Why did a workshop designed to make me feel comfortable with my body leave me feeling so gross?
I t was a long and winding road that led me to the basement of a 19th century stately house in Brussels for my initiation. Lined along a narrow stairwell leading down to the basement with 40 or so other women, all in bare feet, all waiting in silent awe for Miranda Gray to personally welcome us into the Moon Mother sisterhood, I began to wonder, how did I get here? And why had I already begun to wish I had never come?
It all started with my 10-year devotion to hormonal birth control. To me it was man’s greatest invention, providing welcome relief from monthly cramps that left me prostrate in bed for three days, alternately fainting or vomiting. At 28, however, I had the sudden impulse to find a more natural solution to my menstrual woes. I came off the pill, bought myself a menstrual cup, and began exploring yoga, herbs, a life without coffee (temporarily), full moon circles, Red Tents, and natural gynecology workshops. I read everything I could get my hands on that promised to reset my dysfunctional cycle, including Red Moon by Miranda Gray.
I became a doula and began accompanying friends through pregnancy, abortions, and gynecological disorders including endometriosis, PCOS, and uterine cysts. The more I accompanied these processes the more convinced I became of the need for us to reconnect with our bodies and recover our autonomy. So when a training to become a Moon Mother — someone (usually a cis woman) who feels a particular devotion to the “divine feminine” and feels called to accompany other women with similar spiritual leanings, and to host individual and group Womb Blessings and Womb Healings — coincided with a family visit to Brussels, I put my skepticism aside and signed up for the two-day initiation into the world of Womb Blessings.
Somewhere between the initiation ceremony and the prescribed activity of coloring in a menstrual cycle mandala, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with the biological essentialism that was being preached from a pulpit adorned with crystals and porcelain fairies, with the idea that my whole world should be centered around my womb and its monthly whims, and with the imperative to embrace the “divine feminine” and rediscover my “authentic femininity,” as if my authenticity and my womb were one and the same.
Discomfort turned to anger as we were repeatedly told that our “women’s problems” stem from being disconnected and alienated from our wombs, our authentic femininity having been suppressed in us as children by both our families and wider society. There was never any mention of the system that causes this disconnect — you know, the white imperialist, capitalist, hetero- and cis-normative patriarchy that has forced us into binary conceptions of gender and sexuality, and submitted us to a multitude of oppressions. Only that our wombs held the answers to all our problems.
I was baffled by this omission. Perhaps the existence of structural violence, inequality, and reproductive injustice was taken as a given? Perhaps it was unnecessary to mention the many factors that harm our bodies, regulate the functions of our uteri, and determine who or what can enter and exit our vaginas? Superfluous the discuss things like violence, discrimination, sexual abuse, rape culture, lack of access to contraception, adequate health care and comprehensive sex education, restricted or criminalized abortion, and personhood laws that impact the lives of menstruators and pregnant people across the world on a daily basis?
Perhaps this was all just too messy, political, and depressing for a space that focused on “purity and grace,” where the answer to “women’s problems” was to build a global legion of empowered women vibrating with the divine feminine womb energy, spreading love, light, and kindness wherever they go? I could have done with a bit less purity and a lot more mess, so I decided to cut my losses and leave.
I never expected I’d be so angry and frustrated with what was supposed to be an empowering women’s retreat. For a long time I wondered if I was too cynical, or if angry feminist activism had taken me too far. Or is there something at the heart of menstrual spirituality that just doesn’t sit easy with my feminist principles?
Chris Bobel, in her book New Blood (2010), characterizes the menstrual spirituality movement as a branch of feminist activism that began in the 1970s and continues to the present day, despite occupying a marginal, if not irrelevant, position within feminism. It is led by mostly white, middle class, cis, able-bodied women, who use books, websites, workshops, retreats, womyn festivals, Red Tents, and full moon circles to reach their followers, blurring the lines between spiritual leaders, healers, artisans, and entrepreneurs.
