Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation

Book cover: 'Flow: A Cultural Story of Menstruation' by Elissa Stein and Susan KimWhen Flow came out a couple of years ago, I couldn’t wait to read it. I love cultural histories and the book itself is aesthetically pleasing, with loads of vintage ads for feminine hygiene products gracing its glossy pages.

The authors take you back in time — sometimes way back, circa Hippocrates and Co. — and give readers an informal crash course in the role menstruation has played in women’s lives throughout human history. From culture-related rituals through the present-day behemoth that is the American advertising industry, men have always had strong opinions about periods and their alleged pesky side affects. But since periods went from being a taboo subject to a multi-billion dollar industry, the book does focus heavily on the twentieth century.

One of my favorite chapters was about hysteria, which was long thought to stem from the woman’s uterus and was considered a mental disorder up through the mid-1950s (the part about cures for hysteria was disturbing). I also enjoyed learning about the ways that “experts” in different eras have historically portrayed women’s bodies with regards to menstruation and menopause. Take, for instance, this description of what happens to menopausal women, taken from the 1954 Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex:

The layer of fat in the region of the mons veneris and the large lips of the vulva start to shrink. The vulva becomes smaller and flabbier, the small lips become withered and change into thin folds. The fatty glands, formerly present in more than adequate amounts, disappear almost completely, so that there are only remnants of them left.

Lovely, no? As Stein and Kim repeatedly illustrate in their book, its descriptions like these that have allowed corporations to prey on women’s fears and turn them into marketing goldmines, not only for feminine hygiene products but for potentially dangerous and alarmingly under-tested pharmaceuticals.

But the books was not without its serious flaws. Before I’d even finished the first chapter, I was already uncomfortable with the book’s cis-centrism. The red flags were raised from the very first sentence:

Females make up ore than half of the world’s population. And at some point, every single one of us, all 3.5 billion…gets a regular period that lasts up to a week, about once a month, for forty years of our lives.

That statement not only disregards the experiences of the many cis women I know who, for whatever reason, do not experience menstruation, but it also erases the experiences of trans women who cannot menstruate (and trans men who do). And it’s not a one-time occurrence; that first sentence is only the first of many similar examples in the book, and they never ceased to be jarring for me.

(Cis) women who do not have periods because of genetics, illnesses, eating disorders, or highly active athletic lifestyles were briefly touched on towards the end of the book, but it was only a cursory gloss-over, with more focus being put on the other end of the spectrumn: women who have unusually heave periods because of health issues. Again, not one mention of trans people.

Another jarring realization I came a little over halfway through the book is that people of color are not in it. At all. It was easy to overlook this at first because of all the vintage ads: agencies in the early-to-mid twentieth century specifically targeted the white middle- and upper-classes, so naturally they featured their target audience. I knew this and didn’t think much of it, and the authors also made a note of that fact. But leaving out people of color once you start featuring a few ads from the 1970s through the late twentieth century? That’s a problem. This was mostly a visual thing, because they do mention rituals from various cultures within the text itself, but still. It didn’t sit right with me.

Ultimately, if you decide to read the book, enjoy it. Learn from it, because there’s a lot of interesting information. But don’t forget that some very significant pieces of the puzzle are missing.

Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation was published on November 10, 2009 by St. Martin’s Griffin.

I read it as a(n): Hardcover
Source: Purchase
Pages: 288


One comment

  1. Donna Maria Alexander

    Sounds like an interesting read despite the issues you have raised about the book. I find it strange that it doesn’t focus on (cis)women. Also, it made me think about the Chicana writer, Gloria Anzaldúa’s hyper-menstruation which began at the age of 3 months and continued to be heavy, painful and debilitating until she had an hysterectomy later in life. Too bad it isn’t an inclusive book! I’m still interested in reading it though. Thanks for this review.

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