41 Why Are We So Uncomfortable? The Confusing Taboo of Menstruation in Ancient Rome and Modern America
by Alex Coleman
We heard the whispers of “Did I bleed through?” in the hallways, saw discreet sanitary product handoffs, and planned undercover trips to the Nurse’s office for Advil. A new competition emerged for the female-bodied students: “Didn’t you already get it?” Feelings of pride and maturity clashed with anxiety and fear––what would happen if I bled through during tennis practice, where I was the only girl in a group of sixteen boys? What if I had to tell someone I wasn’t going home because of a stomach ache, but because my cramps were so bad it hurt to stand up?
These kinds of experiences surrounding menstruation characterized much of middle school for me. I experienced the confusing and contradictory emotions that are so common for young girls––until I stopped getting my period completely. As a very slim, slightly underweight, competitive athlete, I lived without a period for almost three years during high school. Part of me took it as a marker of my dedication: that I worked my body so hard it had nothing left to spare for menstruation. Part of me liked being able to say, “I just don’t get my period” to my friends. Its non-existence tricked me into feeling slimmer and lighter, as though I didn’t have to carry this burden of being a healthy young woman. After countless conversations with my doctor, who emphasized that in spite of my high activity level and slim build, this was not normal, I made an effort to gain weight and get my period back during senior year. It took me a long time to understand that lacking a period was not some kind of accomplishment––I needed to do everything in my power to help my body to function the way it was meant to.
After not having my period for so long, I basically celebrated when it finally returned. I felt so much joy in my body for coming such a long way both physically and menatlly. I had to realize that, while menstruating did not make me into the young woman I am, it is a necessary part of me developing into the woman I will become. Getting my period back helped me to accept the changes I saw in my body––it helped me see that this at times terrifying experience was actualized and worth it. Once I actively tried and succeeded to restart my own menstruation, I realized it was never something to have felt embarrassed of. I accepted for the first time since freshman year that I could be a healthy young woman and a successful athlete. I had no idea I would physically feel the best and strongest I had ever felt once my period returned, too. And while it would be crazy to say I love getting my period––because who would ever, ever, say that-–I have a respect and appreciation for all that my body is capable of that I genuinely did not have before.
It angers me to think of the shame, anxiety, and fear female-bodied people have experienced and currently experience due to their menstruation. My own experience has made me fascinated by the general confusion and taboos that surround menstruation: How can society ostracize and shame female-bodied people for something they cannot control, especially when it is the very reason humans come into existence? I want to imagine how we can change the language surrounding menstruation. The men who have written the sparse literature that exists on this topic are illogical, sexist, and contradictory to themselves and each other. It is overwhelming to sort through the origins of these misogynistic myths, and the ensuing stigma placed on female-bodied people. By exploring the practices and taboo of menstruation in Ancient Rome and comparing this research with modern America and my own experience, I hope to shine some light on the shared struggles of female-bodied people in a society that upholds male bodies as the ideal and is dictated by male fear.
I will use the terms “female-bodied people” (FBP) and “women and girls” for different purposes throughout this exploration. When writing about the general experiences of people who menstruate, I will use the term FBP, because I want to honor the experiences of people who menstruate but do not identify as women. In instances when the connotations of gender are significant and the identity of being a girl or woman comes into question, I will use the terms girl and woman. I am not perfect, but I will do my very best to be as inclusive as possible.
In classical myths, menstruation was commonly explained as the result of a curse placed on women (Hufnagel 2012, 19). The idea that a greater, supernatural power chose to condemn women to an uncomfortable experience suggests it is a kind of punishment––this takes away the fact that menstruation occurs naturally to FBP regardless of their actions or devotion to deities. It also stirs up the first feelings of shame associated with menstruation, because a “curse” is inherently not something to be proud of. These types of widespread beliefs made it easy for the patriarchy to create attitudes much more vicious than external ostracization toward menstruating FBP; it created feelings of self-loathing within FBP themselves. The job of males who wished to suppress female bodies and freedoms was made even easier.
The attitudes toward menstruation in Ancient Rome originated with a split between the ancient Greek philosophies of Aristotle and Hippocrates. While Aristotle was a philosopher trying to theoretically make sense of phenomena such as reproduction and sexual differentiation, Hippocrates was a physician focused on the physiological differences between sexes that lead to distinct functional differences. There is a noticeable contrast between their philosophical and pragmatic, medical viewpoints, respectively.
