The ac­tivists chal­leng­ing men­strual shame

The Guardian - Weekend - - Content -

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

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