You may have heard of 26-year old Kiran Gandhi, or at least seen pictures of her. She’s the woman who made headlines when she ran the London marathon while bleeding freely, sans tampon, staining her running pants. Many were shocked by it, but why? Here, we speak to Gandhi – who also doubles as M.I.A’s drummer – about the stigma that surrounds the menstrual cycle.
After training for a year, Gandhi woke up on the morning of her race with severe cramps and immediately began to weigh up her options. “It was an obvious choice for me to run without a tampon,” she tells Dazed. “I wanted to run in a way that was most comfortable – I was about to run a marathon.” She told us how it was absurd and oppressive that she should compromise her wellbeing, just so that other people didn’t feel "grossed out". “As women, historically, we have always had to prioritise the comfort of others at the expense of ourselves,” she says.
Although Gandhi did receive some positive feedback, she was also faced with an equal amount of backlash from both genders, some calling it “disgusting as fuck.” Others agreed with her motives, but claimed that there “are other ways to raise awareness” or accused her of attention-seeking.
The past twelve months has seen feminist body-focussed movements such as #FreeTheNipple gather momentum, but more and more the conversation is beginning to centre around menstruation. “I think that women’s bodies are often on display for the enjoyment of others,” Gandhi says. “Society is more than happy to talk about our breasts, but then they don’t want to talk about things that are not for their social consumption.”
She believes that there are a number of reasons why modern women still feel so ashamed and embarrassed, not only by other people’s periods, but of their own too. One reason for the stigma, Gandhi points out, is the lack of correct dialogue surrounding it.
“We do not have a comfortable vocabulary to speak about it – education is missing and myths fill the gap,” she says. An example of this – people claiming that Gandhi’s tampon-free run was "unhygienic". The drummer explains to us that this is simply not true, describing it as an opinion rooted in ignorance. “It only would have been unhygienic if I was carrying a disease or if my blood came in contact with any other person,” she explains. "Neither of which happened.”
Gandhi says that she also wanted to run without a tampon to raise awareness of women who do not have access to menstruation products. On her blog, she talks about how she wanted to run for those who do not have the money to buy tampons and have to hide their period away, feeling humiliated.
She describes a personal email she received from a young homeless woman, who found dealing with her period one of the most difficult aspects of poverty. “She told me, 'Kiran, when you ran I felt like you were running for me'. And that is epic.”
The fact that people have described Gandhi’s run as "gross" and "disgusting" illustrates the type of trauma that those in poverty have to go through every month, without choice. “If you can’t afford it then you can’t conform, and you can’t adhere to this societal norm of shaming and keeping everything quiet. And if you do bleed out, you will get punished, you will be socially ostracized, you will feel mortified.”
Even the way in which we group tampons, towels and menstrual cups as "sanitary" products can have a detrimental effect on the way we think about periods. “Already the rhetoric is misinformed and misguided,” Gandhi says. “It’s not about sanitary protection. It doesn’t make sense.”
Gandhi believes that we, as a society, have been conditioned to pretend that periods don’t exist, and been taught to define strength through silence and not by the ability to speak out. “There are situations where it is actually a medical emergency or you’re experiencing extreme discomfort, for example in school or a work place. You do not feel safe or comfortable talking about it – we have been told that this is not allowed.”
Since her run, Kiran has been performing and raising money with Thinx, a company that develops stain and leak resistant underwear that you can don during your cycle without a need for a tampon or towel. She wants people to shake off the shame of their period and put themselves first. "My message is not that all women from now on bleed freely – my message is that everybody should feel safe and empowered enough to make the choice that’s best for them.”
Follow Taylor McGraa on Twitter here @honestlytaylor