The female menstrual cycle has long been heralded as the pinnacle of cultural taboo. For centuries, women have been encouraged to pretend the monthly percolation of blood that drives the circle of life doesn’t exist. In a way paralleling John Mirk’s fifteenth Century parable, history has determined the menstrual cycle as something neither seen, heard, nor discussed.
‘And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtles, or two young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for her before the LORD for the issue of her uncleanness.’ (Leviticus, 15:19-30)
In light of twenty first century values, this extract from Leviticus appears ridiculous. Women are no longer subjected to such humiliation. Sin? Science has long proved menstruation is as natural as any other bodily fluid. Uncleanness? There are a multitude of products to target that now. We live in an age where menstruation has formed a compulsory part of the personal health curriculum, and supermarket shelves are lined with product after product to aid the plight of the period, making women in Europe a lot luckier than those residing in developing countries.
However, it is a passage that still holds relevance, even today. In a recent survey by The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, 74% of women admitted to feeling disadvantaged as a result of having periods. This leads me to question why in a society so fruitful in its production of products designed to aid women with this monthly burden, menstruation continues to be regarded as a hindrance. Perhaps closer attention needs to be paid to what function these products perform. They ‘mask.’ They ‘cover.’ They ‘protect.’ They suggest a woman is vulnerable on her period, internalised, perhaps even incompetent. She cannot rollerblade freely in white shorts until she is in possession of this product, just as she cannot attend the pool party without a tampax compak. It does not take long to realise contemporary culture has simply replaced the biblical burning of birds with thirty-second glimpses of a mysterious blue liquid dissolving into a white rectangle. It is no wonder a woman finds it so difficult to love herself when she is defined as inadequate for twelve weeks of the year.
But there’s a certain development working to subtly resurrect the burnt turtle and pigeon. The movement pioneered by Judy Chicago’s piece ‘Menstruation Bathroom’ in 1972, seeks to merge aspects of a women’s menstruation into art. Works like this transform the private vulnerability associated with the female period into a public spectacle. For what is the purpose of art? Art is to be looked at. Art is to be admired. In some cases, art is to be touched. By placing the most intimate aspect of femininity into a situation designed for the ocular, the artist is removing any sense of internalised shame currently surrounding the female period. Chicago’s piece featured a bathroom with a bin overflowing with used sanitary products next to a washing line strung with worn pants. She spattered the stark white bathroom floor with crimson bloodstains. Despite Chicago’s piece coinciding smoothly with the resurgence of second wave feminism, it still generated a huge shock appeal. Many deemed Chicago’s piece a political statement, a cry for attention, a vulgar artistic expression designed to outrage. Others were downright repulsed. I on the other hand, find myself delighted. Chicago was the first person to use the medium of art to push menstruation to its conceptual limits, shifting it away from the taboo and into the mainstream.
Carina Ubeda’s exhibition Cloths, unveiled at the Center of Culture and Health in Quillota, Chile, recently bought the concept of menstrual art back to media attention. Chacana collected five years worth of her menstrual fluid soaked on rags and hung them from the ceiling. Beside these, she also hung apples to represent ovulation. Below each menstrual stain, Ubeda stitched words such ‘Production’, ‘Discard’ and ‘Destroyed.’ Many artists express how in the process of creating their pieces, they transfer a figurative part of themselves into their work. Ubeda’s art is a literal embodiment of this. By using materials drawn from inside her body, menstrual blood becomes Ubeda’s own mystical palette that no artist can ever re create, no matter how long they spend mixing their paints. Yet how was her art received? It was deemed sensationalist. People called it ‘filthy’ and ‘disgusting,’ words running dangerously close to those preached in Leviticus. Of course, art is not designed for the purpose of being universally embraced. By its nature, art demands questioning, critique and disagreement. But when Marc Quinn chose to undertake a similar task, creating a cast of his head out of his own blood, he received nothing but praise for such originality. So why, in two thousand and sixteen, does such disparity still exist between male and female blood?
Jen Lewis is another artist who works with menstrual blood, using it to create intricately patterned photographs after noticing it had a similar texture to paint. She is also someone who believes there is still huge polarization of opinion in how female and male blood is received. ‘We live in a world where we are completely desensitized to blood shed in violence but are squeamish at the mere mention or suggestion of women’s menstruation, something every woman has for about 35-40 years of her life’ she states. ‘I challenge the notion that menstruation is “gross”, “vulgar”, or “unrefined”; I counter these notions with candid, real-life photos of my menstrual blood, and others in future projects.’ Lewis describes her art as conceptual and intellectually engaged, with an impact greater than that of a ‘vulgar image thrown up on a wall for mass shock appeal.’ And it appears the process of desensitisation is working. Last month, BodyForm unveiled their revolutionary new campaign, which is the first one ever to feature real blood. It swaps roller-skating sorority girls for clips of real woman engaging in high intensity sports and the feedback received has been phenomenal. @pinsandnoodles tweeted: ‘Yes @bodyform , yes to blood, no more blue stuff! Goodbye Always, I’m a bodyform girl now.’ Finally, the blue liquid is becoming red, as the representation of menstruation shifts from one of disadvantage to empowerment.
Yet there is still so much more to be done. Rupi Kaur’s photograph of a woman lying in bed with a period stain got removed from Instagram last year because it didn’t ‘follow their community guidelines.’ When statistics show the average women menstruates for 3000 days in her lifetime, the absurdity of this censorship cannot be overstated. Is the world’s most prolific social media sites, whose ‘community’ is built upon a majority female following, going to continue to ignore the facts of life forever? Art must continue to fuse itself with the breaking of boundaries, taboos and guidelines, until society ceases to deem being born a female a disadvantage.
It seems appropriate to return to the BodyForm advert to finish. The catchphrase that features at the end of the advert states: No blood should hold us back. The pronoun ‘us’ is what I believe stands out the most here. Menstruation is not alienating but universal, uniting both men and women in the intricate web of life. There should be no disadvantage, no disparity, and certainly no dismissal. When entwined with art, a tool equally as essential to our understanding of human experience, we can continue to eliminate the cultural taboo surrounding menstruation. Lets embrace the beautiful disarray of natural life. Lets turn 75% to 0%. Lets not let blood hold us back.
Featured Image:Beauty in Blood, Jen Lewis, Image of the Creative Process.