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Internet be damned; I’m a dirty, rotten, free bleeder.
Well, for a few days anyway — I wouldn’t want to proclaim world champ bleeder status when I’m a mere novice. I’m ambitious, but I’ve never had the chutzpah to be a revolutionary. And according to 4chan’s #FreeBleeding hoax (AKA ‘the hoax that just won’t fucking die’), only the most radical feminists would dare to menstruate sans tampon.
Using fake Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit accounts, the upstanding citizens of /b/ sought to discredit modern feminism by disseminating badly photoshopped memes and appropriated images from various photographers (including photos from this series by Emma Arvida Bystrom). They called this work of incredible genius “Operation Freebleeding". Their goal was to drum up enough fake social media outrage that news outlets would pick up the story and discredit “feminists” for believing that tampons are tools “designed to oppress women into raping themselves” and so on. (That’s an actual quote from an actual tweet by 4chan troll account @Roaring_Womyn, a person who should be congratulated for really stepping up the game for garbage humans everywhere.)
Most people will easily recognize the familiar reek of bullshit hanging over the free bleeding hashtag, but, of course, there are those who feed the trolls. Reactions vary from disgust to righteous indignation to patronizing concern, but the general response is that women who choose to menstruate without a pad or a tampon are completely fucking insane and must be stopped from infecting others with their bloody maelstrom of icky-vagina disease. As we all know, period blood is literally liquid plague and even looking at it the wrong way demands a hazmat suit and a papal blessing.
Obviously nobody wants to deal with anyone else’s period blood (spreading of pathogens is a minimal risk) but most of us will never have to because — hold on guys, ‘cause I’m about to blow some minds — free bleeding isn’t actually a thing that women do. I’ve never once seen or personally known a single woman who chose to just bleed out onto the bus seat or onto an office chair during her period. And who would want to? It’s uncomfortable, it’s messy, and people will absolutely judge you.
Like most women, I had the inevitable blood-on-the-back-of-my-skirt accident as a kid and will never forget the laughter and mean comments I got from my peers. Since then I’ve taken every precaution to never let it happen again. I’ve become a master of discretion; I can slip a tampon up my cardigan sleeve in the middle of a crowded office with all the guile of an arctic fox. Twenty-five years of seeing bloodless tampon commercials advertising “quiet wrappers” and CIA-level secrecy has conditioned me to hide all signs of my period.
So, naturally I wondered — what would it be like to just say “fuck it”?
Clearly I couldn’t go to work with a smile on my face and a red target on my ass, so I had to confine my offensive activities to my apartment. I decided that whenever I was home, I would eschew any and all feminine hygiene products, leaving myself free to bleed as baby Jesus and Germaine Greer intended. I should probably preface this by saying that while I’m by no means the crunchiest of my diva-cup-using friends, I’m not at all squeamish about my own blood. For me, the first day of intentionally bleeding out was actually quite pleasant.
I did some laundry, watched a few episodes of Mad Men and had an irrationally angry Michael Douglas hate-session over the phone with a friend. (Not abnormal — my hatred of misogynist-extraordinaire Douglas warrants an essay unto itself.) The fact that I happened to be bleeding didn’t interfere with anything that I did; if anything, it felt great not having a foreign object inside my body to staunch the bleeding, plus my cramps were significantly lighter.
One of the major arguments that gets brought up whenever free bleeding is on the table is that it’s unhygienic, but I found that I felt cleaner. There was no plastic cup to sanitize, no wad of cotton stuffed into or against me; there was nothing to insert and nothing to remove. I fell asleep with a towel wrapped around my thighs and slept like a post-finals college freshman. I guess since there was no fear that I might leak everywhere, my background anxiety (AKA the alarm in every woman’s head that goes off when she feels the first signs of a potential dam breach) was gone. Perhaps, I thought, I could get on board the free bleeding train after all.
On the third day I was digging it so much I wrote this in my notes: “If I were rich I would hire someone to deep-clean all my shit post-period so I could walk around my white-carpeted house naked all the time while Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ plays on repeat.” I felt free. I was bleeding and I was owning it. The free bleeding life is a heady drug — a slippery slope that turns modest American women into — dare I say it? — roaring womyn. Maybe 4chan was trying to protect me?
On the fourth day, my period had mostly ended. (Yes, I’m one of those women with an alien/wizard uterus that grants me the coveted three-day period. Bow down.) Coming down off my free bleeder high, I was able to more carefully analyze the situation.
Roughly half of my cycle was spent using a softcup while out of the house; the rest of the time I spent unencumbered. This was the first time in my life that I consciously chose not to “manage” my period. Since I started getting my period when I was about 11 and I’m now 25, that means in roughly 160 cycles I’ve never once just let myself bleed.
I don’t like to romanticize menstruation as some kind of beautiful, wondrous event because that’s simply not my reality. But I do think that I missed out on something by immediately “managing” my period from the very first time that I got it. Early sex-ed classes teach girls the scientific realities of menstruation and the mechanics behind our special cotton implements, but we’re never taught to think about menstruation as a lived experience. It’s spoken of as the “moment you become a woman” but it’s really just the beginning of a decades-long journey to figure out what the hell “being a woman” even means.
For me this experiment was a novelty, but there are millions of women who need and don’t have access to feminine hygiene products. What I perceived as a fun, semi-liberating experience could easily be miserable and humiliating under different circumstances.
It’s easy to brush off the hatred and woman-shaming inherent in the reactions to 4chan’s free bleeding posts when they’re not a part of your potential everyday experience. That kind of ignorance can’t be killed, but the shame of experiencing menstruation can certainly be de-stigmatized. Ironically, maybe experimenting with things like free bleeding and sharing those experiences is one way to do it.