Does Having a Period Make You Heroic?

Kendra and I are relieved that our book, If Eve Only Knew, is finally here! You can order online at Amazon, or at Chalice Press; or you can support your local bookseller and order from them (for those in my area, I suggest Chapter’s Books). You can also read a review of the book here. Let us know what you think! We’re also looking for speaking gigs where we can talk about our research, so if your book group, Sunday school class, congregation, or college course is looking for guest speakers, feel free to contact us.

Periods have been much in the news the last few weeks. And I’m not sure what to think about this.

Okay, that’s not entirely true: I know what to think about Donald Trump’s stupid comment to FOX commentator Megyn Kelly at the first Republican debate. His implication that Kelly is a raging wild woman because she’s got blood running out of her eyes and—ahem, other places—is misogynistic and stupid, but I wouldn’t expect any less from The Donald, whose so far seemingly successful run for the presidency must be causing other GOP politicians to wonder What the hell is wrong with me? and They like that guy, but not me?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just projecting a bit.

The other story about periods that’s been in the news recently is more puzzling to me, as a feminist and a marathon runner, and also as someone whose bullshit meter is sometimes too highly sensitive.

You’ve probably all seen the story, about a 26-year-old rock band member who decided to run the London Marathon while on her period, but without any kind of feminine hygiene products. Kiran Gandhi, the drummer for singer M.I.A., ran with her blood “free flowing,” saying she ran with “blood dripping down [her] legs for sisters,” for those many women around the world who don’t have access to any kind of tampons or pads. kiran gandhi

She was lauded by some folks as heroic for taking this approach, and for drawing attention to the plight of women in developing countries, including girls who cannot go to school during their periods, meaning they miss up to a week of school every month. Gandhi also said, months later in an interview with People magazine, that she wanted to “remove the stigma of menstrual cycle” by allowing her period to be on public display. “If we don’t own the narrative of our own bodies,” she said, “somebody else will use it against us.”

And, to be honest, I can see merit in those who would view Gandhi as a hero, using the London Marathon as a way to highlight a biological process that is heavily stigmatized, still, despite the preponderance of advertisements in the U.S. about period-related products, many of which promise to be discrete. We tend to act as if women don’t have periods—or, acknowledgment that this is a part of women’s lives is often done in the vein of Donald Trump, making jokes about raging lunatics on the rag and PMS bitchiness.

Still, a lot doesn’t sit right with me about Gandhi and what she has suggested is her performance art piece. Rather than making an intentional decision to highlight the plight of women in developing countries, Gandhi concluded the night before the marathon that she would forego tampons while running. She started her period, worried that wearing a tampon might not be comfortable while running the marathon, decided to just let her blood flow freely, and then apparently came up with a cause to support what seemed, at least initially, a choice made on the basis of her own sense about running with hygiene products.

(And a silly choice at that: I’ve run countless races while on my period, and the presumed discomfort of wearing a tampon never even crossed my mind. Gandhi was more likely to experience chaffing from bloodied underwear and tights than any damage a tampon might do.)

More troubling to me, the entire event smacks of privilege that Gandhi herself fails to acknowledge. Running a marathon is itself a very privileged act: you need both time and money to train for and compete in a marathon; even beyond the entry fee, you have to have ample time to train, time that most people in the world do not have.

But she also has the privilege of making the choice to wear protection or not while running. I imagine if impoverished women had the opportunity to let their blood flow freely or wear a tampon, they would choose the latter, and would no doubt wonder what kind of crazy-ass woman would make a different choice, if she had the resources to do so.

Some have argued that Gandhi was showing how periods are natural, that by bleeding freely, she was challenging us to see the menstrual cycle as part of a woman’s biology, and thus nothing to be reviled. All well and good: I agree that women’s bodies and reproductive capabilities have for too long (read: all of history) been seen as abhorrent and shameful.

I’m not sure, though, that letting blood run freely is the best antidote to this stigmatization. Because, by extension, we might say defecating is also a natural part of the digestive process, but I can’t imagine many people would see a runner’s poop-filled shorts as heroic. Though as most runners will tell you, not pooping in your shorts can sometimes demand heroic effort.

I may be missing something in this story. Maybe I should see Gandhi as a feminist hero. Maybe I should be grateful that she’s brought attention to the plight impoverished women worldwide, recognizing that I’ve done little (okay, nothing) of similar magnitude. Yet something doesn’t sit right with me about this. I may need convincing that Kiran Gandhi is actually helping all women be exactly who they were made to be, blood flowing freely or not.

The winner of the London Marathon issued a statement yesterday about Gandhi. Her name is Tigist Tufa, though few people know that, because she hasn’t received any press, despite winning one of the world’s major races. Tufa points out the disparity, that although she won the race, Gandhi’s stunt is featured, taking attention away from, according to Tufa, “what really fights sexism”: beating thousands of men in a race, and showing the strength and power of women’s bodies.

If I wasn’t sure before that Kiran Gandhi did nothing heroic, Tufa’s statement convinced me. But maybe I’m wrong. Anyone want to explain what I’m missing?