AuthorNair, Prianka
PositionSymposium Conference: Are You There Law? It's Me, Menstruation

The stories that we tell, or don't tell, about bodies matter.

Libresse's 2016 advertisement for menstrual products features a dancer peeling off her ballet slipper to reveal bloodied mangled toes, a cyclist bleeding from a scrape on her leg, a soccer player bleeding from the bridge of her nose. The slogan--powerful and unvarnished--is "No Blood Should Hold Us Back." It is an empowering message that reinforces the ubiquity of menstruation. The ad avoids anodyne representations of blue liquid poured from a laboratory beaker onto a sterile menstrual pad. It prides itself on showing blood on female bodies. This is a feminist message that challenges the cultural script of stigma and secrecy around menstruation.

It is worth noting, however, that Libresse's advertisement does not include a single individual with a disability. It presents a view of how the menstruating body should occupy the world--strong, capable, independent, autonomous--without accommodation or assistive aids. Narratives like this, although ostensibly rewriting the story of the menstruating body, erase the experience of menstruators who require assistance from caregivers to change their pads or have decisions about their menstruation left to legal guardians, doctors, and courts. This story is not limited to this particular advertisement. Menstruators with disabilities report feeling like they have to comply with the norms of able-bodied menstruators, giving rise to different forms of discrimination and marginalization. (1) The narrative Libresse promotes is feminist, but it is also fundamentally ableist.

The dominant narrative of disability and menstruation is frequently told in courts. Individuals with disabilities are frequently subject to oppression due to ableism--a system of beliefs that "not only signals disability as a form of difference but constructs it as inferior." (2) This ableism seeps into the jurisprudence surrounding menstruation. Curial discussion around menstruation management occurs in the context of petitions to sterilize the individual--the most drastic and irrevocable form of menstrual suppression. The very framing of the enquiry marginalizes the experience of menstruators with disabilities, confirming their status as bodies that need management and medical intervention. While courts are generally protective of the fundamental and constitutionally protected rights of individuals with disabilities to procreate, they effectively shift the decision-making around sterilization and menstrual management from the individual into the hands of medical professionals. (3)

This essay outlines how the focus on able-bodied menstruators in the development of social narratives about menstruation erases the experiences and the discrimination experienced by menstruators with disabilities. Many menstruators with disabilities experience shame around menstruation, embarrassed about the "burden" of their menstrual experiences on their caregivers and concerned about breaching menstrual etiquette around hygiene. Narratives about menstruation are incomplete without considering these experiences. Introducing a disability perspective also permits us to interrogate why popular depictions of the menstruating body are inadequate, how they continue to reinforce and romanticize values like independence and productivity, and validate structures that grant power and privilege to those values. Finally, the essay introduces ideas like supported decision-making and dismodernism that center the experiences of individuals with disabilities. This shift in focus has the potential to transform menstrual activism by introducing into the conversation more nuanced values of reciprocity, interdependence, and empathy.

The Subordination of Disabled Voices

Menstrual activism is premised on notion of taking back control over the meaning and experience of menstruation. An outgrowth of mid-to-late twentieth century feminist women's health activism, the movement recognizes that menstruators, particularly women, rarely get to define the meaning of their bodily processes. (4) Rather, this has been left to physicians, corporations, and pharmaceutical companies. (5) The goals of the menstrual activism movement are to challenge the representation of menstruation, push past stigma to have meaningful conversations about body literacy, create safe and effective products to manage menstruation, and challenge the manipulation and suppression of menstruation. (6)

However, the menstrual activism movement has been criticized as being primarily white, heteronormative, and able-bodied. (7) It takes privilege to embrace notions of health care and consumerism that radically depart from the mainstream. (8) As a result, the movement has not been especially inclusive of menstruating bodies with disabilities. Other excluded populations include women of color. (9) Bloggers like crippledscholar have noted that "there is very little written about disability and menstruation generally and what little there is [] most often not written by disabled people." (10) As a result, she writes, "a lot of it is about control and often menstrual cessation in order to make the menstruating person more convenient for a care giver." (11) Activist, author, and podcaster Alice...

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