In 2017, the walls of Stockholm’s subway system featured new art: black and white sketches of women participating in different activities, such as ice skating, with visible, red menstrual blood on their underwear. While feminist circles reacted with wide acclaim, the art pieces received mixed responses, both locally and abroad. The right-wing Swedish Democrats have since suggested bans for public menstrual art, but local artists and menstrual activists advocate for artistic freedom and the importance of de-stigmatizing menstruation. Other conservative political parties use menstrual art as a rhetorical weapon by positioning opposition parties as having “bad taste” and incorrectly prioritizing voters’ issues. This is one example of how public discussion about menstruation has increased across the Nordic region in the past decade. The Nordic region has a long history of menstrual activism, art, and advocacy, but a miniscule research community for scholars in the field. This article introduces the Menstrual Studies in Scandinavia network (MeSS), the reasons why menstrual scholarship is urgently needed in the Nordics, and what we have found in the first year of our collaborative work.
On a global scale, menstrual politics and scholarship have enjoyed unprecedented attention and growth over the last decade. Menstrual Studies has become an established field, most visible in the 2020 Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. Both public and academic work have been growing simultaneously. Menstrual Studies often combines scholarly analysis and empirical data with rich interpretation of historical contexts and current events. However, academic knowledge about menstruation in the Nordic region remains limited, mostly dominated by medical research, and with little knowledge sharing internally as well as outside the region.
We contend that not only does Menstrual Studies in the Nordic region need to be elevated internally, but also on a global scale. It is important to build local and regional knowledge, connecting academic research with public activism. As menstrual health, history, and habits vary across the world, critical menstrual scholars in the Nordics have long seen a need for building larger and more sustainable regional research communities. For too long, we have worked in separate national and disciplinary silos, with little or no connection in the region.
Thus, we created the MeSS network in 2022, which exists to compile, produce, share, and analyze new understandings about menstruation in the context of the Nordic region. MeSS consists of scholars researching in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. The six of us have expertise in different disciplines – history, sociology, public health, anthropology, and gender studies – which complements our collected language skills in Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish. MeSS brings together experts from the humanities, social sciences, and medicine across linguistic, national, and institutional divides. Together, we research menstrual health, history, and habits in the Nordics and work to elevate and proliferate local menstrual knowledges. Our overall objective with MeSS is to transform the study of menstruation into a wide-reaching and long-lasting interdisciplinary network of collaborative research and support. We aim for interdisciplinary exploration that is sensitive to local cultural differences and languages, technoscientific contexts, histories, and lived experiences.
Through our preliminary research, MeSS reached three main conclusions: global menstrual scholarship remains dominated by American, British, and Australian intellectuals; researchers in the Nordic countries rarely collaborate with each other; and, despite similarities, language issues continue to make it difficult for scholars to conduct research. As we have begun to synthesize Critical Menstrual Scholarship in the Nordic region, we have created the first literature review of Nordic seminal texts from the 1980s onward. There are scholarly works detailing local menstrual histories, analyzing menstrual normativities, and exploring details of contemporary menstrual life. Further, Nordic menstrual scholarship has recently provided key historical data on everyday menstruation, the history of sexual education, and large global menstrual corporations, as well as cultural-specific explorations of contemporary menstrualities. These studies showcase local particularities of menstrual life and further national and regional discourse on critical perspectives on menstruation. They explore the historical connections of menstrual taboos to contemporary settings, examine how people determine whether their menstrual cycle is “normal” or “healthy,” investigate the adoption of menstrual technologies in different contexts, and study how young people in relatively liberal, wealthy welfare states express ambivalence toward their periods. The research reveals the cultural and historical specificities of the Nordic region that have been mostly left out of the larger international conversation on menstruation and adds to the critical analysis of menstrual discourse. Activists, policymakers, and scholars, both inside and outside academia and the Nordic region, could use this to push for menstrual equity and deepen the understanding of the menstrual experience.
