Menstruation as Stigma

Crabbe, Julie L. (Ph.D., 1975)

Thesis directed by Associate Professor Peter G. Ossorio

The effect of perceiving menstruation as a time of lower-status or social disgrace, suggested by Erving Goffman's notes on stigma, were studied in 36 normally-menstruating women. Women were tested before their periods on attitudes towards menstruation and during their periods on anxiety, self-concept, and adjustment measures, as well as their adherence to menstrual taboos. After their periods women were asked about practices of concealing menstruation. During their periods they also kept records of their sanitary produce use, symptoms, and social activities.

Results indicated that neither heaviness of blood flow nor physical distress experienced during menses were an integral part of stigma. However, viewing the menstruating woman as disgraced and treating oneself as lower-status by engaging in traditional menstrual social behaviors differentiated women on a majority of self-concept measures, lending support to Goffman's view of the stigmatized as developing spoiled identities. Women with higher levels of stigma had less positive views of themselves during menses yet could not be considered as neurotic or maladjusted. Women with higher levels of stigma were not found to exhibit more anxiety during menses, a state predicted to be associated with being defined as lower-status. Higher levels of anxiety were found only in women with heavier blood flows and then only with a disguised measure of anxiety.

The rationale that women who were less stigmatized would be likely to exhibit ambivalent behavior and attitudes towards other women during their periods was not supported by the data. However, degree of stigma differentiated women on passing, those behaviors and attitudes designed to conceal the stigma. Passing did not appear to have an appreciable effect on characteristics of the women's social activities, other than being associated with seeing a disproportionate ratio of women to men during menses. Women with lower levels of passing also appeared to have more freedom to decline social invitations and were not so limited by constraints of time or distance in social activities during their periods.

The practice of disclosing menstruation to people outside one's circle of intimates was investigated in terms of its effects on degree of stigma, anxiety, self-concept, and psychological adjustment. Results indicated that what was important in degree of stigma was not disclosure of menses per se but rather having control over who was told. However, women practicing disclosure were not found to be less anxious nor more self-confident than women who were more circumspect. Women practicing disclosure of menses were found to be better-adjusted, but not necessarily less neurotic or less defensive, than women who limited this information. [153 pp.]