Period. Period. Period - the SRHR, art, and intersectional health education you never got
Updated: Jun 12
Video Essay transcript and resources for further reading.
Video up on Youtube:
assembly: Existential Crisis in the bathroom
Good morning/afternoon/eve class. Welcome to another day of learning. First, Picture this:
You are sitting in silence in the dim light of your schools bathroom stalls staring at a spot. A single, lone, textured spot of dried moist crimson on your white underwear. You wonder what led up to this moment—your mind backtracks to your spotless worriless childhood, back further to your birth when the doctor assigned you and even before that when your uterus was being formed within someone else’s uterus. And back in time to all your erstwhile ancestors who lived with both their uteruses and a village that disliked uteruses. And you wonder, what. what does it mean. to bleed?
1st Period: History: Period History—a past
A short run-down version of our historical understanding of menstruation goes like this: 2nd Millenium BC folks aka the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians believed that the uterus freaking roamed around the menstruators bodies, because why not. This uterine wanderlust was connected to “feminine” hysteria and varied illnesses even uptil 18th Century AD, likely because it was general practice to only permit Cis men to become doctors and academics back in the days and it is commonplace knowledge that they can be exceptionally stupid at times.
Fast forward science progressed blah blah. What was once papyrus and cloth became cloth and more cloth, but then folks became concerned about the bacterial growth resulting from improper cleaning of reusable cloth so we then came to Kotex after WW1, when nurses discovered that cellulose bandages were actually super absorbent. The world wars also led to reform in the gender work gap, leading to a need for increased comfort during menstruation in order for even more “classes” of menstruators to do long long hours of industrial labor. It wasn’t ever about comfort, it just served to facilitate (capitalism). During the same period, African-American inventor Mary Kenner came up with the functional Sanitary Belt. and in general the way the utility of her inventions focused on accessibility for otherwise ignored needs is super cool and inspiring—and she deserves far more than what we give her credit for.
In fact, here in India too, before disposable pads became accessible most folks even in urban regions would use a thread or a nada and mount cloth onto it and then tie it around the waste—an almost DIY sanitary belt if you will and a lot of people still use this especially in rural but also in urban regions.
Speaking of the urban/rural dynamic in a present Indian context lets move onto:
2nd Period: Economics: “Sustainable Development”—the anti-capitalist eco-feminist way amiright
Considering major events in history, let’s take up the case of the COVID-19 pandemic which harshly impacted menstruators who were from low-income urban backgrounds, because their specific needs especially related to the already stigmatized sexual and reproductive health areas are the first to get deprioritized in a crisis. The implications of inaccessibility to clean safe water along with the inaccessibility to menstrual hygiene products, coupled with the issue of menstrual waste from disposable pads poses a conundrum that showcases the relationship between WASH, pollution, and socioeconomic barriers. Elaborating on Water and Sanitary Hygiene, here’s a brilliant perspective from Jahan N’s research paper:
Speaking of pollution caused by disposable pads, this leads to the problem of dealing with socio-ecological impacts of this waste. Pad incinerators simply use up electricity and cause further pollution by emitting toxic gases from this biomedical waste. Another question is also posed: Who will manage this waste? This question and its connections to Caste will be discussed in awhile.
Fortunately, as we learn about the urgency of the climate crisis, environmentalists are beginning to favor low-waste alternatives to products of daily consumption. Naturally, producers and consumers in the economy are returning back to reusable products once again. Cloth pads and menstrual cups and period undies are now fashionable and sustainably chic, which is mostly a good thing, IMO, as long as small biz and ngos owned by menstruators are ethically-producing these products. and it doesn't get monopoloised by capitalists or worse their kids the fast fashion corporates all over again.
If you’re living in Mumbai, I would recommend checking out the NGO Asha Sakhi where women from low-income and structurally excluded backgrounds are provided with vocational training and employment to produce sustainable and reusable cloth products.
While reusable products may not necessarily be accessible to all, especially menstruators who’re from low-income urban backgrounds, due to a lack of infrastructure and accessible water and sanitary hygiene to safely clean the cloth pads—there is still hope for reusable products. In the long-run this could be a viable solution to the waste management and period poverty problems, given that you’re using say 3 100 rs reusable cloth pads for 3 years as opposed to the approximately 600 disposable pads of 8rs each for the same time period—plus sustainable menstrual products are typically a lot more comfortable and hygienic, with lower risks of infection and rashes.
To summarise the role of the menstrual industry in the economy, I shall quote this amazing book titled Cash Flow: The Business of Menstruation by Dr CAMILLA ROSTVIK that I found for free on JSTOR AND that I absolutely love and am currently reading.
