Menses, Desire, and the Monstrous Female
I consented to the procedure, my electronic signature an uneven path of beats and flat lines, an omen of what was to come.
My feet curled, crammed into the bone-white stirrups. The pink gown rustled as the gynecologist asked me to scoot further down, yes, a little more, please. The gynecologist placed her gloved hands on my knees, separating them further into two peaks. A little pinch. Then a little cramp, she said, as she cracked me open. I felt like I had lost my yolk, any semblance of what held me together, what made me ‘me’.
This body, no longer familiar, was scrambled. Cramps bloomed in my belly and I imagined my insides being torn to shreds, leaving me an empty carcass with less than one percent chance of creating life.
Does childbirth feel like this? A widening wound, blood, all control over one’s body lost? On the table, at that moment, I remembered my sister, pregnant with her first, talking about mothers defecating during childbirth. I stopped believing in my body. Would I faint? Vomit? Shit myself? Was this punishment for not wanting to be a mother? Was it supposed to hurt this much?
I find possessing a uterus means constant questions, as I try to navigate the map of menstruation and the demands of the patriarchy that everyone with a uterus should be a mother. Is my period here? Do I have a tampon? Am I pregnant? Do I ever want to be pregnant? Is that tiny Y-shaped device inside my cervix yet?
On a warm spring day, I went to get my IUD implanted. At twenty-nine, I had been on birth control for over a decade. I had extremely heavy periods as a teenager, with shooting, stinging cramps that left me horizontal for days. Once, I even fainted from the pain and smacked the base of my head on the tile floor of the restaurant where I worked. At sixteen, how do you explain that kind of shame to your coworkers or your physical therapist? (I had to go to physical therapy for my neck for weeks). When I turned eighteen and my mother could no longer deny two facts— that I had significant health issues and I was sexually active—she took me to a gynecologist. The doctor prescribed the generic version of Seasonique, saying it was best for me to get my period as infrequently as possible.
For a decade, I took a pill a day, and got my period four times a year. When I did bleed, it was heavy and usually lasted five days. The day before my period arrived, I received the gift of vicious cramps. Somehow, they were still better than before the little blue pills. So, I kept taking them because I liked not having to buy expensive feminine products and worry about bloodstains on my sheets and underwear every month. I liked being able to have sex without a condom.
In Fall 2020, my health unraveled. Luckily, it wasn’t COVID-19, however, it was still a terrifying ordeal. One or several of my limbs would go numb for hours or days. A sharp tingling intensified by the minute until my limb burned. I tried drinking more water and doing yoga to increase blood flow. I tried not to panic when my right arm went numb for two days. I tried not to panic when my doctor told me I may have had a stroke. I spent the next six months in and out of hospitals having endless tests done on my blood, heart, brain, spine, nerves, and muscles. My husband drove me to every appointment, waiting in the car since COVID-19 protocols wouldn’t allow him to come with me. Thanks to another round of bloodwork, I was diagnosed with an extremely underactive thyroid and Hashimoto’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder wherein your immune system attacks your thyroid. I have been on medication for a year and a half now and am relieved to say that my health is under control.
But in October 2020, when my doctor told me I may have had a stroke, she ordered me to stop taking birth control. Immediately. Apparently, some people with uteruses who are on birth control and have a heart condition can develop a hole in their heart. As a teenager, I was diagnosed with a heart murmur that has continued to haunt me, resurfacing with its uneven beat every few years. I end up spending subsequent weeks or months on a cardiologist's exam table hooked up to machines. With the return of my once dormant heart murmur, my doctor told me had to stay off of birth control until we had a diagnosis.
Over the next six months, I became reacquainted with my body and its cycles. No added hormones, no pills to curve my bleeding. The first period was excruciating. The pain, the amount of bleeding, the uncontrollable waves of tears. For two days, I was alien to myself. I cried at literally everything, which is very abnormal for me. I was consumed by doubt, grief, and anger. A few days later, my period and the heightened emotions had passed. After that, my menses was less harsh. In fact, for the first time in my life, my period wasn’t something I dreaded. I even came to appreciate what my body did every month, how it shed and cleansed itself like a snake.
The one problem, of course, was that I wasn’t on contraceptives. Condoms are fine temporarily, but in my experience, they impact my ability to orgasm. For the past few years, my sex drive has been very low, and because of this, I need to feel fully connected to my partner and my pleasure during sex. My partner and I have been together for seven years, and after many years of having sex without condoms, it was very hard for me to go backward. Even now, as I work to reawaken my sex drive, being intimate with my partner is an important way we connect. We have no plans to have human children. We love being parents to our dogs, Atticus Finch and Triss Mergiold.
I based my decision to get an IUD on so many positive stories I’d heard and read about. Several of my friends told me they didn’t bleed at all or experience cramps anymore. Five years without getting my period, dealing with menstrual cramps, or worrying about getting pregnant was an attractive prospect.
