'Flow': An exhibition that explores cultural shifts around menstruation

Half of the world’s population menstruates, yet it is still taboo for many. Equally, women's contribution to period hygiene technologies are our hidden history

'Flow', an exhibition at a Berlin museum, explores the cultural shifts surrounding menstruation (photo: DW)
'Flow', an exhibition at a Berlin museum, explores the cultural shifts surrounding menstruation (photo: DW)


Among the 30 participants gathered for a guided tour of 'Flow: The Exhibition on Menstruation' at Berlin's Museum of European Cultures (MEK), most of them are women of all generations—from mothers with their teenage daughters to elderly women.

There are also a few men in the group, often accompanying a female partner.

And the guide, surprisingly, is a man too.

At first, the fact that a man is guiding a tour about menstruation feels a bit awkward, but cultural anthrophologist Stefan Lischewski tackles the topic so naturally that any sense of embarrassment quickly dissipates.

The history of undergarments and menstrual products

Through a display of 100 historical and modern sanitary products as well as advertisements, the first part of the exhibition traces the history of women's underwear and menstrual hygiene products, which were first developed commercially in the late 19th century.

Back then, sanitary pads were sewn from fabric. Due to costs and accessibility, do-it-yourself solutions remained widespread even in the 20th century.

Before modern panties as we know them were invented, women wore one-piece underwear or loose underpants. They often had an open crotch, which made it easier to use the restroom when wearing crinolines and hoop skirts. Women would wear at least six layers of cloth to soak their menstrual fluid. Weighing some two and a half kilos, the cloth pads were extremely heavy.

The exhibition features a room with reproductions of such historical "undergarments for special days" that resemble oversized cotton diapers. Visitors are even invited to try them on.

Women inventors

The pioneers of the industry were mostly men. But there were also female inventors, such as US actress Leona Chalmers, who was the first to patent a commercial version of the menstrual cup in 1937.

Chalmers model, as well as various other brands throughout the 20th century, failed to achieve commercial success. Such cups only gained new popularity towards the beginning of our century.

In 1954, Mary Kenner patented a sanitary belt, but the company that had planned to market her invention withdrew when they found out she was Afro-American. Before adhesive sanitary pads were developed, this type of belt was used to keep sanitary pads in place between the legs.

The first modern-day applicator tampon, marketed as Tampex, was patented by German immigrant and businesswoman Gertrude Tendrich, from Denver. She started producing the cardboard applicator tampons which were available in Germany in 1936.

A version without an applicator was launched in Germany in 1950. It was called o.b. — short for "ohne Binde" (without napkin). Gynaecologist Judith Esser contributed to helping improve the product. She also revolutionised sex education in Germany and introduced it in schools.

Overcoming taboos through sex education

The exhibition was developed to cater to school groups, through educational tours: "Not all teachers in Germany have the knowledge and the materials to teach sex education properly," says Lischewski.

That's why one section of the exhibition provides basic information about everything related to the menstrual cycle. For example, Lischewski points out that men and boys often think that women bleed litres during their period. The actual amount is rather about 5–12 tablespoons.

But, he adds, beyond the groups of students, "many more people are coming. We have almost 200 visitors daily, we don't normally have that many."

Is the period still taboo in Germany? For cultural scientist Jana Wittenzellner, head curator of the exhibition, there is no clear-cut answer: "Menstruation has been part of an ongoing public discussion for a decade. It's still taboo for some, for others not anymore, and for some it wasn't a taboo even 30 years ago."

According to Wittenzellner, there seems to be a lot of interest from older people, who typically react by saying they are glad to finally be able to share their experiences through the exhibition.

Reactions on social media have been "mainly enthusiastic on Instagram, but on Facebook, there have been rants about the 'gross topic'," says Wittenzellner.

Openness to discussing menstruation often depends on a person's social circle: "In my family, it was more of a taboo," says Ly Nguyen, a 30-year-old Berliner of Vietnamese descent participating in the guided tour. "In Vietnam you don't talk about this private thing.

"All the education I required came from my female friends. But when I got my first period, my mom told me not to use tampons, so I wouldn't lose my virginity — though not exactly in these words."

The 'hymen myth' is a widespread and misguided cultural concept. In actual fact, there is no such vaginal membrane that breaks upon penetration. And using a tampon has nothing to do with virginity.

Another participant in the tour, Rukhsana Dill Riaz from Wiesbaden, has been living in Germany for 26 years. She doesn't think that it's so much of a taboo here, unlike in her home country, Bangladesh: "People are very superstitious there. Menstruating women are not pure; they cannot even go to the graveyard."

Public discourse about menstruation

Through almost 200 everyday objects, photos, graphics, newspaper articles and social media posts, the third section of the exhibition tackles how the discourse surrounding menstruation has evolved in the West.

In the past 10 years, the topic has increasingly entered the public space, notably through social media posts using hashtags such as #periodpositivity and #menstruationmatters.

This has also led to debates and policy changes. Earlier this year, Spain adopted a menstrual leave law, which enables a person to take time off from work when period symptoms are too painful.

On the other hand, some critics say that the measure could potentially perpetuate sexist attitudes and contribute to menstrual stigma.

The exhibition also addresses public shaming of menstruation, with a powerful portrait of Donald Trump made from menstrual blood. It was created by Sarah Levy in response to Trump's comment against Fox News host Megyn Kelly: "There was blood coming out of her wherever," he had said, after she put him in a tight spot in a presidential TV debate in 2015.

Period poverty

While there is a growing awareness of period poverty in developing countries, the phenomenon affects women in wealthier parts of the world too.

According to an online survey in Germany, for which 1,000 women were interviewed by Plan International and WASH United in 2021, 23 per cent of participants claimed that the monthly expenses for menstruation were a financial burden.

Menstrual health expenses are estimated at €5–€35 ($5,50–$38,25) per month if painkillers and contraceptives are included. It adds up when multiplied by 450 — the average number of cycles throughout a woman's life.

Pop culture and art

At the end of the tour, the group is directed to spend time independently in the fourth section of the exhibition, which features digital images of art as well as scenes from films and series, such as one from the 2016 coming-of-age dramedy 20th Century Women, in which Greta Gerwig's character causes embarrassment at a family dinner by talking openly about menstruation.

"Art and culture has such an impact and plays such an important role in the discussion about menstruation. It also makes it interesting and funny,” says Wittenzellner: "And we wanted the exhibition to be fun. If people are ashamed, laughter is the best possible way to counteract.”

'Flow: The Exhibition on Menstruation' is on until 6 October 2024.

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