We Can’t even Call Menstruation by Its Name
Women in Ulsan ask about menstruation
It was when I had been living in Ulsan for four years. The owner of the small store where I was buying menstrual pads wouldn’t let me leave because they couldn’t find a black plastic bag to put them in. I was in pad captivity. They didn’t let me go until they found a bag in some corner of the store. And once, when I put a box for storing pads in the bathroom (even though they must be protected from humidity), another woman in the office chased me down and brought it back to me, saying, “You can’t leave this kind of thing around.” My menstrual products were “this kind of thing”.
When I complained about menstrual pain on social media, I was chastised for talking publicly about menstruation. The bitterness I feel about this is impossible to forget, because my menstrual pain comes back each month.
I don’t really want to talk about the difference between Seoul and the provinces, but I think the fact that I live in this a male-dominated industrial city must be taken into account. It seemed like everyone here shushed me when I mentioned menstruation. But now something has happened that makes shushing impossible. I saw it on the TV news. It has been found that disposable menstrual products currently on the market contain harmful substances like benzine and styrene. Women have begun to protest on social media pages and in chat rooms.
What am I supposed to use now?
If you order menstrual products from abroad, you have to pay expensive shipping fees. Reusable pads made from cotton fabric keep selling out, making them unavailable. Men complain that women who use one alternative product, menstrual cups, will “lose their virginity” by inserting it. In stores, women stand anxiously in front of rows of what are basically lumps of chemicals, while men on the Internet sneer, “Just use anything! Why are you making a big deal about your periods?”
Maybe that’s why, in October, people gathered in Ulsan—a city where women would usually walk quickly past to avoid a menstruation-related campaign! Activists from women’s and citizens’ groups played key role. It started with the feeling, ‘Shouldn’t we do something?’
What we’ve learned from the revelations about menstrual pads
We decided that the start would be lighthearted. We titled the event “This is your first time chatting about menstruation, isn’t it?”, and decided it would have a Q&A theme. Women openly discussing and asking questions about their bodies and menstruation. We put a giant picture of a pad on online ads for the lecture. We wanted the picture to say, “Why can’t we talk about menstruation, anyway?”
We rented space in the Ulsan iCOOP and held the lecture on December 1. Did it have an effect? I think so. The man who acted as MC said he had learned something for the first time—that menstruation could last more than one or two days. He grew up in the days before sexual harassment prevention education was mandated. He lived in a society that repeated the phrase “a real man” like it was a magic spell. And now, in his 50s, he’s found himself acting as the MC for lecture on menstruation. There was so much he didn’t know that he had to study.
He said his first question was, “Why is it so expensive?” Menstrual products are necessities for a pretty large number of people in society, so why are they so expensive?
He had a guess: “Isn’t it the fact that people can’t talk freely about menstruation, that women can’t talk about it?”
He himself hadn’t known that there was a problem with the price of menstrual products until he found out not just the price, but also how many products are needed per day and how many days a period lasts. The price issue is also something that the organizers wanted to raise. When everyone goes about their lives without talking about it, we end up with a world where menstrual products contain benzine and are so expensive that some people can’t buy them and are using shoe inserts instead.
Jo Hyeon-hui (OB-GYN at the Catholic University of Korea Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital), who was invited to speak at the lecture, showed a graph of the harmful substances found in each brand of disposable menstrual products.
She said, “As you look at this graph, you mustn’t try to figure out which menstrual products are more or less dangerous. Instead, feel angry as you realize that there is absolutely no oversight of menstrual products happening in our country.”
Even though she is an OB-GYN, Dr. Jo says it was not until this controversy became public that she realized just how little research was being done into the safety of menstrual products. There isn’t even a recognized method for doing such research. There is a marked lack of interest in women’s bodies and health. And yet, when the controversy began, government bodies such as the Korea Food & Drug Administration (KFDA) demanded evidence of women’s claims.
The KFDA claims that there is no evidence that the products are harmful. It says that the concentrations of the chemicals are small and denies that they pose a danger to people. But experts, including Dr. Jo, argue that because the vagina has no keratin layer, ordinary safety standards are not strict enough for products that come into contact with it.
“A study into the keratinized part of the labia major found that its drug permeability is six times higher than that of the inside of the arm. It’s reasonable to assume, then, that the vagina and labia minora, which do not have a keratin layer, absorb chemicals even more easily.”
What’s more, the space between cells widens during menstruation, making the skin even more permeable. And changes in the humidity and temperature of the vaginal area caused by other products used during menstruation, such as waterproof panties, must be considered. There are countless possible reasons why exposing the vaginal area to chemical substances cannot be considered harmless. But none of them have been proven yet.
That’s why Dr. Jo emphasized the need for relevant research several times. But, of course, she also lives in a society which doesn’t allow women to be interested in their own bodies. She said that when she became interested in the toxicity of menstrual products, people around her asked, “Are you going to quit being a doctor and join an environmental activism group?” Her answer? “All women should become environmental activists.”
