2021, Chapter 3 – Science Myths, Menstrual Masks, and Mea Culpa

On Thursday I drove home from school in silence, with only the hum of the road giving me the soundtrack of my swirling thoughts. I had never, in my ten years of teaching, had a day of conversations like I had that day. I had tried to drown it out with loud music and podcasts, but it was too much. I was experiencing something akin to sensory overload, and all because I asked my classes to look into commonly held beliefs that were proven to be a myth or a lie. As a result, I had to deal with ridiculousness, but I also had to check my own privilege.

It started because we’re learning about The Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller about the Salem Witchcraft trials that, while I’m not overly in love with, has remained stubbornly relevant these last five years or so. The veritable political witch-hunts surrounding President Trump since before his election have been, like so much recently, unprecedented. One of the major themes and lessons revolves around bias and hysteria, and after the shocking but unsurprising attempted coup last week, we had a lot to talk about.

We started by discussing how circular reporting works, and how I had learned that we do not eat eight spiders a year in our sleep despite what my health class teacher taught us. I then sent them on their merry virtual way to discover what their own parents or teachers had misled them about. Apparently this was a mistake. Well, not entirely, as they made some really good personal discoveries. One student was shocked to find out that Jesus’s actual birthday may not be on December 25th. Another was relieved to find out there isn’t a wad of undigested chewing gum in her stomach. And yet another happily reported that she didn’t have to eat all her carrots anymore because they do not, in fact, make your eyesight better, despite what her mother has been telling her for years. Sorry mom. It was a good lesson, until Lysa raised her hand.

Just a quick note on Lysa (not her real name), she is someone who has a strong sense of self, very self aware, and has absolutely no filter whatsoever. Every time she raises her hand, I gird myself for anything. On this day, she snuck a shot in under the belt. Literally.

“Mister, you know how when you get your period, you’re supposed to rub it on your face to get rid of acne?” That was the question. That was what broke my brain that day. That, and her face. She looked at me with full earnestness like she totally expected me to say, “Yeah, of course. What about it?” Instead what she got from me was a wided-eyed, masked-mouth agape stare. In my head I heard an actual record stop, like in a movie. I must not have been the only one who heard it because almost everyone in the class flinched when she said it, then turned to look at her. Meanwhile, she kept looking at me expectantly, and in my brain my inner teacher kept kicking me in the hypothalamus trying to get me to move and not look at her like I’ve just seen something crawl out of her nose.

I shook my head, stood up straighter, put my hand on my chin thoughtfully and said, “No, I’ve never heard that before. Where did you learn that?” I may have sounded slightly manic. Meanwhile, most of the other students still were looking at her, though some had turned away and hunched into their computers trying to escape the oncoming conversation. One guy had full on pulled his hoodie up and pulled the drawstrings until he looked like Kenny.

“Well what you’re supposed to do is rub your period on your face and it gets rid of the acne you get before your period but you have to do it with your first period ever or it won’t work and you’ll have to do it for several months in a row but I think it works because I almost never had any problems but can you believe I couldn’t find any information about whether it’s true or not?” She said all of this in one long rambling sentence and I swore she didn’t take a breath. The student in front of her shook his head, said “Damn, girl” and turned back around. If she was a typical student, she may had just committed social suicide.

“Well, I’m pretty sure that a lot of scientists wouldn’t have thought to research that. They tend not to do that with superstitions and traditions.” But in the back of my head, my questioning self, the part of me that questions anything that is status quo, squeaked out, ‘I bet it’s because most scientists are men and white.’

Lysa tilted her head at me, and said, “Huh. Well, I mean I don’t think superstitions are real, but this isn’t that. This works. I’ll have to talk to my mother, my abuela, and my tias because they all did it and told me to, but I thought it was real, but there’s nothing out there about it.”

And that’s what did it. That’s what truly broke me, because I realized my reaction was purely born out of my own culture, out of western ideals about periods and the menstrual cycle and women, and how science, even today, treats both people of other cultures and women so unevenly. Because she was right. There have literally been no “legitimate” studies about not just the use of menstrual blood for anything beneficial, but there have been virtually no studies on the people that do use it and the cultural traditions surrounding it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there has been anecdotal evidence that there are some benefits of using menstrual blood for health purposes. The fashion magazine, Cosmopolitan, published an article last February where the author, Jessica Difino, had heard about the practice and decided to try it. She does mention that medical professionals don’t recommend it because there is the possibility of transferring diseases that may harmlessly reside in the genitalia to your face. But the professional Ms. Difino spoke to also indicated that there is no studies on this either way. She also mentioned that there are tons of penis facials (no, not that) made from pulverized foreskin available, some used by the Goop crowd, illustrating the point that anything penis related is more widely accepted.

There was also an article by Leo Aquino that mentions a 2008 article in the journal, New Scientist which discussed that endometrial cells are found in period blood and were used to cultivate stem cells, but didn’t say anything on the use of the blood as is, but Mr. Aquino did mention that the practice was used in some Filipino societies, which was supported by the few other articles I could find on the subject.

What I did find was a plethora of articles about how practices around the world that celebrate a woman’s monthly cycle are largely missing from our western culture, and are still treated today with disgust and derision. In 2018 a healer took a series of pictures of herself wearing a menstrual mask and called herself a ‘Blood Witch’ (honestly, it sounds pretty badass). And while perceptions are changing, it’s doing so slowly. People are starting to hold period parties for their daughter’s first period, an excellent example of which was told by comedian Bert Kriesher on his interview with Conan O’Brian. While it was a funny bit of story telling, it was also something a lot of people need to hear and should be normalized, because when a lot of people heard the story, the first reaction was not laughter but mild disgust. My daughter heard that interview and wanted to do the same thing, though her celebration was a lot more subtle, I was happy to do it. I don’t want to be “that” dad.

It was all these thoughts that ran through my head on the drive home that lead me to spend a few hours Friday afternoon researching menstrual uses and the cultural practices around periods. It made me realize that even though I’m a pretty open minded and accepting man, I still have a long way to go. We all do. But what made it all worth it, was after Lysa and I talked about her family’s tradition and periods, she said to me, “You know mister, it’s pretty cool that you can talk about this stuff. Most guys won’t.” and nodded to the student still hiding in his hoodie. Even in the middle of a pandemic, after an attempted insurrection, talking about witchcraft trials she couldn’t care less about, I made a difference in a young girl’s day. And that is why I decided to teach the same lesson to the next day’s students, because you never know what will be the thing you say that reaches them. You never know when are are given the opportunity to be a good example for young minds looking for validation.

Except for the kids that didn’t believe the Earth was round because you can’t trust the government. I’m not validating that shit. The whiskey that night was well earned. Cheers.

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