When it’s that time of month, women (and some who may not identify as women) are almost programmed to give up on life. We’ll curl up under the covers with mild narcotics, heat pads and tears, never to see the light of day. Periods have long been dreaded in Western society and popular culture. While menstrual discomforts can be too real, the negative perception and period-shaming makes things worse.
“I think our society is pretty ‘period-negative.’ We believe periods are gross, should be kept secret, and menstruating women are crazy and/or sick,” says Carolyn Peterson, Undergraduate Director and Educator Instructor in the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati.
She goes on to explain that we have a long medical and cultural history of demonizing menstruation and women’s bodies in general. This makes people see their periods as a hurdle to overcome — something they have to quietly survive, versus a totally natural experience or even something sacred.
“It was not that long ago that doctors thought that the cantankerous uterus was to blame for literally every medical condition a person could experience,” explains Peterson. “Combine that with the generally sex-negative, still sexist society we live in now and it makes sense.”
When Chinese Olympian swimmer Fu Yuanhui talked about her period on an international scale in August, it was a revolutionary act. She claimed that her period coming the night before the race made her feel tired and weak, but did not blame her performance on it. Few women athletes have discussed how their periods affect them, though the ones who have, like tennis player Heather Watson, draw a lot of media attention. It’s the “last taboo” in women’s sports.
While it makes sense that female athletes may feel more drained and exhausted when they are bleeding, how do women in other fields compare? Can it be a neutral or even positive thing? An artist friend of mine, Taleen Kali, posted on social media that she feels so much more creative when she bleeds — and she isn’t alone in feeling that way.
Musician and visual artist Rachel Fisher has heavy periods, physically and emotionally. She creates work that pertains to anatomy, decay, and the unknown like space and the afterlife. A lot of what she creates is specific to her emotions and inspired by them.
“I am usually an emotional Tasmanian devil when I’m on my period, but not in a negative way,” she says. It’s actually very positive most of the time. I usually take that week to relax when not at work, giving me time to focus on my art.”
What it boils down to is that her periods give her time to really focus on herself, which helps with creativity. She’s grateful for what her body does, despite not being someone who is thinking about having children in the future. But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when she dreaded having her period.
“I had an abortion at a young age, and working through that mentally involved a lot of resentment towards what my body was capable of,” Fisher says. “So even though it can be scary, my period is a beautiful thing in my mind now.”
Musician Lauren Salem admits to feeling less productive, but like Fisher, dedicates more time to herself when she has her period. She says bleeding reminds her that she’s a living being that needs to care for herself, especially when she gets too caught up in things that complicate life.
“I don’t know if it’s because I tap into this feeling of ancient communal with every person who’s ever menstruated or if my period is so routine that I know what to expect and what I have to do, but it’s definitely the one week a month where I allow myself to hand over the reigns,” she says. “Music is something essential to me, so I find myself indulging in, creating and listening to music that is very raw and personal to me.”
Fisher has created some abstract art as a reaction to bleeding through her pants in seventh grade. While not all period-inspired art is period-themed, lately, there have been many women doing art directly related to their periods. For example, artist Jen Lewis, has used her period blood to create a project called “Beauty in Blood.”
Poet Rupi Kaur wrote:
i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way. in older civilizations this blood was considered holy. in some it still is. but a majority of people. societies. and communities shun this natural process. some are more comfortable with the pornification of women. the sexualization of women. the violence and degradation of women than this. they cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that. but will be angered and bothered by this. we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing. as if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. as if this process is not love. labour. life. selfless and strikingly beautiful.
There are a series of photographs that accompany this piece with an aim of lessening the taboo surrounding periods. The image Kaur put on Instagram of her lying on a bed with period stains through her sweatpants was twice removed for violating community standards, but was eventually kept up after Kaur challenged it. The photo has gained international attention and has helped in defying the stigma of menstruation.
Peterson agrees that menstrual cycles can affect a person’s mental, emotional and physical states but says it doesn’t have to be a negative experience, contrary to mainstream media portrayal and common perception.
“Some women report feeling more empowered and in-tune with themselves during their period, and that feels really positive to me,” she says. “If we respect our periods for the amazing potential for life that they are instead of treating them like temporary torture, I think we would feel differently towards ourselves as bleeders.”