Cece Jones-Davis is a worship leader, thought leader, and, as of three years ago, a menstrual activist (cue applause!). After reading an article online describing the struggles Zimbabwean women experience while on their periods, Cece decided to be one of the few publicly vocal black women talking about menstrual inequity.
Talkin’ ‘bout periods for *anyone* is hard since our culture has placed such a maaassive taboo on anything vaginally related (blood most of all) — but if you’re a black woman in America, chances are it’s even tougher to talk about.
Racism and the commodification of black female bodies in this country is certainly a good place to start in explaining why it may be more challenging for black women to talk about body-related taboos, and I’ll let you hear it all from Jones-Davis herself. In this interview, this stigma-smashing babe opens up about her own period journey, what she thinks the solution is for normalizing menstruation, and how men need to be included in these conversations as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In the op-ed you wrote for HuffPost, you share how Chris Bobel, Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts, author, and menstrual activist, asked you where all the black women were in the menstrual activist space. What was your response?
You know honestly I think it was just one of those moments like when your heart sinks and a light bulb comes on and you realize that a really important conversation is lacking representation from a very important group in our community. There are so many layers to this, and so when she said that to me I realized that black women were not a part of a conversation that was so important to women of color around the world. When she asked me, "Where are the black women?" a light bulb went off and I immediately got to work by saying that I want to be a part of this conversation and I want to do whatever it is I can do to move this ball forward.
Why do you think there are so few black women talking about menstruation? What are the historical and cultural factors that come into play?
In the last few years that I have been involved in advocacy, I have seen black women activate in very powerful ways. What I've seen is an awakening and an awareness for African women and for black women in America that, yes, this inability to discuss and take pride in our bodies is a problem.
Generally, menstruation is stigma. All around the world and here in the United States — menstruation, a bleeding woman, represents a taboo and a stigma. That goes back to biblical days, back to ancient times. Nothing in the world new. And so it’s already embedded in almost every culture in the world that menstruation, that blood — not just blood, but gendered blood — that comes from a woman, is nasty, dirty and makes one unclean. We have all sorts of taboos and social stigmas, but then you put the other layer of blackness on top of that—the historical context of being an African-American woman in America who already represents a body, a community, a part of humanity that has not historically been considered fully human. There was a time when black people in this country were considered 3/5 of a human being. Put this stigma of blood on top of not being considered fully human, but something animal-like, and it makes the burden of being a woman a heavier thing to carry and to bear.
What do you think the solution is to get rid of these stigmas and have more black women feel open enough to talk about periods?
More advocacy, more awareness building, more people writing about it, more people hosting pad parties around the country, more people saying, "Hey, did y'all know that in homeless shelters the resource they lack most is menstrual products?" When I first got into this, I hadn't thought about that, and the women that I started talking to hadn't thought about that either! We were all donating toothbrushes and toothpaste and shampoo but we were not broaching the subject of menstruation because it is so taboo. We could not start meeting the needs of something like that because we would have to have a conversation about it, and then we would all be uncomfortable.
So we have to normalize the normal. Menstruation is normal. There is nothing embarrassing about that. And not only do we need to educate and raise awareness among women, we need to do the same for men. In terms of breaking down stigma, men and boys need to understand this process, and they need to be people who can walk into a grocery store or drugstore and buy a box of tampons without being ashamed. We have to include all of humanity. Raising awareness and consciousness among boys and men is a really big part of that. We can't leave them out.
Where do you think menstrual education should be coming from? Do public schools need to be doing a better job? Who should be the ones responsible for teaching the future generation?
I'm not one to say it needs to be one place. I think we need to check out the curriculums that we have in our schools and see what we're teaching, and determine if what we're teaching is shrouded in some kind of shame or embarrassment. We need to consider why we have to separate adolescents (boys and girls) to have “the talk” about sex and puberty. Like, doesn’t that in and of itself perpetuate stigma and shame? Do we need to be talking to children sooner? I think it's up to parents, and I think fathers need to be talking to their daughters about menstruation just like their moms are, I really do.
What has your period journey been like? Has your relationship to it changed at all with your work?
I think that my relationship with my menstruation is the journey. I am not saying that I am the most liberated individual in the world. I definitely have come to a level of appreciation and esteem for what my body is capable of, but it would be wrong for me to suggest that there is still not some level of taboo and stigma that I feel myself, even as a member of a community that talks about it so much. It's definitely a journey, but I'll tell you something: I interviewed two women of color a couple of years ago who are HIV positive and I asked them what their experience with menstruation was like as people whose blood has a double stigma. So many of them were relieved that somebody thought to ask them that question, because it’s such a psychological burden for them every month. And I thought that was powerful. As I realized I've got my own stuff to work through, I know that there are women everywhere who have to work through a lot more than me when it comes to dealing with their blood on a regular basis.
What does representation in the menstrual equity movement mean to you?
Share your experiences and opinions in the comments below.