Menstruation throughout history
Menstrual periods are both a mundane fact of life and an oddly under-discussed subject. We often use several euphemisms to use the word ‘period’. It is considered a cultural taboo and women feel uncomfortable opening about the same. Each religion has its different rules of menstruation but is united by a single verse which suggests that women are impure while on periods. In Judaism, a woman during menstruation is called “niddah” and may be banned from certain actions. In Buddhism -Theravada or Hinayana menstruation is viewed as “a natural physical excretion that women have to go through every month, nothing more or less”. However, in certain branches of Japanese Buddhism, menstruating women are banned from attending temples. In Hinduism, menstruating women have traditionally advised rules to follow. During menstruation, women are advised not to “enter the temple, work in the kitchen, wear flowers, have sex, touch other males or females, or come in contact with any creative energies to ensure free flow of Apana.” And the list goes on.
But this is just about the superficial problem women faced during menstruation, what about the one greater evil- the menstrual hygiene? Menstrual hygiene through history is a very interesting story. The first sanitary napkin came into existence in 1888, so how did the women before the invention manages their menstrual blood? Let’s take a look at the fascinating history of menstruation.
The History of Menstruation
Women began menstruation much before the human species even evolved, still several myths and stereotypes overshadow the natural biological process. In ancient Rome, people believe that menstruating women are connected with black magic and sorcery. They believe that a woman while on her monthly menstruation call kills the crops, dulls the mirror and rust irons just by looking at them. These funny assumptions took a more drastic turn when in Ancient Egypt, people started considering menstrual blood as a cure for sagging breasts and thighs. They also believed that it could cure leprosy. Though the world knows and laughs at such ancient menstruation myths, not many know about the products women used while bleeding. This part of history has always been a secret, and why not? Commonly, almost every culture on the globe considers menstruation embarrassing.
Historians suggest that women in Ancient Egypt used tampons made of softened papyrus while women in Rome used pads and tampons made out of wool. In ancient Greek, a piece of wood wrapped in lint was considered an effective menstrual product. The remaining world most probably used rags and the rest would free bleed in their clothes. One major problem women faced were obviously cramps. In the medieval period as documented, people believed that menstrual cramps are ‘a reminder of Eve’s original sin’, and thus it was considered a bad omen. Therefore, the pain relief remedies made out of natural herbs were not given to the women on period. The then religious leaders banned women from consuming pain reliever. Thus, women relied on supernatural beliefs to cure their cramps. One crazy thought was burning a toad and applying ashes could cure their pain. This in itself suggests the harsh problems women faced throughout history.
The first menstrual hygiene industry came around World War 1 when people realized that using rags or bleeding in clothes is not sanitary. The first sanitary product was the Hoosier sanitary belt that was pinned to washable cloth pads. It was most popular from the 1800s to the 1920s. It was uncomfortable, yet better than what women were used to. The first pads were used by Nurses in France made from wood pulp bandages. These bandages can absorb blood for a longer period than cotton. This idea reached the commercial producer Johnson & Johnson, who in 1888 launched Southball Pad also known as Sanitary Towels for Ladies.
Around the same time, the first Kotex pads were also launched the first commercially available sanitary pad. For a long time, women relied on Kotex pads. The commercials were also shown portraying menstruation as an embarrassing thing and that how women can keep them hidden. The shop retailers were asked to display pads on the counter so that women can pick them without asking from the salesperson. Though Kotex pads were very popular, however a large section of women still relied on homemade cotton pads.
In 1911, Midol hit the market but was advertised as a general pain reliever for period pain. During the 1930s many doctors treated menstruation as a disability and advised women to refrain from several physical activities. But soon the Kotex commercial started portraying women in sports jerseys. In 1935, Kotex launched a pamphlet called ‘Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday, helping mothers to explain the menstrual cycle to their daughters easily. In 1929, Dr. Earle Haas invented the first tampon and patented it in 1931. The idea was sold to Gertrude Tenderich who produced Tampax tampons. Then in 1937, American actress, Leona Chalmers patented her first menstrual cup. Though tampons, sanitary napkins, and menstrual cups all become readily available, still a lot of women used homemade pads. This happened because of two reasons- first, the products were expensive and second not many knew how to use them.
During the 1950s commercials changed their USP. They focused more on how to use menstrual hygiene products and carry them around. By the 1960s, many menstrual myths busted and doctors said there’s no medical reason to avoid sex during periods. Women also started realizing the importance of menstrual hygiene and the products boomed its sale. In 1971, Stay Free launched its first mini pads which came with adhesive strips- the same as we use today. This helped women participate in physical activities without worrying about the leakage. Then came the Playtex deodorants that promised no period smell. By this time, the talks regarding menstruation changed and people started discussing the problems more openly. Many documentaries and movies like ‘Carrie’ was produced that openly talked about stereotypes and stigmas.
The popularity of these products also invited several problems. Toxic shock syndrome was first identified in 1978 when a group of children became ill with it. Around 40 women died from toxins released by wearing the super-absorbent tampons for a long time. Thus doctors suggest not wearing a pad or a tampon for more than 6 hours. Now doctors have also prescribed several medications like ibuprofen as an effective remedy for period cramps. Many doctors acknowledge that some Trans men get periods, too. Men’s testosterone levels can vary, and can influence testosterone levels, if this happens, the hormones shift and fluctuate thus men may experience symptoms. Brands like Pyramid Seven and Lunapads produce period boxers for men.
Menstruation is something that no woman can ignore, it’s a regular process. While women’s hygiene products remain uneconomical, 9 ton lakh of waste is produced every year solely by sanitary napkins. A woman during her lifetime will produce about 23 kg of plastic from sanitary pads alone. In this situation looking for other alternatives is important. Sadly, Indian women pay 12 % tax on these products. Where it is already in scarcity; many women still use clothes that are highly dangerous for their health.