This summer, I bought a new camera. I needed it to snap pictures during a research trip to India where I explored diverse approaches to what’s called in the development sector, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). I chose a sleek, high tech device with a powerful, intuitive zoom.
In Bangalore, I captured the sweet intimacy of two schoolgirls as they watched the menstrual health animated video “Mythri” at a government school. In Tamil Nadu, I used my zoom for close shots of skilled women tailors sewing brightly colored cloth menstrual pads for the social business, Eco Femme.
In South Delhi, I used my zoom to preserve the mounds of cloth painstakingly repurposed as low cost menstrual pads at NGO Goonj.
But here’s the problem. These close up shots may please the eye, but they leave out the context that surrounds and shapes each photo’s subject. And what exists outside the frame is at least as important as what is inside. That’s hardly a revelation, I realize, but when it comes to doing Menstrual Hygiene Management work, in an effort to find solutions, the “big picture”—both literally and figuratively—sometimes gets obscured.
For example, when I snapped the picture of the mound of menstrual pads pictured here, I focused on a product, a simple product, that could truly improve the quality of someone’s life. But when I trained my attention on the product, what did I miss?
In short, a wider angle lens reveals the context of menstrual product access—a complicated web of many intersecting issues: infrastructural deficits (safe, secure, and clean latrines and sites for disposal), access to resources (like soap and water), gender norms, and menstrual restrictions rooted in culture or religion.
Imagine that one of brightly colored packages of menstrual pads ends up in the hands of a 15 year old girl. I will call her Madhavi.
Madhavi is delighted to have a dedicated set of her very own clean rags to absorb her flow.
But does she have access to clean water and soap to wash them?
Does she have family support to dry her rags on the clothesline, in direct sunlight, even though her brothers, uncles, and neighbors will be able to see them?
Does she have a safe, secure place at school to change her rags?
Does she have someone to turn to when she has a question about her menstrual cycle?
These questions are important because they point to what gets in the way of effective and sustainable MHM. My own review of the emerging empirical literature on MHM revealed that the top three impediments to school girls’ positive and healthy menstrual experiences are 1) inadequate facilities 2) inadequate knowledge and 3) fear of disclosure, especially to boys. I want to focus on this last one for a moment by widening the frame a bit more.
Menstrual Hygiene Management is part of a complex and enduring project of loosening the social control of women’s bodies, of working to move embodiment, more generally, from object to subject status—something absolutely foundational to taking on a host of other urgent issues; from human trafficking to eating disorders to sexual assault.
As we know throughout the West, menstrual taboos do not disappear as we upgrade our menstrual care. Without the heavy lifting of menstrual normalization, any menstrual care practice will make a minimal impact.
Thus, menstrual activism must always incorporate an analysis of how gender norms maintain the menstrual status quo. And it must engage the potential of men and boys as allies, not enemies. That’s a tall order that cuts to the very core of gender socialization. But if we don’t take this on, no product in the world will be enough.
Anyone with a camera knows that framing a picture is a choice. Am I suggesting that we should never use the zoom, that we should forgo the rich and textured details possible when we tighten the shot? Of course not, as focus is crucial to our understanding. But when we do aim our figurative cameras and shoot, let’s not forget what lies outside the visual frame. Let’s not forget what else must change for the pad to be a truly sustainable solution.
Guest Post by Jen Lewis
From inception to the present, my art project Beauty in Blood has been a positivity-fueled whirlwind. In the very early stages I shared my concept with just two people, my husband and one of my dearest feminist friends. The positive and open way in which they received the message behind my concept helped me flesh out my thoughts and forge ahead with the execution without concern for any potential nay-sayers. Based on my preliminary research into menstrual art, I expected to face hateful trolls every time I introduced a new person to my work but that hasn’t been the experience at all. In the real world, when I tell people about Beauty in Blood their faces typically brighten in response to the casual mention of such a taboo topic. In fact, at social gatherings it can actually take over an entire conversation; I’ve watched women have micro feminist revelations in front of my eyes when discussing the secrecy and silence around menstruation. If that’s not a testament to the power of art, I don’t know what is.
