By Alexis Buncich
Alexis Buncich is a senior at Columbia University studying English, with a focus on theater and human rights. Her work has also been published by The Columbia Daily Spectator and on her personal blog, abunchoflife.com.
The gender gap in medical research is well known. Research is conducted on bodies that all fit into the same mold. This concept of the default body predicates all other medical knowledge. Historically, the body that’s studied is that of a “60 kilogram, white male, 35 years of age.” The default body is meant to be a stand-in for any person, but here is the issue: the default body doesn’t menstruate.
For people who menstruate, the lack of medical knowledge can lead to complicated health concerns. One popular commercial details a woman with endometriosis who, despite struggling with painful periods, tells her doctor that it’s “just some cramps.” And it isn’t just patients casting aside their own pain. Doctors consistently downplay women’s health concerns, even if they are directly told someone needs help. One study cited by the Harvard Health Blog found that women are “seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged” when they are having a heart attack. This is because the symptoms of a heart attack look different for women than they do for men.
When it comes to menstruation, menstruators themselves have been socially conditioned not to talk about it: wrapping up menstrual hygiene products in countless layers of toilet paper before throwing them into the trash can and carrying tampons in pockets, under sleeves, and at the bottom of handbags. Why is the subject of menstruation so taboo that menstruators can’t even openly carry a cotton stick?
Historian Lara Freidenfelds explains the concept of an invisible period is related to physical labor: the default body doesn’t need to take time out of their day to change a pad. Menstruation just undermines the body’s productivity. But in 2020 America, there is no such thing as a default body anymore. Not only does productivity look different for different people, but it’s no longer the be-all, end-all it used to be. Still, menstruators are caught up in a paradox: trying to be productive in a capitalist society and simultaneously remaining honest about their experiences.
We have to acknowledge that there is no quick fix to this problem. No single campaign or initiative can reframe hundreds of years of medical research deeply embedded in societal values, preferences, and norms. Yet, we can take immediate steps at all levels: government, scientific research, clinical practice, and social norms.
The solution starts with all of us: talking about your own period makes the subject less forbidden. When menstruators share their own personal stories, they give power to their own voices — fighting against the outdated idea of the default body. These stories inform not only those close to you, but the world, that each body is different and deserves the kind of care that will help it live its best, healthy life.
So talk about your own period. Carry a tampon to the bathroom without tucking it under your sleeve. Tell your non-menstruating friends that you have cramps, and openly discuss menstrual health just as freely as you would any other issue. Bringing the topic with you wherever you go is important, because for experts to take all bodies seriously society needs to do the same. Harness your own power by sharing your story, and let the words, well, flow.
In Spring 2020, Columbia students and faculty had the opportunity–for the first time ever–to spend a full semester exploring menstruation through many different angles in the course “Menstruation, Gender, and Rights: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” Students engaged in writing OpEd style short pieces that draw attention to various facets of menstruation neglected in the mainstream discourse. Leading up to the worldwide day celebrating menstruation, we have the honor to present a selection of emerging menstrual voices. If you’re interested in joining, please stay tuned–we plan to offer the course again in Spring 2021. — Professor Inga Winkler