It started over a year ago. Instagram photos began popping up on my "Explore" page showing bloodstained underwear, blood being poured out of DivaCups, bloody fingers that were covered in — you guessed it — period blood.
I, too, use a DivaCup in an effort to be environmentally conscious, even just a little bit, and every little bit counts, right? For those who don't know what a DivaCup is, it is a soft plastic "cup" that folds to fit inside your vagina to catch your menstrual blood, and it makes the most comical slurping noise upon removal. And while I am a proponent of the de-stigmatization of menstruation and contend that periods are not gross nor does a woman's time of the month render her incapable of rational thinking and decision-making, photos of menstrual blood on Instagram do not work to deconstruct such stigma.
Instead, period blood posts on Instagram reinforce essentialist notions of menstruation.
Obviously I have not seen every single photo featuring period blood on Instagram, but the photos I'm referring to are typically posted by women who are white and cis-gender — just like myself — and therefore inhabit a position of relative privilege. These women are praised for preaching feminism online. This is not inherently a bad thing as it allows for accessibility, the formation of communities, and the ease of spreading a feminist message (albeit one that, as of late, has been turned into a marketing strategy and something to be consumed). But when there is a direct comparison drawn between experiencing menstruation and a ubiquitous definition of both womanhood and femininity, I find problems begin.
In fact, this just further reinforces the capital-F Feminist approach, uniting around all the great things that makes one a woman, like, say, growing out your armpit harm or embracing that week once a month that may or may not allow you to bear children. But, as this particular brand of feminism largely ignores intersectionality or pluralities of female-identifying persons, these seemingly radical images of unapologetic feminism reveal underlying essentialism and contradiction.
The links between "womanhood" (which I've put in quotation marks because what does that really mean in our day and age, or ever for that matter?) and menstruation are not new, as this essentialist narrative was a strong force in second-wave feminism. Essentialism — as I use it, and how I've been taught to use it — refers to the use of biological, physiological and genetic causes as explanations for human social behavior. So in this case, menstruation is part of the essence of womanhood and if you don't experience it, you are not that — a woman.
Social media is a place where people come together and form friendships. People post pictures of their lunches, their dogs, themselves, even ironically zoomed-in photos of unknown subject matter, which is all perfectly fine. Hell, I love a good zoomed in photo of a stranger's shoe. But the assumption that being a "woman" due to vaginal bleeding that occurs every month is not so fine. Especially in a time when the word has become more presentational than representational, which further dilutes the intentions of a movement, even one as widespread and multifaceted as feminism.
In many instances, the words "intersectional feminist" accompany these images of period blood. If you're preaching intersectionality, given the definition offered by Kimberlé Crenshaw (who coined the term), you are acknowledging multiple axes of oppression, akin to traffic coming and going in all directions at an intersection. Within these axes, there are many facets of identity at play such as class, ability, sexuality, racialized identity to name a few. To openly acknowledge this multitude of identities yet assign particular attributes to a term as broad as womanhood seems contradictory when many women do not menstruate (which does not make them any more or less of a woman). There is no mutual exclusivity between the two. It is dangerous for those who preach intersectional feminism and amass large followings on social media to perpetuate a narrative of essentialism.
This kind of period-blood Instagram feminism is what caused me to question my personal feminism. To achieve true success and "true" feminism — is there such thing? I'm inclined to think not regarding both success and feminism — must I post photos of my period blood and pubic hair on social media, in an effort to free myself from the clutches of the patriarchy? It is a privilege but also a right to post what you please on social media, and I support that, especially when I take into account the disgusting and sexist censorship facing women on platforms such as Instagram.
Post your pubes! Post your armpit hair! Hell, post your period blood — but don't equate these things with your "womanhood" because that is a privilege only afforded to some of those who identify as women. It is crucial to recognize that.
I am (obviously) not an authority on this matter, but women who are just like me, who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and are (honestly) white as shit: realize your position when you make sweeping, essentialist claims about so-called womanhood being marked by your monthly visits from Aunt Flo. There are many people around the globe who get their periods but do not have safe or easy access to feminine products, and there are people who menstruate who do not identify as "women." While your DivaCup may runneth over, realize that is not the case for all.