Self-care is critical as we navigate life’s cycles. The World Health Organization’s working definition of self-care centers our capacity to contribute to personal wellness. This becomes especially important during biological cycles like menstruation.
Because no two periods are the same, defining what personal wellness looks like for us is equally as significant in our journeys. Much like the definition of self-care for those who bleed, the framings of the menstrual cycle have been hijacked and call for reclamation. Nurse Practitioner Amy J. Hammer unpacks the science of periods and their effect on the brain and body beyond the reproductive system in Cycles: The Science of Periods, Why They Matter, and How to Nourish Each Phase.
We spoke with Hammer about the process of reclamation and the shedding of cultural taboos to allow the menstrual cycle to stand as a site of self-care. In her comprehensive, body-literate guide, she details the scientific aspects of the menstrual cycle and delves into the history and health aspects to shift our collective, and sometimes unconscious, framings of the menstrual cycle. Her commitment to environmentalism and sustainability and her background in embodied modes of healing inform her approach. In Cycles, Hammer aligns the phases of the menstrual cycle with the four seasons to inform us of how we can thrive in our bodies through life’s transitions.
Among the notable aspects of Cycles is its resistance against the culture of indignity surrounding the menstrual cycle. “The book pushes back and challenges the narrative most of us have been told,” says Hammer, “–that the menstrual cycle is shameful, or should be kept a secret–-and instead embraces the menstrual cycle as a physiological rhythm that is worthy of our understanding and attention.” In Hammer’s view, this physiological rhythm has the ability to heighten our understanding of ourselves and our bodies, which plants a sense of confidence in place of shame. “By paying attention to the phases of your cycle and how the different phases impact how you show up in the world, you gain tools to understand yourself and that helps you navigate this complex world in a way that is more empowered and in tune with your body.”
It is not just cultural narratives surrounding the menstrual cycle that warrant investigation. In Cycles, Hammer also acknowledges the limitations of Western conceptions of wellness. “Wellness culture tends to be prescriptive about the menstrual cycle by recommending specific protocols–like lists of foods and exercises to include or avoid during each cycle phase…–whereas the approach that I share starts with paying attention to your own body and understanding that each of us experiences this internal rhythm differently.” Hammer makes one thing clear. In addition to releasing deeply entrenched thought patterns regarding menstruation, we must let go of our tendency to privilege knowledge outside of our personal understanding of ourselves and our bodies.
And honoring the right of menstruators to shape their understanding of self-care starts with the acknowledgement of body diversity—which involves a component of personal decision-making in the sphere of reproductive wellness. “Some people choose not to experience a menstrual cycle at all. Because we all experience our cycles differently, the way we may care for ourselves is also unique. Understanding what we need to maintain and nurture our inner world starts with paying attention–in this case to how the menstrual cycle impacts you physically and emotionally.”
Hammer defines life’s transitional periods as moments in time where we bridge a known and familiar past with an unknown future. Our first periods are among these biological transition stages. Navigating these liminal zones is challenging, but fruitful work. It comes with a heightened sense of self, once we shed the beliefs of systems outside of ourselves.
A part of the case for the healthy management of the menstrual cycle are the negative implications of cultural taboos for our wellness at various stages of the reproductive continuum. “Studies have shown that when we feel shame about normal bodily processes like menstruation, this feeling spreads to a general sense of shame about both our own bodies and other people’s bodies especially about reproductive functions like periods, pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.”
Hammer acknowledges the term ‘self-care’ as “loaded and overused”, but for good reason within the context of reproductive health. “It is essential because it preserves our ability to connect to and care for others by first caring for ourselves.” By nurturing ourselves through the phases of our menstrual cycles, we can create a model for our care overall.