5 min read
by Tiffanie Woods | December 06, 2018
One of my earliest memories of my period is lying on the floor of the girl’s bathroom crying hysterically because my cramps were so bad.
Actually, not so much crying — more like moaning and shrieking out of pure agony. I just so happened to be in the bathroom across from our cafeteria, which brought an audience to witness my demise. Teachers ran in, trying to calm me down, but upon finding out my pain was due to cramps, had little words of sympathy to share. My teachers thought I was being dramatic. I thought I was dying.
My mom knew exactly what to do now that it was “my time of the month” (her words, not mine). A ton of over-the-counter painkillers and a hot water balloon later, I was cured: I could move without wincing in pain, and make the necessary trips to the bathroom to change my pad without wishing for sweet death.
Fast forward ten years. I was fluctuating between pads and tampons, and still trying to find new/better ways to deal with my monthly frenemy.
Initially, I looked into alternative options; the Diva Cup, THINX, and getting an IUD to name a few. Each one posed their own set of obstacles, either financially, or from my own biases of what I could deal with. For example, using a Diva Cup still *terrifies* me, even though I know it shouldn’t.
During that research, I stumbled upon the concept of free-bleeding. Like most things, I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of it, but I do remember taking it more seriously after badass runner Kiran Gandhi free-bled during a marathon. At the time, I considered myself a baby feminist (shout-out to CYG) and thought the idea of free-bleeding was something reserved for white feminists who shoved #FreeTheNipple down everyone’s throats.
The fact that Gandhi was a woman of color meant so much to me. Watching her interviews and seeing the sense of freedom she felt made me want to know more. Mostly, I was curious if it was even an option for someone with such a heavy flow, like myself.
Talking honestly about periods was not something I grew up with. I was taught from a young age to hide pads in my room, or stuffed at the bottom of the drawer in the hallway closet, so I wouldn’t offend male relatives or visitors. I was instructed to wrap my pads tightly in toilet paper before throwing them away. If my period leaked onto the couch on weekends I spent with my grandmother and aunt—instead of being comforted—I was shamed.
The older black women in my life often made me feel bad about my period. Things like reproductive health and mental illness have always held stereotypes in the black community, leading to shaming instead of educating and denying instead of embracing. (As if the bodily functions I have no control over are burdens to the people around me!)
But it’s not their fault — the way the black community treats menstruation stems from decades of internalized racism and classism. Black people’s feelings of self-worth have long been tied to our appearances: how “clean” we are, and nothing is seen as more “dirty” than period blood.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness” is repeatedly quoted throughout black churches and households. Staying and appearing clean has been one of the only ways black people could control how they were treated by white counterparts — we may not be able to change the color of our skin, but we can make it so our outward appearances are as close to perfect as possible.
Thus, the thought of walking around with no boundaries between my bleeding uterus and clothes felt like a sin. But I was selfish. Tired of being uncomfortable in pads. Tired of spending too much money on sanitary products, on pain relievers. So I did what has been long frowned upon in the black community: I embraced my period and the blood that came with it.
Given my heavy flow, I decided, at least for the time being, that I would start by free-bleeding at the end of my cycle. My period usually lasts 5 - 7 days, with the last two being a mixture of spotting and passing blood clots (glamorous, I know). Then, I slowly started to dabble in free-bleeding for the entirety of my period, learning what I could and could not get away with. For example, knowing that when I sneeze, I’ll unleash a pool of blood the size of a lake meant that if I wanted to free-bleed, keeping extra panties (and potentially a change of pants) on-hand was a necessity.
Still afraid of how I and my choice would be received, I didn't tell anyone how I managed my period unless they asked — it’s now been a few years since I’ve incorporated free-bleeding into my routine. Unfortunately, trying to explain free-bleeding to those around me brought back the alienating feelings I had as a teenager hiding my period around my family.
From my black friends and family, I have been met with a little more hesitancy and criticism than others, which I don’t take offense to, because I know there is a lot to unpack there culturally.
Historically, black bodies have been put on display. For judgement, for commodification.
From slavery and the actual buying and selling of black bodies to Jim Crow, when black bodies were policed to the highest extent of the law.
Black women in particular have been victims of leering eyes and bodily harm, no matter how much we’ve tried to blend in. So we made these rules for ourselves. To be seen and not heard. To cover up and keep quiet.
For me, to free-bleed is to cast these outdated and simply racist constructs of what menstruation should be to the side.
Through simple acts like mine, I hope to see small but powerful changes made when it comes to normalizing periods. Through open and honest conversations I know we can destigmatize this natural function. Luckily there are people like CeCe Jones, a menstruation activist and black woman who works to educate people on menstrual health management, doing the hard work of organizing on a larger scale.
We must continue to have these conversations and shed light on those doing the work. To start, share with me your experiences with menstruation and free-bleeding, resources you may have, or organizations and activists doing this important work in the comments below!
Tiffanie Woods is a writer based in New York. Her writing has been featured in Broadly, The Tempest, and Wear Your Voice Magazine.
by Tiffanie Woods