Chris Bobel is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her scholarship lies at the intersection of social movements, gender, health and embodiment, sites where feminist thinking becomes feminist doing. Since 2003, Chris has been engaged in the study of efforts to advance menstrual health as a matter of human rights and reproductive justice.
Chris has been featured on NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other various media sources. Her recent publications include The Managed Body: Developing Girls and Menstrual Health in the Global South and Body Battlegrounds: Transgressions, Tensions, Transformations (forthcoming in 2019) She is also at work co-editing the first ever Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies.
You have been working on menstrual activism for a long time. Can you tell us what got you interested in this topic?
I attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2001– and I’d been a couple times before– but at the festival in addition to having musical acts they also have workshops. One of the workshops was titled “Ax Tampax” and the description basically advanced a feminist critique of the menstrual care industry through both feminist and anti-capitalist lenses. I was like ‘’What?!’ I had never thought about menstruation as a feminist issue. I hadn’t thought critically about the industry and about the products that I use. It wasn’t on my radar and I had been a feminist scholar for years at that point and had thought about social movements and about embodiment and alternativity. But that wasn’t on my mind at all and I think because I hadn’t thought about it critically before I was doubly interested. I wasn’t just ‘Wow! That’s an interesting issue!’ but also ‘Why haven’t I thought about that before?’ ‘What forces are in play that have obscured this to me?’ I went to the workshop, then I started paying attention to menstrual activism. At that point in 2001, there was hardly anything going on. This is even before Twitter and Instagram; there was very little social media engagement at all. So I was online looking up websites, MySpace pages, blog posts, and paper zines on menstrual health and politics.
Why do you think menstruation has received an increasing amount of attention over the last few years?
Well that’s the bajillion dollar question. I have a cynical answer and a more positive answer. Let’s start with the more hopeful response. It’s a convergence of a couple things. Social media is a huge driver. It has enabled more people to be activists and frankly, with little information. Anybody can be an activist, anybody can be a journalist, anybody can express themselves publicly and capture interest, which is a democratizing possibility, but it also means people can advance myths and untruths, misinformation, and distortions.
It’s also the success of the feminist movement. The movement is bearing fruit in a number of ways, so there’s critical engagement with the gender binary that has caused a new kind of curiosity and challenging of the body in a social context. What does it mean to have a particular kind of body? What does the body do? How is gender related, and unrelated, to embodiment? That kind of awareness has opened up scrutiny about a lot of things, not just menstruation, but a lot of other embodied processes.
I’m not sure what comes first, if it’s all the innovation in the space around materials that’s driving the activism, or if it’s the activism that’s driving innovation, but it’s hard to disentangle them.
Also, a driver in the MHM space is the WASH sector and the fact that water engineers and development professionals are paying attention to water and water infrastructure has really advanced the MHM agenda. It has caught on beyond the ‘developing world’ because there’s this process, this boomerang, where development professionals pay attention to these issues in the Global South and paying attention to them in one site forces them to pay attention and to self-reflect on their own context. In a lot of ways, it starts by looking out there and then people start thinking, ‘Well wait a minute, what about our own marginalized menstruators right here at home?’
Cynically, it’s because there’s so much focus on product. This is my number one complaint, the outsized focus on products, which is the technical solution for a social problem. Product is compelling because the language of menstruation is the language of product. We talk about menstruation in terms of what to use to manage the body. I think the reason why it’s caught on so rapidly in the West is because the focus has been on product, whereas previous menstrual activists have been less concerned about product and more concerned with stigma-busting using art and performance, zine-making, DIY make-your-own product workshops, teaching menstrual literacy to ourselves and each other, and micro acts like wearing a button that says “I’m menstruating today.” It was just a very different approach to menstrual activism that has been eclipsed by this hyper-product focus and that’s compelling to people. People get it because, again, the language of menstruation is the language of products and so people connect with the issue through consumer engagement. It has resonated in a way that more marginal efforts at redefining menstruation as a source or power or as neutral, talking about pain, or challenging the industry’s shaming strategies are not as interesting to people as the product focus that’s been embraced by a lot of folks.
