Conceal at All Costs: Lived Experiences of Menstruation in Japan

Stephens-Chu, Maura Haley
Brunson, Jan
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Although reproductive technologies and the gendered dimensions of medicalization have been thoroughly studied in anthropology, menstruation itself is a neglected topic, especially in urban and post-industrial settings. This research takes as its focus the complex and varied experiences of menstruation for young Japanese women in the Tokyo metropolitan area and examines the Japanese menstrual product industry from an ethnographic and critical feminist perspective. Informed by interdisciplinary studies on embodiment, gender, and reproductive health, I interrogate taken-for-granted notions of “normal” menstrual cycles, menstrual products, and menstrual education by highlighting the diversity of physiological, social, and emotional experiences surrounding menstruation. “Hegemonic menstruality” is what I call the macro, public discourse of menstruation – built up through school lessons and textbooks, commercial menstrual products and their advertisements, and media treatment of women and their bodies. Young women encounter and interact with hegemonic menstruality on a daily basis, and this project details the varied ways in which they embrace, conform, adapt, resist, and/or reject this hegemony. Simply put, hegemonic menstruality refers to the “correct” way to menstruate as a member of society; it is a particular form of menstrual being that, if followed, lends a menstruator more power, or at least less stigma, than if not followed. Due to cultural connections between menstruation, sex, and reproduction, as well as strong expectations of motherhood for women, hegemonic menstruality and hegemonic femininity have quite a few (implicit and explicit) overlaps. Hegemonic menstruality promotes two conflicting components of an ideal woman: 1) she has a “regular” menstrual cycle – perfect reproductive health – and thus is capable of producing children, 2) and simultaneously, she conceals from public perception all signs of that all-important menstrual cycle. Pain, discomfort, and discursive silence are normalized aspects of menstruation for Japanese women, and failure to conceal menstruation – through sight, smell, sound, and affect – connotes a lack of discipline and femininity which women are expected to maintain. Menstrual product advertisements enforce these expectations of disciplined femininity, and the products themselves are technologies that act as mediators (or barriers) between a woman and her menstrual body. Tokyo as a research site provides the opportunity to study the effect of pronatalist government policies and discourses about fertility, gender roles, and parenthood on embodied experiences of menstruation. In the context of twenty-first century economic precarity, prolonged singlehood, and changing social relations, menstruation – with its discursive connection to motherhood – can have great significance to young Japanese women, who must balance career goals with personal desires and/or social pressures to have a family.
Cultural anthropology, Gender studies, Asian studies, cultural anthropology, Japan, medical anthropology, menstrual products, menstruation, women
192 pages
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