Don’t get me wrong, detractors cross my path but they are few, far between and significantly politer than the hateful trolls in the comments sections of online articles. Typical detractors suggest I alter my art in order to follow the “sanitary” path laid out by menstrual product manufacturers, i.e. “It would look better if the blood was blue; the red is so offensive and difficult to digest.” Or “You’d probably sell a lot more if the prints were black and white.” Or “The message is great but people don’t want to talk about this stuff; they’re not ready even if you are.” Overall, the latter does not represent my experience in the least. Men and women alike have expressed curiosity, support and encouragement to continue developing and growing the scope of Beauty in Blood.
As Jenny Lapekas discussed last month on re:Cycling, there are many, many menstrual art haters online with vile things to say about women and our bodies. However, there are also many women who will not be silenced or, is more likely the case, who will not hear the trolls. Just about any student who took a 20th Century American Art survey course can tell you that menstrual fluid, along with a wide variety of biological substances, are nothing new in modern art. Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” and Judy Chicago’s “Red Flag” are often referenced in basic art survey texts as examples from the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. However, what I discovered when I started digging around the internet in search of “menstrual art” was that there are many women artists both from the past and presently working with menstrual fluid. Their visual art spans thematically from addressing political issues that pertain to women’s bodies to linking women’s bodies to natural earth cycles to simply creating something positive from an occurrence that is usually negative. Artist Vanessa Tiegs even coined a term for this art, Menstrala. The number of young women taking to livejournal.com and Tumblr to share their menstrual creations or DIY tips is as surprising as it is inspiring. Regardless of the haters and trolls, contemporary art made with and/or addressing the menstrual cycle are popping up across the globe. In Sweden, SMCR’s own Josefin Persdotter curated Period Pieces, a wildly successful travelling exhibit that features the work of 13 artists including Arvida Bystrom, Chloe Wise, and Petra Collins. In 2013, the Sunday Times Magazine introduced us to British artist Sarah Maple and her incredible oil painting “Menstruate with Pride”. In Australia, Casey Jenkins made headlines with her 28-day performance, “Casting Off My Womb,” where she knits one skein of wool that unravels from her vagina daily to mark a full menstrual cycle. Most recently, Egyptian feminist artist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy (photo NSFW) shocked the world by using her nude body and biological substances, her menses and excrement, to make an extreme political statement about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Trolls and haters be damned! Women have some things to say and there will be blood, lots of menstrual blood.
On June 7, we posted a video of slam poet Dominique Christina performing a poem combating men’s shaming of women and their menstrual cycles. In the “Period Poem,” which she dedicated to her daughter, Christina encourages women who are confronted by men’s negativity toward menstruation to bleed, and bleed, and bleed on everything he loves. It is a fierce, bold, rebellious poem that has garnered much attention on social media, which received upwards of 6 million “likes” when it later appeared on Facebook. There is something magical and inspiring about menstrual art—poetry, paintings, songs, stories. For myself, who most often addresses menstruation in academic work—mired in journal edits, statistics, interviews, and such—I am in awe, somehow, by the similar themes that art, activism, and academia all address around the topic of menstruation.
To borrow a title from Dorothy Alison, here are two or three things I know for sure (about menstruation):
(1) First, the disgust directed toward women’s bodies serves as a powerful regulatory force to direct, contain, control, and denigrate women’s bodies. By eliciting disgust, we can summon people’s sense of outrage, moral judgments, visceral reactions, and “irrational” fears and funnel them toward a particular target. I continue to be amazed at how disgust about menstruating women (and, specifically, menstruating vaginas) permeates popular culture, social media, news media, and informal interactions. My research on disgust and menstruation has found that people find menstruation more disgusting than nearly any other bodily product or bodily occurrence. A recent pilot study I conducted found that this normal, healthy monthly cycle weighs in as more disgusting than open wounds, diarrhea, used diapers, and vomit. Dominique Christina’s response to the “dummy on Twitter” that dissed his girlfriend for starting her period during sex is tapping into this same phenomenon. Disgust is dangerous, and it connects powerfully to the undercurrents of misogyny in this country.
