The activists challenging menstrual shame
Iam sitting in a hotel meeting room with 12 women, all of us squeezing menstrual cups against our cheeks. The blinds are down, the wine has been flowing for the past hour, and after a few people have taken selfies, Mandu Reid, an expert in “cupography”, explains how to use our menstrual cups.
“Do you feel that gentle suction?” she asks. “That’s one of the most important features. It is one of the reasons why, if you’re good at using it, it’s more reliable than a tampon.” She goes on to demonstrate some of the best positions for inserting a cup – sitting on the edge of a toilet seat “manspreading”, standing with one leg up on the toilet seat (her own favourite), or lying down with your legs in the air, a pose she holds while we take pictures for social media. “The most important thing is for you to be relaxed. Put on some jazz, light some candles,” she jokes.
This is a CupAware party, designed to get women together to talk about menstrual cups. It couldn’t be more different from the last bit of menstrual education I received, when
I was 12 and the “Tampax lady” came into my school in her navy blazer and gave out freebies. The evening feels more like a hen do, except that most of us are meeting for the first time and the colourful silicone objects scattered across the room are not sex toys. The goal is to break the taboo around discussing menstruation, and to raise awareness of period products beyond the tampons and sanitary towels that dominate the market. Reid starts by asking a simple but revealing set of questions: how old were you when you first got your period? Who did you tell? How did you feel? The exercise, like the entire workshop, is enlightening. Responses cover everything from difficult relationships with parents, to gender identity issues, to the ludicrous lies we told our friends (guilty). There is something very liberating about sharing period stories, the woman next to me says: “And the more people talk, the more everyone wants to talk. It is like the sexual liberation of the 60s. We are having a menstrual liberation.”
Reid is part of a new wave of period activists, determined to challenge the status quo of our flows. Despite being part of the lives of half the global population, there has been little innovation or big thinking around periods in 80 years – since the tampon was invented. Recently, however, there has been a flurry of activity, from campaigns to petitions, product launches to new advertising imagery.
High on the agenda is the issue of period poverty: the millions of women and girls around the world who cannot afford period protection. There are campaigns to end the tampon tax and petitions to the government to provide free sanitary products for those in need. There is also an effort to drastically rethink period education and to shake off the shame bound up with menstruation.
Reusables have been around for decades (menstrual cups were invented in the 30s) but the multinational companies that dominate the marketplace have prioritised the more profitable disposable products, such as tampons and sanitary towels. With a growing awareness of the potential risks associated with some disposables, including fears around what is in them (toxins, dyes, residual cotton pesticides), new companies such as TOTM and Lola are offering organic alternatives. Menstrual cups are becoming more popular for similar reasons – as well as the environmental and financial benefits of a product you need to replace only once a decade; there are now more than 20 brands on the market. Meanwhile, companies such as Thinx and Dear Kate have been creating periodproof knickers designed with leak-resistant and absorbent fabric. They can absorb up to two tampons’ or three teaspoons’ worth of blood respectively; on lighter days you could wear them without any other protection. Subscription services such as Freda and Dame will deliver period products to your door on a monthly basis, the latter offering chocolate and paracetamol as optional extras.
The new period movement addresses not just financial and practical problems, but attitudinal: the idea that women shouldn’t have to whisper about their “time of the month”, or hide tampons up their sleeves on the way to the toilet.
Nobody seems embarrassed at the CupAware party. It costs £15 to attend and the money goes towards raising funds for similar workshops for women who cannot afford to buy period products. The event is the brainchild of Reid, 36, founder of NGO the Cup Effect, and Gabby Edlin, 31, founder of Bloody Good Period, a charity that donates period products to those who can’t afford them. The two women met at the Women of the World festival in London earlier this year and bonded over all things period.
“It’s unacceptable that there isn’t enough energy put into trying to make this part of a girl or woman’s life better,” says Reid, who began by taking a backpack full of cups to Kenya and Malawi in 2015. Reid’s mother grew up in rural Malawi in the 70s and her first experience of menstruation was steeped in fear and humiliation. She still remembers the shame she felt at being called to the blackboard by a teacher on the heaviest day of her period, with blood seeping through to her uniform. Since Reid’s first trip, 5,000 women in those countries have received cups through her NGO. Yet Reid wants more momentum. “We bleed so everyone else can live,” she points out. “It is a part of humanity that is just neglected.”
Similarly, Edlin was shocked when she started volunteering at a drop-in centre for asylum seekers in London last year, and discovered sanitary towels were provided only in emergencies. “I thought, what has got to happen to a woman that we count her period as an emergency? Has she literally got to bleed on the floor?” What started as a whip-round on Facebook led to hundreds of donations within a couple of weeks. In the last year, Bloody Good Period has provided more than 300,000 period products to people in need in the UK.