Miranda Gray is just one purveyor of menstrual spirituality. The book that launched her career as a menstrual guru, Red Moon, was published in 1994. Gray has since published three more books, developed her own menstrual tracking app, The Flow, gives multiple Moon Mother, Red Moon, and other trainings across the world each year, and hosts five global Womb Blessings a year via meditations that can be downloaded from her website. According to Gray there are currently more than 3,000 practicing Moon Mothers across 60 countries and and an estimated 180,000 women participating in each Global Womb Blessing. As global women’s movements go, it is not insignificant. It’s relationship to feminism, however, is questionable.
I spoke to other Moon Mothers and discovered that I am not the only one to have come out the other side with doubts.
Cecilia Perez is a founding member of a local collective, Guatemala Menstruante, which educates members and others on issues relating to menstruation and sexual health, provides educational workshops on the menstrual cycle, advocates for youth sexual education, and makes and distributes pads in Guatemala City.
Cecilia became a certified Moon Mother in 2016 at a training in Colombia. She was interested in the training as a way to develop new skills for accompanying women in Guatemala. “I had no kind of accompaniment or training when I started out with Guatemala Menstruante, we just learned as we went along, reading whatever we could and sharing experiences,” she says. “Reading Red Moon, it was great to see that someone else had been working on the same issues.”
Orlagh McIlveen is an engineer from Ireland and a certified Moon Mother. She has a history of disruptive menstrual problems and, for a long time, used hormonal contraception to correct them. Following a miscarriage in 2015, she began searching for ways to heal and feel better about her body and her womb. “I read a lot, including books by Miranda Gray. I decided that since Miranda was coming to Ireland for the first time, I would go along,” she says. “I didn’t fully understand what a Moon Mother was, but I’m very glad I did it. (…) Connecting with other people with negative menstrual experiences and linking with other people who had miscarried or had trouble conceiving is very helpful for me.”
While both Cecilia and Orlagh remain connected with the other Moon Mothers, and offer individual and collective womb blessings on a voluntary basis or as part of their general accompaniment, they also express doubts around the tendencies toward essentialism and universalizing the “female experience,” the lack of inclusion of diverse identities, and the accessibility of the trainings.
Orlagh questions the movement’s strong aversion to hormonal contraceptives. “[They] are very useful for all sorts of reasons, and while they can disrupt the body’s normal hormonal systems, that’s kind of the point. A focus on ‘only what’s natural’ is fine if that works for you, as an individual, but not as a blanket, ‘This is the One True Way’,” she says.
Regarding the participation of trans women, queer, and non-binary folk, both Cecilia and Orlagh agree that while the Moon Mother movement does not define itself as trans-exclusive, the language and concepts used are couched in binary conceptions of gender and essentialist assumptions around women’s biology. According to Orlagh, “while Miranda is very clear that the womb blessing is for anyone with womb energy, rather than anyone with a womb, I think it needs to be clearer that this is not a trans-exclusionary movement — because for some people within the menstrual spirituality movement it is. [They] make claims of difference between ‘real’ women and trans women (…) The odor of TERF-ism [that] surrounds the movement as a whole really needs to be addressed.” In their practices, Orlagh and Cecilia are clear that participation is open to people of all identities, minus cis men.
‘The odor of TERF-ism [that] surrounds the movement as a whole really needs to be addressed.’
Orlagh and I both also questioned the accessibility of the trainings we attended. While in Colombia the five organizations involved in hosting the event went to great effort to ensure women from across the country, including indigenous women and women of African descent, could participate, helping with travel, accommodation, and fees — but these considerations were apparently absent from either the Brussels or Dublin training. Orlagh says, “The cost of the training in itself will exclude many people from participating. I wish there was a way make it more accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford the hundreds of euros for the course, plus travel and accommodation. (There is a 10% discount for those on benefits, but it’s still a very hefty sum).”