(2) Resistance to men’s shaming of menstruation is everywhere, hidden in simple acts of rebellion all over the world. Whether through poetry, art, the refusal to use commercial menstrual products, the impulse to fight back against the idiocy that permeates online culture, the commitment to love one’s body no matter what, the embrace of cycles and changes in the body, the refusal to be silent or unseen, the desire to connect to other women, the communication with daughters and grand-daughters about their cycles, and in a thousand other simple and elegant and (often) hidden ways, women resist the bullying, misogyny, and shaming of menstruation all the time. We can and should expect such resistance.
(3) Menstruation is no trivial subject. We are taught, as women, that our concerns, thoughts, fields of study, feelings, and attitudes are trivial, silly, not relevant, not important. (The journal, Trivia: Voice of Feminism, exists to combat this very assumption, publishing some of the most engaging and interesting feminist creative writing around). Menstruation is no exception. We learn very early that our menstrual cycles are either wholly invisible or targets for ridicule and misogynistic humor. And yet, what could possibly be more powerful than women’s reproductive capacities, their ability to bleed and give birth? Where are political, social, personal, cultural, and institutional intrusions more keenly felt than in women’s decisions about, and relationship to, their menstrual cycles? There is much at stake in resisting the stories we are told about our bodies, and, as I have too often found in my own work, doing so can make people frothing-at-the-mouth angry. My prediction: the more we continue to resist and fight back against menstrual shaming—whether through art, activism, or academia—the more clear it will become that menstruation is far, far, far from trivial.
Guest Post by Jenny Lapekas
I’ve noticed for quite some time now that on social media sites, along with news articles that allow readers to comment, users attack menstrual artwork, claiming it’s disgusting and meaningless, and certainly not feminist. No surprise there. What catches my attention the most, however, is when people draw a correlation between menstrual blood and feces. Sure, both substances exit our body as it cleanses itself, but our first blood—menarche—alerts us to a new, sophisticated process taking place within us. Art ventures whose medium is the message, such as Vanessa Tiegs’ “Menstrala” or Jen Lewis’s “Beauty in Blood” seek to materialize woman’s experience with blood and to suggest that it can in fact be positive.
Let’s look at some YouTube (the cruelest place on the web) comments found on Tiegs’ “Menstrala” videos:
crckthsfkcr: “it just like the ‘artist’ who filled jars with his shit and sold them as a piece of art”
eliwoood1 shares: “i threw up”
fat apollo writes: “Oh gross. I will never understand you art people. You could use baby shit, call it art, and it’s acceptable.”
Trolling has obviously become an online phenomenon and can be a very irritating problem for many of us. It seems we’ve forgotten what our mothers told us as children: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The types of trolls that seem to appear when content related to menstrual artwork is published online aim to be dismissive and condescending in their remarks and tone. A user who claims they vomited at the sight of menstrual artwork is no doubt invoking the compelling theme of body horror, particularly what menstrual artists seek to destroy. Username “fat Apollo” points to the idea that using menstrual blood to create art is not “acceptable.” Menstrual etiquette dictates that our bleeding should remain unseen, so by these unspoken standards, blood’s visibility and even glorification are enough to give some people a heart attack. Because menstruation is frequently seen as an unruly process, many find blood’s placement within a controlled medium to be puzzling, and thus offensive.
