A few days ago, Kiran Gandhi, a woman who ran the London Marathon while she was on her period and without a tampon to reduce the stigma of menstruation, was the trending hashtag on Facebook. In article after article she triumphantly smiles at the camera taking her picture, exuding joie de vivre. Dozens of news sources applauded her for this act, throwing around accolades such as “brave” and “awareness-raising.” At the risk of belittling such a feat (running a marathon), I cannot easily get on the free-bleeding bandwagon.
Gandhi’s action takes me back to Rupi Kaur, Internet celebrity and author of milk & honey who pulled a similar stunt on Instagram a few months ago. Kaur posted some blood-soaked photos on Instagram, which the site promptly removed, causing a cascade of anger at the faceless figure that was the system of seeming oppression. And, indeed, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter become this boogeyman so easily because they allow certain photos to be up, and others not.
The rhetoric of Kaur’s action, specifically, drew out Instagram as the focal enemy, while totally neglecting the way people treat other people who have their periods. It seemed more like a media stunt than real commentary. Yes, Kaur proved what we already knew — we, as a society, are uncomfortable with periods. We don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to deal with it, and would rather ball up our fists than mention a word about cramps. I know this — I’m guilty of it too: I buy tampons in bulk so I don’t have to do it that often, and use adorable-sounding euphemisms to tell people It’s Happening — “got my Aunt Flo visiting” or “shark week” or “I’m not praying/fasting this week” (that one’s Muslim-centric — but it works). I hate that I do that and then get hot and bothered about it — and yes, this is definitely something worth talking about. But I don’t think it’s worth pulling entire stunts over. So I’m wary about Kaur, and now, Gandhi’s, actions.
Other than pointing out the existence of a problem we already knew about, they don’t really do anything to change the way periods are perceived. Just seeing it, in the form of Kaur’s photos or in the achievement of running a marathon tampon-less, doesn’t actually eradicate the stigma surrounding periods, it just shows the existence of blood. While I know a problem with menstruation is that a lot of people would rather pretend it doesn’t exist, there are even bigger problems we have to deal with vis-à-vis menstruation that, because of stunts such as Kaur’s and Gandhi’s, are pushed aside.
And so I wonder if Gandhi’s decision is anything but a way to gain some momentary fame by scratching at the surface of a feminist issue. I wonder if the uproar and celebration is Western-centric, as most discussions surrounding menstruation and feminism tend to be. Gandhi’s action does little to shed light on the hyper-marginalization of menstruating individuals in certain cultures, to the extent that exclusion becomes ritualistic. Chhaupadi, a custom in Nepal, for example, physically removes menstruating individuals from society, declaring their blood “impure.” By living in isolation, they miss out on education and access to healthcare, among other things. And, while this practice is illegal, it still occurs in more rural parts of Nepal.
So we might be wary of pointing out the fact that Gandhi’s move was enacted by someone who has an extreme amount of privilege, because we prefer celebrating these tiny social media rebellions instead of discussing issues, such as economic disparity, that lead to gender inequality. In my mind, Gandhi shouldn’t be lauded as some sort of hero for running a marathon without a tampon, because she hasn’t really achieved anything concrete. Kaur and Gandhi focus on the visual nature of the period — blood itself, but fail to mention how people are degraded for menstruating, even when they handle it with grace. Patricia Navidad, a Mexican singer whose sanitary pad fell out in the middle of her performance, carried on with her performance and stated that she had nothing to be ashamed of. Others, however, were not as gracious and mocked her for the incident. So the matter isn’t that Instagram removes a photo that shows menstrual blood, but that people who menstruate are ridiculed for it by other people.
So Gandhi and Kaur’s messages are incomplete. If you’re going to focus on menstruation, you need to talk about others affected by it. You need to stop, for example, saying “women have their periods,” but discuss trans* and gender non-conforming people who also menstruate and how they aren’t given access to things like pads/tampons as easily, or are marginalized for using these products. You need to talk about the lack of education among male-bodied people or people who don’t menstruate before you can raise awareness among them. You also need to talk about who has access to these products versus who doesn’t. If these stunts focus solely on Western-centric menstruation issues, they are actions of privileged people, for other privileged people. They limit the discussion to the “blood” as opposed to more serious issues of economic inequality, discrimination, and education, of which marginalization by menstruation is merely a symptom.
Feminists who don’t focus on these larger issues, instead choosing to concentrate on more Western forms of gender inequality, are furious that society still can’t talk about periods freely. They fail to mention the privilege someone must have for their biggest problem surrounding menstruation to be its discussion — and they also fail to mention the fact that discussion cannot arise without education. Running a marathon without a tampon really doesn’t raise awareness about the nature of menstruation, it just makes us uncomfortable because someone is walking around covered in blood.
If there’s going to be such a hullabaloo about periods, we have to also talk about the people are completely removed from society when menstruating. We have to be less Western-centric when discussing something so natural yet criminalized in various cultures, including ours. And, unlike Gandhi, not everyone can choose to spend a few hours without a tampon — others are victims of systems that deny them access to menstruation products, or are part of systems where the economic state disallows access to these mandatory goods.
The fast-paced nature of the news cycle makes stories such as Gandhi’s tampon-less marathon and Kaur’s Instagram controversy the central issues of feminism. But they neglect to mention the broader issues we have to deal with, even if we’re going to focus on menstruation. Unfortunately, running a marathon without a tampon doesn’t achieve anything, regardless of how much this is applauded. It just reinforces the idea that menstruation is a privileged, Western issue.