The (Very) Puritanical Online Censorship Of Periods

By Sanjana Chowhan

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect Etsy’s decision to reopen Lili Murphy-Johnson’s jewelry shop.

Blood, guts, and glory.

Apparently, that’s what it takes to start a conversation around menstruation. Because even in a world where menstrual cups run on Bluetooth and menstrual products are tax-free in several cities of America, merely talking about your period is often unthinkable. Ads still show blue liquid lightly trickling onto fluffy white pads, a far cry from the reality of periods, and in polite company, the topic often remains taboo.

Recently, Lili Murphy-Johnson, a 23-year-old jewelry designer, sought to challenge this stigmatization when she launched a collection inspired by that bloody time of the month. Comprised of three prominent stages of menstruation, her collection focuses on the hormonal mood swings that make up PMS; “period paraphernalia, aka menstrual products”; and lastly, the blood itself.

“Periods are stigmatized in our culture from a long history and inequality for women,” she writes on her website. “There is an interesting conflict with the perception of the female body, being seen as so perfect, yet also as so grotesque and unclean. Products all play up to the idea that periods are dirty and something wrong with the body, something to hide.”

In this context of destigmatization, it is particularly ironic, then, that online store Etsy ultimately decided to suspend Johnson’s jewelry shop in June of this year — calling the tampon charm bracelets and gleaming bloodstain brooches “inappropriate.” As Johnson describes it, “They sent me an email saying the ‘on the rag’ collection would have to be made 18+ if I wanted to put it back on the site. I chose not to as I didn’t consider my jewelry as adult.”

Since the writing of this article and the original decision, Etsy has reopened the shop — but their initial suspension raises questions about how we treat menstruation, even in 2016. Etsy, for its part, insists it was simply honoring a policy surrounding supposedly mature content. “Etsy highly values artistic expression and we allow a very wide range of art, including art pertaining to menstruation,” Hannah Album, from Esty’s PR team, told me after they suspended the shop. “That said, all items on Etsy, including art, must make sure to follow our policies for mature content and prohibited items. In some cases, sellers who are unwilling to follow these policies may be removed from the marketplace.”

However, Murphy-Johnson says she couldn’t shake the sense that her anti-period-shaming collection had been, well, shamed. “It annoyed me,” she says. “This made me feel like I had done something wrong or bad; I almost felt guilty. It upset me that I would feel guilt over showing menstruation.”

Etsy’s “mature content” claim is, indeed, pretty dubious. “Considering the average age of menses in the United States is 12.4 years, I don’t see how it is even slightly reasonable for Etsy to label menstruation-themed jewelry ‘adult content,’ unless of course adults are age 12+,” says Dr. Sarah Pachtman, an obstetrician gynecologist at Northwell Health in New York. “Menses are becoming common in girls as young as 9 years, and female sexual development and maturation begin far before the onset of menstruation.”

Pieces from Lili's 'On The Rag' collection
Pieces from Lili’s ‘On The Rag’ collection

Other designers on Etsy with similarly “edgy” collections say they haven’t heard from the website — but after Murphy-Johnson’s experience, they are wondering what is deemed appropriate.

“I do a cast line of Barbie faces, which I manipulate and transform into deities, blow up dolls, and mythological characters like Medusa,” says jewelry designer Lisa of Toots and Otis, who adds that she’s also working on a line of mastectomy-scarred and tattooed Barbie breasts. “My intention is to celebrate what society stigmatizes,” she says. “At some point, all have been on Etsy, and I never heard a word. But I also didn’t sell any there. Possibly I was censored without my knowledge. Either way, I’d like to know what their criteria is for ‘inappropriate,’ or if it’s arbitrary at all.”

Etsy’s decision is all the more confounding when you consider that 86% of sellers on the site are women, and a quick search on the site yields over 4,000 results for a collection of menstrual products made out of fabrics like flannel and hemp. So why hide blood stain brooches?

