BY FRANCESCA LEWIS
Social media has made it easier to talk about a lot of taboo subjects – from gender equality to gay marriage to mental health – and that’s a very cool thing. With Toronto student Rupi Kaur’s taboo breaking instagram images starting some long overdue conversations about menstrual stigma, I caught up with menstruation education researcher Chella Quint to talk about her #PeriodPositive campaign.
You describe yourself as a “menstruation education researcher”- can you talk a bit about what that entails?
That’s true – it’s the newest way I describe myself, actually. I also write and perform comedy and design fanzines and installations, mostly around science topics, which is how I fell into researching menstruation education, almost by accident. I was doing a comedy show called Adventures in Menstruating and touring it and doing some activism around menstrual taboos in the school holidays while teaching drama and sex education. I noticed the teaching resources were minimal or sponsored by tampon companies, and this seemed wrong, but there wasn’t a lot of research on it, and there weren’t many people studying menstruation at all in the UK let alone education specifically. I’m the only one doing that and I’ve just finished my master’s. More people should study it – it’s fascinating and I would really like colleagues! Luckily there is a small global network of menstruation and reproductive health researchers called the SMCR and they took me in when I was a young plucky comedian and raised me as one of their own and taught me some academic rigor! The group as a whole has been able to share knowledge and lobby for change – and it’s not just for academics – it’s for artists and activists as well and it’s truly global – check them out! I still use comedy and design to disseminate my research, advise other researchers how to use humor in their science communication, and regularly perform stand up at nerdy comedy nights. But most of the time I’m working on the #periodpositive project.
What is the #PeriodPositive project about?
#periodpositive is the title of my dissertation, and I developed the hashtag and the campaign from there to counteract the mainly negative public discourse. I accept that people both love and hate periods, but through this outreach work I try to get people to unpick how big an influence the media plays in these attitudes. I’m aiming for ‘period neutral’, using a positive approach. Day to day, I lead workshops and do talks, and develop classroom activities in schools, then share them for free. I started out with my own class and they were fantastic. One boy said ‘it takes balls to talk about periods’, and we all cracked up and I had to ask his permission to share that with people. They were really keen to work in mixed gender groups and I think that’s really important. It means that kids who are trans or genderqueer or intersex are included in the conversation, and it needs to be the norm. Kids of all genders need to learn to negotiate how their own and others’ bodies work, and how to have those conversations with each other, in an inclusive way.
In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking up ways to break menstrual taboos and to help others to. I used to do mostly activism myself, little actions and agitations, and then started teaching other people. I realised that for each action that grabbed people’s attention, it was equally valuable to ensure people were having conversations and challenging myths and misinformation as well. For instance the work I do with homeless young people is about catching up on any facts they may have missed, budgeting, becoming familiar with reusables, and cycle charting so you can plan for when your period’s due, which complements local tampon donation drives. Disposables are not only bad for the environment, but the market leaders are incredibly expensive! You know, if disposable menstrual product companies didn’t spend so much on aggressive marketing to kids, their products would be a lot cheaper. I think reusables are clearly something we need to think about and try to use more in future, in combination with disposables if you need to, but with an awareness of sustainability. Loads of people swear by their menstrual cups and would never go back. Cloth pads are way comfy at night, and they just go in the wash with the rest of the bed sheets and pajamas. Since disposables are sending their little educational pamphlets into schools, they’re (surprise surprise) not mentioning sustainable options that would put them out of a job.
You acknowledge that not everyone loves their period and have said you’re more campaigning for a neutral attitude – a positive, non-stigmatising approach to menstrual affairs. Do you think that people have a false binary that makes them see calling for an end to stigma as a call for them to actively like their period?
Heeheehee… – menstrual affairs sounds like a tampon dating a cloth pad behind Tampax’s back. I’m going to giggle over that phrase for a bit. I love it! But anyway, yeah, some people do bristle – and sometimes it’s to do with their own internalised taboos but other times it’s like ‘no seriously I hate my period because it is painful and I have these medical conditions and it totally sucks’ and they assume I’m on a crusade to make everyone love their periods, and I am definitely not. Always use that as their ad slogan ‘Have a happy period’ and it’s so phony and grating. Aside from painful periods and related medical conditions, some people have gender identity stuff about periods, some people aren’t bothered about the fertility side of things, and some people have bad relationships with other bodily functions too. You‘re right to call it a false binary. For many people, it’s a continuum, and that’s true for me. Sometimes, my periods are awesome, and sometimes they totally suck. It’s a vital sign though – a regular cycle is a sign of good physical health, like your blood pressure or your peak flow. But I will always feel comfortable talking about it or seeking advice if I need it, and I will challenge people and companies who try to influence me to keep my periods secret. Private is fine – that’s me setting a personal boundary for my personal business – but secret is a problem. That’s someone else telling me what I can and can’t talk about – and as a queer person who was told to keep the fact of my sexual orientation ‘discreet’ simply because I was working with young people, I give major side eye to words like ‘discreet’ and ‘secret’ and ‘whisper’. I know only too well that this reeks of taboo and stigma, and that it can seriously affect your wellbeing.
Why do you think advertisers use shaming language to sell menstrual products and what effect does this have on consumers?
Shame sells. Simple as that. It’s unethical, but it shifts product. That’s nothing new about advertising, and there are loads of beauty and health type products that use shame. Menstrual product ads have taken it to another level though – sending books and guest speakers to schools for literally 100 years…how do they still get away with that? Brands don’t belong in schools. Some other types of advertising are regulated now – in the UK you can’t show cigarette packages on display in shops and fast food can’t be advertised during children’s television programming. We need to stop companies from doing this. You can watch my TEDx talk or the short film I made for a more detailed rundown on the way the messages in old ads are echoed in modern ads and how that affects education and the discourse today. It is a little bit spooky how the same words creep up again and again and have clearly influenced our language and attitudes.
You’ve been doing menstruation-related comedy and activism for several years now, including with your popular Adventures in Menstruating zine – what is it that makes you so passionate about the subject?
I actually started doing this project ten years ago this summer! I can’t believe it. The adverts have been changing, and some of the companies have actually gotten in touch and asked for my input. (I have turned them down – I want them to change their ways, but I don’t feel comfortable being on their payroll.) I’m putting together an anthology of all my zines this year to celebrate the 10th anniversary – keep an eye out at my website for updates!
What’s the idea behind STAINS™?
There’s a whole history of ‘leakage horror’ that can be traced through the ads. I think it’s time to talk back to adverts using their own language. I created a fake fashion line with its own trademarked (seriously!) emblem and a range of spoof products all featuring a comedy menstrual stain in strategic places. I did fashion shoots and created brand identity guidelines, created a website and put up downloadable iron on prints and templates so people can make their own. I figure if leaking is fashionable, it can’t be thought of as disgusting anymore. It’s a big gag (and you can totally join in!), but it’s amazing how effective it is – I’ve incorporated it into media literacy lessons and kids have really enjoyed it and given positive feedback. It was recently installed in Science Gallery Dublin’s BLOOD exhibition, where people could wear a stain patch, take a selfie and promote it with the #periodpositive hashtag. Some people actually want to buy and wear it, which is great, because that’ll raise some funds to allow me to continue to do this kind of work until nobody needs it anymore, because they’ve all become #periodpositive.
You can get involved with Chella’s project on Facebook or tweet her @PeriodPositive.
Francesca Lewis is a queer feminist writer from Yorkshire, UK. She writes for Curve Magazine and The Human Experience as well as writing short fiction and working on a novel. Her ardent love of American pop culture is matched only by her passion for analyzing it completely to death.