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Chapter 5

How Menstruation Fashioned the Human Body

Click. Click. Click. Click. Dark Chicago evening in 1946. I am six and at the window listening to the shoes of passersby, waiting for the distinctive click of my sister's high heels on the sidewalk. Why does she wear such strange tall shoes?  No one can answer, just as they cannot say why she puts bright red paint from a tube on her lips and black and lavender colors around her eyes. No one can explain why it takes my brother ten minutes to get dressed while it takes my sister an hour and a half. She must wash and roll her hair, then brush and pin it. She must pluck out some of her eyebrows, shave her legs and underarms. She must bathe and powder, and apply lotions and creams, greases and colors. Her nails must be shaped and sharp and painted very red. Then selection of a dress, this one or that one depending on her feelings and the occasion and the season and the time of day. Then her legs must be encased in stockings, the new sheer nylon ones that are so different from my mother's photos of her own legs in thick cotton stockings, white or black. Then come bracelets, earrings a string of imitation pearls. Then the strange tall heels, gloves a hat with a wide brim in summer, no brim in winter, a tiny veil on Sundays.

My father and brother make fun of how long it takes her to do all this, how much of her salary she spends on it. But she doesn't care! She does what all her girlfriends do. She does it, my mother says, because she's a woman. But why does she do these particular [p.71]

things, over and over, so carefully? Why would women decide to do all this elaborate dressing, while our primate cousins do none of it? Perhaps because, my father says, we have no fur and need to keep warm. But my sister wears thin high heels and sheer stock­ings in the Chicago winter, and so his answer, acquired in a round­about way from Darwin, is shaky. It doesn't address the specifics, the strangeness of the rituals themselves, which I know baffle him as well.

The ancestress has answers. Crouched in seclusion from the wolf or jackal, she contemplates the sticky red blood that is the cause of her dilemma. She comes to understand that she is both vulnerable and dangerous. She fashions her body, and in the process, she fashions the course of human life.

Seclusion Rites and Body Language

A woman's relation to her whole body was regulated by menstrual law in the seclusion rites --‑ her relationships to sex, to food, to how she held her body, how she slept, how she sat, how she walked, how she kept her skin and hair, and what she might or might not touch. At the end of seclusion, which for menarche often ended at first light, the menstruant was frequently carried, by a group of women of her family, to water. In the river, lake, or stream, she was washed. Then her hair was meticulously cared for, washed and oiled, combed and braided, dyed and decorated. Her whole body was painted and bedecked with all the finery her family could af­ford and that her culture found meaningful. Then, a creature of more dazzling display than any other human in the tribe's experi­ence, she emerged from "the shade" into public celebration --- dancing and feasting. At some time after these rites of body, in some cases hours and in others years, she married and took her adult position.

"Cosmetic" is related to "cosmos," entire ordered reality, and both are related to the Greek word cosmetikos, ordering of the [p.72]

world. Of other related terms, "cosmology" refers to astronomical study of space‑time relationships, and also to a branch of world­-describing metaphysics. "Cosmogony" means a description of the origin of the universe, and "cosmography" means a (written) description of the order of nature. These are definitions that apply very nicely to narrative metaform, human culture after writing and storytelling have developed. But origin mythology specifies times before speech, before drawing and writing, theater or song. To get back that far, I want to use cosmetikos to refer to the use of body arts to enact a world origin story or cosmogony.

In the course of their rites, women took complete charge of the body, shaping it, carving it, decorating it, restraining it, and dis­playing it with conscious intent to express and instruct in the prin­ciples of cosmogony. The body arts are thus metaforms, enactments and physical embodiments of ideas that developed through perception of the connection of menstruation to outside events both terrible and wonderful, and to the lunar cycle and other natural phenomena. The cosmeticians were originally the menstruant's mother, grandmother, aunts, and sisters, joined later by her broth­ers and husband. From the beginning the cosmeticians who decorated her for her emergence from seclusion were expressing an ordering of the world; they were, literally, fashioning it.

