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There will be blood


Picture by Rupo Kaur



In 2015 Rupi Kaur posted a photo of a woman in bed, with blood on her trousers on Instagram.[1] The photo got deleted, Kaur reposted it, and it got deleted again. After this, she posted the same picture on Instagram with an open letter to the social media app. The picture ended up back on her feed, but the story of the removal had already gone viral and created a big discussion. The 22-year-old student from Ontario, posted the picture that was part of a photo series for a course.[2]She did not intend to make a statement, she just wanted to share the art she made. However, by making this image public, she exposed numerous issues of the Instagram platform and the way society views menstruation. In this essay I will uncover these things by asking myself a multifaceted question. How does the use of real period blood in Rupi Kaur’s Instagram post uncover the various aspects of (in)visibility of menstruators on Instagram? In the end I will shortly jump to recent times to see how the discourse on menstruation and Instagram’s guidelines have changed. I will use theories mostly of three texts, namely Stuart Hall’s ‘The work of Representation’, Kathryn Lese’s ‘Padded Assumptions’, and Jessalynn Keller and Maureen Ryan’s ‘Mapping Emergent Feminisms’.

I would like to prompt a disclaimer to the use of ‘women’ and menstruators’ in this essay. I will use the words women when employed by the authors I quote of paraphrase. Nevertheless, the word menstruator encompasses all bleeding people, since not all people who bleed are women, and not all women bleed.


The complexity of a single picture

Before I can analyze the outcome of the Instagram post, I will dive into the aspects and politics of representation as explained by Stuart Hall. In the first chapter of this book, he postulates three ways to look at representation: reflexivity, intentionality, and constructivism.[3] The first is the idea that representations are a mere mirror of the concept that is represented, the second acknowledges that the creator of a representation has a certain intention behind it that constructs the meaning. However, only the last theory: constructivism, takes into account the way that representations are formed by the creator, the audience, and the historical and cultural context. Menstruation in itself is already a complex concept for not everyone on this planet will experience it themselves firsthand, and even the people who menstruate will all have a different experience.[4]

Hall theorizes varies ways to examine a representation on a constructionist level. An image can be described on the level of denotation, the descriptive level, and on a level of connotation, on which meaning is applied to it by putting it into a cultural context.[5] It could be argued that the red on the pants could be anything, but a common denotation would be that it is blood. The connotation, however, would be that she has a blood stain or that she leaked through her pants. This has different implication, even that of shame which I will explore later in this essay.

Furthermore, Hall posits that representation is not only a form of language or fixed meaning, but it being a discourse.[6]Foucault would go as far as saying that ‘nothing exists outside discourse’[7]. I personally think this is debatable for at least some part, because bleeding would still happen whether or not we talk about it. However, menstruation has implications in the real world, for some it means they cannot go to church, it can mean you do not wear white pants in order to conceal bleeding or you refrain from sex. These facets of menstruation are constructed by a discourse, it changes over time, it varies between cultures, and even within cultures contrasting people will have different ideas about it.[8]

According to Hall the discourse has three important dimensions; power, knowledge, and truth.[9] In this context, it is Kaur who produces an image, she has the power to make a representation of what she knows of menstruation, of her truth within the reality in which menstruation exists. However, by posting it on Instagram, Instagram’s moderators can take control, and apply their own power, knowledge and truth, by the framework of their guidelines. With the absolute power on the platform, they removed the picture. In another paragraph I will dive deeper into the consequences of that action and their powerplay.

With the theories of Hall, it becomes apparent that the image of Kaur is not just a picture. I would even hypothesize that her representation has, in a simplified manner, three different realities. Firstly, the picture she made for her project, a representation of her own experience that she made and has certain ideas about. The second reality is when she posts the picture on Instagram. Making it public and, because it is a social media app, an artifact that can be shared, interpreted by others, and becomes part of the representations of menstruators in general. Lastly, the third reality is the one when Instagram deletes the picture, for the image suddenly becomes inappropriate, giving yet another meaning, that of something disgusting and violating. I will now distinguish these three realities and analyze them separately to deduce the meaning that can be inferred from this image.