Here we see the reliance of the individual menstruator on an arbitrary binary system, whereby a basic need is commercialised, turned into a marketable process rather than a biological or even a social one. The worker’s dignity is not factored into the socially positive image of the corporate—After all, a worker is simply hired to produce these products, to sell them, and then to dispose off of them, without a say in how any of those processes are done. Even in the sphere of labour within any industry, are these workers actually able to protect their own menstrual health? I will be discussing worker’s rights from a menstruators perspective in a bit, but the deal is that the menstrual industry’s role in the menstrual experience, then, becomes one of relevance to its social impacts—which is evident from the corporate social responsibility pages of all brand’s websites.
Many such “social impact” actions are temporary resolutions to a perpetual issue, making menstruators constantly reliant on the production of pads by those brands. Investing in the disposable pads supply of low-income communities in the name of CSR can perpetuate a white or brahminical saviour complex, because communities are then made reliant on these “free” distributed products, without really being 1) included in menstrual discourse, 2) being provided necessary SRHR education or 3) enabling self-reliance by sharing knowledge on safe reusable products—because that would be too radical.
Free bleeding as a concept shot to fame when Kiran Gandhi, an American musician, ran the London marathon while menstruating without any period products on. This prompted conversations on whether it is truly possible to bleed without having to consume anything i.e. without having to bear the costs of being a consumer of menstrual products within the economy at all. Although these form a niche, there are a couple of reasons for which, quoting the same book, “people might opt out of menstrual consumerism”, this could be because they may not always have access to or simply may not wish to use them due to factors such as poverty, gender dysphoria, stigma/embarrassment/shame attached to menstrual products, disability and/or chronic pain.
The very idea of free bleeding may sound strange—because of course there are practical problems such as having to wash the stains out—but also because it is deeply radical. Ending this class with another beautiful quotation:
3rd Period: Sociology: Taboo—blood of a socio-cultural colour
Class, you may have noticed a recurrent thread throughout our discussions as of yet: stigma. It is inevitable that a biological phenomenon should develop a social construct surrounding it and hence we have blood that is tinted blue. Puberty and everything related to it is fraught with stigma, for god knows what reason, making shame as a rite of passage for all young people. There is even more to it, though.
Given that we LIVE IN A SOCIETY, stigma is not isolated to merely a disgust for blood that comes from down there. In South Asia especially, this disgust is fueled more so by casteist notions of purity and impurity. This intersection of caste with both the socioeconomic inaccessibility aspect of menstruation AND stigma, coupled with the permeable nature of caste in marginalisation and south asian societies and diasporas—ought to be highlighted more in menstrual discourse.
One instance of non-inclusivity in menstrual discourse pertains to discussions on period leaves—which is critical for so many menstruators, especially those who also have chronic illnesses and disabilities—however, here, there’s a marked ignorance of menstruators who do not have the caste and socioeconomic privilege to take a break. An article for Feminism in India about the implications of Menstrual discourse for Dalit and Adivasi communities, by Shraddha TK Lama point blank asks oppressor caste or savarna people whether you’d grant a domestic worker, hired by you, period leaves while paying them their wages? It’s critical we understand how power dynamics aka hegemonies comes into play.
In an ideal society, people who have chosen to work as domestic workers, caregivers, or in positions that are considered to be “wage-based” or “informal” in economic terms, should have the basic privilege of earning the same salary and rights as anyone else. But we don’t live in an ideal society, and people are structurally excluded from the idea of “choice” that is central to modern feminism, on the basis of caste, disability, gender identity, and various other identity factors—hence, most people do not have the choice to choose their positionality, which impacts their education, profession, responsibilities, bodies, how they menstruate, the products they use and their life as a whole.
Even in formal, salaried jobs, dalit menstruators, who face both marginalisation due to their gender and caste, face discrimination. In 2015, a renowned advocate Kiruba Munuswamy, who now leads the LIFEforRights a legal initiative for equality that also maps caste based atrocities in India, was fired from her job as a Supreme Court lawyer for taking a period leave due to severe migraines and cramps.
In her twitter thread about her experience, she also brought to light how menstruators from Dalit and MBC backgrounds are illegally forced to take pills to keep them slogging through their menstrual cycles.
This idea of separting rights for jobs that are societally deemed worthier of rights, is in itself elitist. Work ought to be work regardless, and having equitable pay for all is critical to breaking down socio-economic barriers. But first, in south Asia, given that socioeconomic is deeply connected to caste, this would require an annihilation of caste, as a Hindutva ideology.
