Historically, people’s periods have been blamed for curdling milk, spoiling beer and wine, drying rivers and wells, and killing off plants. The patriarchal society that we live in has managed to make anyone who menstruates feel ashamed and uncomfortable with their own body. Very few people feel able to opening discuss periods but that might be about to change.
M.I.A’s drummer, Kiran Gandhi, decided the best way to make a statement against the stigma surrounding menstruation was to run a marathon without a tampon and found the experience “empowering”. In the last year Rupi Kaur posted a series of photos portraying periods which were taken down by Instagram and Soofiya Andry has created a ‘zine with the aim of informing people about menstruation and breaking down social taboo. Perhaps we are finally starting to see the beginnings of the disintegration of society’s contradictory prejudice against the vagina.
Getting your period just before going to the gym, doing yoga or swimming, let alone running a marathon is most people’s nightmare but this woman saw it as a positive. In that situation our panic tends to stem from not just the discomfort but also a strong fear of having it leak and God forbid, people knowing that you are on your period. We are incredibly conscious of the fact that society deems natural bodily processes, especially menstruation, disgusting, impure and inappropriate. So it’s particularly interesting that a lot of us cringe at the idea of doing what Gandhi did, but for reasons that are created by the same ridiculous stigmas that she was attempting to crush.
She summarised this sentiment perfectly with the statement “By establishing a norm of period-shaming, [male-preferring] societies effectively prevent the ability to bond over an experience that 50 percent of us in the human population share monthly.”
The 26-year-old feminist actually ran 26.2 miles as the blood stained her leggings and ran down her legs. She explained that she put up with the mess and discomfort “for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend it doesn’t exist”.
“I ran to say, it does exist, and we overcome it every day. The marathon was radical and absurd and bloody in ways I couldn’t have imagined until the day of the race.”
She added, “It would have been difficult to worry about a tampon for that many miles” and felt that “if there is anyone society won’t fuck with it’s a marathon runner”.
When speaking to Cosmopolitan, she also explained that she was actually worried about the effect a tampon would have on her body when running so far and doing so with “a wad of cotton material wedged between my legs just seemed so absurd”. She mentioned that there is little information available on the consequences or health risks especially considering that tampons pose health risks even in normal everyday use. This reinforces how sparse discussion of menstruation really is and how tough it is to seek out advice when you’re faced with the combination of your period and an unfamiliar experience.
“I didn’t really have good information about what happens when you run on your period,” she said.
As if that wasn’t amazing though, Gandhi managed to finish the race in 49 minutes and 11 seconds and raise $6,000 (£3,877) for Breast Cancer Care with the help of her friends and claims that this “greater cause” is what helped her make it to the finish line. She was proud to have done something that she considered “a stretch”, for the sake of raising money and feminism.
Responses to Gandhi’s marathon have varied and it’s clear that period activists still have a lot of work to do in order to completely break down the taboo nature of menstruation. Across social media platforms comments have varied immensely, as per usual on such a ‘contraversial’ topic. One user, Demiurgic, wrote: ‘you are one AWESOME woman! Thanks for boosting my confidence and clearing my equivocal mind.’ Nilima Achwal echoed her sentiments, writing: ‘Whoa – kudos your courage and resilience.’ However, Bellyrina wrote: ‘I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this feminist. Just unsanitary,’ whilst Mark Byron added: ‘I think people are already aware of periods and I think she is a vulgar capital V.’
The executive editor of HuffPost UK, Poorna Bell described the event as “nonsense” and the Daily Mail completely contradicted themselves by writing an article on a woman who attempted to break down the social stigma surrounding periods in which they censored out her blood stains. This reaction is far from unusual considering the historic taboo and oppression of periods, as recently reinforced by everyone’s favourite patriarch, Donald Trump. On the back of Instagram banning Rupi Kaur’s photography, people appear to have had enough. When Trump recently decided to do as many men have done before him and blame menstruation, following particularly tough questions asked by female reporter Megyn Kelly, the “period revolution” seemingly began.
People have taken to twitter to ‘live-tweet’ their periods at Donald Trump, possibly the best protest in the history of social media. The politician has had to fend off an onslaught of detailed updates on the periods of the public and despite trying to claim he was referencing a metaphoric blood flow from the “ears” of the reporter, he has not succeeded. Out of this glorious rebellion a hashtag has even emerged – #periodsarenotinsults which perfectly summarises how periods have been used against women for centuries to portray them as irrational, disgusting or weak.
Considering the pain, discomfort, emotion and general side effects of menstruating, let alone the inconvenience of large quantities of blood running down your legs, it makes so little sense that we are also forced to hide them away and feel embarrassed. Can we dare to believe that between Soofiya’s ‘zine, Rupi’s Instagram photos, #periodsarenotinsults and now Kiran’s marathon, the taboo is beginning to be broken down?
Kiran Gandhi pointed out that coping with a period once a month is tough enough, so running a marathon on hers felt like an immense achievement and making it through the anxiety and cramps was what really empowered her. This is what we should be celebrating, the difficulties that people with vaginas face. Soofiya Andry has created her ‘zine to do exactly this, celebrate and inform people about menstruation by opening people’s minds to the fact that not only women menstruate and the people that do should be supported and find it easy to converse on the subject.
More material and open discussion is required considering as Gandhi commented more than 50% of the world’s population have periods and they should not be made to feel ashamed. She added, “it is intelligently oppressive to not have language to talk about it and call it out and engage with it. I really can’t think of anything that’s the equivalent for men, and for this reason, I believe it’s a sexist situation” and described the running course as somewhere “where the stigma of a woman’s period is irrelevant, and we can re-write the rules as we choose.”
Soofiya has extended her support to Kiran following the marathon and commented “Kiran is so fucking badass! I think it was a great example of what I call ‘period activism’. The whole thing was really empowering, her autonomy and strength as someone who menstruates was further reinforced by her statement of solidarity. Not only did this action challenge taboo but brought the discussion into the wider public consciousness; which is vital to helping shift the ‘shaming’ narrative which surrounds menstruation.”
Given that many people don’t even have access to the products they need to cope with menstruating and this needs to chance, as well as the myths and insults that arise about periods, it is absolutely crucial that we begin to talk openly about the subject. Hopefully, after the media attention it has received in the last year, things are about to start changing and we can maintain the conversation that has begun online and encourage people to break the taboo.