Reid and Edlin are not on a fanatical mission to convert everyone to cups, they say; they just want women to make an informed choice. Before tonight, it dawns on me, I wasn’t making one myself. I had no idea that a menstrual cup could hold three tampons’ worth of blood, demonstrated by Reid pouring red wine from a glass into a cup, then using tampons to soak it up. I had never seen a menstrual cup up →
‘It is like the sexual liberation of the 60s. We are having a menstrual liberation’
close. Like most of my peers, I was never taught about reusable products when I was growing up. With hindsight, it seems odd that my menstrual education was left in the hands of a multinational brand – Tampax – but this still happens today. Several teachers in Sheffield, for example, recently reported that their school received and used unsolicited teaching materials from corporations. Campaigners such as Reid just want girls around the world to have access to better period education, unrestricted by the big brands. “I don’t mind if people aren’t into what I am into. I just want them to hear me out,” she says. “I want Mr Always to put a bounty on my head.”
Also attending tonight’s CupAware party are Jade Slaughter, 28, and Hannah Lawless, 25, two charity workers who are campaigning to get free sanitary products in schools. “It’s ridiculous that in 2017 you’ve got children missing school because they can’t afford proper protection, and that schools can provide condoms and toilet paper and soap, but not sanitary products. It’s about giving everyone that equal right to dignity,” Slaughter says. Their petition has now passed 110,000 signatures. Both feel that change is finally coming, partly thanks to the internet. “Young people are used to oversharing,” Lawless says. “While some of that can be bad, when it comes to periods it is pushing things forward.” Slaughter agrees, citing her teenage sisters, 18 and 19, who now text her to say they are on their periods – something she would never have done.
Another activist who has made an impact is Kiran Gandhi, 28, an American musician whose period started early on the day of the London Marathon in 2015. “I was going through my options,” she says. “Tampon or pad, and neither of them seemed good for a four-hour run.” She was worried about chafing, did not have a menstrual cup, and two years ago, the new genre of absorbent period knickers were not so readily available. Instead Gandhi decided to free-bleed as she ran and posted a photograph of herself at the finish line, complete with bloodied crotch. The image soon went viral. “It is so shocking for us as a society to see menstrual blood. That is why it trended on Twitter and Facebook for four days. It was so polarising,” Gandhi says.
The reaction was largely positive, but inevitably there was some kickback. “The first criticism was that this is so gross, which was fine, because that was exactly the point: menstruation is still seen as something that’s disgusting, even though it is the very thing that gives life to all of us.” The second type of criticism was that it was unhygienic, which Gandhi describes as “a mask for the same misogyny. It is only unhygienic if I had some sort of blood-borne illness. It was just a non-issue.”
Gandhi says radical activism is key to opening up the conversation. She cites as an example the artist and poet Rupi Kaur, who spoke out after Instagram removed a fully clothed portrait in 2015, because it featured a small amount of menstrual blood. Kaur posted, “I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be OK with a small leak.” Instagram later restored her photograph, claiming the removal was “accidental”.
Since then, periods have cropped up on the political agenda in the UK; this year the Labour party launched a period poverty campaign, promising to provide free sanitary products to secondary schools, homeless shelters and food banks. But in October, Justine Greening, education secretary and minister for women and equalities, was criticised when she said it was up to schools and parents to provide these products. Gandhi says the next important step is market change, when innovative companies begin looking for solutions. “At Soho House in Manhattan, I heard a guy interviewing his friend about her period. When she left,
I asked him why. He told me he wanted to start a company that delivers tampons to women’s doors every month. If men are jumping on board, then you know we’re definitely moving into a better place.”
However, when Dame co-founders Celia Poole and Alec Mills appeared on Dragons’ Den earlier this year to pitch their period product subscription service, entrepreneur Peter Jones said he felt “very uncomfortable”, while presenter Evan Davis noted “it may seem counterintuitive to launch a product half the population may never have use for”. Meanwhile, when Miki Agrawal, co-founder of Thinx, started to pitch to investors her idea for period pants, she came up against a brick wall, as she told the Freakonomics podcast earlier this year. Every venture capitalist she met would say, “Let me take this to my wife” – which would inevitably fail as the men were ill-equipped to put the product into context. “And then they would come back like, no, thanks.” Even when Agrawal outlined the business potential in disrupting “a multibilliondollar space no one’s touched in [decades]”, she failed to find funding, eventually raising $85,000 through Kickstarter and Indiegogo crowdfunding campaigns.
