Menstruation—is it a blessing, a curse, or an inconvenience? Regardless of how we choose to look at it, menstruation is a sign of reproductive health. Some women are now choosing to embrace the natural flow of their period blood.
The free bleeding movement supports women who choose not to use period products such as tampons, pads, or menstrual cups and bleed freely instead. It started in protest of period shaming and various kinds of associated discrimination, but now bleeding freely at home and in public has become a way of life for many. Many women upload pictures of themselves bleeding through their clothes and in bed to show that period blood isn’t dirty and that menstruating is a normal, healthy part of life for half the world’s population.
Pinpointing exactly when women decided to ditch their tampons and sanitary napkins to embrace the natural flow of their menstrual blood is a challenge. Some cultures have been practising this for centuries, but in the modern world, free bleeding became a movement only recently. In early 2000, some women began expressing the view that bleeding freely is the right of any menstruating person who chooses to do so. It took almost ten years before a misogynistic scandal emerged on the 4chan internet platform when some users began mocking feminists and the free bleeding movement. Their goal was to humiliate women who bleed through their clothing, but instead, their contempt galvanised a community of people who accept their bodies unapologetically and bleed freely.
In 2015, a young woman named Kiran Gandhi was about to start running the London Marathon she had been training for over a year when she realised her period was starting. With few options available, and none of them good, she decided to let herself bleed and run the race anyway. Her decision made the news, and Kiran stepped up to reject shaming and raise awareness about discrimination against women and girls, the need for disclosure about toxic ingredients in tampons and pads, the unfair taxation of period products, and the environmental consequences of period waste. Her example prompted others to join the cause. Today the defence of free bleeding has grown into a powerful movement against menstruation shaming, discrimination, and unfair taxation.
Although every menstruating person finds their own way of dealing with period hygiene, PMS, and pain relief, not everyone becomes an activist. But perhaps we should pay attention to those who are speaking out. Here are the most popular reasons people are joining the movement.
Discriminatory taxation. Half of the global population menstruates, will menstruate, or has gone through menopause. Over her lifetime, the average woman living in the US spends around $18,000 on menstrual and reproductive care products. That’s a significant number even for those who are well off, but for women living in poverty, it can mean exclusion from daily activities simply because they lack access to the products they need.
Accessible and affordable period care is a human right, but in many places, menstrual products are taxed as luxury items. When people can’t afford proper period care, their prospects for education and employment shrink dramatically. They end up skipping school or work to avoid shaming and discrimination, and equal opportunity goes out the window. Some countries such as India, Kenya, and Australia have scrapped the tampon tax, while others such as Germany and Ireland have reduced it.
Environmental protection. It’s no secret that conventional period products contribute to the pollution of our Earth, but the problem is much bigger than you may think. In the US alone, nineteen billion single-use menstrual products are consumed each year. Most of this material ends up in landfills where it can’t be recycled. The free bleeding movement calls on companies to cut down on plastic and other non-biodegradable ingredients in the period products and encourages consumers who can afford to limit their impact to make greener choices.
Health concerns. Not only do conventional period products pollute the environment, but they can also pollute our bodies. Harmful chemicals are often used to produce these items, and they may also contain harsh fragrances, bleach, and even pesticides if the cotton used isn’t organically produced; this information is not typically disclosed on the package. Even in small amounts, certain ingredients can cause some women to develop allergies and even increase the likelihood of infections such as bacterial vaginosis or vaginal yeast infection.
Another reason to make considered choices about the period products you use is toxic shock syndrome. TSS is caused by exotoxins secreted by Streptococcus or Staphylococcus bacteria. Both men and women can get TSS, but most cases occur in menstruating women. Bacterial infections can develop in deep wounds or burns, but superabsorbent tampons are an additional risk factor (as are diaphragms and sponges to a lesser extent). TSS can lead to renal failure, respiratory failure, coagulation disorders, and even death in 5–15% of cases. However, treatments are available, and the prognosis for recovery is good, especially when the problem is detected early. If you use tampons—they are very convenient—don’t worry but do change them frequently and avoid the superabsorbent kind.
Reduction in menstrual product waste. The less you consume, the better it is for the environment and for your wallet. Even if you use something during the heaviest days of your period, bleeding freely on light days can save you a substantial amount of money.
Breaking the stigma. Although the free bleeding movement continues to face resistance (mainly from people who don’t menstruate), the issues it raises are important for us all. Breaking the stigma surrounding menstruation brings real tangible psychological and material benefits to society, and it also helps to normalise the little things—carrying a pad in public or talking openly about what menstruating is like for you.
Health benefits. Free bleeding eliminates the risks of toxic shock syndrome and sensitivity to the harmful substances found in some period products. And some women claim that their periods are shorter, and the discomfort associated with menstruation is less severe when they bleed freely. While scientific studies have yet to be done, these stories don’t surprise us because period blood is meant to leave the body as it prepares for the new cycle.
Bloodstains. The biggest problem with free bleeding is the inconvenience of bloodstains. How can you protect your clothes and furniture? While bloodstains can be removed from your clothes by soaking them in cold water as soon as possible and washing them with bar soap, cleaning blood from furniture is more challenging. Some people sit on towels or wear special clothing to mitigate the problem.
Blood-borne diseases. Although unlikely, period blood can sometimes carry diseases such as hepatitis C and hepatitis B, which can survive in blood for several days or even weeks outside the body. This means that free bleeding can increase the risk of spreading blood-borne diseases. Don’t leave blood for someone else to clean up.
Hygiene. If you decide to try free bleeding, be sure to change your clothes regularly. When exposed to air, period blood quickly becomes a breeding ground for bacteria that create an unpleasant odour. Read more about feeling fresh during your period.
Start at home. After centuries of period shame and stigma, it can be weird (to say the least) not to use any protective products. For beginners, it might be best to start at home or where you feel most comfortable. Try it and see how it feels. If you are comfortable bleeding freely at home, you might try going out in public.
A towel can be handy. When you free bleed at home, protect your furniture with a thick towel folded once or twice to create layers. This way, you can bleed freely and still avoid stains. If you go out in public, prevent leaks by wearing several layers of panties or going out only on days when the flow is light.
Respect public spaces. Menstruating on your own terms is your right, but please respect others. If you ride the bus or share an office, always keep your seat and surroundings clean.
Try period panties. Period panties are made of multiple layers of absorbent antibacterial material that prevent leakage and odour, allowing you to bleed freely throughout the day without staining your clothes. Yoga pants and leggings made with the same technique are also available. Although some members of the community disagree, others will say you can wear period panties and still consider yourself a free bleeder. It depends on why you’re doing it.
Versions of this saying are now doing the rounds online. Centuries of stigma and myths about menstruation have done so much damage that even today, many of us continue to feel ashamed of our menstruating bodies. It is up to us to tackle this generational trauma. Maybe free bleeding can help remind us that menstruation is a natural and healthy process.
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