Their fashioning of themselves was a way of telling what they knew. As the Dogon people say it, "a woman without adornment is speechless." The adornment itself is speech.[1] Not only the adorn­ment, but the flesh itself speaks, for a decorated woman's body is not just that of a shaved animal in earrings. Her stance and gesture, her shape and manner, her inner controls and releases are all reflec­tions of the time spent in her various seclusions and beautification rites of emergence, with their special meanings of human safety, origination, and attraction.

The body arts of cosmetikos continued the principle of creation through separation. The earliest separations involved the removal of the menstruant's physical person from the general population during menstruation. She was shut "away" from everyday life, in [p. 73]

the bush, the forest, in the darkest part of the dwellings. Her body became the focus of intense scrutiny from the time that she began to comprehend its measurement and to instruct others in its dimensions. Her body was dangerous and powerful, so that everyone had to know where she was during her dangerous time. The men must not look at her in her numinous phase, lest they die, and lest Chaos close around human consciousness. They must have been keenly aware at all times that she was in seclusion. Warned sharply away from certain areas by their mothers and sisters, the men learned to be ever‑vigilant in the presence of the woman. To watch her, and to watch out for her.

Emphasis was put on the power of her eyes: she must not see light, men, bodies of water, or in many cases, anything at all for a specified period of time. She must keep her head lowered and use her gaze carefully, strategically, for she had the eye of death as well as of life. Emphasis was put on her mouth; by extension it represented her bleeding vagina, as indeed did all the openings of her body. Emphasis was put on all moisture from her body. Not only the various bloods, but milk, tears, mucus and spit, urine and vulva fluids became endowed with special powers. Emphasis was put on her skin, hair, and body hair, analogous to the surface of the earth with its trees, bushy plants, and flowing streams.

Emphasis was put on her hands, too dangerous at times to touch anything at all, yet entrusted with the newborn and with the gathering and preparation of most of the food eaten by her family. Emphasis was put on her feet, that they not touch the fragile earth inappropriately. And emphasis was put on her breasts and pelvis, for after her taboos were used to repel possible mates, to turn their faces from her, she had to entice male attention back to her person in order to engage with them. She had to ensure their safety in approaching her. She was completely repellent one day and completely attractive the next; she was paradox itself.

The motives for body decoration and reshaping, then, have at base been religious, from re‑ligio, re‑binding, re­connection. [p. 74]

Women needed to reconnect with men and children. Their decorations expressed human connections to each other, as well as to the world outside the human body. Moreover, decoration expressed the gradually increasing abilities, brought about by menstrual use of metaform, of prediction and memory.

Cosmetics: Blood Signals and Paint

Cosmetikos began as simple signals of warning and instruction, enabling women to control how they were seen, whether they were avoided or approached. The woman didn't need to display her vulva, she could paint her mouth with menstrual blood --- and in doing so she created body painting. Plain menstrual blood is still used as a signal in India, where "the condition of a menstruating woman is indicated by her wearing round her neck a handkerchief stained with menstrual blood." [2]

The teaching of menstrual principles to the men and the use of blood as a signal or sign of status was heightened by the use of slashing, with a thorn, flint, or fingernail. The women could create blood at will, through cutting. Australian tribal women danced during menstruation, and in a myth they cut their breasts, as if reveling in blood powers.[3] The sight of blood on another woman's thigh could start a woman bleeding, so slashing, for some people, perhaps was a method of synchrony. Women found that they could have menstrual signals visible on their faces and other parts of their bodies even when they were not in the dangerous state of menstruation. Cuts around the mouth and other parts of the face or body displayed the ideas of menstrual blood and of the "wet" vulva. Through the act of cutting, women recreated the creative power, bringing warnings, protection, repellence, attraction, and religious signification. The blood signals marked the young menstruant as having passed into the station of a fertile, fully powerful, and world‑forming woman.

The mouth was made into a parallel signal for vulva by coloring [p. 75]

and marking it to look as though it was bleeding. Lips have been emphasized in many parts of the world by lip tattoos, a thin line drawn with a thorn or flint around the outside or directly on the lips and rubbed with pigment. One rite in particular, the permanent marking of the chin with vertical lines, was practiced on girls at menarche in diverse regions of the world. The chin tattoo is very suggestive of a bleeding mouth and avoids having to make the slash repeatedly to signal menstruation. Chin tattooing typically was done with three vertical lines that ran from the lower lip to the bottom of the chin, two at the corners of the mouth and one in the center. These were usually straight lines, though sometimes they were zigzag or a line of dots.