Aristotle’s view of menstruation and reproduction largely stemmed from the overarching idea that female bodies are inferior to male bodies, specifically in the way that each sex contributes to producing offspring. His reasoning for this inferiority was that females lack internal “heat” while males do not (Aristotle 1942, 373). Now this idea, while obviously lacking any scientific evidence, only confirms the fact that many of the beliefs I will mention later are made by leaps of logic and reason by male thinkers to other and control female bodies. Aristotle logicized that, while females and males both have the purpose of “generation,” the male provides the “seed” of reproduction while the female only provides the place in which reproduction occurs (13). According to Aristotle, the female does not produce a reproductive “seed” as the male does; since menstrual blood is the next closest thing to a reproductive agent, and it does not directly contribute to the production of offspring, Aristotle categorized it as semen’s inferior (97). Here, we get back to the idea of warmth––since males produce seed and generate inside of the female, and “all concoction works by means of heat,” males naturally generate heat while females do not (387). And of course, it was generally accepted that being hot was better than being cold. With this logic as his basis, Aristotle goes on to call women “mutilated males” throughout his work Generation of Animals, suggesting that females are not fully formed independent creatures. He reasons, “we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature” (461). The male body is thus established as the ideal which female bodies are unable to reach. Menstruation to Aristotle is not a marker of health for female bodies; it simply shows that a female can have children. This dynamic outlined by Aristotle allows later male physicians and philosophers to condemn and subjugate female bodies without significant, if any, backlash.
Hippocrates approached menstruation with the idea that variations between sexes were important to understand because they required different treatment for illness. He, unlike Aristotle, thought of female bodies as completely formed and separate from male bodies, while still obviously reliant on males for reproduction. To Hippocrates, the main cause of these physical differences was that a female’s flesh is “spongy” and “loose” compared to that of males, and therefore females retain more fluid and moisture (Hippocrates 1975, 572). Hippocrates believed that this fluid excess, which proves to be a very important concept throughout beliefs on menstruation in the ancient world, must be combatted through menstruation or else the body will become sick or even die (573). This medical reasoning acts as one of the first justifications for male physicians and thinkers to create methods of “driving” and stopping menstruation. Hippocrates suggested methods such as vapor baths, pessaries, fumigations, and potions to restart menstruation (578). The Hippocratian view, unlike the Aristotalean and most proceeding views, tried to control menstruation in an effort to improve female health. But this idea of “health” was not for a female to be able to live her life freely with a sound body; as Rebecca Flemming (2000, 117) says in her book Medicine and the Making of Roman Women, “for the Hippocratics, a woman’s health depends on her reproductive activity; fulfilling her social role makes her healthy.” Although Hippocrates recognized the different sexes and did not pit them against each other like Aristotle, he did not examine women’s health for the betterment of FBP, but for the purpose of “generation.”
These early Greek thinkers set the tone for Roman philosophers and physicians’ ideas on menstruation. There is a common theme of males attempting to use menstruation to other female bodies through taboo, superstition, and blatant ostracization. The contradictory nature of the widely ranging beliefs on menstruation makes it an even more confusing topic; the lack of cohesiveness in thought across different scholars, combined with the lack of writing on the topic itself, make it a difficult concept to understand. Historians have suggested that the scarcity of literature on the topic of menstruation is due to men’s fear of it and of menstrual blood; menstruation is one of the few occurrences that has always happened to women regardless of their relationships with men (Hufnagel 2012, 20). This is fascinating because menstruation and menstrual blood were the crux of male efforts to “other” and even demonize women. Men seemed to accept the little information on this topic as gospel, eager to have a legitimate excuse backed by “science” for treating women as their inferiors.
It is necessary to understand that this cultural stigma and othering of female bodies due to menstruation often began before menstruation itself. Aristotle and Hippocrates agreed that the average age of menarche was fourteen (Hufnagel 2012, 16). But, since some females begin menstruating at the age of twelve, this was considered the legal age of marriage in Ancient Rome (17). This implies that legally, girls become women at the age of twelve, regardless of their bodies’ physical maturity, while societally, it was thought that menstruation marked the maturation of girls becoming women (Flemming 2000, 160). Logically, this makes no sense. It implies that girls were treated as women when their fathers needed to marry them off to another man, and that once they married, they became their husband’s property. A girl in this situation would then be subject to any and all of her husband’s sexual demands, regardless of her ability to reproduce. Yet the socially “acceptable” time for a girl to begin engaging in sexual activity was thought to be once she started menstruating, and she could have been married earlier than this time (235). This created a dynamic that put young women in a powerless position; all at once, they were victims of legal, familial, and societal expectations that were arbitrary and inconsistent. They had to deal with all of this along with the normal confusion and mixed emotions surrounding puberty and reaching adulthood. The amount of loneliness and dissociation from their physical selves these young women must have experienced is incomprehensible.
