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46 Rosemary McKechnie,Menstruation and Social Control. As Buckley and Gottlieb note in the introduction to their edited volume Blood. Magic the most compelling aspect of the comparative study of menstruation has. surely been the widespread existence of menstrual taboos 1988 7 Anthropolo. gists working in many parts of the world have reported that menstrual blood and. menstruating women are viewed as dangerous or offensive and are bound by pro. hibitions These rules have usually been interpreted as oppressive to women. Buckley and Gottlieb go on to argue that the widespread incidence of taboos and. their resonance in Western culture has meant that the idea of menstrual taboo has. entered popular culture as a truism that is located in the past and in primitive so. ciety However as has often been pointed out the diversity of meanings associated. with menstrual management and taboos is not so easily reduced to a simple model. of pollution beliefs patriarchal control Moore 1988 16 21 Moreover the. ideas that women w rk with may not correspond with dominant beliefs 2. While the pollution beliefs of other cultures can be set in wider cosmological. conceptual systems the management of menstruation in Western society appears. to have been separated from morality and religious cosmology The rational map. ping of the body by medical science creates increasingly abstract models of men. struation shifting from a mechanical model which focused on the regularity of. blood losses to the regulation of the menstrual cycle by the endocrine system. Vines 1993 As Martin 1987 10rdanova 1989 and others have shown medi. cal models too are value laden and menstruation has been depicted as decay as. the detritus of failed reproductive cycles Further there seems to be a historical. correlation between women s attempts to attain civil political and other rights. and renewed interest in theories that confirm women s embodiment as biologically. inferior Shilling 1993 45, At the same time the management of menstrual losses has become a matter of. personal hygiene as technologies have become more sophisticated and increas. ingly commodified The emphasis of such products is on efficient control. disposable tampons and thinner but more absorbent towels permit the invisible. management of menstrual bleeding The imagery associated with marketing em. phasises the directive life should not change menstruation should not disrupt. normal routines An early study of the information given to adolescents by sanpro. companies highlighted the emphasis on carrying on with a smile as if nothing. different is happening in the body Whisnant et al 1975 If there has been any. shift in this message it is to underline the directive by association with new repre. sentations of successful femininity women who can do anything women with. verve Women are expected to welcome products that efficiently absorb menstrual. 2 As long ago as 1939 Phyllis Kaberry criticized prior descriptions of aboriginal menstrual. taboos provided by male anthropologists it should be noted pointing out that the women. did not feel ashamed of menstrual losses and had their own ideas about menstrual blood. Biographies ofReproduction 47, fluids banish odours manage pain and suppress psychological changes This aes. thetic of invisibility of seamless youthful bodies is set in a social context where. people increasi gly do not turn a blind eye where dissimulation is increasingly. difficult Melucci argues that as women have moved into the workplace men. strual changes have either been suppressed or medicalized as a pathology to be. managed The silence of the body represents the everyday counterpoint to its. inordinate display in public 1996 78, Here menstruation is firmly entrenched in the realm of self care of grooming. of feminine hygiene and appearance it is a matter of self control The veneer of. rationality that the conflation of hygiene and medical science has given to Western. views of polluting substances such as menstrual blood gives rise to a meaningful. structured absence As Laws argues this should not be assumed to be a mild civi. lised form of the practices of other cultures 1990 22 The implicit moral dimen. sions of prescribed invisibility are deeply embedded in fundamental precepts of. self care and control that stigmatize any signs of bodily fluids in pUblic The socio. cultural shift from the spiritual dimensions of pollution identification. cleanliness is next to godliness towards rational scientific definitions have not. effaced the relationship between dirt and morality The dominant strictures that. sequestrate and privatize menstrual management do however fragment and. mute culturally specific meanings of menstrual blood and associated practices. which for public appearance are worked into the deeply personal area concerning. private care of the self, Beneath the veneer of invisibility more muted local cultural meanings that.
