Our Bloody Bod­ies, Our­se­ves by Rayna Liv­ing­stone-lang

The shock­ing and play­ful resur­gence of menstrual art

Broken Pencil - - Table Of Contents - By Rayna Liv­ing­stone-lang Are You There God, It's Me Mar­garet Ready or Not).

“Men­stru­a­tion is like a sym­bol of power that has been shamed by a dom­i­nant cul­ture”

IN 2015,

TORONTO-BASED artist and poet Rupi Kaur posted an Instagram photo of a fully-clothed woman in bed with a menstrual stain on her pants and sheets. Kaur's work was dubbed as of­fen­sive and the photo was pulled by Instagram for not fol­low­ing com­mu­nity guide­lines, which pro­hibit sex­ual acts, nu­dity, and vi­o­lence — none of which are present in the photo. Instagram did even­tu­ally re­store the im­age af­ter sig­nif­i­cant back­lash and claimed the cen­sor­ship was “an ac­ci­dent.” A num­ber of com­menters la­beled the scene as “gross” and “un­pure”, with one user go­ing go­ing so far to say “be­ing a woman is hon­estly dis­gust­ing… I would do any­thing to kms (kill my­self).” So why is men­stru­a­tion still be­ing treated as some­thing "un­pure?" How is this fact of life for women so cloaked in taboo that it is as un­fit to view as the Ark of the Covenant? Kaur's vir­tual knuckle-rap­ping con­firms an ages-old prac­tice of women be­ing told that their pe­ri­ods are dirty, make them crazy, and should be kept dis­creet for com­fort of oth­ers. A grow­ing new art move­ment aims to con­front and elim­i­nate these men­tal­i­ties, el­e­vat­ing the act of hav­ing one's pe­riod in ways that are joy­ful, an­gry, po­lit­i­cal and de­fi­ant.

Menstrual art is ex­actly what it sounds like it is: art fo­cused on the so-called “crim­son wave,” with many works be­ing cre­ated us­ing ac­tual menstrual blood. Artists who dab­ble in this bloody and provoca­tive medium cre­ate pieces that ad­dress so­ci­etal neg­a­tiv­ity and body shame, and some­times take more po­lit­i­cal stances against rape and other forms of vi­o­lence against women. “[Men­stru­a­tion] is like a sym­bol of power that has been shamed by a dom­i­nant cul­ture,” says Toronto-based artist Jess Dobkin, known for per­for­mance pieces in­cor­po­rat­ing her body. “It gets stig­ma­tized be­cause of the tremen­dous power of women, and not just women, but the power of the body… and these stig­mas were not put in place by the peo­ple it's im­pact­ing and it has be­come in­ter­nal­ized.”

When the word “pe­riod” or any of its re­lated eu­phemisms are ut­tered out loud, they're usu­ally met with with cring­ing and shame. Even tam­pon and pad ad­ver­tise­ments al­ways use words such as “dis­creet” and “in­vis­i­ble” to de­scribe their prod­ucts. In pop­u­lar cul­ture, pe­ri­ods are of­ten treated as an em­bar­rass­ing scourge — see the hor­ri­fy­ing open­ing shower scene of Brian De Palma's hor­ror film Car­rie and King of the Hill's episode “Aisle A8” in which squea­mish Hank Hill has to help his young neigh­bour with her first pe­riod — or an al­most painfully pre­cious gift of “wom­an­hood” smoth­ered in cutesy phras­ing and squeaky-clean res­o­lu­tions (see and the episode “Busy's Curse” from the Cana­dian TV show

In the in­tro­duc­tion to her book Pe­ri­ods in Pop Cul­ture: Men­stru­a­tion in Film and Tele­vi­sion, Aus­tralian re­searcher Dr. Lau­ren Rose­warne says that these de­pic­tions of men­stru­a­tion help to “re­in­force pop­u­lar ideas re­lated to taboo, stigma, and se­crecy.” As a re­sult, menstrual art is reg­u­larly dis­missed as at­ten­tion-seek­ing gore rather than a state­ment.

It's dif­fi­cult to pin­point ex­actly when menstrual art be­gan, but its roots lie in the fem­i­nist art move­ments of the 1960s and ‘70s. Amer­i­can artist Judy Chicago is of­ten cred­ited as be­ing one of the first to rec­og­nize the artis­tic mer­its of the crim­son wave, with The Curse cred­it­ing her work to “free­ing women artists from the menstrual taboo.” Chicago ex­hib­ited a hand­made litho­graph, Red Flag (1971), which fea­tured the artist re­mov­ing a tam­pon from her vagina. Many peo­ple mis­took the tam­pon as be­ing a bloody pe­nis, which Chicago stated was “a tes­ta­ment to the dam­age done to our per­cep­tual pow­ers in the ab­sence of fe­male re­al­ity.” As part of the col­lab­o­ra­tive in­stal­la­tion and per­for­mance space, Wo­man­house (1972), Chicago cre­ated the con­tro­ver­sial Men­stru­a­tion Bath­room, a white bath­room with used and un­used menstrual prod­ucts. The cen­tre­piece was a trash­can over­flow­ing with used tam­pons, re­mind­ing us that hid­ing our used “cot­ton pony” is a fu­tile and un­nec­es­sary ef­fort.