Your newest book, The Managed Body: Developing Girls & Menstrual Health in the Global South, was recently published. Why did you chose to write this book now and what are your hopes for the book?
I chose to write it now because MHM is growing so rapidly as a sub-sector or emerging sector of development and I wanted to problematize it. I wanted to raise questions about it. I talk about it as taking the risk to criticize the things you love. Because I love and believe strongly in menstrual activism and its urgency and its necessity. And because I care about it so deeply and because menstruation absolutely is neglected, stigmatized, and weaponized, I want the movement to be its best version of itself. I’m concerned that the trajectory is compromised with the focus on products and the unintentional focus on reinscribing shame, like the good body is the managed body, which is why I titled the book The Managed Body because it embeds a critique. I want to challenge all of that so we can create a more durable, sustainable, impactful movement that is at least as interested in stigma busting and menstrual health education for everyone as it is in replacing traditional methods with single use methods and commercial methods. So, I wrote it now because I noticed that there’s this emerging and rapidly proliferating sub-sector and I think it’s ripe for productive complication. I wrote what I term an “invested critique” to productively complicate this emerging sub-sector that’s part of a movement because I care about it and I want it to do right by menstruators and others.
What I hope people get out of it is that readers, especially those working on menstrual health interventions, will engage with the critique. That doesn’t mean that they have to agree, of course, but that they at least hit pause and think for a moment about what’s motivating their interventions, to think about the evidence, to engage with the evidence and the lack of evidence. What I found in my work is that few of the organizations are actually aware at all of the research, they may rely on their own anecdotal evidence and their own observations, but they haven’t engaged with the systematic studies of these issues and they’re often not connected with each other. For example, I spoke with a person running a reproductive health education and pad provision program in Uganda. There’s a ton of innovation going on in Uganda–it’s a hub. [Uganda, Kenya, and India, I argue are the hubs]. So there’s tons of people doing this work in Uganda and he didn’t know any of them and I was amazed because you can be doing this work, which is stigmatized and hard and complicated, and you don’t even know your peers.
So, I want to challenge that and I want to challenge this neo-colonial old script of shaming the body–this ironic use of stigma to fight stigma which no one is doing intentionally. No one is thinking ‘how can we make girls feel worse about their bodies through our intervention?’. But I think the discourse, the framing of the problem as a hygienic crisis which leads to the framing of the solution –get girls products– is a problematic frame in both cases. I want people to think about the frames they’re using. I want them to think about the spectacularized representations of the problem that are not based on evidence (or only thinly based on evidence) and in some ways potentially do more harm than good because they reinscribe this notion of the poor brown or black body in need of rescue.
Apple recently launched the Period emoji. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t think it’s a big deal, but it’s a deal. It’s potentially a step in the right direction, but in some ways it’s really disappointing and really affirms the strength of menstrual stigma, because it’s not menstrual, per-se. It’s just a blood drop. It could be from a nosebleed. It could be from a skinned knee. There’s nothing menstrual about it. This sort of suggests how powerful stigma is, that this is the best we could get. Plan UK was behind this and none of the options they put forward were very menstrual either. The one with the blood drops on the panties, that’s not how it looks. And then there was the pad. And then there was the chart and I thought that was kind of interesting, but most people don’t chart and they certainly don’t use paper. None of it was perfect. But certainly, what we landed on was so safe and so ambiguous. So I wouldn’t say it’s regressive, but I’m not sure how progressive it is. Having said that, I’m cheering for it because I think it’s progress in some small way. But it depends on how people will use it. But I think we would be fools if we played up the significance of this, because in some ways it’s really just a minor intervention, given how tame it is. It’s so safe. It doesn’t really challenge anybody.
*Blog post has been edited for clarity and length.