In the past year or so, something has shifted in our culture in how we’re talking about periods. We recently saw women responding to Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments about news anchor Megan Kelly by live-tweeting their periods at him, and artist Sarah Levy created a portrait of Trump in menstrual blood, and both of these items got a good amount of mainstream media coverage. Over the summer, the story of Kiran Gandhi, a woman who ran the London Marathon while bleeding freely, was being shared widely online, and earlier this year there was some uproar about artist Rupi Kaur’s images of herself with period stains being removed from Instagram. The Atlantic did that piece about why women hide their tampons, and we’ve seen menstrual product marketers playing into women’s interest in more “real” period talk for a while now. And of course there’s the fact that every time I’m in the subway, I see ads for “underwear for women with periods,” which, as far as subway ads go, makes my commute feel kinda like a surreal feminist utopia.
Not to say that we don’t still have a loooong way to go to undo our culture’s widespread period gross-out/shame mentality, but lately it feels like menstruation is getting talked about more openly and honestly than ever before. Maybe we’re lashing out at an administration that’s waging a war on women’s reproductive rights. Or maybe this new cultural shift toward period positivity is just another example of how feminism has been recently more accepted (co-opted, even?) by the mainstream media. Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that periods have been having somewhat of a renaissance on the internet, and it’s about time.
“PERIOD PIECE: An Evening of Bleeding & Reading,” hosted by performance artist Christen Clifford and No Wave Performance Task Force last month in New York, was a welcome addition to this very specific moment in socio-menstrual history. With author readings and artist talks—plus a hilarious performance of menstruation euphemisms and an amazing live band—the evening framed contemporary artwork about periods within a larger historical timeline, highlighting where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we still need to go, when it comes to how our culture looks at Aunt Flo. Below are some highlights from the night.
Sita Johnson read from Are You There God… It’s Me Margaret.
Replete with shout-outs to “menstroo-ation videos” and “Teenage Softies,” the maxi pads we all wear in our 70s teen dreams, Johnson’s reading did something that kind of knocked my Judy Blume-superfan socks off: it positioned Blume’s oeuvre as part of a trajectory of art about periods, which it so is. The teen girl narrators in Blume’s novels always had an awe and excitement about their periods that I couldn’t quite relate to as a young reader–I awaited my first period with something closer to mortified shame (perhaps in part because I also regularly read teen magazine period shame tell-all columns like Seventeen’s “Trauma Rama” and YM’s “Why Me”). I never quite connected the dots that maybe Judy’s narrators were emblematic of a different era—maybe that’s how girls in the 70s talked about their periods, or maybe that’s just how Blume wanted them to (remind me to get started on my Judy Blume as Feminist Utopian Vision dissertation stat).
Cassandra Neyenesch read a beautiful piece about a miscarriage.
With poignant lines like, “I am pregnant with nothing,” and “I went through all this just to know it,” Neyenesch’s piece described in heart-wrenching detail the speaker’s miscarriage process. Given the harmful culture of silence that often surrounds miscarriage, it felt really important to hear such honest, personal writing about the topic read aloud in a public space.
Christen Clifford presented “Flo: The History of Menstruation.”
Clifford’s slideshow of period imagery in historical and contemporary art and media outlined the period shift that’s been happening recently online with images of Levy’s Trump painting and Rupi Kaur’s Instagram photo, and also featured important moments in menstrual history, like a photograph of 1996 Boston Marathon winner Uta Pipping crossing the finish line with period blood streaming down her legs.Clifford’s presentation also showcased the work of artist Portia Munson, who made menstrual prints by sitting down on paper every day during her period, and artist/critic Mira Schor’s Wet: On Painting, Feminism & Art Culture. I was particularly interested in Schor’s piece, “…”, which was inspired by Mary Kelley’s quote: “Being a woman is but a brief moment in one’s life” (pg. 188, Pollock, Vision and Difference). Kelley’s point, as I understood it, is essentially that “being a woman” has historically been tied to menstruation and to being of “childbearing age,” and so therefore might be seen as just a small portion of cis women’s lives. Schor says this about her painting, “…” : “In this painting I placed three periods within quote marks going outwards, the decades of one’s period as an interval of “being a woman” bracketed by the rest of one’s life.”
Amy Finkbeiner presented “Relics & Blood.”
Finkbeiner’s work is deeply rooted in bodily rituals and the collecting of bodily materials (she’s made artwork from her own sweat, fingernails, and other body “waste”). Looking first to the history of “harvesting” from women’s bodies as it’s been used in art and spiritual practices, Finkbeiner drew connections from medieval rituals that used nails and hair from some revered person to feminist performance art from the 1970s. Amy then presented her own artwork made from her own bodily materials, including “Super Slender Regular,” a piece featuring the used tampons she saved for 4 to 5 years.
Here’s a video excerpt from Frankko’s reading:
You can read the full piece here!
Someone said “menstrual blood is the only blood that’s non-violent.”
I can’t recall who it was exactly, but they were quoting the artist Vanessa Tiegs. Thinking about this idea kind of blows my mind.
Ellis Avery read from “Goodbye Ruby.”
The award-winning novelist says of this essay from her latest book, The Family Tooth:
“Getting one’s first period is a rite of passage, but one’s last period? Most women don’t know it at the time. I mark this unusual milestone in an essay about undergoing a hysterectomy at the age of 39 after being diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer.”
Avery’s reading was a kind of heartbreaking and hilarious twist on teen magazine period mortification. She also gave shout-outs to the very important period scenes in Carrie, and in Michelle Tea’s queer punk coming-of-age novel Rose of No Man’s Land.
Feminist punk band Society of the Speculum AKA Crimson Wave played two amazing period songs.
“I’m on the rag—FUCK YOU.” is officially my (and your) new time-of-the-month anthem.
I got my period a week and a half early, the day after this performance.
And I got it again today. Instead of saying “I hate you for giving me my period,” like I would have in high school, I’m celebrating by reading and writing and thinking about period art.
Christen Clifford gave us a sweet glimpse into the life of the feminist performance artist-as-mother.
With hopes for a more period-positive future, Clifford shared this story of walking down the street holding hands with her 12-year-old son earlier in the week: Clifford told her son, “I’m planning an event about periods,” and he responded “ugggh, Mom!!!” and let go of her hand. Christen responded, “This is what some of your friends are going through right now, and I’m trying to take shame away from it.” Her son grabbed her hand again.