It's only lately that there has been any choice about menstruation: if you were a woman before the wide availability of the contraceptive pill you bled once a month from the age of 12 until you were around 50, except during pregnancy and lactation (which might mean, of course, that you actually bled rather rarely). For her book The Modern Period: Menstruation in 20th-Century America (Johns Hopkins, £31), Lara Freidenfelds interviewed 75 American women - the oldest born 'before 1910', the youngest 'after 1970' - from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds on the subject of their menstrual life. Until recently, menstruation was taken for granted, but also spoken about only in whispers. Fifty per cent of the population bled while the other 50 per cent were supposed to know nothing of it. Casualness about menstruation, like the development of mass email, was unimaginable even 20 years ago. Even so, although tampons are no longer slipped into brown paper bags when you buy them, and there are now advertisements on television with pictures of sanitary pads and tampons for all to see, any child watching the ads would be forgiven for concluding that they are used for ink spills, and left to ponder the reason knickers should need such special protection. The red stuff is still off limits. It's OK to talk about the products that clean the mess up, but not so much to confront the mess itself.
LRB 22 October 2009 | PDF Download