Society persecutes sensitive bodies
Dr. Jo says that women’s bodies are relatively more sensitive to the external environment, and that “that sensitivity has been disdained and persecuted in this male chauvinist society”.
Society disdains women’s sensitivity. It is not an object of interest or care. And it is treated as something unproven, for which there is no evidence. The lament that you sometimes hear—“Would things be like this if men had periods?”—is not an oversensitive reaction.
“People with money and power have the ability to make their problems into social issues. Politicians make relevant laws and wealthy people build hospitals and medical facilities.”
The above is a quote from the book Illness and Discrimination by Kim Min-ah. Women are not allowed to make their problems into social issues. All this time, menstrual pain has been treated as something that “will get better when you have a child”, and the mood changes before and after menstruation have been treated as exaggerations. They haven’t been objects of continuous research.
In her book The Rejected Body, Susan Wendell writes, “One has to be aware of the subjectivity of a person to imagine his/her experience of events and how s/he might be affected by one’s actions.”
We live in a society in which “Are you on your period?” is an insult and a joke. This society can’t imagine women’s experiences and pain. It can’t imagine women’s menstruation (and the experiences related to it). To borrow Susan Wendell’s term, it is a society that does not recognize women’s subjectivity.
The sensitivity of a body that’s been treated as unusual and emotional. At our lecture, women put this sensitivity, for which they’ve been persecuted, front and center, and worried openly about their bodies. The questions thus revealed were straightforward. “I have bad menstrual pain. Should I go to the doctor?” “I want to get an IUD, but are they really safe?” “What should we be careful of after menopause?”
Someone near me whispered, “It’s hard to go to the OB-GYN, you know. We should ask everything we want to now.” When you’re sick, you’re told to go to the doctor, and when the problem is with your reproductive system, that doctor is an OB-GYN. But you can’t go. For young women, especially, that doorway seems impassible. So lecture attendees took advantage of the fact that the lecturer was an OB-GYN and asked everything they wanted to know. People were paying rapt attention. The lecture was successful, but this was a sad thing.
Monitor businesses and make demands of the government
We can’t do nothing just because society can’t imagine that there could be a problem with menstrual pads. When asked about the safety of menstrual cups, Dr. Jo said the issue was more that they “require the user to know her own vagina” in order to work. It’s important to use menstrual products that are safe, but we can’t just keep switching from this one to that one, according to the latest rumors.
When Dr. Jo asked, “Do any of you know the shape of your vagina?” the crowd murmured among themselves. You need to know the shape of your vagina to use a menstrual cup. But that is not the only reason to learn about your own vagina.
“I want to tell you that women in Korea face greater barriers to getting products that are inserted into the vagina, such as IUDs or menstrual cups, than women in the US or Europe do. This also means that Korean women have a relatively low level of control over their own bodies.”
Saying that women need to know the size and shape of their vaginas, Dr. Jo continued. “You need to know your body in order to protect it and to be able to more strongly demand safety regulations related to it.”
She entreated the listeners to raise their expectations for the safety of food and other necessary products, and, because it’s also important to expel poisons that have entered the body, to exercise regularly and make sure they are eating fiber. But all of these efforts may not be enough.
“The level of chemical pollution these days is too high for any one person to be able to protect their family through their own efforts.”
And the effects of some chemical substances on humans are not known. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has a list of about 500 that cause cancer, but it has only investigated about 1,000 of the 130,000 chemical substances in circulation in the world. Not being pronounced harmful does not mean that a substance actually isn’t harmful. It may mean that we just don’t know yet that it’s harmful. When asked about the safety of menstrual cups, Dr. Jo said, “All I can tell you right now is that they haven’t been found to be toxic.”
Chemical substances are the result of humans’ wish to live comfortably and luxuriantly—or really, of capital’s wish that we consume more. Toxicity is the price we pay for that. But the problem is the inverse correlation between those who enjoy the most luxury and those who pay the highest price for it. Disadvantaged people are the first to be exposed to toxic chemical substances. This group includes women.
Dr. Jo said, “We have a good reason to demand that society improve the environment for our bodies’ safety.”
We have to keep an eye on businesses and make demands of the government. That’s starting to happen. There was a citizens’ petition calling for research into the composition and harmfulness of all disposable menstrual products on the market. As a result, after a consultation with experts, the government (specifically, the Ministry of Environment) decided to conduct research on disposable menstrual products. The KFDA, also, was reluctantly pressured into submitting plans to develop a way to measure the harmfulness of disposable menstrual products by the end of 2018.
We made demands, and we came a little closer to safety. Women have once again shown that they are members of society and active subjects. Our society has become more able to imagine women’s experiences. The menstruation lecture in Ulsan is also part of that beginning. Voices that had been silent began to speak their first words aloud.
Published Dec. 20, 2017
Translated by Marilyn Hook
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8081
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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