Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Nature, Menstrual Suppression, and the Value of Material Feminism

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Nature, Menstrual Suppression, and the Value of Material Feminism

Article excerpt


Nature has long been a topic of interest to feminists, particularly in the context of the relationship between nature and culture (Goldman & Schurman, 2000). Many feminist scholars have critiqued the privileging of nature and emphasised how cultural expectations shape women's lived experiences. Alongside a poststructural turn in sociology more generally, certain feminists have sought to trouble the dualistic assertions of either nature or culture (Clarke & Olesen, 1999, p. 9). Clarke and Olesen (1999) argue that nature is a discursive construct with no meaning other than those ascribed in any given historical and social setting. In this way, they argue that nature is culture. In addition, as Lock and Kaufert point out, 'nature is usually drawn on as a moral arbitrator' (Lock & Kaufert, 1998, p. 20). By this they posit that nature is used as a rhetorical device to evoke moral meaning in relation to particular bodily states or practices.

Taking a poststructural lens, the nature/culture binary is considered arbitrary but nonetheless is lent validity through its continued application. Lock and Kaufert (1998) say that this dichotomy constructs certain practices as moral/immoral in different ways. Whilst poststructural debates that highlight the discursive power of nature as rhetoric have been valuable, it has since been argued that these approaches leave us at an impasse (Bauhardt, 2013; Levy, 2013; Warin, 2014). Indeed, to claim that nature is purely social construct exaggerates the role played by discourse and denies the relevance of matter for how women make sense of their embodied experience.

Theories of embodiment, and in particular the emergence of material forms of feminism, allow us to consider nature as socially constructed and malleable, whilst also being a tangible, embodied experience, lived and felt in material form. In this way, culture neither constructs nor consumes nature. In contrast to the claim that nature is culture, the emergence of material feminisms (building on feminist theories of embodiment and ecofeminism) allows us to see nature and culture as always symbiotically interrelated (Alaimo & Hekman, 2008; Grosz, 1994; Haraway, 2003). Contrary to the notion that nature is problematic for women seeking empowerment, Alaimo has articulated the ways in which nature can be a site for feminist transformations that transcend essentialist binaries (Alaimo, 2000, 2010).

Whilst nature is often morally coded as a singular entity, to state that nature does not exist beyond subjective human interpretation shuts down the possibility of explaining the interplay between our bodies, science, environment and social relationships. This risks denying the physicality and reality of bodies and the material bases of our existence (Bauhardt, 2013; Kirby, 2008; Lock, 2013). In addition, it privileges human experience over environment and constructs a false divide between humans, animals and ecology. A full discussion of the implications of material feminism for environmental and ecological ethics is beyond the scope of this paper, but other scholarship in this area offers rich and invigorating new directions for feminist and sociological debates (see, e.g. Alaimo & Hekman, 2008; Levy, 2013; Mortimer-Sandilands & Erickson, 2010; Warin, 2015).

In this paper I examine the narratives of women discussing menstrual suppression and how they demonstrate a unique set of transformations of nature which include viewing what they frame in natural terms as repulsive, desirable, irrelevant or a combination of these things. This is set against a public campaign to promote menstrual suppression as natural and therefore morally virtuous, which attempted to reframe menstruation as unnatural and morally questionable when it occurs independent of maternal desires. I will discuss the value of material feminism in being able to offer a way to understand how menstruation and its suppression can be viewed and felt in seemingly incompatible ways concurrently. …

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