she’s on the rag: the redundancy of menstrual euphemisms
My friend and I are situated in the sanitary aisle at Safeway. Vibrant packets of pink, blue and green line the shelf, tiny letters titled ‘tampons’,‘pads’ , or ‘liners’ stare back at us impatiently. A woman with her babe is situated further up the aisle, surveying the range of Pantene products, but other than that, it is simply us… and the sanitary section.
“I’m at my pill-popping stage,” my friend says while mulling over which pads to purchase; “have you seen the night ones?”. “Just over there,” I point towards the telltale purple of a Libra packet. She shakes her head, saying she’s allergic to them, then proceeds to muse some more.
She tells me how her boyfriend did not understand her “pill-popping” euphemism; he thought she was taking drugs. I laugh at this, admitting that most men do not understand the euphemisms women employ to save them from that dreaded word: ‘period’.
So why do we go to so much effort in vain? There surely must be a reason why even women use these euphemisms among women.
When I think of a period, I think of awkward motherly discussions behind closed doors – mine were motherly readings with textbooks and year 7 Health class. Even now, I still inconspicuously stuff my tampons into my pockets before excusing myself to the ‘lavatory’.
A euphemism, as defined by The Penguin English Dictionary (2007), is ‘a mild, indirect, or vague expression substituted for an offensive or unpleasant one’.
Then how is “She’s got The Curse” less offensive than “She’s on her period”?
Yes, some menstrual euphemisms are funny – “I’m fighting the Scarlet Crusade”, or “My cup hath runneth over” – but they all are nonsensical and only a woman would be aware of their deeper meaning. Candidly, the Netherlands euphemism “The tomato soup is overcooked” still confuses me.
A nurse once remarked to me how men seem to be more faint during blood tests than women – “they don’t see blood once a month,” she reasoned then stabbed my arm with the needle. In retrospect, I think she may have had a point. Our history has been mostly dominated by the Y-chromosome sex, and the stigma attached to periods is felt throughout history because of this.
Yes, periods are messy, but this ‘uncleanliness’ that is attached to menstruation is unreasonable. In fact, I think it’s quite misogynistic.
In Islam, a woman is unable to pray when she is menstruating; in Hinduism a woman cannot cook or pray, must avoid her family members, and not engage in sex; in Christianity, the book of Leviticus detailed that while menstruating, a women is considered ‘unclean’ for seven days, and those who touched her would be as well, and in the past, they were refused communion. In Orthodox Judaism, a woman abstains from intercourse and must have the ritual bath, mikveh, once menstruation is over.
Therefore, it’s safe to reason that menstrual euphemisms were not initially used to communicate to men about a women’s menstrual cycle – it was a communication means between women.
The euphemisms of “Aunt Flo’s coming for a visit” created an automatic bond between women, and allowed them to discuss menstruation covertly in public. It also served a joking mechanism: “I’m on my surfers” mocked the surfboard shape of pads in the seventies; “She’s on the rag” mocked the towels that women used in the late 19th to early 20th century during menstruation. Because, face it girls, being on your period sucks, and any chance to complain about is a God send.
Since the rise of feminism in the past century, these euphemisms have altered. Women now have more freedom of speech, and now these euphemisms also operate as subtle hints to men… before we have to mention the dreaded word: ‘period’.
But it’s simply redundant, because many people are oblivious to the hint. Even Susan Kim, co-author of From Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, admits it’s best to be frank where appropriate about periods.
Regardless, I do hope that these euphemisms do not die, as being able say: “T-Minus 9 Months and Holding”, sure is a hell of a lot of fun.
by Av Collard