The reason given for menarchal chin tattoos of Karoks and others was "so she won't look like a man." Among native tribes of the West Coast, chin tattooing was primarily a mark of the female status achieved at menarche. Though men were often also tattooed on the face, including three lines on the chin, usually their tattoos were more generalized. Among the Maori, for instance, men were tattooed all over the face while women retained the specific vertical lines on the chin and outlining the lips. Among some people, tattooed lines continued down the neck onto the breasts or stomach. Blood overflowing from the mouth would follow a similar course, and chin tattoos were sometimes called "dribble lines."

After learning to use the original substance of blood as a signal, women used the principle of metaform to replace blood with other red substances. They especially used the iron‑rich powder ocher and red clays, though any reddish substance that could make a red dye seems to have caught female attention. Metaformically the paint was the menstruation of the earth. In Australia, "the deposits of red ocher … are said by Aborigines to have been caused by the flow of blood from women's vulvas in the most ancient times which they call Alcheringa."[4] Australian, Hottentot, and Bushmen tribes evidently all associated ceremonial red paint with menstrual blood, the Australians saying the paint was "really" women's blood. Typically, the paint was red ocher mixed with grease. Then white chalk [p. 76]

and black, blue and gold, and other pigments also came to be used as body paint. Men adapted them to their parallel menstrual rites.

Lipstick, then, may be considered the first cosmetic: "Among the Dieri and other Australian tribes, menstruating women were marked with red paint round the mouth, while among the tribes of Victoria a menstruating woman is painted red from the waist up. Among Tapuga tribes of Brazil and on the Gold Coast of Africa, she is also painted red."[5] Among the Cheyenne, at her first menstruation a girl was painted red all over her body and secluded for four days in a special little lodge.[6] In China, formerly, a woman customarily put a red mark in the middle of her forehead to signal that she was menstruating, and also as a cosmetic.[7]

Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing were also special states designated with red paint. The Kaffir and many other tribal women painted their bodies with red ocher when they were pregnant. Pregnancy and childbirth are numinous phases of life, but it was because of the creative/decreative powers specifically accruing to women's blood that the use of red signaling during pregnancy and lactation gave women enormous powers of restraint over men and the spacing of childbearing. In some tribes, by using paint women might signal "no sex" for six or seven years at a time, while they continued nursing.[8] More usual was the period of three years used by Nigerian women of the eighteenth century, who kept their bodies smeared with red earth throughout the entire period as a public announcement that they were bearing, nursing, or weaning a child.[9]

One meaning of the blood signals was surely reassurance: "It's safe to look at me now," or "I'm old enough to bleed, but I'm not doing it right now," or "Now I'm available for sex or marriage." Among other peoples the red marks meant danger, keep away, not sexually available at this time: "Don't look at me." Mouth marking and paint was a display not only of the female power to bleed, but of a range of complex signals meaning "come here" or "stay away”.

All the earliest cosmetics --- menstrual blood, slashed blood, and [p. 77]

tattoos of blue or red lines suggestive of blood on the face --- must have enabled women to free themselves from some of the severest world‑forming taboos. Most of the complex taboos would have remained intact in the initial major rite of menarche, but more minor ones would mark all the menstrual periods after the first. Western reporters noticed that the strict seclusions of the menstruant were being replaced in the nineteenth century by milder menstrual signals, such as a brightly colored scarf, face paint, a special apron or ring, or even a smoking pipe clenched in her teeth.[10]

Whole peoples in older times studied the color red through body use. Some completely painted their bodies red (the "Red Clay People" of the eastern United States). They tattooed themselves from head to foot (Scotland, Canada, Borneo). They plastered their hair with ocher and grease, with thick red clay (South America, Africa), or stained their teeth red (Southeast Asia, South Pacific, South America), or painted and dyed their hair, hands, and feet with henna (India, Middle East, North Africa, Europe). Even now, when menstrual rite has largely vanished, women continue to paint their cheeks and lips red to impart vitality, health, sexual desirability, and self respect.

