The most mystifying of all the bad pieces of advice that we’ve collected this week is the advice about periods: don’t wash your hair, don’t have a shower, don’t touch plants during your periods. Where does this cleanliness ban – which, from your comments, seems to have spread from Italy to India to Scotland – come from?
We need to go back to the time when people bathed in rivers and menstruation blood would have contaminated the water for others (still, no more than all other bodily excretions would!). Also, warm water for bathing was an impossible luxury and cold water would have made period cramps worse.
But really, underlining this and other prohibitions for menstruating women, was the belief that menstruation made a woman impure. Most ancient religions said so.
The Roman naturalist Plini The Elder, who lived between around 23 and 79 AD didn’t help women when he wrote that “contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.” But don’t get angry at the old sod: he got his just deserts when he died in the Vesuvius’ eruption that destroyed Pompeii.
It was only in the 19th century that doctors realised periods were connected with ovulation and were not nature’s way to cool women’s hysterical, emotional nature by letting out… bad blood. As recently as in 1919 a scientist claimed that menstrual blood contained “menotoxin”, allegedly a poison that turned wine into vinegar at a menstruating woman’s touch.
Here are some of the menstruation myths still surviving today which I’ve grouped by country. There are also some other myths specifically around menstrual blood: a remedy for epilepsy, haemorrhoids, warts, gout or common headaches, a demons-scarer and an aphrodisiac. I’ve left them out of my table because, except for the aphrodisiac one – some women have been reported to adding it to their men’s coffee for that purpose – they’ve mostly disappeared.
(The empty boxes in the table only mean that I don’t have data)
|Myths about menstruating women||Italy||UK||India||Nepal||Mali||Rwanda|
|Must not wash hair||X||X|
|Must not go to the hairdresser (the hairstyle won’t set)||X|
|Must not dye her hair (the colour won’t stick)||X|
|Must not wax or her hair will grow faster||X|
|Must not have sex||X||X||It can be fatal for the man|
|Will not get pregnant during periods||X||X|
|Must not exercise||X||X|
|Likely to be attacked by sharks and bears||X||X|
|Must not bake (dough won’t rise, cakes will spoil)||X||X|
|Must not whip creams/mayonnaise or churn butter||X|
|Must not touch plants or they’ll die||X|
|Must not cook tomato sauce/cook at all||X||X||X|
|Must not touch pickle or wine or they’ll spoil||X||X|
|Must not touch babies and children||X|
|Must not touch people||X|
|Must not go to places of worship||X|
|Must stay in separate accommodation/huts||X||X|
|Must not approach bitches and horses or they’ll become agitated|
|Must not touch cattle||X||X|
|Must not let others walk behind her or their teeth will break||X|
Last but not least, some people believe that you can’t get pregnant if you have sex during your periods. That’s NOT TRUE. Although not very likely, it’s still possible to get pregnant if you have sex during your periods: sperm can survive in your body for up to 7 days so, if you ovulates early, it’s… conceivable (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) that you would get pregnant.
Before you go, check out my new collection of short stories about Sicily:
Interesting articles about periods: