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Meet the women working to end period shame

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Lizzie Pook
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It’s one of our most natural bodily processes and it’s high time we took back control. Stylist meets the women spearheading the period positive movement.

Do you consider yourself squeamish? What would happen if I showed you a canvas splattered with gruesomely thick, crimson blood? What if I told you it was menstrual blood that has been hurled, by hand, across that canvas by art student Jessica Cummin? Hot, syrupy menstrual blood that has seeped into the fibres and hardened into a muddy-red shell. Would you turn away in disgust?

Periods make people uncomfortable. We don’t like talking about them, or looking at them, or being reminded on any remote sensory level that they exist. If you are a woman or any other human being who menstruates, you’ll be familiar with the unspoken shame that comes with bleeding – the shame that makes us tuck a tampon up our sleeve on the way to the toilet, hide blood-soiled knickers at the bottom of the laundry basket, or tell our partner in apologetically euphemistic terms that it’s our ‘time of the month’. We’ve taken strides when it comes to breaking down the stigma surrounding issues such as mental health, gender equality and disability, yet we still balk at talking openly about something that affects huge swathes of the population.

It’s a stigma that takes its hold in childhood – borne of clumsy sex education classes where the boys are ushered secretively out of the room while the girls are treated to clunky demonstrations featuring novel-thick sanitary towels. It’s no wonder a recent survey by girls’ rights charity Plan International UK showed that nearly half of the 1,000 girls they spoke to are too embarrassed to talk about periods. A 2016 YouGov poll also found that over half of women felt their performance at work had been affected by period pain, yet nearly three-quarters were too ashamed to tell their boss the real reason.

This has to stop. We need to reclaim ownership of our bodies. Bodyform recently released its Blood Normal campaign, a 20-second advert showing red blood, not the sanitised blue liquid of previous sanitary product advertising. A bloody revolution is in swing it seems, spearheaded by free-bleeding marathon runners and provocative artists using menstrual blood as material. Stylist meets the women finally shaking up the way we talk about periods.

The blood activist

Musician Kiran Gandhi made headlines in 2015 when she ran the London Marathon while free-bleeding

“I remember arriving at the start line of the London Marathon and feeling the familiar cramp in my stomach that signalled the start of my period. During training, I’d just taken time off when I had my cycle and I had never run while wearing a tampon or pad because they can cause horrible chafing. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s so ridiculous that we don’t have conversations about how we can make sure women and people who bleed each month are comfortable.’ Instead, we talk about how to conceal it. I was angry, yet so determined to run. I thought, ‘If there’s one person society can’t eff with, it’s a marathon runner.’ So I took the snap decision to free-bleed as a radical act to try and shatter the silence surrounding menstrual stigma.

My story went viral. It was trending on Facebook and Twitter for days because I think people really wanted to talk about the issue, but there hadn’t been space to do so before. Plenty of people got in touch to tell me they thought it was ‘gross’, or ‘dirty’, or ‘disgusting’. ‘Perfect,’ I thought. That was exactly the point I was trying to subvert. Menstruation is not gross, we’re just utterly afraid of women’s bodies.

Sadly, even today, we still only value women for their beauty and sexuality – and a period is not sexually consumable by men. So the world socialises women to pretend it doesn’t exist. But it does. Periods actively allow the human race to exist. They should be seen as our biggest asset.

Ultimately, the more we talk about something, the more normal it becomes. I want to get to a point where we speak about periods and women’s bodies so much that generations to come won’t believe there was ever a time when periods were stigmatised. I want them to laugh at that idea.”

madamegandhi.blog

The comedian

Chella Quint is a comedy writer, performer and teacher. She is also the founder of the #periodpositive hashtag 

“About 10 years ago I set up a zine called Adventures In Menstruating to deconstruct, challenge and basically make fun of the stigma surrounding periods. I got the inspiration while trawling through some archives, where I found a load of historical adverts for menstrual products and thought, ‘Well this is just hilarious.’ The material was so dated, it was shocking, but what was even more shocking was that we’re still bombarded with these messages today. Think about it: packaging is always designed so that nobody could possibly know what’s inside. The adverts use language like ‘whisper’ and ‘discreet’. I came across one pad during my research which came with a freshening wipe called Freshelle. So we ran a piece about ridiculous menstrual products and titled it: ‘What freshelle is this?’

Eventually, zine readings turned into more general comedy nights about menstruation. Now, almost a decade on, the shows cover everything from leakage horror stories to me, on stage, trying on a load of old pads with elasticated waists from the Thirties. I even instigate a ‘menstrual product mambo’ (where everyone has to get up and dance) and talk about the first time I used a menstrual cup: I didn’t realise that if you take it out with a flourish, you end up surrounded by something that resembles a crime scene.

My day job is teaching and when I became head of physical and health education at my school, I was keen to include arts and drama in my teaching about periods. A lot of research has established the link between embarrassment about menstruation as a child leading to other issues in later life: you might have trouble negotiating consent, pleasure and sex if you internalise such shame about your body, for example. So it’s important for me to be as positive about periods with the students as possible.

We can fight back in other ways too. Firstly, we can start calling them ‘menstrual products’, not ‘sanitary products’, because it suggests not using them somehow makes us unclean. We also need to be more inclusive to trans and non-binary menstruators (we can say ‘women and others who menstruate’) and to not simply assume that all women get their periods, as there are some who don’t for physiological or emotional reasons.

But it’s also really important to share some joy and silliness about periods. To laugh at them. I’m not saying periods are fun, but talking about them can be. Creating a feeling of camaraderie and making people realise they have people they can talk to is crucial.”