To understand how menstruation fits into caste and socioeconomic positionality, I would also recommend reading the entirety of Deepthi Sukumar’s Personal Narrative: Caste is my Period, from the conclusion of which I will be quoting a small fragment :
She brings to light how for a sanitary worker, whose dignity is stripped away by casteism and savarna brutality in that they are not provided with basic safety equipment and facilities and are often forced into the job, handling a wrongly disposed sanitary product can give way to life-threatening concerns.
In general, how her experiences were shaped by her identity as a menstruator and a dalit is important when tackling any issue pertaining the menstruation, because caste permeates stigma, poverty and inequity.
All the resources that I have used are always linked down in the description for further self-reading and self-education, which is necessary for savarnas and people in positions of privilege to do.
Speaking of education, as beyond the boundaries of its system, media’s role is quite prominent.
4th Period: Media Studies—Education, Art & Language
The period education that you’ll get at other schools obv sucks, which is why you have yours truly making 40 minute wannabe educational videos, haha. But seriously, none of us rew up learning about the intersections, complexities and even the basic health information pertaining to periods. For many of us, our family members (usually the cis female ones) the little we learnt from textbooks, and the vast expanses of the internet formed what our knowledge about periods. For some of us, and many more who likely don’t even have access to this video or the internet, education as a whole terminated because of periods, and so one can conclude that the psycho-sociological intersections of education and periods is a lot more complex that we perceive. It’s a vicious cycle, where the most oppressed are prevented from gaining education because of for eg a lack of WASH infrastructure within their educational institutions, amongst many other reasons, and are then pressed because of their lack of srhr [srhr] education
The lack of intersectional menstrual education and often enough a lack of menstrual education at all, prompts menstruators and non-menstruators alike to seek education from ~~media.
Quoting MENSTRUATION: AN ABLEIST NARRATIVE by PRIANKA NAIR: “The stories that we tell, or don’t tell, about bodies matter.” She analyses popular advertising and media, noting the lack of people with disabilities menstruating within these spaces. Exclusion in media hinders public awareness and mass education, affecting how menstruators are perceived in the public eye.
Here menstruation’s relationship with sex is a lot more profound, given that ableism often undermines disabled desires and choices. When menstruators with disabilities aren’t involved in the decision-making process regarding their own bodies, they can be forced into non-consensual menstrual cessation, whereby caregivers often parents and guardians, along with medical professionals decide on whether the menstruator is permitted their right to decide what’s best for their own menstruating disabled body. Prianka Nair goes in-depth into the legalities and ethics of such decisions as well as explains how menstruation’s medicalisation impacts people with disabilities.
She also elaborates on how period shame can manifest differently for disabled folk, where social etiquettes may make menstrual care an increased burden for menstruators with disabilities and caregivers.
Now where does this come into media? Because media, especially menstrual media, is known to perpetuate a certain idea of autonomy, independence and productivity, feeding into the capitalist idea that menstruators gotta get to work, constantly put their bodies through work and work to earn to buy themselves super comfortable pads from super ethical brands to continue to do their work superbly. Basically, our current work culture ahem ahem systems aren’t made for menstruating bodies, as broken down by Kristen Leo’s wonderful video about the Goblin [which I would recommend watching when you’re PMS-ing and need a hug], where they argue how work timings have been built around general cis male bodies rather than bodies with a longer more extreme duration of hormonal fluctuations. and these systems are even more inaccessible for disabled menstruating bodies.
The blogger CrippledScholar also notes the lack of discourse about disabled menstruation and how this conversation is most often appropriated by folks who aren’t disabled like myself. She also elaborates on how alternative sustainable menstrual products can be more comfortable for disabled folk, though it is also noted that this is not always the case and period discourse in disability movements cannot be generalised.
Gauri Gupta, a disability advocate from India, explains how some period products are outright inaccessible due to factors such as limited mobility. She also highlights how inaccessible infrastructure such as washrooms without basic facilities and a lack of inclusion in period education are both manifestations of ableism that structurally excludes menstruators with disabilities.
This lack of inclusion often comes from a lack within the language we communicate in. For instance, this can look like no sign language interpretors or even translators for local languages.
Languages are a facet of how we learn. Language influences our collective perceptions on what we communicate. You may have noticed I use menstruators and menstrual products, I’ll leave resources to understand why in the description—but my point here is that the language we use can shape how inclusive any period movement can be.
Media’s role is also pretty large. Like, absurdly large. Padman, a fairly well-known work of menstrual media in India is not without its criticism but it did sort of help destigmatisation on one of the biggest mass media platforms: bollywood. at least we can give it that. However, the work is imperfect, not nearly radical enough, perhaps overly sensationalized, and not intersectional.
