Welcome to my hundredth post! Not a lot for some, but plenty for me, and more to come. This review is primarily for people who already know our zine and our comedy, but welcome, Flow fans! Please check out the rest of the site for more period-related shenanigans.
Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation
By Elissa Stein and Susan Kim
St. Martin’s Press 2009
As we’ve seen on many occasions, stuff about menstruation can cause people to have quite a visceral reaction. Believe it or not, this happened to me with Flow, but it wasn’t in the style of the Bledbook scandal; it was envy. I wished I’d written this book.
It actually feels like it should be a zine. It’s very 50s kitsch, with a collage-reminiscent cover and retro font. A quick flick through reveals a heavily image-laden layout with vintage ads as a theme. It takes a very pro-feminist stance on periods. There are even some Etsy-style craft finds toward the back. But there’s one major difference – it’s huge, it’s hardcover, and it goes for $29.99.
The production values are outstanding – it’s stitched and bound, its cover is satiny smooth with a glossy, embossed feel to the images, and the flyleaf and endpapers are a vivid red. There is no pussyfooting around here – this book is about blood. Every page is illustrated and laid out magazine-style with subheadings, call-outs, and a red dot motif that is pleasing and consistent. It’s very designy, and I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that co-author Elissa Stein’s background is actually in graphic design.
It was really exciting holding a heavy, shiny book on the history of periods that was put out by a mainstream publisher. St. Martin’s Press was kind enough to send me a review copy. For the first day I had it, I just stroked the cover and flicked through it, admiring what professional publishing could do. I don’t mean to come over all publisher porn, but it seems pretty lush having the backing to print the old ads in high resolution and pay for all the rights to the images. This is not an average-looking book by any means – the money was well spent and the result is gorgeous. In the Flow universe, periods are glamorous.
Enough about style and on to substance – the tone of the book is very American, and, particularly, very New York. It’s jokey, with healthy levels of crude and rude. There is, though, a sensitive and thorough chapter about medical issues, and a quite frank one about how periods and religion (usually) don’t mix. Flow also includes an overview of menstruation in recorded history, a handy timeline, and the science bit. I was quite surprised to read that Pliny the Elder thought menstruating women killed bees. That Pliny. What a loon. (Worries about current lack of bees worldwide…nah…) Most readers will find out stuff that’s quite shocking and definitely interesting. With stand-alone chapters and lots of facts, this would make a good bathroom or coffee table book that people can dip in and out of.
I have to admit I felt some déjà vu when reading the chapters about the history of feminine hygiene advertising, and my regular readers will as well. Spookily, it seems that when you give the same ads to New York Jews with high bullshit detectors and an eye for interpreting visual symbolism and subtext, their responses will be pretty similar. In fact, when Elissa Stein (who wrote that section) read my zines she and her family loved them. Elissa and I have exchanged several emails since the book came out, and it’s refreshing to have found another pro-period writer who’s on the same page as I am. I’d love to collaborate with her some time and I’m happy to call her a bloodsister.
If Flow had a manifesto based on a summary of the opinions expressed in the book, it would be largely pro-period-sex, anti-menstrual suppression, anti-femcare industry, anti-big pharmaceuticals, pro-masturbation, pro-sex worker…ideologically, it ticks all my box-related boxes. It even manages to be non-heterosexist in its language, showing that Elissa Stein and Susan Kim are straight but not narrow. Interestingly, they’re anti-euphemism, whereas I’ve said before on the blog that I’m ready to reclaim euphemisms and coin ‘newphemisms’ the way you’d give your best friend a nickname, rather than using them to keep periods hush-hush. Flow’s writers also support radical responses to menstruation, but ask why talking about menstruation is still a radical act. Their book helps bring period talk into the mainstream, without compromising beliefs and opinions that many would also consider radical.
Flow is a good primer. It sums up the whole shebang, it’s easy to read, looks good, and will catch the attention of people who’ve never really thought about these issues before. It arms armchair activists with rebuttals for less period-positive friends and relatives and helps deal with that other kind of visceral response. If you already have no qualms about the topic, you’ll find Flow (and its extensive bibliography) a refreshing jumping-off point for art, discussions, research and essays.
About the price tag – don’t let that put you off if you’re used to buying or trading zines. Wait for a sale or request it from your local library. But remember that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of all those disposables…
This is one ‘feminine hygiene product’ you definitely won’t be throwing away.