An Attempted Theology of Menstruation

Yup, periods. Go on, say it out loud. ‘Periods’. Hesitant? I know I am. Visceral reaction of disgust? That’s probably pretty common. But I think I want to bring praise to periods. So bear with me, lovelies, and do comment if you think I am completely misguided and have my Bible all a-kilter.

One of my first blog posts was about an unnamed gift of grace from God that utterly bowled me over. But which I was too bashful to name. You guessed it: after a few years of feeling like a pre-pubescent eleven year old, God blessed me with the return of my periods. This was awesome on two counts. First, not having them had, once upon a time, been sort of a badge of achievement for me- I couldn’t see my thinness, but this felt like reassurance that I was objectively ‘succeeding’ at anorexia. So, to rejoice at getting my period back was itself a sign of thinking more healthily about my body. And second, I had at the same time been terrified of not being able to have children. Infertility actually scared me more effectively into wanting to get better than did the prospect of death. I couldn’t really imagine not having a constant internal monologue so I couldn’t process being told that I was effectively killing myself. But I could imagine decades of ovulation sticks and IVF and most of all, guilt. Guilt because I wouldn’t be able to bear hypothetical husband’s babies. And guilt because I had put myself before hypothetical new life. Of course, Mr Darcy and a flock of mini Darcies might not be on the divinely dealt cards. But for me, getting my periods back were akin to the rainbow after the Flood: God saying I hadn’t stepped too far from Him to be out of His miraculous reach.

So why was I too timid to specify the blessing in the original post (in fact, I hadn’t even dared tell my mum for a few weeks even though I knew she’d be chuffed)? And why am I boring you with all this detail now? Initially when I was humming this post over, I thought I was probably wanting to break a cultural taboo just to be mischievous. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if the Bible offered an opportunity to be distinctive here.

At first, that might seem surprising. Leviticus 15 is hardly broadbrush in its detailing of rules for menstruating women, rituals for their “cleansing” and restoration to full fellowship with the Israelite community. But around and about this section of Leviticus are similar laws related to male bodily fluids and women after childbirth. So it comes from a broader idea of physical irregularities as counter to God’s original intention for mankind rather than a calculation of periods specifically being icky.

But more importantly, the unfamiliarity off the specifics of Levitical hoop-jumping should indicate that, because of Jesus, we can acknowledge God’s holiness whatever our bodily state. When Jesus breathed his last, and the Temple curtain tore from top to bottom, there was no more need for ritual purification for even just the High Priest to speak to God. It became quite literally a free for all. In other words, Jesus redeemed periods. And okay, the bleeding woman who Jesus heals in Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, and Luke 8:40-56 isn’t on her period, but she would at least have been seen as similarly ‘unclean’. What inspired her to dare to violate the rabbinic law demanding her to stay shut up at home must have been the sense that Jesus represented a new, freer way of doing things. And His reaction wasn’t ‘ewewew totes gross lady’ but an admiration of her faith. Washing the disciples’ feet suggests the same: there’s nothing too icky for the Son of God.

So question time. Girls, have you ever praised God for sending His son so that you might approach Him without biological barriers? I think it’s such a beautiful invitation for us to ‘come as we are’. And lads and lasses alike, are you Christ-like when it comes up in conversation?

But, okay, so what?

Just because we can talk about periods doesn’t mean we should, right? Well, for those with a keen eye for social justice, I am not so sure. This is good news not just spiritually but medically and economically too. in many developing countries, menstruating women are stigmatised meaning that girls have to miss a week of school each month, and 23% of girls in India drop out of school when the have their first period. And with the cultural taboo in place, women are unable to address the cost of sanitary supplies – Arunachalam Muruganantham, an inventor from Southern India observes that a sanitary pad costs 40 times the equivalent weight of cotton. As a result, only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads. The rest opt for leaves, sawdust, ash or dirty cloths which cannot be dried in the sun which would allow them to be disinfected. Infection and preventable deaths are the common result. So lifting the taboo might have very real consequences in terms of global development. But I think I’d settle for showing girls that they have the dignity of being divinely-made creatures every day of the month.

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