Throughout ancient Roman literature, the characterizations of and superstition toward menstruating females can be described in one word: absurd. Pliny the Elder was one Roman physician whose ideas on menstruation became widely popularized and accepted. In his encyclopedic-like work Natural History, Pliny makes many references to women’s health, and unlike most scholars of his similar background, he writes extensively on menstruation. His beliefs are so outlandish and beyond the realm of logic, it is honestly a bit impressive; the creativity and time it must have taken for him to come up with some of the myths he circulated show his dedication to ruining the image of menstruating FBP.
The way in which menstruating FBP are depicted throughout Pliny’s work is significant. Pliny explains that while menstruating, some FBP just “walk…through the middle of the fields with their clothes pulled up above the buttocks. In other places the custom is kept up for them to walk barefoot, with hair dishevelled and with girdle loose” (Pliny the Elder 1963, 57). This description implies menstruating FBP experienced a kind of dissociation from reality and socially acceptable behavior. They are weak, at the whims of this cursed bodily process that so wholly take over and alters their entire state of being. This phrase also suggests that a menstruating woman is less of a woman in the eyes of men; she can no longer keep up her appearance, be attractive, or perform her womanly duties if she walks around barefoot, disheveled, and half-naked.
Pliny goes on to write that menstruating FBP will kill plants and entire fields of crops, cause bees to leave their hives, and make “caterpillars, worms, beetles and other vermin fall to the ground” from their presence (57). As much as the content of the writing itself, the language Pliny uses to describe these phenomena is indicative of the cultural sentiment toward menstruation. He writes that “purple too is tarnished then by the woman’s touch” when she is menstruating, because “So much greater then is the power of a menstruous woman” (57). Due to the historic difficulty of producing purple dye, the color purple has earned a connotation with royalty and high status since the era of Ancient Greece (Melina 2011, par. 1-3). Pliny’s statement implies that a menstruating woman poses a threat not only to nature, but to those at the top of the social hierarchy and order of Rome itself. Coincidentally or not, those at the top of this hierarchy are entirely men. The word “tarnish” implies menstruating women are dirty too, and will ruin the pristine society men have worked so hard to engineer. Perhaps this patriarchy, not the color purple, is what is actually being threatened.
While there is much discussion on menstruating women’s ability to end life, Pliny also writes significantly about their influences on birth and the early stages of life. He specifies that “young vines are irremediably harmed by the touch” of a menstruating woman, which suggests menstruating women either stunt growth or prey on vulnerable, weaker beings (Pliny the Elder 1963, 57). There is also an interesting relationship brought up between menstruation and pregnancy. Pliny writes that a pregnant mare will miscarry if touched, and in some cases even looked at by a menstruating FBP (57). He also explains that if a pregnant woman somehow comes into contact with menstrual blood, or even “steps over it,” she too will miscarry (58). Although the logic behind these ideas could never be sound, perhaps they were simply an effort to make FBP feel even more shame in menstruation; to men like Pliny, it was so taboo and dirty, it could even damage pregnancy, the very thing it enables.
Patriarchal society as a whole perpetuated beliefs that attempted to shame and other female bodies. This widespread taboo, however, did not equate widespread shared knowledge about menstruation. Men latched onto the idea that menstruation was a necessary purging of the female “excess”––or katharsis––but aside from this, men could hardly come to a consensus on menstruation (Flemming 2000, 235). Some thinkers such as Soranus asserted that while menstruation was essential for katharsis, it otherwise did not play a role in women’s health (236). On the other hand, thinkers such as Celsus suggested that menstruation and menstrual regularity were important to female health, and that a lack of menstruation would cause ailments or even death. Therefore, he suggested that non-menstruating FBP be bled in place of a natural katharsis. Celsus’ theory, although it acknowledges the importance of menstruation in female health, is still centered around the idea of purging excess; that the female body’s natural function is to rid itself of something harmful it creates.
These different beliefs about menstruation that induced shame in FBP culminated in one overarching theme: that a woman who does not reproduce, and therefore does not menstruate, is a worthless woman. So while men shame and other females for menstruating, it is also the one aspect that solidifies a female’s status as a woman, because it allows her to bear children. The common belief across history that women were only valued for their reproductive potential holds true here, as does the sentiment that no matter what a woman is or does, she is never enough––she is damned if she menstruates, and damned if she doesn’t.
As depicted earlier by Hippocrates, male Roman thinkers made noticeable efforts to control menstruation. Discordides and Pliny the Elder each devised over one-hundred ways “to drive” or to stop menstruation through various plants, rituals, and substances (Flemming 2000, 161). While it could be thought that these physicians were simply doing their best to understand and help FBP with a confusing bodily process, this is unlikely. These men often contradicted themselves on whether menstruation was even an important aspect of female health, and surely contradicted each other. It is more likely that these attempts to control female menstruation stemmed from male fear. The taboos, superstition, and general confusion men engineered across thousands of years allowed them to manipulate the one thing about women they could not own or take away under the law. It was a power struggle between the male patriarchy and nature.