One key problem with Nordic menstrual scholarship is that researchers rarely engage with relevant studies from their neighboring countries, instead building from or comparing to work coming out of the United States, Great Britain, or Australia. This has likely been both because of a lack of research community and because of the linguistic hindrances within the region, leading to low awareness of neighboring colleagues’ work. This is an issue since it ignores crucial cultural differences among the Nordics, stifles scholarship in the region, and lessens the visibility of this important research to others in the global research community. By working predominantly in conversation with scholarship from English-language countries, Nordic researchers have not been afforded the opportunity to build knowledge bases and examine such cultural differences among themselves. This creates a silo effect that impacts both the scholar and their research. In conversations with us, groundbreaking researchers like Denise Malmberg have reported how they, in the 1980s and 1990s especially, felt very alone with no support from either their own departments or wider cooperatives close to home. One of MeSS’s goals is to increase awareness of Nordic menstrual research so that scholars can relate their national contexts to what are often the closest cultural comparisons.
Another key goal for the MeSS network is to understand and overcome linguistic hindrances for regional cooperation, which we aim to accomplish by working across our five different languages and by compiling and analyzing existing research. There are a number of different languages in the Nordic region, whose differences offer impediments to research. Three of the Scandinavian languages – Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian – are mutually intelligible, although the extent of understanding varies. Finnish people often read and/or speak Swedish since they study the language at school, but most Swedes do not understand Finnish. Due to the dissimilarity to the other main Nordic tongues, Finnish research and sources often do not reach outside of the linguistic area. In an age of increasing technological innovation, translation tools such as Google Translate have permitted at least partial solutions to the asymmetrical access to research disseminated in different languages. However, Google Translate does not support translation of many regionally originating and Indigenous languages, including Kalaallisut (Greenlandic), Faroese, and the numerous Sápmi languages. This means we have limited ability to read and learn from knowledge disseminated in these languages. It does, however, protect Indigenous knowledge from being co-opted by non-Indigenous scholars, as has happened in other fields of study.
Differences in regional euphemisms also get in the way. For example, menstruation can be called “the lingonberry week” in Swedish (lingonveckan), “the lingonberry days” (puolukkapäivät) in Finnish, or “painters in the stairway” in Danish (malere i opgangen). Additionally, people often use local brand names to refer to menstrual products to avoid mentioning menstruation itself. When these euphemisms are specific to a certain local context and language, it is difficult for researchers to find and utilize sources from the neighboring nations, such as historical collections of menstrual experiences. Oral histories might contain a local or historical euphemism, but scholars may not recognize it as a menstrual reference. Similarly, archival material could be housed under umbrella terms, like “health” or “medical practices,” making it hard to find sources. The SABA archive in Vestfold Arkivet (Norway) contains material on the company of the same name, but the word “menstruation” is rarely found in that archive. Even if one has knowledge of specific euphemisms, translation tools also do not transfer context-specific words accurately.
Besides revealing language issues, MeSS’s exploration of Nordic menstrual cultural histories illuminates the need to examine the connections between the local, the regional, and the global. Our investigation serves as an example of why more inquiries need to be done connecting regional specificities with global menstrual cultures. Though the Nordic nations share many commonalities, our work illustrates that regions in the Nordic each have their own nuances of menstrual culture situated in their respective sociopolitical contexts. For example, after World War II people in Sweden had easier access to disposable menstrual products. As the war hit Norway and Finland harder, Sweden had resources and a higher standard of living that made disposable products more prevalent and cheaper.
This is a call for strengthening and elevating regional and local knowledges of menstruation, based both on the internal benefits of stronger regional research communities as well as external benefits to global menstrual activism and scholarship. Considering the high political and cultural interest in menstruation in the Nordic region, it remains surprising how relatively little academic research exists. Our gathering of menstrual knowledge from the area suggests that the lack of academic community and language barriers have led earlier Nordic critical menstrual scholars to relate mainly to the English-language menstrual canon and exhibit only passing smaller groups of international cooperation. In the upcoming years, we hope that the collaborative effort of MeSS illuminates not only the difficulties of cross-cultural research but the enormous scholarly and intellectual benefits, as well.
- The “Nordic region” includes Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sapmi, and Sweden. The Åland Islands are an autonomous region of Finland. ↑
- At present, no one in MESS is fluent in Icelandic, although this is research we would like to include in future iterations of this project. ↑