The God + Shit Dilemma
Some menstrual theology for you
GOD + SHIT DILEMMA
Recently, I was presented with a niche theological dilemma. I call it the God + shit dilemma.
The ‘faiths of the book’ (i.e. Christianity, Judaism and Islam) declare that man was made in God’s image. Drawings of God generally depict a lovely old man with a beard; also with arms and legs and a mouth to eat with. But what goes in one end, must come out the other. If God ate, God would ultimately have to shit.
The ancient Gnostics were displeased by this ludicrous suggestion. They sensed the incompatibility of God and shit and thus questioned the most basic thesis of religious anthropology – that man and God are alike. In the second century, the great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved it: Jesus ‘ate and drank, but he did not defecate’.
So there you have it, the God + shit dilemma. At first I thought— that’s a big one.
STEP ASIDE, VALENTINUS
But then I thought… is it a big one? Couldn’t it very easily be resolved by concluding that shit is just not that big a deal? Animals shit freely in front of each other – the scrawny bastard grinning at me now knows I saw him eating shit earlier, he’s not a bit ashamed. Shitting is an integral part of the amazing mechanism that is the living body; the eco-system’s perpetual recycling of energy (or something).
How random that humans became embarrassed by shit. Where does that fit into sociological evolution? (Seriously any soc-anth students please explain firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If we didn’t attach irrational stigma to our most natural bodily functions, then God wouldn’t need to meet these shit-free standards, and Valentinus would never have had to whip a solution to the God + shit dilemma out of his arse.
Cool. Why am I talking about this? Us women have the same unrealistic standards, that’s why. It’s ok for men to shit, men publicly take pride in their particularly hefty or strangely-shaped shits— hell, the most respected servant in the Tudor court was the Groom of the Stool. Men are allowed to be animals. Women are not. Women are not entitled to their bodily functions.
CHAIN OF THOUGHT: God + shit dilemma —> women + shit dilemma —> women + menstruation dilemma
Quite a big conceptual leap, yes. But I’m on my period so my period’s on my mind, and having recently moved into a house with 4 men there is no proper bin in my loo. So now I will wander down a long digressive path that ultimately ends up explaining why there is no bin in my loo.
Premise: if it’s ok for men and animals to shit, but it’s not ok for women or God to shit, there must be something that women and God have that men and animals do not. That thing is purity.
THE PURITY PEDESTAL
What on earth have feminists been moaning about? Looking at history through the lens of shit, women are on a level with the divine – right up there with God and Kim Jong-un.
Paradoxically, patriarchy is (partly) built around an idealisation of female morality (“she’s his better half”), to the end that it is paternalistically protective of women. In war, men are expendable, women and children untouchable (newspapers still broadcast the ‘women and children’ death toll over that of equally innocent, civilian men). Women have long been confined to the ‘private sphere’ so as to keep them untarnished by men’s dirty politics. In many traditions, a virginal bride is a man’s greatest salvation; in the world’s first known law-code, women literally paid penance for men’s sins:
“If a superior man strikes woman of superior class and
thereby causes her to miscarry her foetus, he shall weigh
and deliver ten shekels of silver for her foetus.
If that woman should die, they shall kill his daughter.”
The Code of Hammurabi — Babylon, 1776 BC
So let’s not glamourise the female pedestal: it renders her very much object and not subject. Nevertheless, femininity is the paragon of purity.
THE FRAGILITY OF FEMALE PERFECTION
The thing is, a woman’s purity is fragile.
Sex is it’s greatest threat. According to the Bible, female sensuality spawned all of humanity’s suffering and sin (thanks Eve). The temptress has perpetually led good men astray: tyranny can often be blamed not on a king but on the conniving mistress whispering in his ear. While sexuality is dangerous, fertility is great— so ladies if you can, be fertile and virginal like the Virgin Mary (literally the most unattainable role model).
“What could Adam have done to God
that made him put Eve in the Garden?”
In secular society too, sluts are sinners and prudes are frigid. It’s a hard line to toe – I once fell off both sides at once.
In the same Bible (side-note— I was raised Catholic), rape is said to defile women not rapists, and the price of a daughter (since she’s her father’s to sell) is nil without her virginity. At my school we did not receive a sex education, we were not taught about sexual hygiene nor the different methods of contraception.
Other bodily functions also threaten female purity. Women don’t sweat/burp/snot, and they DEFINITELY don’t shit/ejaculate/menstruate. Of these things we do not speak.
So I’m (finally) onto bloody menstruation. ‘Menstruation’ and ‘purity’ have had an interesting relationship. Religions have steadily built up an impression of menstruation as ritually unclean: Hindu women on periods are banned from temple and kitchen; Shinto doctrine used to forbid all women from even watching sumo lest they desecrate the sacred Samurai ritual (they still don’t let them play); in the Jewish Torah, anyone who touches a menstruating woman is unclean for a day. This idea of contagion is, well, contagious. A lot of men still feel weird about having sex with a woman on her period. Meanwhile, period brands try so hard to avoid depicting actual menstruation that they pour out blue liquids instead of red ones in adverts.
During her life, a woman will bleed blood out of her vagina for up to 3,000 days— an incredible 8.2 years. That’s fact.