More than 40 women attended the workshop in Brussels, each paying 225 euros and above, depending on the package they opted for. The workshop ran over Monday and Tuesday, which meant either you were on holidays, like me; a student; could afford to take two days off work; or could make suitable childcare arrangements. These factors might, in part, explain why participants in the Brussels training were predominantly white and middle class. According to Bobel, this participant profile reflects the overall trend in the movement: of all the menstrual spiritual activists Bobel interviewed for her research, 92% were white and 78% self-identified as middle or upper middle class.
If you add up economic accessibility, the essentialist overtones, and the majority participation of white women, what you are left with is a movement defined by rather considerable privilege with poor capacity for self-reflection or criticism. That this privilege so often goes unchecked in these circles also leads to widespread cultural appropriation. It is common for menstrual spiritual gatherings to take place in Red Tents or Moon Lodges, and for participants to be adorned with bindis and their spaces decorated with mandalas, yin yang, OM, and other “exotic” spiritual symbols. This mix and match of different cultural practices, rituals, and spiritual beliefs often occurs removed from their original context, with a minimum awareness of their spiritual meaning, and used for the benefit of people who have little or no connection with the culture or spirituality.
Pagan feminist Lasara Firefox Allen is a harsh critic of cultural appropriation in feminist spirituality, and insists on the need to decolonize spiritual practices. “For white people it means (…) paying attention when someone says that you are practicing their tradition without consciousness, relational awareness, or consent. It means taking seriously the topic of appropriation,” she writes in Jailbreaking the Goddess: A Radical Revisioning of Feminist Spirituality (2016). “It means not casually ‘god collecting,’ or cherry picking from the spiritual systems and cosmologies.”
Bobel is equally critical of the tendency toward cultural appropriation. She writes in New Blood:
“When it feels good, traditions of their culture can be deployed in the service of our self-improvement. To demarcate and sustain these separations, race and class privileges are invoked, though often not consciously. Indeed, unspoken privilege is the engine that propels feminist-spiritualist menstrual activism. The project of self-improvement, after all, is itself a privilege and one that takes cultural capital to enact.”
Despite my discomfort and cynicism regarding the Moon Mother experience, it became quite clear to me over the course of my day at the workshop how moved the women around me were, how deeply they needed a space where they could connect with their own bodies and other women.
I am sure that if I had done the training two years previously I probably would have felt the same. I had my Red Moon moment at the very beginning of this journey, when celebrating, rather than cursing, my period was still a mind-blowing concept. Cecilia and I both agreed that it was a necessary step in overcoming all the shame and aversion to our menstruation and our bodies that had been drilled into us from an early age.
But it was just a moment. As we kept learning, reading, sharing with other women, and participating in feminist activism, we became more aware of diverse identities, and of the daily challenges many women face that prevent them from “embracing their menstruation,” “flowing” with their cyclical energies, or discovering the “divine feminine.”
Bobel’s principal critique of the movement is that it rarely, if ever, transcends “life politics,” instead remaining rooted in the individual search for self-improvement that is accessible to few. Furthermore, it sidesteps or ignores uncomfortable truths about the nature and origin of women’s oppression. Nevertheless, you could argue that the very act of gathering women together to learn from each other, share experiences, improve their body literacy, and recover autonomy over their sexual and reproductive health is in fact profoundly political.
Cecilia’s experience, and the spread of menstrual spirituality across the Americas, also challenges the assumption that this is a movement only for white, western, middle class women. In her accompaniment of people through pregnancy loss and gynecological illnesses, she focuses on helping them reconnect, heal, and overcome feelings of guilt, largely influenced by the culture of shame and secrecy that surrounds all aspects of sexuality in Guatemala. These actions defy the patriarchy’s attempts to keep us separate from each other, in competition with each other, and firmly within the control of the medical industrial complex.
The challenge is to ensure that our actions transcend the individual goal of self-improvement toward collective social actions. To use the energy generated in these gatherings to support our activism around sexual health and reproductive justice and in breaking down gender binaries. These spaces cannot, therefore, be void of a feminist political analysis that situates our personal experience within the context of a global system of repression and struggles for reproductive justice. It is only through that analysis that they will become truly inclusionary.