Review – Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation

Title: Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation

Authors: Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Star Rating: * * *

Genre: Feminist/Gender Studies

Cover - Flow The Cultural Story of Menstruation

Overview

Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation is a sociological look at menstruation, particularly its treatment in advertising. The book addresses topics such as the medical history of menstruation (including hysteria and PMS), religious treatment of menstruation, a history of advertising on the subject, the issue of odour, cultural traditions surrounding menarche, menopause, and alternative contemporary approaches to menstruation. The writing is fairly simple and accessible, and the book is entertaining. Overall, it is an interesting and easy read on a subject that isn’t covered very often in non-fiction aimed at non-academics.

The Good – Things that will make you come back for a second read

What I really enjoyed about this book was the full colour photos. The authors obviously did extensive research on menstruation ads, and the book was filled with examples from throughout history. While many of these advertisements have been included on email forward lists for the past several years, many of them were new to me, and the book make sure to contextualise them in terms of their historic significance.

The writing was also clear and understandable for the average reader, and a gender studies degree isn’t needed in order to be able to understand the points made by the authors. They stayed clear of academic jargon, and presented their ideas in a conversational tone with touches of humour throughout the book.

The Not-So-Good – Some Disappointing Bits

Flow was, unfortunately, lacking in intersectionality. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that queer people, poor people and persons of colour were mentioned, and when they were, it was usually in the context of a brief aside. Menstruation was universalised and generalised, and analysis on how different types of women could be affected by the issue was largely absent. The worst of the omissions was that the authors neglected to even mention trans issues in regards to menstruation. For a book written in 2009, it was deeply disappointing to see such significant absences.

One of my other issues with Flow was the fact that the authors focused a bit too heavily on the idea of menstruation as a natural phenomenon, and how such a designation makes menstruation inherently good. The authors spent a lot of time pushing back against the idea that menstruation should always be medically controlled. There is significant value in this argument, but I felt that the overall message ended up being less about opening up options and more about judging those who didn’t agree with the authors’ preferences. Despite trying to be neutral, the viewpoints of the authors were betrayed with comments such as “experiencing that phoney-baloney, regular-as-clockwork pseudo-period (p 189). If medically controlling your period is an acceptable option, then why speak about it in such harsh tones, framing some people’s menstruation as fake? Even if the medical status of a person’s menstruation is changed while taking a hormonal contraceptive, the fact remains that they still undergo what is socially considered menstruation. One can differentiate different experiences of menstruation without excluding a significantly huge portion of the population who undergo this bodily process.

Finally, I was disappointed with the book’s discussion of alternative menstrual products. For authors who are obviously concerned with the over-medicalization of menstruation, the fact that they dismissed so many of the more environmentally friendly and natural products as too difficult or annoying to use was unsatisfying (particularly since they both seemed to think that the general annoyances of unregulated periods were something that everyone should just learn to deal with). This area of conversation is an important one in terms of health outcomes, and alienating those who have chosen a different manner of dealing with their bodily functions is certainly not a positive or social-justice-centered choice. While the authors are welcome to choose whatever product they like best for their own uses, when presenting alternatives, they should attempt to be a little less biased in their reporting of the research.

Consequently, despite the authors’ attempts at presenting a fairly objective and neutral look at menstruation, their own personal biases were a bit too easy to spot. This type of judgemental writing can easily annoy readers, as well as make them feel put down upon rather than informed. If the book had been written as a straightforward argumentative piece rather than one open to a multitude of possible interpretations, I would have been less bothered. But alas, I finished Flow feeling a tad aggravated.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read and is a great colour reference for menstruation ads throughout the last century. I am happy to keep it in my personal library, and I would give it a solid three stars. However, as I have pointed out, the book has several flaws that would make me hesitant to recommend it to just anyone. For those without a strong intersectional feminist background, this book may help to enforce lazy analysis that harms some of the most marginalised women. Those with a lot of experience in intersectional theory, however, may become frustrated with the simplicity of the book’s arguments and the lack of consideration the authors show for perspectives outside of their own. It’s a complicated book, but I am glad that I read it and that is available on the market.

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