yes, menstruation can be viewed as nothing but a failure. Menstruation is not only failure to reproduce, but it can take women away from functioning in the work place, or functioning in society in a way that is beneficial to others. If we thought of menstruation and its place in a women’s own cycles of development and growth, then this perspective would have menstruation as a ‘remarkable’ tool, while sperm could be less favourably viewed as a useless expenditure of energy.
A: You also wrote about the problematic sex education in schools, particularly for girls. What do you see as some of the education systems biggest mistakes? It wasn’t until this year, at the age of 22, that I discovered the distinction between the vagina and the vulva, and even now I still don’t feel fully confident in my knowledge!
B: The focus on the body from an outside perspective, as if it is an object to be worked upon, not experienced, is in my opinion the most damaging underlying idea instilled in young people’s minds. More knowledge, activities, discussion based on the actual experience of the human body could bridge so many of the divides that are created by presenting the body in this way. For example, reading diary entries or encouraging discussion about the experience of different stages of the menstrual cycle, instead of textbook anatomy lessons on what the uterus looks like at these times, would offer a much more useful and healthy perspective for young women to carry into later life.
A: I think that the lack of knowledge dedicated to young boys’ understandings of menstruation and the woman’s anatomy are one of the root causes of its privatisation. Maybe if everybody was taught the same information, it wouldn’t be seen as such a disgrace to be hidden. Would you agree?
B: Yes, for sure, if it could be conducted with the respect it deserves. We are far from where we should be with the knowledge that is given to young women, and until this is repaired I would hesitate on extending to the male population as well. I think there definitely needs to be more information given to young men, but this information needs to be carefully, clearly and respectfully communicated.
A: You said that “many young girls share a fear of a public ‘outing’ of their menstruating identity”, how do you think this fear of public knowledge of private menstruation relates to the patriarchy’s control of women’s bodies?
B: To add to my answer from to your first question; emotions are a powerful thing and can therefore be used as one of the most powerful forms of social control. If you can influence the way people feel about things, then you can influence how they think and act too. Women who feel fear in expressing themselves, or shame in being in their bodies are less likely to be a hassle to social order.
A: A year ago Brooke began her first eco-feminist endeavour by purchasing menstrual cups online to sell to women in the Wellington region. Her intention was to spread the word about an alternative product that offered endless possibilities for restructuring women’s relationships to their menstruation.
B: Essentially, I put the word out that any woman having difficulties affording menstrual products could contact me and I would provide them with a menstrual cup for free. On the other side, women were made aware I was doing this and could offer to give a $3 donation towards paying for these Mooncups. This was an incredibly successful and rewarding process and offered people and myself the opportunity to directly engage with women in need.
A: How do you think that menstrual cups can change women’s relationships with their menstrual cycles?
B: On a basic level it offers more freedom, more comfort, less worry. It also stops women from feeling as if they are polluting our earth at the time of their periods, which can be really difficult for some women to reconcile. It can feel healthier and more natural than other products and it requires being more in tune with the flows of your body which can be really interesting and empowering and can contribute really positively toward feeling more connected and less alienated from the body.
A: I think this is so important and true about menstrual cups. They force women to come face to face with their menstruation and learn about the individuality of their body through engagement. Accepting the process of menstruation. I have come to learn and understand my body in ways I never would have had I not purchased a menstrual cup.
Brooke’s essay ended with some ideas that really made me think about the importance of female relationships. She spoke of the ways that menstrual cups allow women to reveal their differences to one another in order to better inform the resistance towards how men and society view the goings-on of menstruation. Since my involvement with MyCup, I have been messaged and approached for countless conversations about menstrual cups and menstruation. It opens up a dialogue that was less accessible before. It allows us to understand ourselves as we come to understand each other.
“We can only turn to each other to make sense of our experiences, and to cultivate capacities for new perspectives of the body which render them not lifeless objects, but mediums through which we are meant to experience the ever-emerging possibilities of life” – Brooke Pedersen.
This interview has been edited and condensed
Image by Frances Cannon