Other Techniques of Menstrual Display

In addition to using tattoos and paint for ritual purposes, people marked their mouths and bodies with bits of special carved wood and shell. Typically these "plugs" were either slender and pinlike or round and buttonlike. They were pushed through holes punctured in the skin, ears, nose, septum, or embedded in the flesh of the menstruant. Like elaborate tattooing, the process of making a large hole in a girl's lower lip or ear might begin years before the onset of menstruation. Among the Tlingit or Kolosh Indians of Alaska, following a year of seclusion in a little hut or cage, the menstruant was given a feast "at which a slit was cut in her under lip parallel to the mouth, and a piece of wood or shell was inserted [p. 78]

to keep the aperture open"[11] The Jivaro woman of Peru and Ecuador formerly wore a long stick in her lower lip following menarche. Some South American men, those of the Karaja tribe, for example, also wore long lip pegs.[12]

In Africa, women's lip plugs developed elaborately, with round and trapezoid shapes and a variety of materials and sizes. Although their original use has been forgotten, the round lip plugs, made of reddish wood or in later days of white ivory or a shining metal, resembled a display of the full moon or the sun. Some of these plugs were disks of various sizes; others were carved balls fitted with a flat base that was inserted into the lower lip. For heavy and large plugs, some women extracted their lower incisor teeth to make room for the base. Although the stretched lips healed, the initial operations were painful and risked infection, and the weight of the ornaments must have caused enormous strain on the facial muscles. Women in East Africa stretched their lips increasingly throughout their lives, inserting grooved plates as large as six inches in diameter.

The inserted plugs, pins, and plates drew attention to the mouth. They also protected it from "evil spirits," for it was widely believed that agents causing ill health or other disasters entered the body through its openings. All the openings of the face and head were by extension vaginas in need of protection. Thus, for the Dogon people, whose culture carefully balances gender imagery, the outer ear is the male genitalia and the inner ear the female. The inner ear might be protected by having a stick run through the top of the outer ear, or by hanging distracting objects from the earlobes. In any number of tribes, a woman might wear a long aluminum “stick," like a three‑inch hatpin, through the top or back of her ear, or she might have a series of rings in a line up the outer ear --- to prevent evil spirits from entering that orifice.[13]

Rings and jewels are worn in the side of the nose in cultures around the world, and particularly in India. The nose is also pierced to hold a veil for the mouth. For instance, a long loop [p. 79]

through the septum may suspend a veil of dangling pieces that fall across the mouth.[14] Protective ornaments have also been embedded around, and between, the eyes.

Scarification was also used to adorn and protect. Dogon women display long decorative scars on their foreheads representing the fertile vulva, and these deep grooves are kept oiled so they will be "wet," a positive condition in their arid farmland. In many African tribes, cosmetikos consisted of a combination of embedded protective objects near the orifices and elaborate scarification using bars, dots, Vs, and other shapes pertaining to religious principles and the woman's tribe, family, and status. Her body was a writing tablet before writing, covered with information. Her breasts, abdomen, and back might be decoratively scarred as well. Sometimes smooth objects such as millet or rice were embedded all over a woman's upper body --- planted in the earth of her skin --- for a raised tattoo of great beauty and significance.

The meanings of cosmetikos evolved beyond its initial task of protecting the people from the harmful aspects of menstrual creation. On the California coast, among the Gabrielino tribe, tattooing began for girls at puberty, as we would expect. But the elaborate patterns comprised a variety of complex social meanings: "Before puberty, girls were tattooed on their foreheads and chins, while adult women had tattoos covering an area from their eyes down to their breasts. Men tattooed their foreheads with vertical and or horizontal lines."[15] These tattoos became a mark of distinct identity, defining ownership of land. "Some individuals owned real estate, and property boundaries were marked by painting a copy of the owner's personalized tattoo on trees, posts, and rocks. These marks were almost equivalent to the owner's name" and were known even to non‑Gabrielinos.[16] This method of designating land is reminiscent of the boundaries established by menstrual regulations elsewhere. In old Hawaii, for example, the plot of land surrounding the menstrual hut was declared off limits to the general population. It was in this ground that the women buried their menstrual pads.[17] [p. 80]

