How Menstrual Art is Fighting Social Stigma Surrounding Periods

The Crimson Tide. On The Rag. Aunt Flo. Shark Week. So many code words, but all about the same thing- periods. Menstruation has long been a taboo topic, with our society being too ashamed or disgusted to ever talk about it. From being denied access to temples and kitchens, to being told not to touch pickle, to menstruation chapters being skipped over in Biology classes, women in India are constantly shamed for the biological process that is menstruation. Periods are concealed in brown paper bags from pharmacies and through blue liquid in advertisements, with no open discussions, or education.

Never been ones to shy away from working with taboo topics, artists in India have been delving into their mediums to point out why period shaming is harmful, and why it’s important to have open conversations about them. Menstrual art, or Menstrala – a term coined by artist Vanessa Tiegs, can sometimes include the use of menstrual blood, or just be about menstruation. As a medium, Menstrala holds an immense amount of social power. It comes in a variety of forms, and works for different causes. Some work in an attempt to normalize it, while others feature as protests to discriminatory or shaming practices. It has the ability to revolutionize and change what we perceive to be normal. Menstrala shifts social perceptions on menstruation.

Here are six Indian artists who use menstrala to fight existing stigmas around menstruation.

1.Painting with Blood

Menstrual art has been a part of feminist protest art for a long time. One of the first recorded instances was ‘Red Flag’, which depicts a bloody tampon being removed from the artist’s vagina. As a form of protest art, the piece was meant to shock audiences, and was an explicit depiction of menstruation. Over time, the development of menstrala paralleled the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Image credits: Judy Chicago, Red Flag, 1971

In India, Lyla Freechild is one of few artists who use menstrual blood in their work. She uses a combination of ink and blood in her paintings to normalise and open up discussions about menstruation. Through her work, she also discusses the ecological impact sanitary products have, and the need for a shift to more sustainable menstrual products. “I do not paint with menstrual blood to push others to take up the same. All I want is people to talk about it”, Freechild explained in an interview with The Week Magazine. Some of her previous work includes a large installation of a menstrual cup, created by stitching together over 400 menstrual cups.

Frankfurt-based Sikh artist Raman Chana’s series Body Prints “stands for being over-extrovert and not of being embarrassed,shameful or disgusting for being a woman”. Body Prints was used as a way to change existing views on menstruation, and present it as a gift rather than a taboo. The pieces were created by the artist painting herself with ink, and then sitting on a canvas for a few minutes while bleeding. The results were abstract like pieces, which she then photographed and exhibited.

Image credits: Raman Chana, Body Prints

2. Activist Art

Other forms of activist period art work to raise awareness about discriminatory or shaming policies and practices, such as the taxation of sanitary hygiene products.

In India specifically, a campaign called #LahuKaLagaan rose when sanitary napkins were taxed at 12% under the implementation of the GST. Most menstruating women in India cannot afford sanitary products and are often forced to use sand or even ash. Though some use cloth, the stigma and shame surrounding menstruation makes it incredibly difficult to use as they are not allowed to dry the cloth in sunlight. This means they resort to dark corners of houses, which are a high risk for infection. Artists on Instagram, such as Sahana Subramanyam and Sarah Naqvi started sharing work in remonstration to the taxation.

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Bleed out #LahuKaLagaan

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3. The Beauty of Blood

Other period art is used to show the beauty or natural aspects of the process. It works on a different tangent than protest art in that it does not try to create any shock, but instead naturalise menstruation. These include Rupi Kaur’s famous photography series, and Kaviya Ilango’s illustrations.

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thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. you deleted a photo of a woman who is fully covered and menstruating stating that it goes against community guidelines when your guidelines outline that it is nothing but acceptable. the girl is fully clothed. the photo is mine. it is not attacking a certain group. nor is it spam. and because it does not break those guidelines i will repost it again. i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. pornified. and treated less than human. thank you. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ this image is a part of my photoseries project for my visual rhetoric course. you can view the full series at the photos were shot by myself and @prabhkaur1 (and no. the blood. is not real.) ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way. in older civilizations this blood was considered holy. in some it still is. but a majority of people. societies. and communities shun this natural process. some are more comfortable with the pornification of women. the sexualization of women. the violence and degradation of women than this. they cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that. but will be angered and bothered by this. we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing. as if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. as if this process is not love. labour. life. selfless and strikingly beautiful.

A post shared by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_) on

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#100daysofdirtylaundry Day 40 – Whispers & murmurs . . I wanted to colour the stain under the legs blue, just like an innocuous ink blot, just like ones in those sanitary pad ads. Red does look weird I agree, even when I look down every time, 4 days a month. Wish I didn't have to bleed blue only for the Indian cricket team. . . Hush, I already hear screams of taboo, so let's quickly wash the stain off my lingerie – . . – it's disgusting YET a necessity for every woman out there. It's simply utterly disgusting if u are a woman even acutely interested in procreation. . . – I wouldn't have hated it with such vengeance if all it did was appear coyly 4 days a month & quietly made its way out. But no, it needs drama, just like every woman u say? So it plots to make me sulk, weep over rom-coms 3 days prior, bitterly cry for no reason 2 days prior & transform me into Dracarys, the dragon a day prior. Basically, do not disturb me when I'm PMSing or else I will find u & burn u. . . – quick math- so that's 4+3 = 7 days, only a week a month losing my sanity over the red devil. Just maybe 1/4 of my life ok? Crying, acne-puss secreting, bloating, bleeding, more wailing, more bleeding. . . – what's the new furore on the net? New-age startups introducing an OPTIONAL 1 day off for women on their 1st day of period & everyone's already losing their minds. Isn't 12 weeks of maternity leave enough? 1 more day off a month, that's 12 more days a year(for periods!), aren't u giving companies more arsenal to keep women off the workforce? Staunch feminists disagree. I really don't know. Will some women misuse it? Maybe. Will some really need it? Absolutely yes. (For men wondering, it hurts. Maybe like when u get hit there repeatedly?). . . – which brings me back to something that happened in office. Colleague approaches & whispers in an inaudible voice – psst, do u have it, do u have it? Do I have what? Dragonglass? Cooties? Ebola? Oh, you mean a sanitary pad! Yeah I do. Next time, don't bother whispering. Let the guy eavesdropping in next cubicle know u are looking for a sanitary pad. Why the secrecy about 1/4th of your life? #normalizeperiods #hateitneverthless

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Artwork about menstruation tries to shift social perceptions and fight stigmas surrounding periods. They challenge existing notions of menstruation, and instead depict it as the natural biological process it is, with nothing icky or taboo about it. As a form of protest, Menstrala is instrumental in demanding for a change in the way we view periods.

Written by Raika Aban Sengupta

Featured image credits: Sarah Naqvi


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