The podcast 28ish Days Later busts many myths about women’s bodies, to reveal far more fascinating realities. By Fiona Wright.
28ish Days Later
As far as bodies are concerned, I consider myself quite knowledgeable – more than most. Bodies fascinate me, for one thing, with all of the miraculous, minute ways they operate and adapt. For another, I don’t think it is possible for anyone to make it through many encounters with medicine and doctors without picking up a thing or two along the way. As for women’s bodies, more specifically, well: I am – to steal my girlfriend’s favourite line – a queer girl who has done her field work.
This is just to say that I did not expect to learn as much as I did from 28ish Days Later, India Rakusen’s podcast from BBC Radio Four about menstruation, women’s bodies, medicine and taboo. I didn’t realise there could be that much I still didn’t know.
By way of example: I did not know the fallopian tubes are not only unattached to the ovaries but are also capable of movement. If one fallopian tube is damaged or removed, the other can stretch itself around and move sideways, far enough that it can gather up any egg released by the ovary opposite its usual position. I’m amazed by this – I’ve never seen a single diagram, medical or educational, that doesn’t show these tubes cemented to the ovaries and firmly anchored in place. Even at the level of basic anatomy, there is so much still to know.
28ish Days Later is, of course, a cheeky title for a podcast about periods – the reference is to the 2002 zombie-horror film of almost the same name. The body – the unruly and the gory – is right there at its centre. But the title gestures elsewhere too: towards fears that are suppressed, even repressed. It also gestures towards an othering and, above all else, towards survival.
Rakusen says she considers this podcast to be really about power, because there are so many ways menstruation has been “misunderstood, misused and misrepresented” across history, all of which have served to disempower women and deny them bodily knowledge and autonomy. The limits of her own knowledge, which she only encountered once she began trying to conceive, led her to make the podcast in the first place. “I knew nothing,” she says. “It was a mystery to me.”
Rakusen is an engaging host – she is passionate and curious and always personable. She interviews doctors – GPs, specialists and researchers – alongside writers and activists of many kinds, as well as a diverse range of people who have – or have had – periods. One of the real strengths of the series is its matter-of-fact attention to the breadth of experiences of and with menstruation, and the kinds of cultural, social and personal contexts that can inflect upon them. Rakusen never does this showily or even explicitly: it is simply there as a matter of course, and this approach is as refreshing as it is powerful.
28ish Days Later is structured to mirror a “textbook” menstrual cycle – there are 28 episodes in the series, each taking a thematic cue from the particular hormonal phase or bodily change that occurs on its corresponding day. Rakusen is always quick to point out, though, that a textbook cycle is something far more theoretical than experiential, because between 85 and 90 per cent of menstrual cycles don’t match its model.
Sometimes the connection is simple and literal. The first five episodes, for example, correspond to what Rakusen often calls “the bleed”, and are centred on stories about debilitatingly heavy periods, period pain, contemporary and historical myths about menstrual blood – including its alleged propensity to attract bears – and period products. That this structure requires the series to begin with blood is wonderful, in and of itself. Elsewhere, the connection is more subtle or suggestive – such as where the rapid increase in oestrogen corresponding with “Day Eight” is used as an entry point into a discussion about hormones and elite athletic performance, or where oestrogen’s rapid drop on “Day Eighteen” leads in to stories about perimenopause.
Every episode of 28ish Days Later places physiological and medical information close to its beginning – outlining each day’s changes in organs, hormones, processes and their wideranging bodily effects – before moving out into these broader conversations. Each also includes a small montage built from snippets of the audio diaries kept by a number of people who track their menstrual cycles. These are expressive – full of sighs, excitement, sarcasm, on the very edge of tears – and often very touching, and serve to illustrate one of Rakusen’s frequently made points: that “our cycles matter to us in all sorts of ways”.
There is a lot of material compressed into each episode – they are only 15 minutes long. This makes the podcast sharp, snappy and easily digestible – its intended audience is one pressed for time, rather than listening for leisure. This compression does limit the kinds of stories 28ish Days Later can tell, and their complexity too. But Rakusen is careful to resist oversimplification, especially when personal stories are at the fore. Instead, she offers up these stories as starting points or provocations, encouraging the podcast’s listeners to ask further questions of their own.
The stories in 28ish Days Later, importantly, are not all about misunderstanding and pain. Many of Rakusen’s encounters are playful – such as with a group of women who habitually go “moon bathing”, swimming at night on the full moon – or almost excruciating in their awkwardness, as when Rakusen, inspired by one of her interviewees, invites her husband to keep track of her menstrual cycles so that their domestic life might go more smoothly.
Where the episodes are weaker, it is often because an element of something close to the mystical – an enthusing about the magic, power or intricate beauty of menstruation – creeps in to Rakusen’s narration, especially in connection to ideas about empowerment of various kinds. One episode, for example, focuses on a system for “managing and interacting with” the cycle by assigning seasons to its different stages, beginning with winter for the bleed. These images recur across the podcast and their heightened register sometimes feels like an overcorrection of the silence around menstruation and the body to which Rakusen often alludes. What tempers this is her genuine excitement – and the genuine significance of the problems that she is seeking to correct.
There’s so much of 28ish Days Later that is surprising – its information, its good-natured humour, its ability to make its subject matter gripping. It is important, but always enjoyable as well – which is perhaps the most impressive of its achievements.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Cycles of life".
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