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[whitespace] book cover 'The Curse' digs beneath the euphemisms about menstruation

By Sarah J. Coleman

HOW MANY euphemisms can you think of for menstruation? In Karen Houppert's engaging new book, The Curse, the book's endpapers are lined with examples of doublespeak on the subject. There's everything from the prosaic ("monthlies") to the coy ("Aunt Flo is visiting") to the downright odd (from Norway, the declaration that there are "communists in the summer house"). Red flags, red lights and red seas also make appearances, lending credence to Houppert's assertion that menstruation is "the last unmentionable taboo."

It's a wry opening to what turns out to be an unexpectedly entertaining tour of the culture surrounding menstruation. Houppert, who has covered feminism for The Village Voice, is a no-nonsense writer who's able to navigate expertly through the murky territory surrounding this subject. She began researching it in 1995, she writes, not because of her anger over tampon-related disease or sexist advertising, but because she was annoyed that Tampax had raised its prices.

Houppert dived into what she describes as "the nether world of feminine hygiene ads, menstrual etiquette, period-product focus groups, bodily effluents and environmental effluents, hormones, scents, sex and surfactants." There, she found a minefield of misinformation, including (in a study conducted by Tampax in 1981) the widespread belief that women look and smell different when menstruating.

Sanitary-product manufacturers delight in perpetuating such myths when it means they can sell whole new lines of scented, hi-tech products; more ominously, the industry has been able to use a "culture of concealment" to obscure its own less-than-sanitary practices.

To her credit, Houppert manages to distill years of research into a lively, readable work. One of the book's strengths is that it mixes investigative journalism with more whimsical content, so that along with examinations of premenstrual and toxic-shock syndromes (PMS and TSS), we get such delights as a visit to the Museum of Menstruation and a lowdown on blood symbolism in Stephen King's Carrie. The latter, Houppert writes, is "the creep-out girl who bled, wept, then made others bleed"--a potent symbol of our fears about menstruation's capacity to wreak chaos and destruction.

EVEN AT HER MOST entertaining, however, Houppert addresses serious issues--and, when serious, she still manages to be entertaining. One of the more alarming chapters in the book concerns PMS: a term coined in 1953 by British physician Katharina Dalton. In discussing Dalton's work, Houppert doesn't hide her profound skepticism: "Dr. Dalton identifies an illness, carves a niche and reaps a profit" reads one of her headings.

Although she doesn't dismiss the real symptoms ascribed to PMS, Houppert wonders if job stress and increased responsibilities might account for some of them. And she's disheartened by the American Psychiatric Association's 1993 decision to define PMS as a mood disorder, a decision that plays into the age-old myth that menstruating women are mentally unstable.

Likewise, an early chapter on TSS is nothing if not sobering. Those seeking to reaffirm their faith in corporate responsibility won't be encouraged by this bleak insight into the sanitary-products industry. It's not a pretty picture, from Procter & Gamble's 1980s coverups of the dangers of its Rely tampon (even after 38 women died of tampon-related TSS in a single year) to a current controversy over chlorine-bleaching and the toxins it leeches into tampons.

Some of this material could provide great background for an environmental thriller--the Silkwood of the 1990s. But Procter & Gamble can probably rest assured that even Meryl Streep would have a hard time getting a part as a menstrual-rights activist. "As long as everything is so hush-hush, who chitchats about quality or safety?" Houppert gloomily writes.

Thankfully, she ends on a positive note, with a section titled "The Menstrual Counterculture." Here, we find savvy cyber-chicks as well as decent educational material on menstruation--and a new minipad, InSync, whose manufacturers are busting clichés in their down-to-earth advertising and packaging.

After Hollywood's 1998 embrace of semen (in There's Something About Mary and Happiness), what does the future have in store for menstruation? Perhaps it's hard to imagine a culture in which action movies contain the line "Hold it, I need to change my tampon."

But is it so hard to envisage--as Houppert does--a future in which menstruation is treated with brisk efficiency, like the common cold? If this ever comes to pass--and Houppert's clear and shrewd work might just get the ball rolling--then "Aunt Flo" could take her red flags and armies of communists to the Red Sea, where they would all enjoy a well-earned rest.

The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation by Karen Houppert; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 264 pages; $24 cloth.

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From the May 27-June 2, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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