Free Bleeding: Sweat, Tears and Bloody Taboos

In the aftermath of Kiran Ghandi's controversial London Marathon, we take a look at why shame-free menstruation is about much more than making strangers uncomfortable

Feature by Rianna Walcott | 03 Sep 2015

I’m a firm believer in personal liberty. I say ‘you do you’ on average around 10 times per day, and so long as those actions of ‘doing you’ don’t harm anyone else I say go forth.

As such, the controversy surrounding menstruation and what people do during their period confuses me. There has been a real, vehement opposition against the emerging phenomenon of ‘free bleeding’, which is the choice to not wear a sanitary product like a pad or tampon during your cycle, and instead to just bleed on and prosper.

This emergent trend was spurred by the recent actions of Kiran Ghandi, who ran the last London Marathon sans tampon in order to raise awareness for women who don’t have access to sanitary products. It was also as an attempt to transform menstruation from a taboo topic to a subject of real life conversation. It worked. The response to Kiran’s actions, both positive and negative, has been tremendous, and certainly highlighted the existing stigma around menstruation.

What I found most surprising was my own response of immediate disgust. I wondered about her comfort, shied away from looking at pictures of her, thought about how inconsiderate it was to the other runners.

Thing is, it isn’t inconsiderate to anyone else, is it? She’s not bleeding on anyone, after all. And if you don’t like the look of it, you are of course under no obligation to stare at her crotch.

Kiran also made the decision to free bleed partly because the thought of running 26 miles with a tampon in didn’t particularly appeal. That seems fair enough to me. As someone who actively avoids most physical activity, I should probably take a seat instead of dictating how someone else should conduct themselves while running a marathon. On their period. While simultaneously trying to dismantle institutionalised inequality.

Public response was largely divided into two camps: those who supported the gesture as her personal freedom to run the race in the way she felt comfortable, and those of both genders who condemned it as ‘gross’, ‘attention-seeking’ and ‘unhygienic’.

Interestingly, there were also plenty of statements from women denying that they had ever felt ‘period-shamed’, and refuting the need for an awareness-promoting gesture. That one made me a little cross. Just as when successful, westernised women proclaim how we ‘don’t need feminism’, it seems to malign the negative experiences of so many women. Whether you agree with the way it was done or not, we cannot deny a need for awareness. If this is our response to those who are able to wear sanitary products and choose otherwise, then what is to become of the homeless woman who has no access to sanitary products? Or for women in rural parts of developing countries who can’t afford sanitary products?

Access to relatively cheap sanitary products is a privilege in the western world, and we really showed our hand through this visceral reaction to a person who didn’t wear one, for a brief moment in time.

The taboo around menstruation goes deeper than just finding it a bit gross when physically confronted with it. There is also a socially limiting aspect to menstruation, where it is used to period-shame individuals. The propensity to blame female actions on their bodily functions is still prevalent – and also really grim. Just take Donald Trump’s recent comments on Megyn Kelly following the GOP debate: “She looked like she had blood coming out of her wherever.”

Her ability to interrogate and be assertive – something that would have been impressive in a man – for Kelly is trivialised due to her femininity. It’s a worry that no matter how successful you may be, as a woman you can always be reduced to this element. Feelings, behaviour, and way of thinking, all invalidated as ‘just premenstrual’.

We are socialised to be ashamed of our periods; taught to hide them, taught to slip pads from the hidden pocket in our bags then sidle to the bathroom, and for god's sake don’t whine about it.

I can’t help but wonder why we are silent and punished about something that half of the world suffers through? In her piece If Men Could Menstruate, Gloria Steinem succinctly shows the irrational logic of period-shaming: “If women are supposed to be less rational and more emotional at the beginning of our menstrual cycle when the female hormone is at its lowest level, then why isn't it logical to say that, in those few days, women behave the most like the way men behave all month long?”

And so we return to free bleeding. Honestly, as far as your period goes, do what makes you comfortable, not what makes the rest of the world comfortable. But do remember that the ability to choose not to wear a sanitary product is a privilege that many people still don’t have.