By Lucie Paradis
Lucie Paradis is a recent graduate from Columbia University’s School of General Studies, having studied Human Rights with a focus on education. She will continue to pursue her interest in educational justice as a Peace Corps volunteer this fall, serving as an English language co-teacher in North Macedonia.
As staying home has become the new normal over the past few months for the majority of Americans, social media users have developed a new terminology to inspire body image insecurities—the “quarantine 15.” While body positive influencers are working overtime to combat the recent onslaught of fatphobic memes and comments, there is another arena of body shame that the body positivity community has yet to place at the forefront of their agenda: menstrual stigma. Based on social media representation, it seems that menstruators and non-menstruators alike are afraid of menstrual blood.
While 2015 was named by a number of news outlets as “the year the period went public,” menstruation coverage remains grounded in discourse rather than visuals. This limits the reaches of period activism and of body positivity. Without seeing the bodily product of menstruation represented on the big screen, the small screen, or the even smaller screen—social media apps—menstruators are still left to sit with the belief that their menstrual blood is meant to be invisible.
There are some notable exceptions: Several brave individuals have wielded their menstrual blood for the purpose of political commentary, art, and empowerment. If you look up menstrual activism, you will likely come across the names Rupi Kaur, Kiran Gandhi, and Sarah Levy, who all dared to show their period blood to the public—whether through an honest Instagram photo, through free-bleeding during a marathon, or by using menstrual blood as the medium of a portrait of then presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The first time that I came face-to-screen with menstrual blood was through a YouTube video produced by Devin Lytle and Chantel Houston, two former members of the Ladylike team at Buzzfeed. Posted in June 2017, “We Painted With Our Period Blood” is Ladylike’s least liked video of all time, with over 90,000 dislikes as of April 2020 (compared to an average of 1,300 dislikes on a single video). The channel’s second least liked video—“Women Go Without Period Products for a Day”—also involves visible menstrual blood. While both videos intend to give voice to menstruators as menstruators, the comments sections reveal just how potent menstrual stigma remains when visible blood is on the table (or on the screen, the canvas, or our clothes) with the majority of comments employing the adjectives “disgusting,” “gross,” and “biohazardous.”
The first video has since been made unsearchable on YouTube in order to return menstrual blood to its “proper” place—wrapped up in ten layers of toilet paper and carefully hidden under less offensive thrown-away items in the bathroom trash can. Disparaging menstrual blood in this way is a form of body shaming just as harmful as fat shaming, body hair shaming, and other forms of bullying that body positive activists speak out directly against.
To be sure, period product companies are starting to present menstrual blood as “normal” and as “nothing to hide,” in the next sentence promoting their “best” new products with crinkle-free paper, scent diffusers, and a fun hide-able size, so as to keep the act of menstruation as quiet, odorless, and invisible as possible.
We—menstruators and non-menstruators—need to reclaim period blood as radical and political. We need to set the bar higher and envision a form of menstrual activism that not only makes the bodily process of menstruation visible, but empowered. Everyday activism by everyday people is necessary to spark any form of lasting change.
Body positivity today advocates for a broad spectrum of inclusion—across size, race, and gender. What is missing from the discourse is a conversation not only about how the body is constructed, but about how the body functions. Perhaps menstrual stigma has yet to be fully tackled by the body positive community precisely because menstrual blood has been rendered so invisible.
You can choose to take the first step of body positive menstrual activism from your toilet seat—dare to leave your used menstrual product at the top of the trash can. Or if you want to take it one step further, curate your social media content to support actors in the menstrual movement who are not afraid of getting a little bloody. Once you have found your own period positivity, consider how you can help others on their journeys. Push back against people—online or in person—who describe menstruation as gross, make menstruation a cafeteria or dinner table discussion, and radically imagine a future where menstrual blood is represented on gallery walls and in your Instagram feed.
In Spring 2020, Columbia students and faculty had the opportunity–for the first time ever–to spend a full semester exploring menstruation through many different angles in the course “Menstruation, Gender, and Rights: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” Students engaged in writing OpEd style short pieces that draw attention to various facets of menstruation neglected in the mainstream discourse. Leading up to the worldwide day celebrating menstruation, we have the honor to present a selection of emerging menstrual voices. If you’re interested in joining, please stay tuned–we plan to offer the course again in Spring 2021. — Professor Inga Winkler