Menstrupedia, a comic book devoted to educating and creating awareness around menstruation in India, posted Murphy-Johnson’s jewelry on its page last year. There were no red flags raised from the community, offline or on social media. “In fact, many expressed that they wanted some of the jewelry,” says founder Aditi Gupta.

When addressing the Etsy censorship, Gupta points out the underlying issues with rejecting art related to menstruation (which, it’s important to note, affects not only cis women, but trans women, trans men, and those who are gender non-binary):

“How can a red flower-shaped ring be offensive to anyone? How can menstrual blood be offensive; isn’t it the same blood which provides nourishment to every human being? We should be flaunting and celebrating it rather than stigmatizing it.”

And yet, stigmatization very much endures.

***

Etsy is hardly alone in enforcing inconsistent and problematic policies surrounding menstruation-themed content. Alaura Weaver, a feminist blogger, fell prey to evasive guidelines after she was censored by Facebook for blogging about periods and the history of menstrual products last year.

Weaver’s post was rejected because the preview image depicted an 18th century painting of women bathing, which supposedly violates the nudity policy and shows “excessive skin.” She then changed the preview image to Hypatia being dragged through the streets, only to have it rejected again. The reason given was that the Facebook promotions weren’t allowed to promote the sale or use of adult products or services, including toys, videos, publications, live shows, or sexual enhancement products.

“After Facebook rejected the preview image, I thought, This is ridiculous, so I posted a thread about my situation on Reddit. My post caught the attention of a few bloggers,” Weaver says. Her experience generated major support from the feminist community, she says — but to her knowledge, there’s been no change of policy at Facebook.

“Obviously, based on the puritanical policies imposed by Facebook and Etsy, we have a long way to go before menstruation is accepted as a normal biological function that people can and should discuss publicly — but we’re making progress with every story shared,” Weaver says.

One of those stories comes courtesy of Rupi Kaur, an artist who uploaded an image of herself in bed with bloodstains, only to have it removed by Instagram — twice — since it didn’t meet their community guidelines. This despite the fact that the guidelines prohibit sexual acts, violence, and nudity — making no mention at all of periods.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 7.44.46 AM
Instagram twice removed this image of Rupi Kaur in bed with bloodstains.

Kaur, however, refused to back down. In a statement, she said:

“I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of a misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear, but not be okay with a small leak when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified and treated less than human.”

Offline, too, there are fights against stigmatization. Musician and feminist activist Kiran Gandhi famously ran the London marathon on her period last year without a tampon in order to raise awareness for those who don’t have access to sanitary products. After she ran the race with blood running down her legs, she was called “disgusting” and “unladylike.” But she didn’t let the vile comments deter her, instead only remarking on how it proved people were still deeply uncomfortable with a very normal and natural process. “Menstruation is censored everywhere,” she points out, adding that our cultural mores surrounding menstruation say a lot about how we view and consume the female body:

“We’re more than happy to talk about women’s breasts, butts, beauty, or features that are sexualized. We’re allowed to see it in movies and in advertisements. But because menstruation is not for sexual consumption and is not sexy or attractive, we have to pretend it does not exist because it’s not considered beautiful.
It’s not something we should be hiding from kids, it’s not something we should be hiding from the mainstream. It goes hand in hand with breastfeeding in public; it’s this idea that I as a male don’t want to be turned off right now and I don’t want to see your breasts right now because it’s daytime and I’m trying to focus on my work so please put your breasts away, but that’s really oppressive because that’s about feeding a child and not stimulating someone else. It’s the same with menstruation; they want to see your vagina and breasts when they want to be turned on, but they don’t want to know about your menstruation because that’s not attractive.”

The aversion to periods also represents alarmingly skewed cultural priorities. After 17-year-old Elone Kastratia read a tweet last year stating, “Imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they are with periods,” she started writing messages about rape and sexism on sanitary pads and placing them in public places in the German city of Karlsruhe.

