Yesterday was International Menstrual Hygiene Day (I prefer to call it ‘Menstruation Awareness Day’ because there really should be no language that implies menstruation is something unclean). The region where I live announced it will provide free menstrual products in all schools within the region so that anyone experiencing menstruation no longer need approach someone in an office to request a product or stay home because they cannot access products. This is an amazing step forward in recognizing that access to menstrual products does affect school attendance and absence. No one who menstruates should miss out on their education because of barriers to access or afford menstrual products. Menstruation is a natural human condition and consequence of having a womb and the fact we must spend money to manage that natural condition discriminates, in my opinion, against anyone who has a womb.
I was surprised last month to learn that a local Museum in downtown Kitchener has been hosting an exhibition about menstruation called FLOW. The exhibit closed yesterday, but I did manage to catch it when I attended “Tampon Tuesday”, one of many fundraising events to gather donations of maxi-pads and tampons for the local Food Bank. Below are more photos from the exhibit.
The exhibit was initiated by SHORE (Sexual Health Options Resources Education) Centre in partnership with Diva Cup, whose head office is actually located in Kitchener, Ontario. I can’t overstate how heartening it is to see this kind of public support and awareness campaign where I live. The stigma surrounding this completely natural, human process that people with wombs experience monthly over the course of decades from menarche through menopause must end. Taboos surrounding menstruation are entirely misogynist at their core.
Throughout history, patriarchy has feared women and their power to bleed without dying, as well as the power to carry new life and give birth. Women and power have historically presented a problem for patriarchy. Women with power, women in power, women exerting influence, women demanding rights and equality; throughout history, we’ve been made to feel unclean or have the notion of ‘sin’ attached to us and our bodies. We are shamed for menstruating, shamed for becoming pregnant, shamed for being barren, shamed for having sex before marriage, shamed for refusing sex, shamed for enjoying sex. We are slut-shamed, victim-blamed, shamed for being raped, shamed for speaking out against rapists, shamed for speaking up against sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence. We are shamed after giving birth, shamed for being mothers, shamed for working as mothers, shamed for experiencing post-partum depression, shamed for not becoming mothers, shamed for seeking or having abortions, shamed for fighting for access to abortion. We are shamed in our youth and shamed for growing old. During our moontime, we are banned from partaking in religious ceremonies or entering religious spaces. Patriarchy reinforces endless shame to us and our bodies. But a new generation is emerging who refuse to be silenced or humiliated and who instead openly challenge the idea that menstruation should be hidden or even considered unclean. Movements like free bleeding and artists like Rupi Kaur inspire and educate. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have protested for decades against misogyny and gender discrimination towards our bodies and advocated for women’s health. People like Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, and groups like the Boston Women’s Health Collective.
It’s 60 years since men landed on the moon and, finally, in 2019, we are told menstrual products will be provided free in public education institutions thanks to the efforts and voices of many. (And that’s in one of the most technologically advanced cities in North America). Such an announcement comes at a vital time: amidst the growing support of a longtime war that continues to wage against girls and women, non-binary individuals and trans men with wombs who believe in our right to exercise choice surrounding our own bodies. Patriarchy and misogyny still strives to maintain its long stranglehold over our reproductive health and autonomy.
Part of the many reasons I began this documentary photography project on the womb is to try to push back against this stranglehold, stigma and shaming. We need to feel free to talk about our bodies, to fight for our rights and to exercise control over our bodies. Every public effort to raise awareness, lift shame and empower people with wombs is vital to secure and maintain every aspect of our health: emotional, spiritual, mental, physical and reproductive.
Growing up, menstruation was never to be mentioned let alone discussed. Any discussion unfolded in secret and whispers. Having your period meant embarrassment. When I think of my mother’s generation and reflect upon the era of my own childhood, the weight of this taboo is suffocating. But not even a decade ago, I witnessed how the influence of such damaging attitudes still affect our lives into the present. A past co-worker once confided her relief that she only had sons because she hated everything about menstruation and even asked me to refrain mentioning any days I suffered monthly pain related to my endometriosis. I remember feeling shocked that she felt so much disgust at the mere mention of “Aunt Flo”. It made me wonder how she feels about her own body and how those feelings made her feel about her self.
No one should feel disgust or discomfort when chatting about our health and our bodies. I can only hope her own attitudes haven’t passed on to her sons who may have partners with wombs (now or down the road) and who could benefit from a more healthy and positive approach towards the bodies of anyone with a womb: girls/women and non-binary/trans individuals.
For myself, I have never hid from my son the fact that mommy has had painful days once a month; that girls/women bleed and that it’s completely natural. Because it’s not just girls/women who need education and awareness. It’s not just girls/women who bleed each month. Every gender out there benefits from these campaigns. Knowledge can only help people realize and respect what happens to those of us who have a womb and the various health processes, challenges, and issues related to this part of human anatomy. Perhaps with greater understanding might come greater compassion and support with respect to agency and advocacy, particularly concerning rights over our own bodies and our health. Period poverty and taboos must end. Period equity is not only a matter of equal rights, but of human rights. Period.