The most natural can be the most taboo. Half of the world’s population have it, will have it, or will have had it for about five days a month for thirty to forty years of their life. Yes, I’m talking about MENSTRUATION.
Around the world, it’s estimated that over 300 million women are bleeding at the same time. Still, it’s one of our last remaining taboos and something that has largely been left out from the cultural conversation.
Even though the taboo might have lifted slightly in our society, artists who use periods as a concept are still sometimes accused of being attention-seeking sensationalists, with some viewers literally shrieking in horror – without being able to explain why it horrifies them so much.
These kinds of responses just prove the very idea that menstruation is interpreted by some as a repellent oddity rather than something natural and important.
American artist Judy Chicago is one of the founders of the concept feminist art. Her painting Red Flag from 1971 is considered to be one of the first art pieces using menstruation as a concept. It depicts a closeup of a woman taking a tampon out.
Chicago has commented that many didn’t even know what the red object was and that one woman even thought it was a bloody penis. Even women who dealt with taking tampons out several times a month themselves didn’t know what they were looking at – as if what had been portrayed simply couldn’t exist.
In a 2014 interview with Swedish culture show Kobra, Chicago said, “It’s just abasing to me, the way in which women’s experience continues to be… shocking!”
It’s been over thirty years since Judy Chicago’s Red Flag, but menstruation still has the power to give people the heebie-jeebies.
Lily Allen claims part of the reason her 2014 single Sheezus wasn’t allowed airplay on British radio was because it has the word “period” in it. Sanitary pad commercials still use blue liquid to represent period blood and tend to feature women in white spandex happily doing yoga. Not very representative.
We all know period blood is red, so what’s the point of using all that blue stuff? In 2010, tampon brand Kotex was told they couldn’t use the word “vagina” in their advertising. “Down there” was also forbidden.
Toronto-born artist Petra Collins who designed the famous American Apparel t-shirt with a masturbating bleeding vagina on it, had her Instagram account deleted because a bikini picture she posted revealed her unshaven bikini line.
The #bikini hashtag on Instagram has, at the time of writing, 9,901,666 posts. It goes without saying that bikini posts abiding to society’s idea of beauty don’t tend to get deleted. This tells us that women trying to create a different narrative based on their own experience can still, in 2014, be treated with pure censorship.
Sarah Maple is a British artist who graduated with a BA in Fine Art from Kingston University in 2007 and in the same year also won the ‘4 New Sensations’ competition for emerging artists, run by Channel 4 in conjunction with the Saatchi gallery. Maple’s artwork has been exhibited in New York, Canada, Israel and throughout Europe.
Much of her inspiration comes from being brought up as a Muslim; she explores the lines between popular culture and religion in an unapologetic and often humorous way, challenging the viewer to question traditional notions of identity, religion and the societal role of women.
Hi Sarah! What kind of place does period hold in your art?
I see it as a real punk thing, something that can symbolise so much about owning your womanhood. That sounds really wanky. What I mean is that it can be used as a metaphor to say something about what it’s like to be a woman and feminist.
How do you think menstruation is being depicted in culture and media? What do you make of it?
It’s still a taboo for sure, which varies on where you are in the world. I saw a piece from the BBC on menstruation in India, you can see on my Facebook page, which brought a tear to my eye. I couldn’t believe what young girls go through every month where they’re shunned from society. Women stay indoors, girls can’t go to school… and it’s all over something that they can’t control, a natural part of being a woman is deemed shameful.
I love your painting Menstruate With Pride! Can you tell me a bit about it?
Thank you! I wanted to create a piece about menstruation but I didn’t want to make something really obvious, I wanted to shine a fresh light on it. I wanted to create a ridiculous over the top painting, like it was Armageddon, the world was coming to an end, with that kind of religiosity to it, evocative of all those Jesus pics in the National Gallery.
The photo shoot [on which she based the painting] was hilarious and to be honest… a bit awkward. I kept saying stuff like imagine your worst nightmare, like it’s Armageddon! They were all really great! I think the most poignant is the little girl at the front who didn’t understand at all what it was and didn’t get what the issue was. She’s just standing there blankly looking at it.
People interpret her as a hopeful vision of the future. What I wanted to do in this piece was to focus more on the people around the central figure and make them so over the top, in the hope that the audience would laugh at the crowd, not the stain, so this would then mirror our society and we would question why this is such a taboo. I think most people go throughout life never questioning the ‘norms’, which is very sad and totally limiting life experiences!
What reactions have you had to it?
I’ve had some great reactions, people who are disgusted, but mainly from people who are very supportive and it really has opened up a debate about this. I put the picture on Facebook when I first made it and it got something like 300 shares which is great.