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A sanitary pad from Elone Kastratia’s campaign (Credit: Instagram)

It’s also troubling to think that we’re more culturally accepting of blood related to violence than menstruation. “It is extremely sad to see that violence-induced blood is largely accepted in all kinds of popular media, but menstrual blood offends people. Even the mention of it sparks outrage,” Gupta notes.

Pointing to the gun-themed work put up on Etsy, she adds, “This is way more dangerous for the community. I fail to understand how beautiful jewelry inspired by a period brings harm to the community. There is absolutely nothing graphic about the designs.”

But the online stigmatization of menstruation is more than confusing and sexist; it also perpetuates ideas that actively cause harm the world over.

***

It’s not too difficult to draw a line from online censorship to menstrual hygiene issues in global communities; in both cases, fear and shame are the underlying forces at play. The paper “The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation As Social Stigma,” published in the journal Sex Roles, links stigmatization with very real health concerns:

“About 52% of the female population is of reproductive age and most of them are menstruating every month. The majority of them have no access to clean and safe sanitary products, or to a clean and private space in which to change menstrual cloths or pads and to wash. Menstruation is supposed to be invisible and silent, and sometimes, menstruating women and girls are supposed to be invisible and silent, too. Millions of girls and women are subject to restrictions in their daily lives simply because they are menstruating. Besides the health problems due to poor hygiene during menstruation, the lack or unaffordability of facilities and appropriate sanitary products may push menstruating girls temporarily or sometimes permanently out of school, having a negative impact on their right to education.”

In India, one out every five girls misses school when she is menstruating because of lack of access to menstrual products, and some villages banish women to thatched huts every month while they are menstruating.

Claire Coder, the 19-year-old behind Aunt Flow, which provides women in need with menstrual products, has seen stigmatization threaten the pivotal work she does. While she hasn’t dealt with any blatant, outright censorship, she has received plenty of criticism. “Someone on Reddit posted a feed that pointed at me for encouraging young women to put things up their vagina that were unholy (tampons, and not a man’s counterpart),” she says. “My age (19), gender, and industry create a [difficult] situation when approaching investors and banks for business loans. I am not taken seriously and my industry is laughable to many.”

Like Coder, Swati Bedekar has taken steps to address these issues, not only by bravely conducting menstruation workshops at temples that otherwise ban women on their period, but also by founding an Indian NGO, Sakhi, that has shipped sanitary napkin machines to the Zataari refugee camp near the Jordanian-Syrian border. Currently, nearly 50,000 women in the refugee camps use unwashed rags for sanitary protection; the machines can be used to produce about 2,000 pads per day.

When asked about the Etsy censorship, Bedekar doesn’t mince words: “What has happened with Murphy-Johnson is absurd. Can’t people see that the change has begun?”

***

As Bekedar notes, change has begun . . . albeit far too slowly. A decade ago, Weaver says, she and Lili would be lambasted by the media for trying to promote menstrual-positive content and products. “We would have been treated as feminist kooks, and our stories would have been shared for a laugh instead of used [to foster] a serious discussion about the social impact that menstrual taboos have upon those from all cultures,” she says.

Indeed, last year, many of the issues surrounding menstruation came to a head. From #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult, a hashtag designed to strike back at Trump’s “blood coming out of her whatever” comment, to period-themed hackathons, 2015 was rife with high-profile menstrual moments. It was even frequently touted as the “year of the period,” as countries started issuing paid menstrual leave and rolling back the deeply problematic “tampon tax.”

“I think that 2015 was the year that people began to realize that menstrual taboos are absurd and started to pay attention and speak out when people are being penalized for discussing menstruation,” Weaver says.

But while last year may have been remarkable for the period, it’s clear we have a long way to go. We’re still guiltily disguising our tampons in black plastic bags or between folds of newspapers. Little girls all over the world are still missing school, using dirty cloth, and being told they must do everything to hide “it.” And powerful online entities are continuing to foster a culture of shame around menstruation.

It’s 2016, and we’re still bleeding.

***

Lead image from Lili’s jewelry collection

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