Thursday, November 19, 2009

Art & Culture: Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

It was bound to happen sooner than later. Someone just had to write FLOW: The Cultural Story of Menstruation (St. Martin’s Griffin). I only wonder why no one did it sooner. But I'm glad it was written on my watch.

FLOW isn’t just a book; it's a movement. It’s sparking debate all over the Internet, from the editors at Redbook, who unceremoniously and unfairly dismissed it (is Redbook still a magazine for women?) to those at The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, who celebrated it. Then there are all those people in the blogosphere and the Facebookosphere who seem unable to stop singing its praises.

And here’s the thing: FLOW deserves it. It’s not a breakout book (yet), but it sure is a breakthrough. It’s stimulating sometimes heated conversation about a subject that was, until now, taboo. And that’s the point the book’s authors, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, are making. Menstruation isn’t something to be ashamed of or decried; it’s something to be explained, understood, and celebrated.

Written in a hip, funny voice (and designed with an accessible yet edgy sensibility), FLOW tells it like it is -- or rather, like it’s been for too many years. For example, did you know Lysol was marketed as a douche for 40 years as a way to kill post-sex sperm and make the vagina smell nicer? Did you know the age for a girl’s first period has dropped over the last 200 years from 17 to 13? Did you know that the first pad was marketed in 1896? And did you know -- here comes the hate mail -- that there’s really no such thing as PMS? (Don’t blame me: Research proves that hormone levels do not change during periods.)

But that’s just scratching the surface. As it turns out, periods are woven throughout our culture. To see it, you’ve just got to look a little harder. FLOW looks at language, history, politics, sex, religion, marketing, scent, and more. And sprinkled in among all the cultural, corporate, and personal stories are full-color reproductions of the advertising used to sell feminine products over the last half century or so. In each, you’ll find images and language that perpetuated what we all thought about periods (if you thought anything at all). From From Dr. Scott’s Electric Corsets to The Hite Report, from Tampax to New Freedom, from Kotex to Carrie, it seems Stein and Kim have left nothing out. Frankly, if reading the whole book isn’t your thing, just study the illustrations; their images and words will give you a sense of what’s been going on.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been telling friends about FLOW, to gauge thier reactions. Some have been fascinated, some repulsed (shame on them!). But no one’s been unwilling to admit there’s a story here that deserves to be told. They don’t know what it is, but they sense, every one of them, that there is one. Even better, more than a few (women and men) told me they’d be buying it for their daughters; after all, they said, the girls are going to learn about periods eventually, so they may as well get the whole story. They should learn about it, understand it, and yes, be proud of it. Go with the flow, indeed.

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Blogger steph said...

I think it's about time for a book like this and congrats to the great authors. I created a character called The Period Fairy and have a website playing her first episode at I would love it if you would check it out.
I created her a while back and in the beginning I used to get odd responses to her, even though she's just funny and not at all gross. Now things are changing and maybe we can all have a laugh at something that affects and connects all women everywhere. thank you for this great article on the book.

Saturday, November 21, 2009 at 11:14:00 AM PST  

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