Other forms of media include books. The most decent, sensitive, and largely effective, if not intersectional work of popular literature featuring menstrual representation, when the work in itself isn’t about menstruation as a central plot, that i have found, is written by a cis man, by freaking Uncle Rick. He finally did a good job by getting sensitivity readers onboard for Daughter of the Deep On a side note, the book was nice, a rating of 3.5, I was hoping the island would have been a little more like lesbos and the story was missing quintessential nostalgaic Uncle Rick humour, sigh. A decent middle grade read, anyhow and does a super job of normalising periods and cramps without making the representation awkward or forced.
I recently also talked about the very interesting role of period motifs in the short story The Poisonous Hibiscus from The Best Bangladeshi Short Stories Collection. Not like positive period rep or anything, but like very literary fiction-esque reflection on the human condition. Would recommend.
Some of my favourite menstrual art is considered to be radical, and often categorised as art with a “shock function”. For instance, “casting of my womb” by Casey Jenkins, where the artist knitted a long-ack yarn thing over a course of 28 days, by inserting a wad of yarn into her vagina everyday, which resulted in a largely white cloth which became bloodied during a period and then resumed its whiteness. It was really cool, but of course received a lot of hate online when her exhibition artwork entered the public space via a video uploaded by an Australian news agency, which you can find on youtube. This just goes to show how and why menstrual art does not make its way out into the open and is currently largely reserved to an elite section of the art world to produce and consume. However, menstrual art’s radicality holds a right to expression that all menstruators should be permitted to embody. Democratising menstrual art, media and writing to facilitate expression of the diverse experiences of all menstruators can be done by making more safe spaces. (Fun Fact, I’m working on a project around this rn, so go check it out) Another critical work of art is Amanda Atkinson’s £306, which is essentially a pile of coins worth the costs of period products in a year to highlight the issue of period poverty.
Unfortunately all the works above weren’t exactly intersectional beyond conventional explorations of cis girls and women’s experiences, and to a certain extent, their experiences in rural life. There was the prominent Baymax! the show scene where gender diversity was shown and took the internet by storm and was freaking brilliant. Ah love Big Hero 6 so muchchchch. And my personal favourite exhibited works of art are all by Bee Hughes who creates such introspective work and their study of intersections with gender identity is also really cool and will be elaborated upon in our final class. Photography’s role also lays bare the realities of menstruation and is a frequent in menstrual artvism, from RUpi Kaur’s battle with Instagram to even more impactful the artist Cass Clemmer’s work through Toni the Tampon, their photograph and accompanying poem that really did a lot to degender public discourse on menstruation.
Anyways, there is still a lack of art and media being created from an intersectional lens in the public sphere.
During the research for this video, I also discovered this really cool book written last year that I unfortunately was not able to source and read before the making of this video. It’s called Period Matters: menstruation in South Asia and is Edited by Farah Ahamed. Seems really interesting and can’t wait to get my hands on it.
Just like that we gotta be able to show kids—and adults alike—the intersectionalities of menstruation across the spectrum of experiences. And south asian media, both niche and mass, better step up.
5th Period: Biology/Psychology—Hormones cycling through a rainy day
An anti-climatic end to a wonderfully exploratory essay, lets unearth my IGCSE bio notes to understand the actual bodily science behind periods.
There are also a lot of other biological complexities that come into play: PCOS/PCOD being a common one, there’s also ammenhorrea, dysmenorrhea. Many of these are diagnosed late or often go undiagnosed, because of a lack of accessibility to safe and affirming menstrual healthcare and/or stigma, leading to further suffering for the menstruator.
In terms of menstrual hygiene, we all know that poor hygiene can lead to various diseases, but one story puts things into perspective. This story was recently shared with me, by a volunteer of SamajBandh a maharashtra-based nonprofit that works for menstrual hygiene in rural and tribal regions. For context, in the rural regions of Maharashtra and many places in South Asia, it is common practice to send menstruators to secluded huts, also known as Kurma Ghar, however these spots are often in dangerous regions and lack any basic living facilities, much less proper washrooms. Sometimes these places are just four walls with a thatched roof in the middle of nowhere. So, this volunteer who I met narrated this story of a women who passed away because the sanitary napkins that she was using were stored in unsanitary conditions in the Kurma Ghar and so a lizard got into the packet and infected it. She still used it unknowingly and the infection killed her. And I think why I’m sharing this here is because when we talk about death, it puts things into perspective and pushes us to take collective action, but that should not be the case. We can’t always act after disaster and continue to let victims’ deaths become numbers, statistics, and horror stories that they never consented to. We’ve got to take preventive action and abolish systems that continue to cause harm to members of the very same systems and communities.
