What is Bipower?
It can be empowering to be in tune with one’s own body, to track the ebbs and flows, estrogen rises and progesterone plunges, of one’s cycle; however, when this self-monitoring is rooted in fear, it becomes what Foucault named “biopower” or the regulation and subjugation of people through the vital functions of the body. Foucault, though incredibly misogynistic during his life, has seen a revival in feminist and queer studies due to his focus on the body, knowledge, and power.
Jen Pylypa applies Foucault’s theory of bioethics to obstetrics and the patriarchal control of female reproduction:
“The norms of discipline, regulation, and subordination of embodied knowledge to scientific knowledge are first enforced in the institutional setting [by doctors], then extended to the ‘micro-levels of everyday life’—operating in the home through self-disciplinary behavior by which women subjugate themselves” (32-33).Pylpa, Jen. “Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the Work of Focault to an Anthropology of the Body”. https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/arizanthro/article/viewFile/18504/18155
Many people who period draw walls around their lives, subjugating themselves around the myth that menstruation is a burden. A group of scholars wrote about the result of this almost obsessive lifestyle adjustment:
“The self-monitoring that women do to be sure that they look their best and that their menstrual status is hidden is related to the Foucauldian concept of self-policing”.Johnston-Robledo, Ingrid, and Chrisler, Joan C. “The Menstruation Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma”, The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, 2020.
I found this quote while thinking I was coming up with some new connection. It is not a new connection; it is sadly very very old, something awful inherited. Don’t plan vacations, don’t have sex, don’t cook, don’t put yourself out into the world, don’t welcome transformation. This is the shameful time where we can’t say no but our lives are filled with cannots. “Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let them know”, right?
Remember when I talked about metaformia theory by Judy Grahn—the theory that civilization and social cooperation began in response to menstruation. Well, another metaformist theorist Luisah Teish explores the semiotics of redness and how it behaves as a way to control girls intersectionally across various racial backgrounds. In her community, red was forbidden for Black girls “because it made them ‘too intense’” and for Brown girls to avoid “being identified as a whore”. For white girls, the reason was not negative but instead to produce distinction, “to affirm their ‘gentility’” (Teish). As a white femme, I have felt this weird af racist pressure that red does not belong as part of whiteness. For Teish, exceptions to these red-wearing rules were confusing: “if you were menstruating, if you were in fact a prostitute” (Teish). To bleed, to shed the uterine lining, ceases being simply a biological process; it, instead, sets the child, the adult, at odds with their community, an outsider, a suspect.
How do we overcome it?
In a world where our bodies are highly regulated, terror and wonder exist together for the modern menstruator. I have been thinking about “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison lately, one of the most banned books of all time. Why are legislatures still so afraid of this book about a menstruating child who wants so desperately to be loved but instead endures racial and sexual abuse? Is this a reality our country does not want to face? Does it make the reader want to intervene, to change a real-life Pecola Breedlove’s world? Do legislators fear that readers (specifically young Black organizers) might?
In the beginning of the book, we meet Pecola; we experience her first period. This moment contains mixed feelings: a sense of shame, concealment, repressed sexuality, lesbophobia, and yes, even a little celebration. Her friends, Frieda and Claudia, are with her when it happens. They do not know what to do with the bloody underwear, but they try to take care of her nonetheless. Frieda suggests “Bury them, moron” (Morrison 29). The prepubescent characters have already received the social messages that menstruation is something to hide, to forget; the response demonstrates a process resembling death.
In the closing of the chapter, however, Claudia sees Pecola as profound, almost goddess-like:
“Lying next to a real person who was really minstratin’ was somehow sacred. She was different from us now—grown-up-like. She, herself, felt the distance, but refused to lord it over us” (Morrison 32).
Pecola, for a moment, alongside her femme friends, is autonomous in her body; she is worthy of worship, shaped in simultaneous intimacy and isolation. She is not alienated but distinguished. She is a deity, at home in her body as temple, waiting to be adored. In this rare instance of joy in Pecola, she is able to access an alternative world of potential and power without any desire for control over others.
The admiration the girls feel for Pecola, praised with dignity and comfort, resembles something Luisah Teish found in her attempt to reclaim menstruation through pursuing her roots. The “’Oruru tree wears a garment of blood all over’” (qtd. by Teish) occurs as part of the dance between Slender Menstrual Flow and Slender Semen in the creation of life in the Yoruba text The Holy Odu Iwori Meji. Teish goes on to describe isolation of the menstruating child in the Yoruba religion as not a form of alienation but as communal recognition of this process, not something that is hidden but brought forth and celebrated. The Menstrual Mothers, who care for the girl, “will destroy a symbol of girlhood” and in its place, the girl now known as “the Red Woman must commit an act of creation. She may write a poem, weave a basket, plant seeds or make a human figure in clay” (Teish). In this ritual, it is not her reproductive abilities that are focused upon but her creativity.
And maybe this mentality is how we can liberate this process for all genders—to see blood, when coming naturally or artificially from one’s own body, as an awakening, a refresh. We must reject western surveillance culture that scapegoats one’s own uniqueness in the name of conformity. Though some menstrual rituals are inhumane, some must be recentered as postcolonial and feminist healing. Our blood is ours; it is not criminal. We do not need to be monitored by the world. We need to be seen as co-creators of it.
Citation for Luisah Teish’s paper:
Teish, Luisah. “Shedding Old Skin: A Search for New Origin Stories”. Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture, http://www.metaformia.org/articles/shedding-old-skin/