Tattooing may have enabled people to memorize and reproduce the specific markings of animals and fish, as an origin myth from the Marshall Islands suggests.[18] Though the cave drawings along the California coast are mostly attributed to men, it is also known that some were created by women who had just emerged from the seclusions of menarche.[19] From the ritual drawing on human skin, begun by a mother's outlining of her daughter's lips with a thorn, our ancestors may have moved onto other surfaces to express the mysteries they were learning.

Fashioning of Body Shape

In addition to coloring and drawing on body surfaces, women consciously took charge of the shape of their whole bodies and gave them the cultural significance, the cosmological statements we call "beauty." At the conclusion of her menarchal rite, a woman's hair was carefully combed and shaped, its "flow" brought under control. The most essential metaphor of hair is liquidity, enhanced through grease and oil to make it shine. In arid areas of the world were rainfall is treasured, the apparent wetness of the hair underscored the deeply held belief that menstruants assist or control the weather, attracting water and adding to the general fertility of the world. In areas of heavy rainfall, dry­looking hair would also serve to control the sky's vagaries. Hair is plastered with mud and ocher as well as oil; it is braided, cornrowed, tied, plaited, beaded, fluffed, straightened, curled, and shaped into all manner of significant patterns. For instance, women of one Mongolian tribe wore their hair in large horn shapes held in place with metal and wood, to represent the fierce independent spirit of their herding people.

Control of the hair's wildness indicates control of menstrual flow. The coiffing of the hair, especially women's hair, symbolized the ordering of chaotic forces. This need for order has also provided a motive for depilitation (pulling out or shaving hair), which is practiced worldwide.

Women shaped their bodies according to metaformic principles. [p. 81]

Were the people nervous about famine? The menstruant emerged fattened, her mother and aunts having stuffed her for weeks with their richest foods, whether she consented or not.[20] Various peoples all around the world have for differing reasons considered fatness in women beautiful, and some took fattening to such extremes that the young women could not raise their bodies from the ground and needed help walking.[21]

Women mold their bodies for practical purposes. African women often wanted long breasts, long enough to feed babies carried on their backs during long walks; and so beginning at puberty they used "bands and ropes to compress the base of the breast and elongate it." Polynesians on the other hand admired firm breasts, and Samoan girls trained their breasts to point upward.[22] In the United States, both extremes prevail, athletic women making their breasts completely vanish, while film stars, models, and sex club dancers enlarge theirs with diet and silicone implants.

Women mold their bodies for social purposes. In materialist society, these purposes can be individual and psychological. I remember deciding, at sixteen, that I didn't want to attract sexual attention from men, so I decided to be very, very thin. I accomplished this through a diet of cigarettes, coffee, and not much food, stopping when my breasts and buttocks had virtually disappeared, and ignoring the persistent cough that kept me awake at night. Bodyshaping has long been dangerous: embedded jewelry can cause infections; extreme use of bracelets, leg, neck, and arm rings can cut off circulation, even cause crippling; breast implants can leak silicone into the surrounding tissue; and diet drugs do all kinds of damage. Will we ever stop molding our appearance toward some purpose? I would argue that the motives behind cosmetikos are too deep‑seated.

The menstruant uses cosmetikos to indicate how she has gone about protecting herself and her society from the dangers made conscious by menstrual synchroneity. Now that the woman has the Serpent, she understands her capacity to cause or prevent the Flood, and all her society understands that human actions have [p. 82]

consequences. Emerging from the dark chaos of her seclusion, her metaformic paints, tattoos, scars, and embedded decorations indicate safety and allurement, group identification, order, and promise of peace and well‑being. Her hard­won "beauty" embodies the cosmological understandings for all her people and ensures their survival in the unsteady, floating world. No wonder her community greeted her emergence at menarche with a joyful celebration and feast. She was the way back, the return from fear, danger, and decomposition, to reassurance, renewal, orderliness. They needed only to look at her to know who they were and how they were doing. 

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