Editor's note: The term “female-bodied” was chosen by the author to convey the experiences of people she interviewed, people who identify as women and menstruate. This term is not meant to promote biological determinism or a limiting binary that ascribes gender to body parts, or to reduce cisgender women to their uteruses, or to erase men or non-binary persons who menstruate.
I feel her commanding presence, even without the camera on. Her voice is sharp and choppy, out of breath, urgent, and full of life, all at the same time like she only has seconds before taking off so she must tell you every secret. Since our first introduction, it’s her voice that I can never forget. Joyce is a vocalist after all.
Tamara(1) is warm, encouraging, and resolute through and through. She has never been intimidated by nor surrendered to forces external and internal that seek to define every aspect of what a girl should and could and would be. She will teach sex ed to campus fellowship girls (like me); she will graduate with a Master of Divinity and become an elder at her church; she will date whomever she wants, maybe casually, maybe seriously, outside the Christian bubble.
Koritha confesses to me that having two young boys has made her come to terms with her selfishness but also grow into selflessness. As an educator, the way she carries herself makes one think twice before speaking over her. Even though my questions probe private thoughts and childhood traumas, she shares generously and genuinely; I find myself wishing to be in her group of women friends discussing work, marriages, relationships, and inner lives.
Deepa surprises me with her buoyancy at our first meeting. I can easily imagine her enjoying a ladies’ night out, as happy twentysomethings do in metropolises around the globe. Or solo traveling, backpacking across the continent bright-eyed, hungry for knowledge and experience, ready for anything.
I interview these women because I am curious: What do we female-bodied persons think about our own sexualities outside any relation to men? This question took on an urgency at a time I was writing a paper on menstruation and purity for an Old Testament course, and I found myself in the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting, shifting through the sudden media blitz on Asian female bodies and histories that flooded my senses. The need to answer the question became as impossible to ignore as the many hurting women in my life. I am curious, not about what the Bible says about womanhood, not about what the Church should or should not teach on sexuality, nor about how historically girls have been treated. I want to know what we think. So my interviewees and I reminisce about common moments of surprise, and we wonder out loud the various consequences of womanhood. Korean, Chinese, Filipina, and Indian, married, single, and in a relationship, late twenties to early forties, Los Angeles to Connecticut, all from a Christian background and some currently churched, some not. I try to ease us into answering my ambitious question and start with, “When did you first realize you were a girl,(2) and what did it mean?”
The Body, the Blood, and the Bible
The Women’s Identity and Sexuality (WISex) small group was piloted by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley in 2009, my senior year. By then, I had learned the difference between a pantyliner and an overnighter, had not “saved myself for marriage”, and was surrounded by queer and nonbinary friends. Despite my best intuitions and haphazard experimentations with my body as a biologically female sexed person, I still sensed a lack of honest and nurturing conversations with women of faith about our bodies. Other than sweeping our breasts and birth control pills under the rug of teachings on abstinence and porn or some catchy tagline like “designed for good” and “damaged by evil”, why did Christian institutions keep failing at making a true learning space for us? That yearlong discovery group with other college-aged Asian American women was the closest thing to a sex ed that was long denied me (thanks to my fairly traditional Korean Presbyterian upbringing and the failing public schools in California). One lesson involved a field trip to Good Vibrations. Picture a group of small Asian girls huddling around to look at and hold dildos and diva cups for the first time. Wild. That sense of wonder at caring for women’s bodies for our own sake — pleasure, pain, and everything in between — would linger and confront me again more than a decade later.
March 2021. Under COVID-19 restrictions in Los Angeles, I rarely engage outside my tiny physical and virtual bubbles, furiously writing my final paper for an Old Testament Ethics course. I have spent a lot of time on gendered violence over weeks of discussion and recently gotten through painful menstruation. An arcane passage from Leviticus on vaginal bleeding catches my fancy as the perfect combination of exploring the personal and the political. I read that women who menstruate, during and for seven days after the end of their cycle, are ceremonially unfit to enter the presence of YHWH, historically equated with the Jerusalem temple. I also read about the larger religious culture in the ancient Near East that fears menstruants as somehow divine and holy, as they hold the power to create life, something only gods can do. Then there is an entire corpus of religious laws called niddah written by (male) rabbis over the centuries after the fall of Jerusalem on menstruation management. For example, menstruants can touch other people and household things, but not their husbands; they may prepare food for the family and go about their domestic lives, but must sleep in separate beds; they wipe themselves until the color of their blood fades and clears, then go through mikveh, a full immersion in the water signifying the beginning of their purity and sexual availability again. As it turns out, I am not the only woman who has wrestled with her bodily flows and how they define me in a religion that worships God the Male.(3) Articulating menstruation in our own words feels like a necessary step toward answering that question on womanhood for me.
Menarche(4): losing more than blood
Tamara’s first memory of becoming aware of her femaleness was around 11 years of age. She was participating at a soup kitchen run by her white suburban church in Orange County. She recalls volunteering outside, and suddenly, her panty feeling wet. Away from her mother, she didn’t know what to do. She ran to the bathroom to “figure it out” and told her mother what happened after. It had been an unsettling experience, and as the first among her peers to start menstruating, she would not have a lot of conversation partners.
