Our Editor Billie-Jean Johnson talks taboos, tampons, and tackling world-wide stigma with some of the fierce women working to break it.
In Bolivia it has been believed that disposing of menstrual pads with other rubbish could lead to sickness or even cancer, according to UNICEF. Ancient Roman, Pliny the Elder, reportedly thought menstruating women could kill crops and stop hailstorms.
In many places, including India and Nepal, menstruating women are considered to be unclean and even infectious to men. In China it is still commonplace for women to refuse to use tampons as it is believed that using one will lead to a loss of virginity.
Here in the UK it was reported that in one year 137,700 girls aged 10-18 had missed school because of their periods. And still there is an overwhelming lack of discussion around an issue so obviously affecting people’s lives.
The menstrual taboo is one which has permeated cultures – ancient and modern – around the world. Aside from simply stopping people from talking about menstruation around the dinner table (a tragedy in and of itself) the taboo has created dangerous and ludicrous misconceptions, and led to these and many more startling legends.
Ancient Roman Pliny the Elder reportedly thought menstruating women could kill crops and stop hailstorms
There has been a shift, however slow, in discussion surrounding periods. It certainly hasn’t been a quick fix – it has been 40 years since Gloria Steinem wrote her groundbreaking essay ‘If Men could Menstruate’ and almost 60 since the contraceptive pill became available on the NHS. However, there is no doubt that plenty of people are working to bust the myths surrounding menstruation, and creating a new menstrual narrative.
One of those people is Dr Marisa Carnesky, whose show Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Women recently showed at the Attenborough Centre. When I met Dr Carnesky after the show, I mentioned the effect of watching the performance whilst menstruating and she told me congratulations. Safe to say I have never before been congratulated on having my period, but this positivity is what Dr Carnesky is trying to construct through her show. This truly is a menstruation celebration.
During the show Dr Carnesky details her process, and the processes of several of her “incredible bleeding women” in creating new rituals in order to celebrate their periods. In doing so, these women are using their platform to re-write history, or herstory.
“Putting the magic back into menstruation” is the tagline which accompanies the performance, and it really is a magical experience to sit in a room full of people not only talking about periods but laughing and enjoying performances by women talking openly with their experiences with menstruation.
It has been 40 years since Gloria Steinem wrote her groundbreaking essay ‘If Men could Menstruate’ and almost 60 since the contraceptive pill became available on the NHS
When menstrual jelly is splattered across the stage the audience laughs in exhilaration. When blood is smeared across a face the crowd giggles at the sheer absurdity. Sitting in the show is not an experience of punishment -it is fun and silly. By the end, any tension the audience started with is gone.
Using comedy and humour to encourage interaction with the act of menstruation is not only important to Dr Carnesky. #periodpositive is a movement started by comedian and activist Chella Quint.
Quint is also the creator of Adventures in Menstruating, a humorous zine in which ads are mocked, education reform debated, and lots of jokes are made. One section provides tips on what to say if someone points out a period stain – “clot couture” and “leak chic” are some favourites.
When asked about the importance of laughing about menstruation, Quint told us: “comedy helps people open up to understanding any taboos they may hold themselves.
“The “good shock” of humour combined with the joy of group activities like singing and dancing (in class activities and in my comedy show) is a positive way of getting to the heart of internalised shame for adults and young people alike.”
One section of Adventures in Menstruating provides tips on what to say if someone points out a period stain – ‘clot couture’ and ‘leak chic’ are some favourites
Unsurprisingly, women openly taking ownership of their periods has not gone without backlash. When THINX – a company which creates menstrual underwear – revealed one of their ad campaigns, they were considered by one ad review agency to be inappropriate to display on public transport. The support they received eventually meant the advertisements went ahead, and showed that people were not willing to be silent on the issue.
The differences between advertisements may not seem like a big deal, but consider what it shows. Unlike most advertisements for feminine hygiene products (heretofore known as period gear) THINX uses red liquid in their adverts, not a sterile blue liquid which is anything but natural. Instead of flowers and meadows, they show real people experiencing their real periods.
Moon-cups are another development in the world of menstruation as they actually require interaction with your period blood. This is not something that menstruators are unfamiliar with, but there is no way for advertisers to hide the fact that this level of interaction is needed. Unlike typical adverts for tampons which involve clean white strings, menstrual cups have forced audiences and advertisers alike to acknowledge that menstrual blood is messy, and completely natural.
The image of menstruators has always been meant to be hidden – whether forced into enclosed huts or kept off billboards, the intended effect is the same. For Thinx to show blood and cracked eggs to show the messiness of menstruation is a big step These kinds of changes are the evidence of how the world of menstruation is changing to be a more realistic and inclusive conversation.
The importance of intersectional menstruation conversations is not lost on THINX. Nor on Dr Carnesky. Bleeding Women is not a show for TERFs. Rather it celebrates and explores the experience of trans women with menatruation too. Writer and performer Rhyannon Styles talks about her experience with her own fertility, and the loss it took to become who she is. As she encompasses some of the vast comlexities of being a woman who doesn’t bleed monthly, it is plain how lacking the current conversation is.
THINX, having come under fire in the past for alleged tokenism, has continued to develop itself in order to be more inclusive, and to forward the intersectional conversation. In a more recent advertising campaign, THINX included a trans man wearing Menstrual boxers. While menstruation is often considered to be a ‘women’s problem’, these ads remind us of yet another aspect to the conversation – what it’s like to be a man who bleed’s monthly. THINX targets itself toward people with periods, not just women, and this is a vital distinction to make.
The image of menstruators has always been meant to be hidden – whether forced into enclosed huts or kept off billboards, the intended effect is the same. For THINX to show blood and cracked eggs, to show the messiness of menstruation, is a big step
THINX Brand Manager, Hilary Fischer-Groban, told The Badger: “While THINX has come up against social barriers dealing with taboo topics like menstruation and bladder leaks, we are normalizing conversations on these same topics day by day. At times we are met with adversarial comments by those who aren’t comfortable talking about the human body, specifically the female body, or its natural functions, but this is largely due to the immense stigma surrounding women’s bodies and women’s health.
“We believe those stigmas can be changed by normalizing conversations about them. We are in the process of breaking down these barriers with the existence of our products and the conversations that have helped bring these topics to light.”
So how is the breaking of the taboo changing lives? New developments in reusable period gear is making periods more eco-friendly. People are speaking more openly about menstruation, with Labour MP Danielle Crowley being the first MP to talk openly in the House of Commons about having her period in June 2018.
The period poverty fight is ongoing (check out our article on this), but debates are happening in parliament about it, and plenty of people are taking it into their own hands, with charities like SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises) and THINX donating period products to school kids and those in need.
Real life effects, all coming from people brave enough and bold enough to say no to the taboo, to bust the myths, and to reclaim the right to celebrate their own bodies.
So next time your period strikes, congratulations.
Design by Megan Tennies