You have a tilted uterus, the gynecologist told me during my pelvic examination. She said an IUD was still possible, but it would likely be a more difficult implantation. I didn’t think much of it, as a person used to painful, uncomfortable medical procedures. I should have listened to her. That experience became the most physically excruciating one of my lifetime.
For thirty minutes, the gynecologist poked and stretched and finagled my uterus and this Y-shaped device. All the while, my period bleed stained the white paper sheet that now makes me think of a butcher shop more than a medical office. Wasn’t my body being butchered, a slab of meat to be opened and manipulated because of public consumption, or rather, conception? I consented to the procedure, yes, but only because I exercised my right to not have my body carry and give birth to another human. Patriarchal society tells me as a person with a uterus that I should want to, or at the very least, grit my teeth and be a mother. It doesn’t consider my ambitions or dreams, it doesn’t consider my trauma or my difficult relationship with my own body as a healthy, able thirty-year-old. It doesn’t consider nor believe I should have the right to choose if I want to use contraceptives, if I want to exercise my right to get an abortion, or if I want to fuck my husband without condoms or creating life. The patriarchy doesn’t consider people with uteruses to have autonomy or desire. If any of us displays such hunger, well, we are called whores and harpies and sometimes even witches.
My favorite film about puberty and the monstrous female happens to be about a witch. And not just any witch, but Robert Egger’s The Witch (2015). It follows a Puritan family that has recently left its colony to settle on its own. Shortly after, Thomasin, on the cusp of womanhood, becomes the scapegoat for the disappearance of her brother, Samuel, and every other mysterious or sinister occurrence that follows. She is accused by her family of making a pact with the Devil.
At one point in the movie, William decrees, “We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.” Soon, he realizes the wilderness he fears is the sexual independence of his daughter. Of what it means for a woman to not submit herself to the limited roles forced upon femme-bodies by society. One must be godly and be a wife and mother. Anyone who falls outside of that, as we saw in the Salem Witch Trials, is condemned as a witch.
While we don’t see Thomasin get her period in the film, her mother tells William that Thomasin has “begot the sign of her womanhood.” Thomasin’s menses directly connects to her family’s suspicion of her. I love this film for many reasons, but the most delicious scene is when Thomasin, covered in blood, goes into the woods after disrobing and signing her name in the Devil’s book. She joins a group of nude young women in the woods and together they dance and laugh and levitate under the glorious light of the moon.
In many cultures, including pop culture, we see menstruation as something dirty and shameful. Sometimes menstruation is even seen as a curse. In Nepal, for instance, there are menstruation huts, where menstruating folks are kept isolated, to keep their impurity away from the rest of the community. Superstition says that a menstruating woman is a bringer of curses. If she touches a man, he will fall ill. If she touches a tree, it will cease to grow. Pliny the Elder wrote that “the gaze of a menstruating woman could kill livestock and cause miscarriages in pregnant women. He also said sex with a menstruating woman could kill a man” (Freuler). The irony is that menses is a symbol of fertility. That without it, there cannot be life.
The patriarchy has feared the mystery of the uterus, the vagina, and the femme-body for thousands of years. It’s taught us virginity equates to value, that marriage and motherhood are prizes, and that anything outside of those boxes is ugly, evil, and dirty. The patriarchy has shaped stories around these harpies, these nasty women that don’t follow the script. Lamia, Lilith, and Baba Yaga are three of those monstrous females. The first, Lamia, is an example of too much maternal instinct. Of how hysteria can devour (quite literally in this case). The term hysteria was derived from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus. Lilith and Baba Yaga, on the other hand, are examples of monstrous females on the outskirts of society who are sexual, opinionated, and bloodthirsty.
In her collection of essays Women and Other Monsters, Jess Zimmerman writes, “It is considered monstrous not to want children, and monstrous to want them too much.” Lamia, the Queen of Libya and possibly the daughter of Poseidon, is the epitome of the monstrous mother, of how the desire for a child can destroy someone. Lamia, said to be incredibly beautiful, was pursued by Zeus. It’s important to note that we have no idea how she felt about this. Her consent is never mentioned in any variations of her myth. Lamia got pregnant and had Zeus’ children. When Hera found out about her husband’s latest dalliance, she transformed Lamia into a monster and then murdered her children. Grief overwhelmed Lamia, and in some versions, she plucked out her own eyes before starting a murderous rampage of children.
While Lamia’s mythos is muddled (as sadly many female monsters’ stories are), her monstrosity has echoed into other cultures and mythologies. In some translations of the Vulgate, a late 4th century Latin translation of the Bible, Lilith, using her sexuality to lure and kill her victims, is said to be a lamia. The term lamia was therefore used to describe the earliest female vampires, to which Lilith is often connected. We know Lilith’s story. Adam’s first wife (the first Eve, if you will) refused to lie underneath him. She is the ultimate threat to the patriarchy: an independent, sex-positive seductress with a thirst for the blood of children, who also happens to birth literal demons.