I am very used to abuse with my other work but it wasn’t the same with this. People seemed uncomfortable but open to talk about it. I had a show in Estonia where a woman cried when she saw it, it was very moving and I felt very proud.
Have you had any bad reactions to it?
Actually not that bad, only people saying the usual stuff like ‘urgh gross’ but with no elaboration as to why… I think that’s because people don’t actually know why!
Why do you think some people are so scared of menstruation?
Maybe it interferes with people’s ideal of women as sex objects…being reminded that the vagina is for something other than a penis receptacle! [laughs] I think it belongs to the same family as upset over women’s body hair.
We have an ingrained view of what is acceptable and what isn’t, and it really disturbs and upsets people when that’s challenged.
Can you see the taboo disappearing?
It depends on where you are in the world I think… as many of these taboos come from religion I think they would be extremely hard to shift.
Do you have a period story you want to share?
My period started when I was 11, so pretty young, I hadn’t even started secondary school. I really was traumatised by it and felt I had no idea where to turn. I didn’t want to tell my mum because I think there was a part of me that didn’t want to let her down. I was the youngest child, I felt she would be disappointed in me.
I think there was a huge part of me that was ashamed to grow up and be a woman. Maybe this does subconsciously come from cultural ideas as in Islam you’re considered dirty when you are menstruating. But I think the fact I hid it says a lot about how it makes young girls feel. It took me three years to tell my mum! So funny: the other day I was saying something and I said the word ‘period’ and she immediately shushed me! Like I’d sworn or something! I can laugh at it now.
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Casey Jenkins is an Australian performance artist and craftivist. She co-founded and runs radical craft group Craft Cartel, a group that aims to subvert and honour art techniques often belittled as ‘women’s work’. She’s an active street artist, most notably with her Cunt Fling-Up work. She’s also launched a traveling craftivist workshop project, femiNEST, where feminists can meet and share skills. Her 2013 work Casting Off My Womb was a 28 day performance where Jenkins sat on a wooden chest in a gallery, knitting with wool that she had put in her vagina. The 28 days represent a menstrual cycle.
Hi Casey! What do you think about menstruation’s place in art and culture?
Menstruation is imbued with very potent connotations for most people and cultures, and those connotations are given added gravity because the subject is often considered taboo. For observers of art then, the use of menstrual themes could be, and often is, read as shocking and disconcerting.
The experience of menstruating itself and artists who explore the process in their work is a world away from these reactions, for myself at least, and, I imagine, for others who do. It is a quiet, intimate, rhythmic process.
Could you tell me a bit about Casting Off My Womb? How did you come up with the idea?
Casting Off My Womb was a very intimate, personal piece for me. It was done primarily to explore and express my own body. I spent 28 days knitting with wool that I inserted each day in my vagina, a skein a day, to trace the passage of one full menstrual cycle. I was thinking a lot at the time about the pressures and expectations placed on women in their mid-thirties to bear children and I wanted to take time out from all of the cultural buzz to consider for myself what I want to create with my body.
What were the reactions like?
The reactions of people in the gallery to the live performance were calm and considered. People came up and chatted to me while I was knitting. They seemed intrigued and gently moved. The reactions from people who viewed the YouTube report on the work (filmed by TV station SBS2 and posted as ‘Vaginal Knitting’) were a lot more visceral and often aggressive and derisive. Although amongst those there have been some really generous supportive messages from people around the world.
Can you tell me a bit about some of the negative reactions and what you made of them?
Most of the negative reactions were flippant jokes and insults in tabloid magazines and internet comment streams, generally centred around words like ‘ewwww’, ‘gross’, and ‘puke’, so they didn’t really cut very deep. I found the scale of the response fascinating though.
Why are some people so scared of periods?
Because it serves a patriarchal society to subjugate women by shaming bodies and bodily functions associated with women and because we don’t talk about them and aren’t allowed to. All things cloaked in darkness grow sharp fangs and monster’s horns.
Advertisement for sanitary pads often use blue liquid to represent period blood. What role do you think the ‘sanitary protection’ industry play in keeping menstruation a taboo?
I used to find such advertisements just bizarre, quaint and a little bit sad but I’ve really lost patience with them lately. It’s reprehensible and devious to be shaming people for possessing a normal body function in order to sell products.
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Judy Chicago summed the issue up in her Kobra interview when she said: “The question isn’t how we can be more open about menstruation, the question is how we can transform the world so that women’s experiences aren’t an oddity, something to exclaim over or be shocked about, or feel ashamed of generation after generation. The level of of the discourse has to be transformed before the conversation can change.” Period.
Featured photo by Sarah Maple