Western women live and work with in identifying their menstrual losses need not. be secular and are likely to be only loosely linked to scientific views Large scale. surveys of menstrual beliefs such as Snowden and Christian 1983 indicate. enormous diversity in ideas Cross cultural studies of women s management of. menstruation show nor only great variety in pollution beliefs but also in positive. views of menstruation in relation to fertility associated with management practices. that identify the regularity quantity and quality of losses van de Walle and Renne. 200 I With a few notable exceptions the views experiences and practices of. women in Western society have not been widely studied However Skultans. 1988 study of menstrual symbolism in Wales and Martin s 1987 study of. women s descriptions of childbirth menstruation and the menopause in Balti. more indicate that dominant models of menstruation have surprisingly little im. pact on the way some women live and work with menstrual changes Both studies. looked in different ways at the relationship between cultural categories of feminin. ity the social position of women and the way women themselves described bodily. From an anthropological point of view it is very difficult to set cultural. boundaries around menstrual beliefs and practices in order to relate them to the. wider cultural system see Martin 1987 4 In a context such as east London. 48 Rosemary McKechnie, women come from diverse backgrounds3 and are likely to have moved social as. well as geographical distances in their lifetimes also their networks of family and. friends were contained within the area in only a few cases Sociological models of. mobility and social change are tempting here because they appear to offer a solu. tion to the problem posed by the dissolution of cultural boundaries Giddens for. example focuses on the agency of the subject to choose reflexively between the. options offered by traditions mediated messages and expert discourses to create a. self referential life plan Giddens 1991 In this model social change releases. individuals from the certainties and constraints of structure and tradition increas. ing their agency to negotiate their own biographical trajectory The women in this. study could thus be viewed as agents moving through space and time accruing. new know ledges reflecting on and revising their ideas and practices To an extent. this is reflected in the diversity of the interviews in the bricolage of fragmented. beliefs and practices that are embedded in individual accounts For example one. woman who had been brought up in rural south Italy before moving to Britain and. marrying into a Muslim family from Pakistan reflected on the ideas about men. struation she had grown up with including the vulnerability of the body during. menstruation and compared them with her husband s ideas about the hazards. posed by menstrual blood and the effects of hot and cold substances She had also. read medical texts concerning the hormonal control of the timing and duration of. periods and was happy to discuss the medical management of the irregularity she. had experienced She had her own views about each and while she could see how. her husband s ideas fitted with his world view and was happy to comply with the. restrictions it placed on her up to a point they remained abstract ideas she engaged. with and worked around in so far as she had to do this in order to maintain the. re1ationship, However I would contend that menstrual experiences are not easily reducib1e. to this kind of narrative external model A mainstay of anthropological theorizing. has been that some symbolic meanings are difficult to elicit because they do not. exist as an explicit cultural script 4 The conceptualization of the embodiment of. culture was developed in Bourdieu s classic account of habitus as a set of bodily. dispositions that generate actions in a regular way inculcated through everyday. practice rather than learned as rules 5 Hastrup argues that cultural knowledge is. 3 Of the 29 women who participated one was of African origin two were southern Euro. pean two were northern European two were Scottish one was southern Irish and the rest. were English of these four had been born and brought up in the area. 4 As Sperber puts it There are a large number of rules that are applied but never taught or. explained a range of symbolic behaviour of which the natives have fairly systematic intui. tion which normally remains tacit 1975 22, 5 If all societies set such store on the seemingly most insignificant details of dress bear. ing physical and verbal manners the reason is that treating the body as a memory they. Biographies ofReproduction 49, stored in action rather than in words sedimented in the body beneath the level of. consciousness and therefore not reducible to discourses about the body 1995 82. Conceived in this way bodily dispositions are not so easily objectified and dis. mantled The self is itself predisposed in relation to a changing world and not nec. essarily able simply to step away from embodied experience view it from the out. side or alter it reflexively, Women s experiences of menstruation are put almost beyond reach here They.
are intensely private habitually enacted shared if at all in abbreviated form with. only a few and therefore normally opaque to observation or to analyses which. depend on narratives about menstruation lackson describes how his understanding. of Kuranko ritual increased once he broke the habit of using a unilinear commu. nication model for understanding bodily praxis 1983 340 However one cannot. participate in others menstrual management and although one can reflect on. one s own experience there is no way of knowing how far this overlaps with that. of others Nonetheless it is also true that the silence surrounding menstruation. minimizes formulaic description or disembodied concepts and decontextualised. sayings ibid In many cases the women I interviewed were struggling to find a. language with which to talk about their embodied experiences It is their non. formulaic depictions of the private experience of menstruation rather than what. they had to say about menstruation that I wish to explore here. The Interview Introspection and Biographical Narrative. The paradox of menstrual experience is that it is at the same time intensely famil. iar and impossible to describe Talking about their periods was unusual that. much was given Answering questions required women to create a language with. which to talk about menstruating at different points in time from menarche to the. present The accounts women gave were wide ranging including an enormous. amount of contextual detail concerning their personal circumstances their rela. tionships and emotional states In a way these were narratives that should never. have been Responding to the questions required women to recollect and articulate. a very private experience and then make sense of it for me Often the women. seemed acutely aware of how odd their recollection might seem to a stranger. entrust to it in abbreviated and practical Le mnemonic form the fundamental principles of. the arbitrary content of the culture The principles em bodied in this way are placed beyond. the grasp of consciousness and hence cannot be touched by voluntary deliberate transfor. mation cannot even be made explicit nothing seems more ineffable more incommunica. ble more inimitable and therefore more precious than the values given body made body. by the transubstantiation achieved by the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy capa. ble of instilling a whole cosmology an ethic a metaphysic a political philosophy through. injunctions as insignificant as stand up straight or don t hold your knife in your left hand. 50 Rosemary McKechnie, unless the whole situation was explained The information only made sense as part. of their lives their experience did not have a life of its own Although the inter. view had been conceived of as covering some years it had not been thought of as a. biographical tool The interview became a recognizable if unusual life story be. cause of the efforts the women made to make sense of their experience 6. Young quite rightly points out that biographical narratives alert us to special. problems and manifest concerns of those who tell them 1983 479 They force. recognition of individual variability draw attention to freedoms and constraints. and render vulgar stereotyping suspect He cautions against using such narratives. THE IDENTIFICATION OF MENSTRUAL CHANGE WORKING WITH BIOGRAPHIES OF REPRODUCTION ROSEMARY McKECHNIE THE present article focuses on the personal meaning of menstrual losses by interro gating the relationship between social and cultural meanings and intimate personal experience It is based on a small piece of research carried out in east London 1 A variety of forms of irregular menstruation

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