Toronto-based artist Rupi Kaur's 'Period', which was the subject of Instagram controversy this week. Photo: Instagram
In the latest example of social media moderation gone berserk, this past week, Toronto poet and artist Rupi Kaur's photo essay about menstruation fell prey to Instagram's "community guidelines".
The individual images from the photo essay, titled Period, which feature low-key, quotidian images of menstruation, were repeatedly whisked away from the photo-sharing platform. "We removed your post because it doesn't follow our Community Guidelines", ran the site's official response.
Eventually, after much outcry, the photos were restored and Instagram made a grovelling apology, assuring Kaur the content had been mistakenly flagged for deletion.
Immediately, I thought of Adrian Chen's astounding Wired investigation into offshore content moderation for social media: "A list of categories, scrawled on a whiteboard, reminds the workers of what they're hunting for: pornography, gore, minors, sexual solicitation, sexual body parts/images, racism."
Inevitably, the moderation of social media content hinges on both what users themselves report as offensive or upsetting and what the moderators are instructed to watch out for. And on both fronts, it's not difficult to think of conspicuous menstruation being put on the watch list.
The response to Kaur's tug of war with Instagram from the nominally feminist media was swift and intense. Jezebel's Jia Tolentino wrote a blistering screed with the headline, 'Your Beautiful, Feminine Period Stains Are Against Instagram Guidelines'.
Employing menstruation as a flashpoint for controversy in art is nothing new; in the past few years, projects such as Vice's 'There Will Be Blood' photo essay (featuring women going about their lives while menstruating) and Casey Jenkins' 28-day 'vaginal knitting' performance piece Casting Off My Womb have caught worldwide attention.
Of the response to her work, which ranged from mild amusement to out-and-out horror, Jenkins wrote, "As the deafening response to my work demonstrates, there is a hell of a lot of clamouring noise in society about what a person with a body like mine should and shouldn't be doing with it."
This issue sits at the heart of any debate about conspicuous menstruation - since they're natural and pretty normal, why shouldn't periods be out and proud? The immediate counterpoint, online, tends to be "By that token, why shouldn't pissing and shitting be out and proud?" (The creators of RateMyPoo.com would probably have something to say about this.)
Anything, whether art or advertising, that reduces the shame that surrounds menstruation is ostensibly a good thing; it's worth remembering that plenty of "feminine hygiene" products until recently didn't even use the term "period" or "blood" on their package copy. The "blue liquid" era isn't exactly a distant memory from the bad old days.
Things become fraught, however, when phrases like "Beautiful, Feminine Period Stains" enter the vernacular. In Kaur's artist statement for Period, she writes, "I bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. My womb is home to the divine. A source of life for our species."
The idea of the period as some sort of sacred feminine has made me increasingly uncomfortable as I eventually emerged from the proto-feminist chrysalis I began to construct when, aged 16, I wrote "F-CK YOU" on my stomach with my menstrual blood (a moment that exists solely in the realm of memory, thanks to a non-camera-phone-enabled adolescence).
Society's problem with periods, which encompasses everything from shame-based advertising to plain old "yuck, that's gross" commentary, is one thing; expecting all menstruating people to embrace their periods as somehow divine or sacred (or Beautiful and Feminine) is entirely another.
Some women can't "make humankind a possibility" even if they do bleed each month. Some women bleed all month long. Some women will never bleed. Some women are allergic to their periods. For some people, the arrival of menstruation is a dreaded source of excruciating gender dysphoria. 'Only Women Bleed' is not a statement of fact, people. (It is, actually, a ballad about spousal abuse, a point perhaps lost on the classic hits radio programmers of the world.)
Troubled by the fracas, on Sunday morning I found myself discussing Period, the accompanying commentary, and the notion that "menstruation is a feminist issue" with my colleague Aria Taibi, an American writer and comic.
"When I say I hate 'periods as feminism'," Aria said, "it's that I can't support a feminist ideology that directly relates reproduction to womanhood, because it has historically existed as a form of rhetorical violence against women who can't reproduce. Also, if you think about it, equating womanhood with the ability to bear children is literally primitive and literally why feminism exists in the first place."
Acknowledging all this is not a call for every art piece to address every possible audience, or for trigger warnings to be applied to anything "that time of the month" related. In essence, I don't have a problem with photo essays featuring period stains and used tampons. (In fact, I'd like the period to ascend to a place of true body horror; it's been an awfully long time since Carrie first dipped a toe into the possibility of using allegorical 'periods' as nightmare fuel.)
The removal of a pretty photo from Instagram might be a symptom of broader patriarchal or misogynist power structures, or it might just be that an overworked labourer at a moderation company saw blood and clicked 'delete'; I have no burning desire to get to the bottom of this.
Periods and menstruation-related shame and abuse can certainly be a feminist issue; the unnecessary taxing of feminine hygiene products and the abuse of female asylum seekers and prison inmates by way of rationing or withholding pads and tampons is undoubtedly a feminist issue.
Objectively, periods aren't especially "offensive" or "gross"; they're no more or less offensive or gross than any other bodily function. Let's just get to a place where they don't have to be sacred, divine, or inherently feminine either.