Joyce couldn’t give me a specific moment of awareness; she didn’t remember her menarche as anything particularly noteworthy. Her mother used to buy her and her sisters comic books on natural sciences, one of which happened to be on human physiology. She broke the news that she started her period, and her mother responded: “Did you read the book I gave you?” That was the extent of their conversation about menstruation, and along with it, sexuality.
When asked how she felt afterward, and if she now has others with whom she can discuss her body, Joyce pauses, “I’m not sure because it was so long ago, but I wonder ... in that book she gave me, the character was embarrassed, and then everyone said, “It’s normal!” Maybe I got the notion that it’s embarrassing to talk about your period by hearing that it shouldn’t be. Why mention it’s not embarrassing if it really isn’t? Why would anybody feel that way?” Her sisters fill in the void. Joyce clarifies here that she speaks not just about “discussing cramps and girl stuff” but a sense of kinship among them. “I just can’t imagine my life without them. One of my sisters says she sometimes feels bad for people who don’t have sisters.” Laughing, she then apologizes to me, “Sorry!”
Koritha had to learn from her aunt about what was happening to her body because her father, who had been raising her alone as her mother worked overseas, could not bring himself to explain menstruation to his only daughter. “It was almost like losing a parent I had relied on.”
Listening to Koritha, I start to register a vague sense of loss. And my suspicion is confirmed when Deepa describes how, in the Hindu traditions where she comes from, a girl starting her menstruation receives a huge coming-of-age celebration. Friends, family, and neighbors come bearing gifts of gold and jewelry, as the girl wears a sari for the first time. Having no parallel experience in the Korean or Asian American or Christian context, I marvel at the sweetness of it all. That’s when Deepa nonchalantly drops the bomb: “But because of whiteness, all of those cultural things, they were taken away.”
At the moment of coming into consciousness of our own bodies, what awaits us seems a separation — “from a close male caregiver” as Koritha recalls — or a mark of differentiation, which in and of itself is not negative. In fact, that is what holiness means: set apart. However, once whiteness touches us, that moment of bodily transformation will no longer be recognized as an affirming experience. I mourn what we lose instead. We lose touch with our fathers and brothers who not only cannot relate to us in the same way again but also begin to gaze upon our bodies as something else, othered. We lose the oneness with and the openness about our bodies enjoyed without a second thought for male-bodied people, our bodies reframed as no longer solely ours. And the women closest to us, our mothers and sisters and aunts who have experienced their own losses, don’t always have a living, comforting, and welcoming space into which they can usher us. While learning about different cultural rituals surrounding menstruation gives me hope, I cannot help but yearn for any other frame of reference that could reinscribe our experiences of loss and losing blood as gain.
The Holy Spirit corresponds with our cycles
Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, in her book Menstrual Purity, analyzes the rabbinic teachings of niddah and relates a third-century Christian writing from Syria called the “Didascalia”. In it, we find an anonymous apostle chastising some Jewish women who have embraced the Christian faith and still practice the niddah. They would deliberately refrain from spiritual practices for seven days during their menstruation, just as the Jewish women would. The apostle calls them foolish, “How could you say the Holy Spirit is void in the seven days of your flux? The Spirit does not leave us after baptism.” A modern feminist argument will say here that Christianity frees women from the patriarchal Jewish laws; menstruating women can worship as they want! The author’s conclusion betrays whose interests speak though; since the period of menstruation does not make the Christian women unclean, ritually or otherwise, the women should do all the godly things and submit to their husbands’ sexual demands. Fonrobert proposes instead that perhaps the women are practicing something else, something more liberating than the previous rabbinic regulations and the supposedly egalitarian Christian household code:
If we contrast these women’s behavior with ... the majority discourse on virginity as the ideal of Christian womanhood, it is possible to reflect on the significance of their behavior as a gender-specific behavior, for the Didascalia’s women give a positive signification to their embodied lives, embodied not in a static physicality called flesh, but in a living body that undergoes cyclic changes. Instead of transcending their body in order to free themselves from the shackles of bondedness in the flesh, they affirm their embodied lives by endowing the body with significance regarding their connection with the Spirit or the presence of the Divine. In their conception of a Christian life, their bodies in the here and now are not transcended and overcome to participate in the fruits of the Spirit. Or, in terms of their pneumatology, the Spirit they received upon baptism remains subject to the habits of their female bodies.(5)
These third-century women understand something we’re missing. Could women center their bodies as their own way of encountering God, without being subject to male desires or control? Can we articulate our own freedom by listening to, ritualizing, and making meaning out of our flows and cycles and senses?
This is as revelatory to me as the trip to Good Vibrations was. Instead of interacting with my body (the flesh, the fluid, the pheromone, everything) as a negation of the Divine, I can embrace it as proof that the source of all life indeed indwells within my female form. It is not uncleanliness that marks us, then. The blood reminds us girls that we are holy.