Healthy Bodies Bleed
Don't let the chart below of a typical 28-day menstrual cycle fool you. We found out in our self-help groups that most healthy, normal women's menstrual cycles don't exactly match this chart. Some of us have 21-day cycles; others have cycles that are two or three times as long--all healthy. Although most women's menstrual cycle charts look pretty close, it is unnecessary and possibly dangerous to take drugs to chemically alter our menstrual cycles to approach this so-called norm.
Each woman's menstrual cycle is unique to her
The chart above and the descriptions you read in books are helpful in getting an overall picture, but the reality of our bodies' functioning is way more varied. For instance, if a physician tests for our hormonal activity by testing a scraped sample on one visit from our vaginal lining, it can be way off. Thirteen of us scraped our vaginal linings each day for a month and sent them to a reliable lab. Mostly, the results showed the predictable pattern, but one of us, who was in her late twenties at the time, had a result showing her to be menopausal. You can visit the Cedar River Clinic's Fertility Awareness page for more details on tracking your cycle.
Our periods are a normal stage of life
Using a mirror and a light, we can see when pubic hairs start to sprout on our pubic mound, the fleshy pad overlying the frontal meeting of our pelvic bones. Lying back on a pillow, we can look at our vulva and our inner lips, we may have some hair or none. We can pull them apart and see where they meet at the top and the clitoral bulb on top. In our self-help groups, women have shared that they learned to masturbate from an early age. So, our clitoris is functional from an early age, even though the covering of hair and enlargement of our breasts doesn't come until puberty.
If we have support from our mothers, our friends and perhaps other adults, we can feel good about these changes and the beginnings of our menstrual period, especially if our environment in our family, our neighborhood and our community is relatively free from sexism. Often, however, women remember being embarrassed by the obvious changes to their bodies, especially by sexist behavior of older males, often relatives, hostile boys and the degrading depiction of women by the media.
Once we start menstruating, if it is comfortable to put in a tampon, it is possible to do vaginal self-examination using a small-sized speculum with patience and care. A few very lucky young women have the benefit of learning vaginal self-examination with either their mother or with friends.
The end of our periods is normal stage of life
After our periods have stopped coming regularly, our regular doctor's visit can turn into a prescribing opportunity for the physician or nurse-practitioner. We may complaint to the doctor that we have experienced less lubrication when a penis is inserted into the vagina, or we may feel an itching and irritation at the vaginal opening. Then, when the speculum is inserted, it may be painful.
"Voila!" says the western medicine doctor, "Here's a prescription for some cream that's going to make it all better" or "Here are some pills to take daily."
Even though the reason we had less lubrication might be
- Our partner hasn't waited for us to get sufficiently wet
- We have douched excessively
- We haven't had much sex lately
It's assumed by modern medicine that we're deficient in hormones because we no longer have a regular menstrual cycle. If we allow ourselves more time to get fully lubricated, or if we stop douching, or if we stimulate the vaginal walls with a dildo or a speculum, the problem of dryness may disappear. But, the irony is that if we do use the cream or take the pills, the dryness does go away. Doesn't that prove that we needed the drug?
No. The way hormone-like drugs work is they stimulate our cells to work harder to do whatever each type of cell is supposed to do. The cells of the vaginal lining are supposed to proliferate, that is, reproduce themselves rapidly, so the drugs cause our cells to grow rapidly, causing a thicker vaginal lining. A thicker vaginal lining has more cells to push out fluid when we're sexually stimulated, so therefore, more moisture.
Very often, we have no complaints at all, but when the speculum is put in, it hurts. It is not uncommon for the insertion of the speculum especially in we haven't had anything inserted into it for awhile to hurt a little. We found out that if you insert the speculum the next day, it hurts much less or doesn't hurt at all. In other words, our vagina stretches and accommodates the speculum just fine. If a woman starts an intimate relationship after a long period of abstinence, it helps to avoid this initial discomfort by inserting a finger or speculum every day a few days ahead of resuming sex.
What is ME?
Menstrual extraction is a Self-Help method where women extract their menstrual flow. ME was developed in the 70’s by women’s rights activists in Los Angeles to give women control over their menstrual cycles and reproductive health during the fight for abortion rights, before Roe v Wade. It can be used as a method of very early termination of pregnancy and/or as a simple way to remove menstrual blood.
Women manage their menstruation with ME and they use it to unequivocally take full ownership of their bodies. Women generally learn Menstrual Extraction by participating and observing in groups with more experienced women. Though the procedure can be learned in a few weeks, the skill and knowledge of this safe procedure develop over months or a year.
Today, ME is commonly used all over the world as a safe early abortion method that can be done in a woman’s home.
Find out more about Menstrual Extraction.
You can download Innovators and instigators: feminist contributions to American abortion technology, 1963–1973 from our library.