This article was first published on Diggit Magazine.
Menstrual activism has been around for many years and has brought women great improvements regarding health and society. But from my perspective, the battle isn’t over yet.
Starting in the 60s, menstrual and women’s health activism was fuelled by abortion rights, and later by women who were concerned about the safety of menstrual products, the social construction of menstruation as shameful, and the female-disregarding male-dominated medical system. As women’s health movements collaborated with consumer rights activists and environmentalists in the 70s, menstrual activism grew. It resulted in women taking their health into their own hands, the application of warning labels to oral contraceptives, and the publication of the women’s health book Our Bodies, Our Selves of which the ’78 version, at last, included some alternatives to the commercial tampons and sanitary pads.
This period also saw the first conference legitimising menstruation as an academic research topic and the establishment of a universal “tampon safety standard”, withTSS warning labels appearing on tampon packaging after a long battle with the food and drug administration. By putting women’s interests first and questioning industry and government policies, the women’s health movement established a history which is still integral for today’s menstrual activists. Today’s activists focus more and more on environmental issues as mainstream menstrual products are non-biodegradable and resource-intensive disposables, of which an average woman uses 9,600 pieces in her lifetime (Bobel, 2010; Schumacher, 2014).
By putting women’s interests first and questioning industry and government policies, the women’s health movement established a history which is still integral for today’s menstrual activists.
Personally, I am a 100% supportive of menstrual activism and loathe the taboos that surround menstruation. I regard it as a natural process which causes enough monthly discomfort and pain as it is, without added nonsense from society or enterprises. Menstruation then can also be regarded as a case of female empowerment, as, thinking of the concept “man flu”, imagine if guys also got periods! This hypothetical scenario does imply that menstrual activism would likely have been less crucial or perhaps even non-existent if men themselves were physically affected by menstruation.
Luckily, female menstrual activism has allowed many women (including me) to be in charge of their bodies and issues of health, and increased awareness around menstruation and the safety of femcare products. Without the endeavours of and normalisation by ‘everywoman’ advocates, I would likely never have known about the existence and environmental value of menstrual cups or would have had the courage to use one. And without their efforts the NOS (Dutch broadcast foundation) wouldn’t have created an informational video on the dangerous period-related condition endometriosis. This video received tons of comments from women who suffer from endometriosis and aren’t taken seriously by their doctors (NOS op 3, 2019).
I also admire individual acts of menstrual empowerment, such as those by Carlee, a criticism-defying mum who is part of the free bleeding movement and shamelessly shared a photo of herself doing yoga whilst menstruating (Benear, n.d.). Rupi Kaur posted a similar period-photo on Instagram, which she had to re-upload twice after it was removed by moderators (Rogers, 2015).
Still, I have noticed the need for further changes. On a small scale, how information about female bodies and menstruation is presented and distributed, especially to younger girls and boys, and the availability of menstrual products in primary schools, is still lacking. On a larger scale, unfortunately, there are still many cultures where menstruation is a greater taboo, as shown in the Netflix documentary Period. End of sentence. The documentary explores the challenges faced by Indian women in talking about menstruation, and they learn how to operate a pad-making machine as their only other sanitary towel option is old cloth (Zehtabchi, 2018). Such cases exemplify how menstrual activism can definitely not be regarded as a done deed.
The artistic sphere provides a platform for those seeking to express and visualise their stance regarding menstruation. Even though many artists use menstrual blood as a controversial artistic medium, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos created an impressive artwork without using the obvious substance. Her work A Noiva (2001-2005) or ‘The Bride’ is a 6 by 3-meter chandelier constructed out of stainless steel, steel cables, cotton thread and 25,000 OB tampons (Vasconcelos, n.d.). From a distance the piece of décor impresses with lots of dazzling pendants, but upon the viewer’s approach the perspective becomes surprising and shocking when discovering that the shiny elements aren’t glass or crystals but the light’s reflection on the wrappers of hundreds of virtuous tampons.
The chandelier embodies femininity, challenges preconceivednotions and removes a mask, exposing itself and confronting any gender and generation to encourage conversation about women’s issues and female-related products. Vasconcelos personally states that theartwork is “a critical vision of contemporary society and the several features which serve the enunciations of collective identity, especially those that concern the status of women’’ (Chelli, 2017).
The specific use of tampons in La Noiva can be interpreted in multiple ways. For instance, it addresses and criticizes the history of feminine products as they were and still are glorified by the industry. This further reflects the concept of dual identities and the fact “that women’s true identities, sexuality and freedoms are often repressed or hidden’’ (Surugue, 2018). Also, it decontextualizes the mundane products as they are repurposed as crystals, signifying the high value of women’s intimacy and the need to support and protect it. The grandeur of the entire piece is inevitable, as is menstruation, its activism and the beauty that it holds within.
Deservedly, A Noiva causes discomfort to some as it reveals notions of hypocrisy and repression of the feminine. This irony is demonstrated by the artwork being refused as an exhibition piece by the traditional Château de Versailles in 2012 for being sexual and too personal (Chelli, 2017). It is only a matter of guessing that it was a board of men who decided upon this convenient censorship.
Benear, C. (n.d.). Carlee Benear (@carleebyoga) • Instagram photos and videos. Instagram.
Bobel, C. (2010). The Emergence of Menstrual Activism, in New Blood, Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, Rutgers Univ Press, pp. 42-65.
Chelli, A. (2017). Joana Vasconcelos – Creating Wonders – DHG Exclusive Interview. Dyeing House Gallery.
NOS op 3. (2019). Het gevaar van zwijgen over extreme menstruatiepijn. YouTube.
Rogers, K. (2015). Instagram Is Sorry It Accidentally Removed a Photo of Menstrual Blood. Twice. Vice.
Schumacher, A. (2014). Women Spend Hundreds of Extra Dollars Per Year. Here’s One Easy Out. Groundswell.
Surugue, L. (2018). Interview with Joana Vasconcelos in Bilbao. Euronews.
Vasconcelos, J. (n.d.). Joana Vasconcelos – A Noiva. Vasconcelos art portfolio.
Zehtabchi, R. (Director). (2018). Period. End of sentence [documentary]. USA: Netflix