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Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation    by Elissa Stein & Susan Kim order for
by Elissa Stein
Order:  USA  Can
Griffin, 2009 (2009)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

My first reaction to Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim was what a strange topic! I started reading for the book's hilarious historical ads - which give a cultural perspective on attitudes to menstruation over time - but continued for its 'supportive, informative, and honest' presentation of a topic that's suffered from misinformation down the centuries.

In their Introduction, authors Elissa Stein and Susan Kim pose the question, 'why is menstruation still the ultimate taboo subject?' They tell us that 'Swaddled with more superstitions and nontruths than Bigfoot, menstruation remains hidden in a figurative box (scented, of course), stuffed deep inside the great medicine cabinet of American culture: out of sight and unmentioned', while PMS is labeled a mental disorder and cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome occur every year. They got my attention.

The authors offer their book, lightened by humor, to answer women's questions 'about our bodies and their cycles.' They address language surrounding menstruation (that often makes it sound 'like a hygienic Three Mile island'; current research into menstrual suppression (despite the fact that 'surveys not funded by drug companies have shown that most women simply don't consider getting their period that big a deal'); 'bizarre menstrual speculation' in history; strange but true, early medical treatment of hysteria; 'religious squeamishness about menstruation' (aside from Buddhism which views it as natural); smell stigma encouraged by the feminine hygiene business; dangers of douching; and varying reactions of cultures around the world to menarche.

Along the way I enjoyed a discussion of the waves of feminism, from female suffrage a hundred years ago to individual empowerment today. The authors conclude with the basic flow facts (including what can go wrong with menstruation) and a discussion of menopause that aptly begins with the question, 'Would you ever pay money to swallow horse urine?' In Flow, the authors call for 'a truly meaningful dialogue with ourselves, our friends, and our families about this most basic of functions ... and how it affects us all.' Their book - which I highly recommend to you, your sisters and daughters - is an excellent place to start.

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