Menstrual activists have been fighting to get better healthcare and sanitary provisions in secluded regions and to firstly change these traditions that most menstruaotrs themselves do not agree to. In rural regions, the implications of such practices on menstruators has both physical and psychological health impacts.
In the context of mental health, as intersecting with menstrual health, they face a dual sort of stigma, where the stigma surrounding both overlap, making stuff twice as difficult! Given that menstrual health is invariably linked to nutrition and mental health, the ways in which eating disorders can affect menstruators are also different—and often medical professionals fail to understand this intersection. PMDD is another lesser-known issue, with about 1 in 20 menstruators going through Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder and I have a whole comic on that and how it is different from regular PMS. And when it comes to PMS itself, again, would highly recommend Kristen Leo’s video essay to better understand PMS from non-medicalised perspectives.
In general, Menstruators can face a whole myriad of health issues but I’m no medical professional, so I’m not going to go into the medical details. But because I’m an artist, we’re going to understand one of my favourite menstrual artist’s research paper on the topic i.e. Bee Hughes’ Challenging Menstrual Norms in Online Medical Advice: Deconstructing Stigma through Entangled Art Practice, where they explore the stereotyping of menstruation in its relation to sex and reproduction, which is an incredibly cisheteronormative perception on a biological process that also has functions such as bodily and therefore psychological regulation. Even in this video, I talk about SRHR education, because it is what menstruation is conventionally tied to, but it might be useful to separate the idea of menstrual justice from reproductive justice if not entirely but to the extent that the two concepts are related but not synonymous.
Bee Hughes’ art practice as discussed earlier, I think revolves around the idea of breaking down our structural framework, when we approach something as fluid and complex on menstruation.
In order to achieve this novel approach of inclusivity, radical justice, and true equity, we’ll have to understand menstruation through the lenses of deep breath intersectional eco-anarcha socialist and ambedkarite feminisms.
Essentially, we need to smash hegemonies aka the brahminical cisheteronormative ableist capitalist environmentally-destructive patriarchy.
I tried to be as comprehensive as possible and read up and researched A LOT. I have been actively working in this field for over a year, through which I have learnt and grown a lot, and in the past years I have had to deal with secondary amenorrhea myself. but naturally I’m bound to have missed including some aspect or intersection or perspective, so please lmk what you think in the comments below. Given that I haven’t myself experienced most of the things I’ve discussed, the lens though which I view these issues is biased by my own privilege and I can only be an imperfect advocate at best. I would encourage everyone to read the resources in the description, if you have the time and privilege to selfeducate. TYSm for staying awake through today’s classes, and woops that’s the bell, see y’all next time.
References & Resources:
Reeves, C. (2015). Wandering wombs and wicked water: the ‘gynaecological’ papyrus. In A. Stevenson (Ed.), Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections (1st ed., pp. 54–55). UCL Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1g69z2n.20
Jahan, N. (2020). Bleeding during the pandemic: the politics of menstruation. Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, 28(1), 525–527. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48617651
lledge, M. F., Muralidharan, A., Parker, A., Ravndal, K. T., Siddiqui, M., Toolaram, A. P., & Woodward, K. P. (2018). Menstrual Hygiene Management and Waste Disposal in Low and Middle Income Countries-A Review of the Literature. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(11), 2562. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30445767/
https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/waste/india-s-landfills-add-113k-tonnes-of-menstrual-waste-each-year-report-77247#:~:text=Around 12.3 billion sanitary napkins,waste workers%2C the report said.
Røstvik, C. M. (2022). Conclusion: Free bleeding? Menstruation beyond consumption. In Cash Flow: The businesses of menstruation (pp. 177–200). UCL Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv20pxz8z.12
Garg, S., & Anand, T. (2015). Menstruation related myths in India: strategies for combating it. Journal of family medicine and primary care , 4 (2), 184–186. https://doi.org/10.4103/2249-4863.154627
Sukumar, D. (2020). Personal Narrative: Caste Is My Period. In: Bobel, C., Winkler, I.T., Fahs, B., Hasson, K.A., Kissling, E.A., Roberts, TA. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-0614-7_13
Nair, P. (2021). Menstruation: An Ableist Narrative. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law , 41 (1), 180–89. https://doi.org/10.52214/cjgl.v41i1.8833
Hughes, B. (2018). Challenging Menstrual Norms in Online Medical Advice: Deconstructing Stigma through Entangled Art Practice. Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics, 2 (2), 15. https://doi.org/10.20897/femenc/3883