In social media, we face a flood of content each time we look at our screens. There are certainly advantages to the platforms at our disposal, which let us stay up to date on the most current news and have immediate connection with others. However, a key disadvantage is the sheer amount of NOISE on social media. When people have the liberty of exploring myriad topics and newsfeeds are flooded with clickbait, it can be difficult to stay afloat in a thoughtful and socially responsible manner.
Further, although people have opportunities to connect with others through technology, there seems to be a disconnect in the human aspect of these interactions. Perhaps we forget that the receiving end of our comments is not the keyboard on which we type them but the eyes, minds, and hearts that will be exposed to them. I define “noise” as those comments that are simple, uninformed, and abrasive in approach. Often, these are in the form of personal attacks, which triggers a chain reaction of antagonistic and divisive rhetoric until one party eventually “gives up.” Thus, productive and thoughtful dialogue is severely inhibited.
In our line of work, Be a Rose is constantly researching issues of women’s health and menstruation. These subjects are still widely stigmatized and considered taboo in many cultures. We see many controversial articles and stories and expect a varied range of responses. While a difference of opinion is certainly appreciated in terms of an informed debate, I am stricken by the comments fueled solely by sexism, ignorance, and hate. These comments are simply noise. Often, I feel compelled to respond to these comments but believe there are more meaningful strategies to challenge the stigma than engaging in fruitless online debates.
I want to challenge “noisy” comments in a way that fosters research and respect: two things that issues of women’s health severely lack and desperately deserve. I’ve selected two articles that address menstrual stigmatization and pulled samples of their Facebook comments My hope is that an examination of these reactions may expand the conversation in a purposeful way, addressing the stigmas and inequities that stifle conversation about women’s health. We aim neither to engage with internet “trolls” or antagonize those with differences of opinion. Rather, our mission is to open hearts and minds in a way that extends compassion and empowerment to women.
Context of the Source Material #1: An artist, Lili Murphy-Johnson, has crafted a collection of jewelry inspired by aspects of a woman’s period. This collection features a charm bracelet of feminine hygiene products and ring varieties laden with bright red crystals, including a ring design in the shape of a maxi-pad. This artist was inspired to “explore the idea of female bodily shame and debunk the taboo around menstruation.”
Context of Source Material #2: A yogi, Steph Gongora, was shooting a video of her hour-long practice when she experienced a leak. With heavy periods, leaks are common, and to demonstrate the normality of this experience—an experience that many women have faced—she chose to continue shooting the video and rather than hide her leak, she highlights it. Gongora explains that the ultimate purpose was to challenge period shame and “show that this is a subject that needs to be discussed and brought into the open.” She asserts that “in order to bring any attention to a subject, sometimes you need a little shock value.”
What are the common themes within these criticisms?
#1 – Period shaming doesn’t exist.
It does. These Facebook comments serve as substantial evidence, as they refer to periods as “gross,” “unsanitary,” and “disgusting.” For women within marginalized populations, the stigma can raise serious barriers in terms of access to resources. Period shaming exists to even greater depths on a global scale, as in some cultures menstruating women are exiled and isolated because they are viewed as “impure,” “dirty,” and “untouchable.”
#2 – A menstrual leak is equivalent to semen, urine, and fecal matter.
The fact is, yes, exposure to nearly all bodily fluids carries risk. However, to argue that a menstrual leak is the equivalent to knowingly and intentionally exposing others to fecal matter is both offensive and wildly incompatible. First, these fluids have entirely different chemical composition and bacteria content, and the chances of spreading rotavirus by carrying fecal “smears” on your clothing far outweigh the chances of spreading a bloodborne pathogen through a menstrual leak. On average, a woman’s menstrual flow falls between 1-2 fluid ounces and is composed of blood, uterine tissue, and vaginal fluid. It’s important to note that for woman without blood-related illness "menstrual blood is harmless and no toxins are released in the blood flow."For women carrying a blood-related condition such as HIV, though the pathogens may be present in menstrual blood, the likelihood of transmission through a leak is incredibly low, as the fluids would have to make direct contact with a mucus membrane of another person. Further, if the woman in question is receiving proper treatment for HIV, transmission becomes "virtually impossible" (which further illustrates the importance of awareness and accessibility to quality health care).
Lastly, we need to shift this perspective that menstrual leaks are an intentional scourge on society and shameful act of women. A recent study found that 86% of women have experienced an unexpected leak in public without necessary supplies to manage it. Perhaps we should reframe the perspective so that we are not asking “How dare she?” but rather, “How can we help?”
#3 – Women who challenge menstrual stigmatization are doing so for a sense of self-importance.
Women, such as Murphy-Johnson and Gongora, are challenging menstrual stigmatization in a way that lifts and supports other women by showing that yes, periods are natural, normal, and sometimes messy, and that it’s OKAY to talk about it. Kiran Gandhi raised awareness in 2015 by running the London Marathon during her period without using feminine hygiene products. Gandhi shared that while this was a personal choice she made for comfort, she recognized that for many women, free-bleeding is not a choice but an inevitability. She explains that she did this "for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist."
To be fair, there were also positive comments on these articles, demonstrating that awareness and compassion are not entirely lost in social media. There is hope, and we must continue to lift and support these voices of kindness and empowerment.
Women are stepping forward and standing up for each other, and efforts to raise awareness should be met with appreciation or at least thoughtful discussion, not hateful criticism. If anything, the noisy negative comments illustrate the need for us to continue to fight the stigma. Let’s work together to dial down the NOISE on our Facebook feeds and turn up the KNOWLEDGE. By spreading awareness of issues of women’s health and supporting increased accessibility to feminine hygiene products, you can BE A ROSE.
By: Aanee Nichols