A true representation

Kaur posting a picture of her own menstrual blood was groundbreaking. NPR called 2015, when Kaur went viral, and the year where runner Kiran Ghandi ran a marathon whilst free bleeding, the year of the period. [10] Times are changing and menstruation is becoming more visible. Evens so, realistic portrayals of menstruation, or even (non-mocking) mentioning of bleeding is scarce in popular culture.[11] Besides that, in period advertisement, which would seem a logical place to show blood, companies use blue liquid to represent period blood.[12] Kaur thus gives menstruators a truth that they recognize, a lived experience. Considering that the hiding and ignoring the period could be interpreted as a passive aggressive way of denying an essential part of a big part of our population. Even though she might have not intended to confront a stigma, she suddenly became a famous activist.[13] As Keller and Ryan posit, media gives rise to new emergent feminisms[14]. Via various hashtags, artworks, poems, and more, menstrual activists are trying to undo the bad connotations and shame that is attached to the period.[15] Nevertheless, Keller and Ryan also bring forward the post feminism that is neoliberal and that enunciates: “the failure of women to succeed in the workplace is due to their own ‘ambition gap’ rather than the structural inequalities that women face, including a lack of institutional or familial support”.[16] The menstruator as a successful worker is a complex image. For some women, it is not possible to work properly when they are bleeding, for they feel too sick to do so. The menstrual cycle is a disadvantage when most companies work in a strictly linear way that does not allow for the fluctuations of a menstruators body.[17] In the photograph of Kaur, we see a woman lying in bed (with a heading pad), we could think she is tired and unable to participate in society as ‘normal’. This would, in the framework of Keller and Ryan give, not fit into the stereotypical postfeminist picture of an empowered productive feminized worker.[18] Instagram has a role in the representation of the ‘empowered woman’, as it censors some sexualities, bodies, and expressions and others not. I will come back to that later. Although Kaur did it incidentally, she sparked a debate about whatever menstruation is for example private, normal, public, or shameful. In a reaction to Instagram she said:

“i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way. in older civilizations this blood was considered holy. in some it still is. but a majority of people. societies. And communities shun this natural process. some are more comfortable with the pornification of women. the sexualization of women. the violence and degradation of women than this. they cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that. but will be angered and bothered by this. we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing. as if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. as if this process is not love. labour. life. selfless and strikingly beautiful.”[19]

Even though Kaur sees the cycle as something to be normalized or even celebrated, taboo still weighs heavily on menstruation.

Menstruation and shame

‘[S]hame “focuses not on the act but on the self; one is something bad.[20] Shaming menstruation is not harmless, and it is pivotal to consider in what ways this belief transpires. Even though menstruation is part of a fertility cycle, it has often been proclaimed as something dirty, not pure. Menstruaters are banned from temples while bleeding, are believed to make food rot, and even when no explicit rules are put on a menstruator by the environment, they will often conceal their period themselves.[21] When Kaur posted the photo she thought it to be a natural representation of her monthly experience as a menstruator. However, it blew up on the internet, like mentioned before, almost excisting in a new representational reality. This is where the shame first enters the discourse. A great deal of the articles reporting on her picture, describe her bed as stained or that there is a leak on her clothing.[22] Hall’s denotation would, in this picture, be that there would be red blood on her pants, the connotation would be a stain or a leak. As a stain or a leak has a negative connotation, the body is dirty, and the woman lost control of it.[23] When the dominant idea is that a woman has to be clean and pure, a stain means that she failed at her womanhood. The reaction on this picture thus uncovers a deeply engrained way of how we look at menstruation and the ideal woman. Language plays an enormous part in the representation of menstruation even when it seems unaggressive. In my own language (Dutch) the word for menstruation is ongesteld. This literally means not well, which also bears the connotation that the menstruator is ‘less than’ at that point. Another way in which the reaction or discourse about this representation of menstruation was the way news outlets used euphemisms to describe it. ‘The curse, on the blob, Aunt Flow’ are just a few of the code names used in articles. The use of these euphemisms are products of institutionalized knowledge that connote menstruation to be shameful.[24] When Instagram deleted the photograph, it created another reality in which it had a new meaning.


The illusionary power of the creator

The photo became a violation of guidelines. However, the guidelines only state that one cannot post sexual, discriminating or in another way breaking safety of the users of the platform.[25] Kaur called Instagram out on this for it does allow a lot of violent and sexual content on its platform[26] She noticed critically: ‘[i]t’s okay to sell what’s between a woman’s legs, more than it’s okay to mention its inner workings’[27] Sex sells, as is often seen on the Instagram of Kim Kardashian or Victoria’s Secret[28], however, when the body becomes too real or unsellable, it seems to be violating guidelines.