The philanthropist

Model Natalia Vodianova is an investor in Flo, an artificial intelligence-powered women’s health platform

“When it comes to conversations around menstruation, period tracking apps are just the tip of the iceberg. Flo uses artifical intelligence to predict your cycle but it’s also a platform where women can talk online about their most intimate issues in a safe, non-judgmental environment. It’s so important to have that community, where any issue can be discussed, whether you are a woman working in London or a girl in India or Nepal, where there’s so much stigma around having your period.

When we were developing Flo, we did a survey on how well we know our reproductive organs. I was really shocked to realise that I maybe know the right terms for 40% of my body, and I’ve had five children! That was not a pleasant surprise. I can’t imagine what the case is for some other women around the world.

Not everyone wants to talk openly about periods, but like anything important and ultimately beneficial, you have to push to get your voice heard. We shouldn’t be afraid of being ‘rude’. When you’re changing the world, you have to aim for something to become so annoyingly widespread that it becomes normal. That’s why we needto keep talking about periods.

The stigma will fade away when we educate, accept and forgive ourselves more. As women, if we’re to be seen as successful, we feel we have to be perfect – we can’t have any stains on our character or physically on our clothes. We need to give ourselves a break. Only then can we affect real change.”

flo.health

The schoolgirl campaigner

Amika George, 17, is a vocal campaigner in the fight against period poverty in the UK 

“In March, I read an article about girls in Britain missing school for up to a week each month because they couldn’t afford sanitary protection. I was stunned. I’d never even heard the term ‘period poverty’ before and the fact that this was happening to girls my age, in my country, totally blew me away.

What shocked me most was that people were starting to talk about the issue but nothing was being done. It must be so crippling to a girl’s education and health to miss school for such an avoidable reason, so I started a change.org petition to ask the government to give free sanitary products to girls on free school meals.

As it stands, we’ve got about 21,000 signatures and I’m hoping we can gain more traction. During the general election, after I’d called and emailed all the parties to encourage them to address period poverty, the Lib Dems, the Green Party and the Women’s Equality Party all included it in their manifestos, which was a real coup. Since then, I’ve had support from all over, from people like Cherie Blair, director Ken Loach and Baroness Shami Chakrabarti.

When I started the petition, people would contact me and either say, ‘Oh God, this can’t be happening in the UK’, or, ‘This is me’. Girls told me they would go through every crease of every sofa just to find a few extra pennies to buy sanitary products. They knew their parents were struggling to put food on the table, and often they had five or six siblings, so they knew there wasn’t money lying around. They felt it was another burden to ask for cash, so they resorted to using tissue paper, socks or ripped-up T-shirts as makeshift pads, or just missed school altogether.

We can never tackle period poverty if we can’t tackle the taboo around periods. I’m hoping more people will take notice of the campaign, start talking without shame and put pressure on the government to make it happen.”

See Amika’s petition at change.org

The entrepreneur

Kath Clements is the marketing manager for Mooncup, a silicone menstrual cup, which sells in over 60 countries around the world. 

“Believe it or not, the first menstrual cup was actually invented in the Thirties by an American dancer called Leona Chalmers, and her gynaecologist brother. She was way ahead of her time; it was initially made of rubber and was advertised on massive billboards in Times Square. She put some significant investment behind it. However, this was at a time when there were real mores around not touching yourself in any way. It was also the point at which applicator tampons were invented – which offered the lucrative business of repeat purchase – so the menstrual cup kind of went underground.

We began selling medical grade silicone Mooncups in 2002 to friends-of-friends as a mail order service from a messy front room. Eventually, Boots got in touch, which is a massive coup for a small business. That’s when we realised there was a mainstream appetite for the product.

Until 1988, advertising standards meant you couldn’t advertise sanitary products on TV (even after that it was all blue liquid and slick minimalism). When we started, we created a simple ad showing an illustration of a tampon out of its packet and we were told we weren’t allowed to put that out. It was shocking. Thankfully, things are changing, but there’s still a way to go. I get excited when I hear about people like Kiran Gandhi free-bleeding during the marathon, artists like Rupi Kaur posting pictures on Instagram of their soiled pyjama bottoms, and Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui talking openly on TV about how menstruation affects her sporting performance. You feel it’s all tremendously positive. But then you read about a 12-year-old girl taking her own life in India because she’s been period-shamed, and it’s back to square one.

I think we’ve been a participant in changing the conversation around periods and have been determinedly chipping away at the taboo. Just the notion that there was an upstart company presenting new products cracks open the possibility for further conversation. Talking about Mooncups, how and why we use them, gives people who menstruate an opportunity to discuss ideas we maybe wouldn’t otherwise. It might be just a product, but it’s had a huge cultural impact.”

The wellness leader

Lisa Lister is the creator of wellness website The Sassy She, designed to help women reconnect with their bodies through their menstrual cycles

“More than 3,000 years ago – when women knew their menstrual cycle was a reflection of the seasons and that bleeding was a purification process that was honoured and revered – men got fearful. ‘How does she bleed for five days and not die?’ they questioned, aghast. So the patriarchy took all the parts of being a woman that made her powerful and labelled them taboo. Now, it’s been ingrained in us for thousands of years that our blood is dirty and embarrassing, when actually it’s super-nourishing – it’s the richest source of stem cells known to humanity. Try using some on your plants and you’ll see.

As a result, we’re no longer letting our cyclical nature guide us. I know the most productive week of my cycle is when I ovulate, so that’s when I write copy and get sh*t done. I’m a strong believer in letting our menstrual cycles guide us. Since we disconnected from ‘Mumma Earth’, a deep disconnect from ourselves has manifested as painful menstrual cycles, shame about being a woman, gnarly PMS and reproductive issues.

I believe there’s no such thing as too much information when it comes to discussing women’s health, but it’s going to take a lot of candid conversations to bring about lasting change.”

thesassyshe.com 

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