Chicago's work helped to es­tab­lish the prac­tice of menstrual art and many artists fol­lowed up with their own bloody mas­ter­pieces. In 2011, Jess Dobkin at­tended the an­nual Power­ball fundrais­ing gala, pop­u­lated by elite pa­trons of the Toronto art world, in a fancy white dress with an un­mis­take­able red stain on the back. Pho­tog­ra­pher Henry Chan doc­u­mented the per­for­mance which was aptly called Bleed­ing at the Ball. “Peo­ple

wouldn't even name it. They'd say ‘you had an ac­ci­dent' or ‘there's

some­thing on your dress',” Dobkin said about the ex­pe­ri­ence. “Some peo­ple pointed it out to each other… there was even a woman in the bath­room tak­ing a pic­ture of it.”

Van­cou­ver pho­tog­ra­pher Jackie Dives cre­ated a se­ries of menstrual por­traits of women on their pe­ri­ods ti­tled Men­stru­a­tion (2015). In ad­di­tion to her por­traits, Dives also filmed a short doc­u­men­tary, Pe­riod Piece (2015), in which women dis­cussed their first ex­pe­ri­ences with the ruby tides and also weaved a se­ries of menstrual themed wall hang­ings.

Artists like Dives and Dobkin bring men­stru­a­tion to the fore­front and play­fully negate the ways men­stru­a­tion is con­sid­ered a so­cial faux pas or a se­cret. Other artists have cho­sen to use men­stru­a­tion as a metaphor for ways in which women are so­cially, cul­tur­ally and sex­u­ally sub­ju­gated.

Since 2006, South African artist and ac­tivist Zanele Muholi has been col­lect­ing her menstrual blood and mak­ing man­dalas. The se­ries, called Isilumo Siyaluma (the Zulu phrase for pe­riod pain), is a re­sponse to cu­ra­tive rape, which is a dis­turbingly ram­pant hate crime against the LBGTQI com­mu­nity where a per­son is raped to “cor­rect” their sex­u­al­ity. Each pat­tern is made to rep­re­sent a vic­tim or sur­vivor of this loath­some crime. In a video in­ter­view with Toxic Les­bian, Muholi ex­plains the project's sym­bol­ism: “The same pas­sage in which we bleed — which is a sa­cred space for us fe­male bod­ied be­ings — is the very same space that is be­ing vi­o­lated. And it's that very same space in which we are born.”

Menstrual rights are not uni­ver­sal, with only 12 per­cent of women and girls hav­ing ac­cess to san­i­tary prod­ucts. Menstrual ed­u­ca­tion, as a whole, is also lack­ing with many women not hav­ing an un­der­stand­ing of their own cy­cles. In re­sponse, loads of zines have been cre­ated to help ed­u­cate women on their flow. Zines like the Red Alert se­ries by the Blood Sis­ters, a for­mer Montreal-based or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to fem­i­nine hy­giene, de­tail the po­lit­i­cal and so­ci­etal is­sues of men­stru­a­tion as well as out­lin­ing the risks of main­stream prod­ucts, such as Toxic Shock Syn­drome (TSS). They of­fer nat­u­ral al­ter­na­tives, home reme­dies for cramps and late pe­ri­ods, pro­vide in­struc­tions for mak­ing re­us­able pads, and in­clude art and po­ems in their zines.

Fem­i­nist Com­pi­la­tion se­ries 1234V put to­gether their own bleeder is­sue in 2008, with sto­ries from both men and women. Mean­while, April Aliermo's 2015 zine Red Tides of the Qootchie Queen of­fers anec­dotes in ad­di­tion to ad­vice and an in­ter­view with the creators of a menstrual themed video game. These publi­ca­tions act as women's health pam­phlets, and their sto­ries es­pe­cially help to nor­mal­ize ex­pe­ri­ences and al­le­vi­ate shame.

Menstrual art works to de­pict the beauty of the cy­cle and uses it as an ar­gu­ment to­wards end­ing neg­a­tiv­ity. It's seen as ex­cep­tion­ally rad­i­cal, but it shouldn't be: bleed­ing is some­thing a woman's body does and it should be treat­ing with the same nor­mal­ity we grant to ev­ery bod­ily func­tion. It's not gross, it's not shame­ful, and it's not a se­cret. Ac­cept that re­al­ity and let re­spect flow. bp

Im­age from the video game Tam­pon Run by An­drea Gon­za­les and So­phie Houser

From top: Bleed­ing at the Ball by Jess Dobkin, Red Alert 4 by the Blood Sis­ters, Red Tides of the Qootchie Queens by April Aliermo, Red Flag by Judy Chicago, Pe­riod by Rupi Kaur, all fly­ing tam­pons from Tam­pon Run

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