The idea of Instagram is that it gives creators the platform to post and curate their own work. One does not need anyone or anything to bring creations out into the public. At the same time, Instagram has all the power in this situation. This was seen directly when Instagram took Kaur’s creative freedom away with their censorship. They later brought out a statement that the removal (which happened twice) was accidental[29]. Kaur reacted on the incident by saying ‘their patriarchy is leaking, their misogyny is leaking, we will not be censored’.[30] The censoring is a portrayal of power, the guidelines are good for it gives Instagram the authority to follow up on bullies and for example child pornography, but it also gives them the power to create a ‘regime of truth’[31]. Guidelines make way for a hegemony[32], Instagram has power over its users. Two important theories are important that Hall brings forward; Firstly, the notion of an institutional apparatus, coined by Foucault.[33] It postulates that knowledge and power go hand in hand, what we see in the Kaur incident, is that Kaur loses the production of knowledge on her content. She did not intend to do harm, yet the platform deemed her picture offensive and gave it a negative meaning. Keller and Ryan address that analyses of feminist media often relies heavily on a postfeminist framework. Though, as mentioned earlier, the post feminist image is only a part of the reflection of the actual population of women. It is an image of a privileged woman, for example on the basis of race[34]. The feminisms on Instagram can be seen as post feminist, for the censorship favors a privileged body, restricting black, fat, or disabled people to express themselves wholly.[35] As lese pus it ‘Patriarchal structure of power can shape how we understand ‘decency” and whether that includes al bodies.[36]

Jenny Gunnarsson Payne explores the idea of alternative media and sees how this is often juxtaposed to platforms like Instagram that are mainstream. These are at times simply represented as completely devoid of any potential for production of counter narratives.[37] Whilst the censorship does enforce this idea, by making the post go viral, this shaming became public and it fired a conversation. Even though good can come from it, it is still clear that Instagram creates a space where minorities like disabled people, people of color and fat people, receive different evaluation than people that pass their view of ‘normal’.[38] As Lese posits: ‘Instagram acts as a ‘cultural gatekeeper’ to reinforce established norms and determine what is or is not acceptable in large media discourse’.[39] Instagram puts a filter on reality, sexualizing and sanitizing women in order to make them fit the desire of the male gaze. [40]When menstruating the ‘stain’ prohibits the women from fitting that ideal. As often in feminist theory, we find ourselves in the Masters house, trying to dismantle it with the masters tools.[41] Mostly women find themselves trying to be picture perfect on their Instagram.[42] Feminist Theorist Angela McRobbie argues that the newfound freedom of women, trapped them in consumer culture.[43] In this framework we can see that Instagram still demands a certain image of women being thin, abled, non-bleeding, pure creature, since it censors bodies who look or do anything other. Because that other, unlike the ‘perfect’ Kardashian, does not fit the consumer culture for it does not sell. Another perspective is that these ‘embodied experiences of people can serve as an entry point for resistance against systems of patriarchal oppression’[44] By making these mundane experiences visible in the feed, it contradicts the puritanical view Instagram’s guidelines make of reality.

Instagram puts themselves in a position of power to decide what is “considered unfit for public consumption” and to shape language in a way that limits the visibility for women’s bodies in public discourse spaces.[45] Instagram predicates that it is against violence, but it does not censor blood explicitly. Even though menstrual blood is the only blood that does not come from violence, it is exactly this that got Kaur’s picture removed. Kaur stated: “we are not outraged by blood. we see blood all the time. blood is pervasive in movies, television, and video games. yet, we are outraged by the fact that one openly discusses bleeding from an area that we try to claim ownership over”[46] Yet again, proving that Instagram makes its own reality wherein menstruators are denied expressing their full being, and are shamed into silence.

Concluding remarks

With the latest update on Instagram censorship, it shapes its reality where a whole lot of people cannot be their authentic selves.[47] A solution to this could be to create our own alternative feminist media. Like Payne introduced in her essay about alternative feminist media. Kaur posted this picture in 2015, and menstrual activism has not been dormant. Books, zines, projects, organizations, initiatives and protests have sprung out the ground the past few years.[48] After the year of the period, there was another year of the period. Menstruators are reclaiming their bodies. Like Maisie hill states in her best-seller ‘Period Power’: ‘Our bodies have long been weaponized against us and used to keep us out of positions of influence and power, but the red tide is turning and it’s time for us to take advantage of what our hormones can do for us’[49]. Kaur gave menstruation visibility, destigmatizing the mere existence of a reoccurring event. Women like Maisie Hill are taking it further and represent the cycle as a gift rather than a burden. Kaur was called the ‘ground zero in Instagram’s latest censorship war’[50] This war was fueled again recently when Instagram updated its guidelines. These new rules make it almost impossible to use the platform when one is a sex worker, activist, or even educator. For even words like vagina can be flagged, and so do sexual words or emoticons.[51] Where Instagram seemed like a great space for feminism, it appears to have lost is advantages of visibility and new platforms will emerge to make the true lived experience of the menstruator visible.