What to do about trolls then? Nothing. Eyes and ears must be open for education to take place. Too often I’ve encountered circular dialogue that leads nowhere between trolls and those who are being attacked for what they’ve posted, what they believe, or what they hold dear in this world. It seems that the web accommodates ignorance as much as it opens new and exciting doors for its users. What better platform to anonymously claim ignorance and then resist the push for self-education? Even with all the information available online, it’s futile to conduct research when we simply leave no room in our minds to digest the material and ideas we find there.
Yes, both menstrual blood and feces are forms of waste. However, not only is menstruation unique to women, but it’s evidence of our own mortality, where we come from, and the bittersweet reality that we’ll decay and die to make way for new life. Isn’t there something terribly poetic about that? Because menstrual blood can be seen as the body’s failed attempt to procreate, this blood is highly symbolic, especially for women trying (some desperately) to conceive; for this particular group of menstruators, the arrival of blood can mark heartache and depression—as opposed to the many women who sigh with relief during that magical moment in the bathroom that can make even the most committed atheists thank God in heaven for that bloody stain in their panties.
Menstrual blood, then, carries with it multitudes of stories, what ifs, and the humble knowledge that it is the same blood that pumps through all of our veins, nourishes the body, and enables us to carry on each day. The act of appropriating it as a means of aesthetic expression is not only subversive and wildly feminist but helps to broaden viewers’ understanding of the menstrual cycle and the interplay between beauty and biology.
Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta
In my line of work, I talk and write a lot about the female reproductive system. It’s no secret…I’m pretty vag-savvy. I don’t randomly walk up to strangers and start talking lady parts, but I certainly don’t hesitate to share repro info when the topic arises or when people ask me what I do for a living.
While some people constantly look like they are secretly planning an escape from the conversation, more often than not, the folks I’ve encountered are genuinely very curious and inquisitive about female reproduction. After all, it’s something that most of us have never really been taught. One big thing I’ve noticed is that talking about the topic like it’s no big deal makes people a lot more likely to truly engage. Having frank conversations rather than ones riddled with “ewws” and “yucks” goes a long way toward helping people break down internal menstrual stigmas, and it’s an awesome thing to be part of.
I recently spent some time in Chicago visiting a friend, and while I was there, we went out to dinner with her friends. Then comes the obligatory question about what I do for a living. To this day, when someone asks me this question, I still have moments of mild internal panic, wondering how they will react. I would imagine that when most of us ask this question, we’re not expecting to be faced with a deeply personal, and often polarizing, subject. So, in some ways, I can totally understand the initial shock-factor that some people experience. But I somehow always manage to answer very matter-of-factly, and on this particular day, it couldn’t have gone better.
One of the women in the group, after hearing that I specialize in lady parts and natural fertility management, mentioned that she was really struggling with the birth control pill and had been thinking for a while about stopping. And she asked for my advice. I’m always very careful not to say “this is what you should do,” because autonomy is incredibly important and I’ll never claim to know the best birth control option for someone…especially someone I just met. So, instead, I opened up about my personal experience with the pill, my hesitation in deciding to stop, my work with Groove and fertility awareness, and what it has all meant for my life. I wasn’t surprised that she was interested in my story (it’s always nice to know you aren’t alone), but I start to get pretty giddy when others jump into the conversation, too. Which is precisely what happened.
I was in mixed company and everyone in the group was actively engaging in a conversation about periods, birth control, and cervical fluid. Not a single person murmured an “ew,” and I (of course) was thrilled. There were a lot of wonderful questions asked, a lot of great dialogue about how the female reproductive system works, and even some thoughtful critiques of modern birth control methods. In the end, the woman who initially asked for my advice said that she found my experience both validating and reassuring, and she mentioned that she planned to stop the pill. But even if this hadn’t been her decision, the conversation was still a wild success.
Any initial hesitation felt by the individuals in our group quickly dissipated after the conversation began. In the end, there was no shame, no embarrassment, no stigma. This is precisely why I do what I do. If I can help even one person overcome female reproductive stigmas, then I consider my work a success. On this day, I felt enormously successful.