Contrasting the experience of maturation for girls in Ancient Rome to that of boys demonstrates the stark difference in gender standards due to patriarchal ideals. Menarche for girls was thought to hold the same significance as the first sexual act performed by boys (160). Both of these milestones were seen as indicators of maturation, and certainly that reproduction was now possible. But the connotations were significantly different. For girls, maturation was defined as their ability to bear children and essentially settle into society’s narrow definition of womanhood; there was no time for self-exploration, and forget about pleasure. For boys, having and acting on a sexual awakening made them into men. There was no burdensome physical process like menstruation or pregnancy that tethered them to a societal role the second they became adults.
Similarly, there was an attempt by male thinkers to somehow equate the experience of menstruation for women to a physical experience for men. When signs of “melancholia” were seen after the end of menstruation or haemorrhoidal flux in men, phlebotomy was used as a treatment in both instances (217). These two “ailments” were treated as homologous, each having to do with letting out the “excess” of the human body (217). Yet the male version was not unique only to male bodies, nor did it carry the gendered and reproductive weight of menstruation. This thinking makes it seem like men almost felt left out by menstruation––another example of them not being able to bear the thought that FBP could experience or be in charge of something that has nothing to do with men. Once again, the contradictory thinking and behavior of men strips FBP of menstrual, and therefore bodily, agency and pride.
The shame and stigma experienced by FBP have continued through present day––as put by Glenda Hufnagel (2012, 8) in A History of Women’s Menstruation from Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century, “The current practice of silencing and shaming menarcheal girls in Western culture may be traced to Greek and Roman written documents, which state that women’s bodies are inferior to men’s.” The “silencing” aspect of our culture is often overlooked; FBP not only experience shame and fear due to menstruation, but they are supposed to keep quiet and pretend it does not exist. For people who identify as girls or women, the societal pressure to treat menstruation as taboo makes it difficult to fully embrace womanhood. For people who menstruate but do not identify as women, the “silencing” takes on an additional meaning. Not only have the voices of non-binary and transgender individuals been excluded from the narrative of menstruation throughout history, but the gender confines associated with menstruation leave little room for their experiences. In spite of the negative connotations of menstruation, we as a society have determined that to menstruate is to be a woman. This narrow-minded thinking is not conducive to supporting people with gender dysphoria, for whom menstruation might already feel like an extremely uncomfortable part of life.
Menstruation has existed since female bodies came onto this Earth––but we are only at the beginning of accepting, honoring, and celebrating female bodies for all that they are capable of. This past week, Scotland made history by becoming the first country to make all menstrual products free. Menstruation is finally becoming more normalized across platforms such as social media, and celebrities and athletes are slowly becoming more open to the public about their experiences with menstruation. Yet we, even in niches of society that claim to be “progressive,” still struggle to openly and properly address menstruation. To get over this hurdle, this feeling of discomfort when the word “period” is mentioned in conversation, we need to change our thinking. This calls for a kind of open discussion that must expand far beyond “feminist media.” The separate rooms for boys and girls in early school-run sex education should not exist––this binary division is not only outdated, but it initiates the feelings of shame in FBP that are so hard to abandon. We have to teach children of all genders that menstruation is something to acknowledge openly instead of something to keep secret. Including males in the experience and discussion of menstruation is a necessary part of changing the language we use and the attitudes we hold. A language of neutrality toward menstruation would best acknowledge what it is; a normal, everyday occurrence that is simply a fact of life. At the least, this will give back some of the bodily power and autonomy FBP have been stripped of across the centuries. Perhaps men will feel less like the normalization of menstruation is a threat to their own masculinity. At best, it will end the feelings of fear and shame on both sides that ultimately serve no one.
Aristotle. Generation of Animals. Translated by A. L. Peck. Cambridge , MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. https://ccl.on.worldcat.org/oclc/855672780.
Flemming, Rebecca. Medicine and the Making of Roman Women: Gender, Nature, and Authority from Celsus to Galen. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Hippocrates. Diseases of Women. Translated by Ann Ellis Hanson. I. Vol. I. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1975. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3173068.
Hufnagel, Glenda Lewin. A History of Women’s Menstruation from Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century: Psychological, Social, Medical, Religious, and Educational Issues. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2012.
Melina, Remy. “Why Is the Color Purple Associated With Royalty?” LiveScience. Purch, June 3, 2011. https://www.livescience.com/33324-purple-royal-color.html.
Pliny the Elder. “XXIII.” Essay. In Pliny: Natural History, translated by W. H. S. Jones, 55–57. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1963. https://ccl.on.worldcat.org/oclc/313293.