Bibliography

Akkermans, M. “Bloody Amazing, this Menstrual Activism”, www.diggitmagazine.com,

Faust, G. “Hair, Blood and the Nipple: Instagram Censorship and the Female Body’. Digital

Environments. Ethnographic Perspectives across Global Online and Offline Spaces, 2017, 34, 159-170.

Gaybor, J. “Everyday (Online) Body Politics of Menstruation.” Feminist Media Studies,

2020,1-16.

Gunnarson Payne, J. “Feminist Media as Alternative Media? Theorising Feminist Media from

the Perspective of Alternative Media Studies.” Feminist Media, eds. Elke Zobl, Ricarda Drüeke, Transcript Verlag, (2012), 55-72.

Hall, Stuart “The Work of Representation,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and

Signifying Practices, Sage Publications Ltd., (2013), 1-47.


Hill, M. Period Power, Green Tree, London, 2019.

Keller, J & Ryan, M. “Introduction: Mapping Emergent Feminisms.” Emergent Feminisms:

Complicating a Postfeminist Media Culture. New York: Routledge, (2018), 1-21.

Kibbe, K. “Instagram Wants to Ban Sex”. www.insidehook.com, December 21, 2020.

Lese, K. M. “Padded Assumptions: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Patriarchal Menstruation

Discourse.” Master’s Thesis, James Madison University, (2016).

McRobbie, A. “Introduction: In Exchange for Feminism.” The Aftermath of Feminism.

Gender, Culture and Social Change. Sage, (2009), 1-10

Rostvik, C. “Crimson Waves: Narratives About Menstruation, Water, and Cleanliness”,

Visual Culture & Gender, 13, (2018), 54-63.

Sayers, J., G., Jones, D. “Truth Scribbled in Blood: Women’s Work, Menstruation and

Poetry”. Gender, Work & Organization, 2014, 22, 94-111.

Weinstock, T. “Why Did Instagram Delete This Image of a Woman on her Period?”.


Winnick, L. “Why Can’t Pop Culture Portray the Period?” www.i-dvice.com. November 10,

[1] Weinstok, ‘Why Did Instagram Delete This Image of a Woman on her Period’. [2] Weinstok, ‘Why Did Instagram Delete This Image of a Woman on her Period’. [3] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 1. [4] Gaybor, ‘Everyday (online) Body Politics of Menstruation’, 3. [5] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 23. [6] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 29. [7] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 29. [8] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 29-31. [9] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 39. [10] Winnick, L., ‘Why Can’t Pop Culture Portray the Period?’. [11] Winnick, L., ‘Why Can’t Pop Culture Portray the Period?’. [12] Rostvik, ‘Crimson Waves’, 54. [13] Winnick, L., ‘Why Can’t Pop Culture Portray the Period?’. [14] Keller, Ryan, ‘Mapping emergent Feminisms’. [15] Winnick, L., ‘Why Can’t Pop Culture Portray the Period?’. [16] Keller, Ryan, ‘Mapping Emergent feminisms’, 11. [17] Sayers, Jones, ‘Truth Scribbled in Blood’, 95. [18] Keller, Ryan, ‘Mapping Emergent Feminisms’, 4. [19] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 7. [20] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 7. [21] Rostvik, ‘Crimson Waves, 3. [22] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 45. [23] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 46. [24] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 41. [25] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 16. [26] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 18. [27] Faust, ‘Hair, Blood and the Nipple’, 165. [28] Faust, ‘Hair, Blood and the Nipple’, 161. [29] Faust, ‘Hair, Blood, and the Nipple’, 164. [30] Faust, ‘Hair, Blood, and the nipple’, 164. [31] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 34. [32] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 33. [33] Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’, 33. [34] Keller, Ryan, ‘Mapping emergent Feminisms’, 5. [35] Faust, ‘Hair, Blood and the Nipple’, 167. [36] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 46. [37] Payne, ‘Feminist media as alternative media? 63. [38] Lese, ‘Padded Assumption’, 9. [39] Lese, ‘Padded Assumption’, 43. [40] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 47. [41] Lese’ Padded Assumption’, 59. [42] Winnick, ‘Why Can’t Pop Culture Portray the Period. [43] McRobbie, [44] Gaybor, ‘Everyday (online) Body Politics of Menstruation’, 3. [45] Lese, ‘Padded Assumption’, 46. [46] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 42. [47] Kibbe, ‘Instagram wants to ban sex’. [48] Akkermans, ‘Bloody Amazing, This Menstrual Activism’. [49] Hill, ‘Period Power’, . [50] Lese, ‘Padded Assumptions’, 57. [51] Kibbe, ‘ Instagram wants to Ban Sex’.

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