Baba Yaga, from Russian folklore, is also said to snack on children. However, she never actually eats anyone in the stories; cannibalism is only a threat. For me, Baba Yaga, as a witch, teacher, and outsider, is deeply connected to the cycles of life. She embodies the crone, a phase in life the patriarchy finds revolting. Without the ability to create new life, she no longer has worth. Worse than that, she lives deep within the forest, away from society, in a hut built with bones. She doesn’t submit to the strictures of society. And, often, Baba Yaga initiates young people into adulthood. She teaches them lessons that allow them to mature. To bloom. She is a “paradox of nature” (Hubbs), connected to both life and death.
These three figures reflect the Triple Goddess: the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Stigma and taboos are attached to every phase. The first menses kicks off the Maiden’s journey. Here, she meets the shame society places on us. That our parents and teachers place on us. If you are menstruating, you can get pregnant. If you are menstruating, you might possess desire. If you are menstruating, you might express heightened emotions. Keep your virtue intact at all costs. Motherhood is for marriage and old age is for baking cookies with your grandchildren. Innocence drips away with that first speckle of blood. Once menses begins, you are tainted. You can bleed for days and not die. You are a witch. A bringer of curses. A beast in disguise.
I admit sometimes during my period it feels like a monster thrums deep within my belly, ready to tear itself out. Sometimes I want to transform into a she-beast of mythic proportions and annihilate anything in my path. For sixteen years, I’ve gone to school and work with excruciating menstrual cramps. I’ve hidden acne and blotting that always seems to arrive on the day of an interview or date night with my husband. My uterus sometimes feels like a curse, or a tomb of torture and oppression.
After what felt like hours, the gynecologist was able to place the IUD in my uterus. Sweat clung to my arms, my bra line, and the backs of my knees. Nausea sat in my bowels and throat. White stars blinked in and out of my line of vision. Somehow, I sat up and nodded as the doctor told me about the string test I should do in a month. Somehow, I dressed myself and made it out of the building into the bustle of Old City, Philadelphia. I took a Lyft home, opened the window in the back and inhaled deep breaths of fresh air through my mask. I told myself I would be home in fifteen minutes. I just had to make it home and then I could allow myself to fall apart. Several times, I nearly vomitted in my mask. The Lyft driver tried to make conversation. I replied with basic answers, not interested in his jovial talk of the beginning of spring. The only thing in bloom was pain.
At home, I disrobed and slipped into pajamas. I set myself up on the couch, horizontal. I was supposed to join my husband at the bookstore we own, but I couldn’t get up. I have never felt so sick or been in so much pain before. I wondered, again, if I’m being punished for not wanting to have a child. For wanting pleasure and comfort and freedom.
I bled for most of the first month, blood the color of merlot. Gritted my teeth through days of cramps that made it feel as though my body is being severed, one slow cut at a time. Slice. Slice. Slice.
I decided to give it six months. This, in part, is because I was afraid if the IUD was that bad going in, it would be worse coming out. Another part of me believed the IUD would be worth it and that my body just needed time to adjust. To regulate. In the span of one year, I went from taking oral contraception, to no birth control, to an IUD. I wanted to give my body a grace period. It had been put through enough.
Over a year later, I bleed very little. Mostly, spotting. Cramps arrive unannounced and pummel me, sometimes for several days. Overall, this form of birth control isn’t bad. But things were better when I was completely off contraceptives. My body was happier and I felt more aligned with it than I had in years. However, with the recent overturning of Roe V. Wade, I no longer feel as though removing my IUD is an option. Did I go through all of this to end up pregnant without access to a safe abortion? I worry about what happens if my state government deems IUDs and other birth control as abortifacients. Do I remain on the birth control I currently legally have access to, preparing for the worst?
Sometimes I think about the week-long periods I used to suffer through and how, as a teenager, the pain was my biggest concern. I didn’t know anything about the politics of reproductive rights or the politics of having a uterus in a patriarchal world. Today, the voice in my head tells me that my period, uninterrupted by birth control, societal pressures, and government restrictions, is exactly the way nature intended. It reminds me that part of the great mystery of menses is that women, or anyone with a uterus, can bleed monthly and not die. That early civilizations believed menstrual blood held great power. In Greek and Roman mythology, menstruating folks could calm storms and rescue lost ships. Egyptian pharaohs and Celtic kings believed consuming or drinking menstrual blood could grant immortality. In these cultures, menstruation was celebrated.
Imagine if we lived in that world today. What would figures like Lamia and Lilith and Baba Yaga be seen as then? What about the witch, laughing as she levitates with blood splatter marking her liberation? Imagine if my body, with its breasts, vagina, and uterus, with its menses and cramps and mysteries, was celebrated not as an object of fertility but as a vessel of great power. Imagine if everyone had access to birth control and abortions. If reproductive rights were universal. What would the world be like then? Perhaps the monstrous female would metamorphose into the magnificent.
Freuler, Kate. Of Blood and Bones: Working with Shadow Magick & the Dark Moon
Hubbs, Joanna. Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture
Zimmerman, Jess. Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology