At a time when women’s reproductive rights are being called into question - and the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale in which wombs are considered state property feels scarily apt - groups of women across the UK women are coming together to reclaim and to celebrate the power of their menstrual cycle. In Red Tent gatherings, they gather once a month to provide mutual emotional support. The closely related Red School is teaching women how to live in tune with the phases of their cycle to optimise their physical and psychological health. What’s more, this approach is starting to spread: forward-looking companies are recognising that, in giving women time off according to their menses they empower happier and more productive employees. In short, there is a growing understanding that, instead of considering it necessarily painful, or something embarrassing and taboo, there is great value in embracing our menstrual cycle.
Truth be told, I’d been hesitant when I walked into a sunny sitting room in North London to experience my first Red Tent: what might I discover here that I couldn’t over a bottle of red wine at home? A disparate group was assembled - some twelve women aged between 20 and 60, a mix of full time mothers and various professions, all wearing something red in honour of the experience. “Don’t worry,” smiled one. “I wasn’t totally sure when I first came here either.”
As we sat in a circle, we were encouraged to speak whenever we wanted to, but not to respond to the other speakers: the idea is to create a space without judgement, where you can share as you wish. And, as each of us spoke, something marvellous happened. The mask we all wear in our daily lives came down, and we each recounted our fears, our vulnerabilities. I was overcome with a feeling of solace and sisterhood.
There was something profoundly moving about speaking, and being heard in this safe, feminine space.
Today’s Red Tents or Moon Lodges are inspired by ancient ritual: tradition in biblical tribes was for menstruating women spent time resting together (and, back then, gathering strength in the hope of heightened fertility). As women’s cycles tend not to be in sync, they are now held according to the lunar cycle. “The new moon is about letting go of things you don’t need any more, and about intention setting,” says Stoke Newington tent facilitator Madeleine Lustigman, 37, who works for a charitable foundation. “There is not much opportunity today for women to practise self care. People often expect the experience to be hippy dippy and a bit alien, then find it to be really powerful.” Certainly I did, sharing secrets I have not sure I have told my husband.
There are some 60 Red Tent groups listed in the UK in the redtentdirectory.com, and likely more which are privately arranged. “We often talk about cycles and bleeding and being a woman,” Lustigman continues, noting that many people come having read the work of Alexandra Pope. A long time advocate of living in tune with the female body Pope has recently published Wild Power, a book dedicated to explaining the power is latent in the rhythm of our cycle, if only we know how to claim it.
Birth doula Maisie Hill, who was mentored by Pope, explains the first step is to understand the changes of the cycle, and how Pope likens the menstrual phases to seasons of the year. “The first phase, when your period comes, is winter, a time to rest, to lay low and take shelter. The next, until ovulation is spring, when you might start to have new ideas - new shoots coming out of the grass, but they need to be protected and you might not wish to share them with the world as you don’t quite have the confidence. The ovulatory phase is, for a lot of women, the almighty high of the cycle. You may well be feeling confident, energetic and productive. The phase before menstruation is autumn - when you may wish to arrange fewer plans, and withdraw; it’s a time when the inner critic looms large: it can be very useful, for editing work perhaps, though it can be disastrous for relationships…”.
So, I ask, do you actually plan your diary around the seasons? “Yes,” she smiles. “In fact the hardest thing I’ve found about being a new mother is not having the foundation of the menstrual cycle to follow.”
Coexist, a company which manages artistic studio space Hamilton House in Bristol, hired Pope to help them create a pro-menstrual employment policy, including period-related time off. “In synchronising work with the natural rhythms of the body we are empowering people to be their optimum selves. There is a misconception that giving time off makes a business unproductive: in fact, in the springtime of their cycle women achieve three times more than usual.”
Elsewhere, in London PR agency Blossom Consulting started a similar scheme. “It was probably because I feel terrible on the first day of my period,” says founder Georgie Wolfinden. “If anyone needs to work from home that day, and it is better for them than that is great. It is about being more human, really.”
"...perform better, get more from your work and with your friends: if you want life to improve, listen to your body.”
Lorna Driver-Davies, Clinical & Education Manager at award winning nutritional clinic Wild Nutrition, tells me how she came to live in a similar synchrony in her body through her scientific understanding of how hormones work.
“I do a lot of work with women who need their cycles balancing,’ she tells me. “For example, if you are tired and putting yourself under pressure in the run up to your period, the stress may knock your hormones off balance and increase your chances of PMT. I know that if I fail to tone things down before my period comes I will give myself stronger pains: if I can, I will change my schedule around to give my body a better chance.”
And this is the essential detail: none of this is to curtail what you do, or when you do it. Rather, it is about nurturing your emotions and your physical self to enable you to maximise your choices. Driver-Davies continues: “If you come back to your natural cycle you will get more out of life, perform better, get more from your work and with your friends: if you want life to improve, listen to your body.”