Lately, the internet has been awash with reports on Kiran Gandhi, a young British woman who chose to run the London Marathon without a tampon. On her blog, Gandhi has stated that she made her decision to support women across the globe who do not have access to menstruation products – and also to promote the idea that women should not be ashamed of their period. While the report has received a mixture of praise and harsh criticism, there are certain issues with the concept of ‘free bleeding’ that deserve to be thoroughly explored before any judgment can be deployed.
First off, anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept of ‘free bleeding’ would probably like to know that it is the process of experiencing monthly menstruation without the use of tampons or sanitary towels. However, give free bleeding a quick Google search, and you’ll be met with a few frighteningly extreme (and potentially satirical) feminism sites – the kind where they spell woman as “womyn” so as to limit any association women have with men – explaining the importance of free bleeding in a male-dominated society. While the concept of ‘true feminism’ – the strive for equality between men, women, and those who choose to not gender themselves – is something one would hope almost everyone is on board with, extreme femisandric sites like these are probably taking free bleeding a step too far. If one pares back the theory, free bleeding is conceptually meant to encourage women to be able to freely experience and discuss their period without shame, and accept it as a bodily function that is part of female anatomy.
That being said, society generally rules that people don’t discuss bodily excretions at all. It’s probably not unfair to say that urinating, defecating, sweating, and vomiting are all fairly taboo topics that people don’t usually discuss day to day, unless it is with close friends or family. Just as it’s not considered acceptable to announce to a roomful of people “I have urinated today!” perhaps it is also odd for a woman to enter a room and proclaim that she is bleeding profusely from her uterus. [pullquote]Just as it’s not considered acceptable to announce to a roomful of people “I have urinated today!” perhaps it is also odd for a woman to enter a room and proclaim that she is bleeding profusely from her uterus.[/pullquote] However, there is no inherent shame in any of these bodily functions.
The ‘shame’ indicated in the theory behind free bleeding is perhaps misleading, as the very function of using hygiene products during menstruation is for that reason alone – hygiene. I have yet to meet a woman who enjoys being on their period. Similar to how a person would find it uncomfortable not wash themselves after a nose bleed, women prefer to clean themselves regularly during menstruation as it is a relatively unpleasant time of the month. Periods aren’t shamed for being a female experience; rather, they are treated as an unpleasant form of excretion that women across the world have to deal with from around the age of thirteen, right up to menopause.
The more disturbing motive and rationale behind the free bleeding movement is that tampons are, (according to the dark side of the internet) considered to be male inventions designed to rape women during menstruation to remind them of the patriarchal society they live in. I think I am correct in feeling that the majority of women do not believe this. A quick Google search confirmed that tampons have existed since Ancient Egyptian times, when they were made from softened papyrus. Indeed, an early form of tampon was used to plug bullet wounds from the 18th century onwards. Although a man patented the design of tampons in 1933, it was up to women to manufacture them, and female nurses to market the products. The modern tampon was designed by a female gynecologist – Dr. Judith Esser-Mittag. There is no evidence that tampons were ever invented as anything other than a method of hygiene. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that blood stains clothes. It ruins underwear. Women use tampons to make life more comfortable for themselves. To me, it feels cleaner, and more manageable, than to freely bleed all over one’s clothing for the duration of menstruation.
To give credit where credit is due – Kiran Gandhi did a brave thing, and raised a fair point. There are countless women around the world who do not have access to menstrual products. It is easier to obtain free condoms than it is to obtain free tampons – and only one of those things is entirely necessary. I can see the links with patriarchal society in this respect, as the argument that sanitary products are taxed as ‘luxury goods’ has been rocking the internet for the past few years. Additionally, a renewed fear of Toxic Shock Syndrome has been doing the rounds too – questioning what these products are actually made from, and raising acute awareness of the potential dangers of some of the man-made fibers contained in tampons.
In this regard, the concept of free bleeding is not totally without merit – but is perhaps a slightly extreme method of raising awareness. Maybe there are other ways to draw attention to the necessity of menstrual products without going without them yourself. Free bleeding is not dissimilar to say, peeing in bushes to raise awareness for people who don’t have toilets. It is unnecessary to go without something that is designed to be helpful to raise awareness for people in need, without there being some form of drive behind the action. A free bleeding fundraiser would be controversial, certainly, but at the very least would achieve something more than mere discussions about the issues facing women who aren’t fortunate enough to choose whether or not they use menstrual products. It’s an interesting concept, but I don’t feel like the free bleeding trend will be catching on any time soon.
Images via nytimes.com