In the last few years, we’ve been introduced to new ways to take care of menstruation.
From period-proof underwear to menstrual cups, it seems, feminine products are racing to keep up with consumers who aren’t so into the classic pad and tampon. Now, a number of female athletes have engaged in public free-bleeding.
These women are ditching products all-together to make a statement about the stigma we place on menstruation.
Free-bleeding refers to the choice to menstruate without wearing an absorbent or collecting product like a pad, tampon, or cup. Women who engage in free-bleeding let themselves menstruate onto clothing, furniture, towels, and their own bodies, often in attempts to send a message about the stigmas and burdens associated with having a period.
Lately, more and more women are paying attention to the effects of menstruation on the environment and on bank accounts. Slate’s Nina Rastogi reports that a woman will produce an estimated 62,415 pounds of period-related trash between her first period and the onset of menopause. Eco-conscious innovators, in efforts to offset the amount of waste produced by menstrual products, have attempted to decrease plastic and paper packaging, source organic materials, and create clean and reusable devices. Now, it seems, some women have turned to free-bleeding in their attempts to go green.
Other free-bleeders are working to eradicate stigma. By bleeding out in public, they aim to force society to come to terms with menstruation. Embracing the natural mess, says Feministing community blogger Kelly Jo, is liberating for free-bleeders. Jo sees open bleeding as a way to push back against the societal norms that shape a woman’s experience with her own biology. We spend most of our lives conforming to expectations, “like I have to take care of my period so I can be a functional member of society,” she argues. For women like Kelly Jo, free-bleeding is a respite from those norms.
It’s this very mindset that catapulted the free-bleeding concept into the spotlight last year.
When runner and drummer Kiran Gandhi chose to participate in the London Marathon without wearing a tampon, she and her blood-stained leggings quickly made international news. In an article she penned about her experience, Gandhi explains getting her period on the eve of the march and dreading the idea of running “with a wad of cotton material wedged between my legs.” Instead, Gandhi let herself bleed openly while she ran. Gandhi writes about her free-bleed-induced thoughts, especially her realization that tampons and pads make your period invisible in order to make the people you run into every day feel more at ease. “As I ran,” Gandhi says, “I thought to myself about how women and men have both been effectively socialized to pretend periods don’t exist.” When Gandhi crossed the finish line with blood pooled between her legs, she shook the status quo and asked onlookers to face the realities of being female.
It’s important to remember that, for most women and girls around the world, free-bleeding isn’t a choice or a political comment. In much of the developing world, menstruation still means girls and women are denied involvement in day-to-day life. Without access to the products that help them keep clean, girls are often turned away from school, forced to sleep outside of their homes, and treated as unclean by members of their communities. Free-bleeding to send a message or experiment with personal comfort is a privilege. Interestingly, activists like Gandhi are working to connect their own free-bleeding to deeply rooted menstrual stigma in other cultures; Gandhi used her newsworthy run to raise awareness about the importance of access to feminine care.
Free-bleeding has encouraged many women to embrace their bodies, but is it a healthy and safe practice? Dr. Eleanor Draeger, as quoted in an interview with The Debrief, says it’s medically sound. “There is no medical reason not to practice free bleeding,” Draeger says. She does, however, recognize free-bleeding’s potential to cause some damage, reminding us that, without a product to absorb blood, a menstruating woman is likely to “soak through multiple layers of clothing…and stain fabric on chairs or sofas.”
Though it’s not harmful, free-bleeding also doesn’t carry any real medical benefits. Though some women prefer bleeding out to having foreign objects in or near their vaginas, your body doesn’t need the break. Feminine products are meant to be worn inside the vagina, which means they’re made to work with your body, not against it. If you’re in pain or discomfort, chances are you’re inserting your tampon incorrectly, using the wrong absorbency, or might benefit from a switch to organic products. Does freedom sound enticing but perhaps a little unsanitary? The creators behind THINX make it possible for you to “free-bleed” into absorbent underwear. THINX, which have anti-bacterial silver in them, let you feel like a free-bleeder without worrying about stains or sitting in a puddle.
Whether or not you’re inspired to try free-bleeding during your next period, the no-shame message at the heart of the movement is one we can all learn from. “I am a woman,” Gongora reminds us. “Therefore, I bleed.”