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Thea Hatfield - From sacred and profane to green and seen: how is period activism interacting with taboo in Euro-American menstrual narratives

My research looks at the menstrual taboo and contributes an anthropological perspective to the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of Critical Menstruation Studies. I am interacting virtually with people in Europe and America who are working to dismantle taboo in a range of ways. I am particularly interested in how new ‘environmentalised’ narratives influence individual’s menstrual experiences and how this might simultaneously deconstruct and reconstruct menstrual taboos. I am also interested in how my interlocutors use and understand taboo, and how this understanding might complement or complicate anthropological accounts of the menstrual taboo which are situated in Durkheimian sacredness and profanity and Mary Douglas’s perceptions of dirt and purity. Overall, I suggest that there is a potentially productive relationship to be established between anthropology and menstrual activism. On one hand, consideration of cultural relativism might challenge some activist movements to find nuance, particularly around notions of progress with taboo being inherently cultural or archaic, and environmentalism being inherently progressive and scientific. On the other hand, engaging with activists highlights how anthropological reflexivity can sometimes become exclusive, or unrepresentative of the ethnographic reality. Taken from two public toilet seats, these photos reveal how taboo is simultaneously dismantled and recreated in intimate spaces.


Polish School Toilet: Is the ideal of discretion reinforcing taboo?

This photo was sent to me by a Polish interlocutor. It is a poster hung inside toilet stalls at her school. The text bubble translates as ‘Hi! This poster is a great opportunity to help somebody who just got a surprise period!’. The image then shows a friendly-looking woman holding a shelf of free menstrual products. The picture illustrates the tension between helping individuals who are menstruating for the first time, and reinforcing the idea that menstruation need be private, discreet, and unknowable.


Cambridge Library Toilet: Who is responsible for menstrual waste?

I took this photo earlier this year in a library toilet stall. Instead of helping people to manage a surprise period discreetly, these stickers emphasise the personal responsibility for menstrual waste. One advert from Thames Water reminds women: ‘Bin your tampons, pads and wet wipes or switch to reusable alternatives’ to ‘protect rivers, seas & beaches’. Another simply says ‘Own it’ with a threatening image of used tampons and pads floating amongst fish and ducks in their natural habitat. The language use reminds women of their individualised responsibility to deal with their menstrual waste appropriately, whilst the images reinforce the polluting nature of tampons and pads.