It’s all very well thinking we’re divine and stuff, but these unattainable standards of female purity are problematic. Things are not talked about as they should be: that leaves young girls estranged by their own bodies and young men ignorant of what women go through. Then stigma gets solidified in social infrastructure and policy which – designed largely by men – overlook periods entirely.
Social spaces —> buildings are mostly built by male engineers with very little understanding of the sociological aspect of toilets. There are the little things – no pegs for handbags – then the big things – no bins (or bins that are delightfully overflowing meaning you’ve got a real stuffing session on your hands). Sinks are on the other side of the door, so if you’ve just applied a tampon you’ll be fumbling with the door-handle with the backs of your hands, and if you need to rinse a mooncup you’ll be mustering courage for some time before you emerge. There’s the queue for the ladies’ v. the queue for the men’s (how many times has a guy looked with horror upon the queue outside the loos, realised it consists entirely of women, and elatedly/apologetically hop-skipped through it— bam! Right into the urinals). Fact, there should be more loos for women than men. Women can’t use urinals so take more time to pee; women have periods on top of bladders/bowels as a reason to go; women sometimes gets pregnant. Most countries around the world have more toilets for men than women.
Social policy —> hi! Hello! Yes you! Yes you the NHS, over here!! The average lifetime cost of having a period is approximately £4800. Not only is it not free, there’s an actual tampon tax. That takes some nerve. Many homeless women have to choose between food and ‘sanitary’ products (hate that name) – perhaps they will steal, because how is that less ‘dignified’ than not having tampons at all? Female asylum-seekers in the UK must factor the price of sanitary products into their measly allowance of £36 per week (they are not allowed to work or claim benefits). Little-known fact: trauma (like homelessness or displacement) can induce especially heavy periods.
Leaving the West, implications are more serious.
According to a Unesco report, 1 in 10 African girls do not attend school during their periods. This is an oft quoted statistic but it should be quoted more because SCHOOL IS SO IMPORTANT. Periods cannot be costing girls their education, girls’ education is the key to so much positive change! In such societies, menstruation prevents women from participating fully and so perpetuates the inequality of power. It also withholds girls from their health education: so period problems become sexual health problems become pregnancy problems become infant mortality problems and the list could go on and on and on.
In rural India it is common practice to use dried leaves, grass, ash, sand or newspapers for period absorption. I have also heard of mattress stuffing, banana skin and cow dung making do. According to Argentinian superstition, if you try making whipped cream on your period it will curdle (likewise, the French say mayo will curdle, and the Italians say dough won’t rise and everything you cook will be disgusting). In Bolivia, it is believed that eating onions while on your period will give you cancer.
Spiralling downwards: many countries completely lack toilet facilities (in Ethiopia, 93% of people are without basic sanitation). But women who are forced to defecate in public put themselves so past the point of taboo that they become totally dehumanised in others’ eyes. The gruesome rape and murder of two such girls in India’s Pradesh state, 2014, manifests this horror.
That’s rock bottom. Time to pick things up.
Okay – if you’re not yet sick of reading – I have lots of ideas for you.
Bloody Good Period delivers menstrual supplies and education to asylum-centres and food-banks in the UK (they also contributed 1500 packs of pads to the victims of the Grenfell fire). Donate a £5 box to supply a woman for 2 whole months. You can volunteer at drop-ins (age and gender disregarding); you can also attend a Cupaware Party.
The girls at the Every Month Campaign overwork themselves producing period packs for homeless shelters in Manchester, soon expanding into South London: they will value every penny you spare. They also pioneer a political message if you’re up for messaging your MP.
Days for Girls takes a brilliantly holistic approach, providing care solutions, health education and income-generating opportunities for 1 million girls in 110 countries on 6 continents. They ask for all sorts of help. When going on holiday, you can order their packs to distribute on your trip— what a seriously great experience to add to your itinerary. You can even sew for them, either from home, or more sociably, with one of their chapters (which exist all over the world).
The simplest way for women to help is just thinking about where we buy our sanitary products. Switch high-street brands for charitable initiatives that operate a buy-one-give-one basis (like Tom Toms but actually effective). I have just started doing this and wish I cottoned-on earlier (woo period puns).
Places to shop:
- Taking a stride to sustainable solutions in developing regions, The Cup Effect distributes menstrual cups in Kenya and Malawi. What’s great about them is they educate whole communities – older women, fathers, brothers and husbands – in their demystification of menstruation. Shop their cups.
- No More Taboo runs a number of really innovative charitable projects with their sales, supporting UK women who can’t afford their periods. Freda is a fairly small social enterprise. It costs a little extra but, for those who can afford it, every subscription (of completely organic and eco-friendly products) funds the production of reusable sanis at KiliPads, a Tanzanian enterprise run entirely by women.
- If you’re in the US, subscribe to Cora – you get a free trial and customise your subscription to your period preferences (actually looks so much fun I wish I could play). Aside from being 100% organic, they use a portion of their monthly revenue to provide sustainable period management in India. Also US: Lunapads runs a One4Her scheme in east Africa.
And finally, here’s a wacky idea… throw a period party! Like a housewarming but instead of bringing plants/candles/chocolates, guests bring SANITARY ITEMS for you to donate! (Give them to distributors like Every Month.)