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Book Review

A Cursory Look at an Intimate Subject

THE CURSE: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation by Karen HouppertFarrar, Straus & Giroux $24, 264 pages

May 06, 1999|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Karen Houppert opens "The Curse" with the debatable observation that menstrual "blood is kinda like snot." She then immediately complains about "the dearth of research attention--and dollars--devoted to" the "topic" of menstruation. Thus she establishes a contradiction that undermines "The Curse." If menstrual blood is indeed a minor secretion "like snot," why devote a book to it? If, on the other hand, menstruation--due to its obvious proximity to sexuality and procreation--inspires a host of complex feelings and fears, why lament that fact, as Houppert continually does? Her twin demands--that menstruation be both the most mundane of bodily functions and the subject of serious inquiry--are inherently incompatible, and make "The Curse" a conceptually confusing, ultimately unsatisfying book.

For both women and men, Houppert claims, "menstrual consciousness" is dominated by "superstition, shame and sexual self-consciousness." Yet her examples often undermine her thesis. She cites a recent tampon ad depicting a model who wears colorful tampons as curlers, which sounds pretty funny and is a far cry from shame. Later, she visits a summer camp to talk to pre-adolescent girls about menstruation: One girl repeatedly yells out to passersby, "We're talking about periods!" This directly contradicts the existence of what Houppert repeatedly, but unconvincingly, insists is a widespread culture of menstrual secrecy that is "psychologically disorienting" for women and girls.

Houppert is strongest when she tackles specific issues. She raises important, and scary, questions about possible dioxin levels in tampons and notes that coffee filters are tested far more than tampons for health hazards. But her attacks on the tampon industry for its aggressive search for profits are naive--what industry does not aggressively search for profits? And her critique of that industry for making inroads into developing nations, where many women still make their own sanitary pads--indeed, she notes, "a Tambrands annual report drools over China"--seems downright bizarre. Perhaps making (and washing) those pads isn't all that much fun; perhaps tampons are not a tool of cultural imperialism, but a safe, clean, time-saving invention.

Houppert's critique of the premenstrual syndrome industry--the "federal government, public and private universities, charitable and research foundations, and drug companies"--is also based in specifics, and therefore convincing. There is, she writes, no test for PMS and "no physical cause for it has ever been discovered." She notes anger is often identified as the major manifestation of PMS--"America is a nation of cranky women"--and that millions of dollars in progesterone and (more recently) Prozac are prescribed each year to cure, or assuage, the supposed syndrome. But, Houppert suggests, "perhaps anger, depression and exhaustion" are "reasonable responses" to the difficult, stressful lives many women live, and she is rightly skeptical of the ways in which, when it comes to women, anger is regarded as pathological.

As a social critic, though, Houppert often falls short. Like too many cultural historians, especially in women's studies, she relies to a large extent on sources like ads, teen magazines and popular literature. Her brief quotes from Simone de Beauvoir are painful, for they point up the glaring contrasts between the irritating glibness of "The Curse" and the beautiful complexity of the philosophically grounded "The Second Sex." Houppert's discussion of Anne Frank--whom she depicts as just a normal gal with an identity crisis--is creepily divorced from historical context, and her summation of Frank's diary as "dramatic stuff" is embarrassing. Perhaps the problem with "The Curse" is the subject, which, at least from the evidence presented here, is simply too slight to support a book. Houppert is a clear and zippy writer; one hopes that, for her next project, she will choose a topic with more depth and approach it with more rigor.

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