Then, in 2015, the New York subway advertising network objected to a Thinx campaign. There were concerns that the images – half a grapefruit resembling a vagina, a raw egg representing discharge – were too suggestive. But eventually the ads were approved and the furore led to a public conversation about period shame, exactly the kind of publicity Agrawal wanted. (Less so the accusations of sexual harassment by a Thinx employee earlier this year. The complaint has since been settled privately.)
Much of this new wave of period activism is linked with challenging the imagery associated with periods. For a long time, menstrual products have been hidden away, with advertising featuring women in white jeans cartwheeling through sunny fields, or blue liquid poured on to a sanitary towel; “we don’t bleed blue” is a common refrain from activists. Last month, Bodyform responded by releasing the UK’s first advert to depict real menstrual blood with the tagline “Periods are normal. Showing them should be too”, alongside the hashtag #bloodnormal.
“This is what I’ve been working towards,” says Chella Quint, 41, a comedian and education researcher who has been one of the loudest voices campaigning for a rethink. “I am really excited.” Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Quint has spent the last 18 years in Sheffield, →
‘Menstruation is still seen as disgusting, even though it is the thing that gives life to us all’
first as a secondary school drama teacher who was asked to tackle personal, social and health education (PSHE) “because I could say penis without laughing”. She did some standup comedy in her spare time, and in 2005 started doing sketches around some ludicrous old adverts. This led to a show entitled Adventures In Menstruating, and ultimately inspired her to study for a master’s in education. The result has been her #periodpositive campaign, a programme she distributes across schools and universities, designed to combat the negative discourse that surrounds menstruation.
I wait with Quint in a classroom in a London academy at the end of the school day. The head of PSHE is trying to find several year 8 students who have signed up to a period workshop, who eventually drift in, visibly squirming. When Quint explains she is a comedian who likes to talk about periods, one student says she must have the “most awkward job ever”. Three boys come in and huddle around a table, sniggering. (Quint is keen to invite both girls and boys to her workshops.) The students are late, we are running out of time and it feels as if this could be a disaster, but with her games, props and jokes, Quint seems to work some sort of magic. She gets them playing “period knowledge twister” and doing the “menstruation mambo”, where the recently mortified 12- to 13-year-olds dance in a circle as they sing “internal, external, disposable, reusable”, teaching them about the different products available. The group of 13 then set about creating their own period stains out of red felt. Soon they are all wearing them as badges – Quint calls it “leak chic” and says it is all about challenging the idea of periods as shameful. “Leaking should be as boring as accidentally spitting on someone. You might rehash it for a day but you don’t remember it five years later.” Finally Quint asks students to come up with #periodpositive slogans, before reflecting on what they’ve learned.
The students bound out of the classroom, wearing their period stains with pride. Soon the school’s co-principal pops in to say he’s never had a year 8 student come up to him before declaring, “Look, sir, this is my period stain.” They are “buzzing”, he says. Quint, never one to miss an opportunity, hands him a period stain badge to keep in his office. She dreams of a world in which it is no big deal to ask your headmaster for a tampon. It might not be so far away – Quint has just got Sheffield to vow to become the first #periodpositive city, with Learn Sheffield and the council backing her to roll out her programme across the city.
Quint is excited but cautious about a change in the conversation. Catching the zeitgeist is one thing, but actual transformation is not guaranteed. “It would be devastating if periods stopped being trendy,” she says. She praises Bodyform, but is wary of them “co-opting activism, and hashtag activism at that, to sell”. If they are going to position themselves as “the taboo-breaking advert-making menstrual product company”, then Quint has a few more requests: “I invite them to include reusable products and nonbinary kids in any teaching resources they create, to stop offering hide-away tins with their products and to say ‘menstrual’ rather than ‘sanitary’.”
The language surrounding menstruation is a real bugbear for Quint. “We are not unsanitary. Periods are no dirtier than other things. Anything that comes out of your body is not necessarily hygienic, but nothing else is called that. There are no baby hygiene nappies or sanitary men’s deodorant.”
I tell Quint I was amazed by the students’ transformation from embarrassed to engaged. “It is a bit magic but it’s magic you can deconstruct. It’s about using fun and silliness and not being afraid, because there is already so much fear about periods.” Quint is keen to stress that her work follows in the footsteps of many others: combined with the accelerating force of social media, she sees this moment as the result of decades of work. Periods, she says, have finally got woke. “We are becoming more comfortable talking about menstruation. Our planet is finally going through puberty.” •
Kiran Gandhi (centre), who free-bled in the London Marathon. Above: Rupi Kaur’s photograph Instagram removed
The blood Bodyform dared to show as red rather than blue. Above: an ad for Thinx’s period-proof pants