Friday 2 October 2009
By Kira Cochrane
Menstruation is often seen as embarrassing or disgusting and is rarely discussed. But some feminists are determined to break this taboo.
One morning in 2005, Chella Quint was lying in bed wondering if her period was due. That day she was entering a contest to create a magazine in 24 hours. She needed an idea, and the two thoughts collided. Why not create a 10-year chart for her menstrual cycle? She need never lie in bed wondering again. She could include interviews, a diagram of female reproductive organs, an ode to alternative sanitary products . . .
So began Quint’s life as a menstrual activist. Since that hastily written debut, she has created four issues of her ‘zine, Adventures in Menstruating, complete with leakage horror stories and tampon craft projects. She has taken her “menstrual comedy” show from her home in Sheffield to feminist festivals in Berlin, Cork and Malmö. And she has started a project to photograph her “biggest bugbear”: the sanitary disposal units (SDUs) in British toilets.
“My partner Sarah calls them ‘the elephant in the smallest room’,” she says of the SDUs. “Nobody talks about them. They’re huge, grey and hulking, and if your bottom is bigger than your head then you’ve come into bodily contact with them. I’m just trying to chronicle the number of clues a woman might see each day that say ‘You are a bio-hazard’.” Quint’s mission is to take the shame out of periods, to “help alter the visibility of menstruation, so that it’s at least normal to talk about it. Because, right now, it’s not”.
Quint isn’t the only one breaking taboos. It seems that menstrual activism (otherwise known as radical menstruation, menstrual anarchy, or menarchy) is having a moment. The term is used to describe a whole range of actions, not all considered political by the person involved: simple efforts to speak openly about periods, radical affronts to negative attitudes and campaigns for more environmentally friendly sanitary products. (It is estimated that a woman will dispose of 11,400 tampons in her lifetime – an ecological disaster.)
Earlier this year, 18-year-old Rachel Kauder Nalebuff published My Little Red Book, a collection of first period stories by women including Erica Jong, which became a US bestseller. In June, the British-based artist Ingrid Berthon- Moine exhibited a video at the Venice Biennale of her twanging her tampon string to the song Slave to the Rhythm. She is currently completing a series of photographs featuring women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick.
Jezebel, the popular women’s website, recently posted a story, describing in lingering detail, the much-feared-but-never-spoken-of experience of forgetting to remove a tampon (after 10 days it smelled of “rotting fish meets sewage meets Black Death”). Filmmaker and academic Giovanna Chesler has toured her documentary, Period: The End of Menstruation, a response to the growing number of hormone treatments that promise to end the monthly bleed altogether. And, when I wrote an article for G2 this summer about a Tampax advertising campaign that used viral marketing techniques, the online comments were dominated by glowing reviews of an alternative sanitary product, the Moon Cup. Apparently Moon Cup enthusiasts were staging a viral campaign of their own.
Next spring, Chris Bobel, associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, publishes New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. Most menstrual activists, says Bobel, “begin by thinking, wait a minute! Do we have to regard our period as something dirty? Do we have to greet a girl’s first period with silence? And then they get interested in challenging that.”