Menstruation happens to women all the time. Okay, once a month (more or less) per woman for the most part, but you get what I mean. It's a natural part of being a female human, so it’s not every day that a woman gains recognition for the act.
But Kiran Gandhi, a 26-year-old musician, saw her period as a chance to make a statement about women’s reproductive health—and decided to menstruate without a tampon or pad, or "free bleed," through the London Marathon. That’s right. Back in April, Gandhi ran the third largest running event in the U.K. on the first day of her period. And now I have officially run out of excuses as to why I don’t ever run or jog or even walk briskly.
At the time, Gandhi described her experience on her personal blog:
“I decided to just take some Midol, hope I wouldn’t cramp, bleed freely and just run. A marathon in itself is a centuries old symbolic act. Why not use it as a means to draw light to my sisters who don’t have access to tampons and, despite cramping and pain, hide it away like it doesn’t exist? I ran to say, it does exist, and we overcome it every day.”
While the event took place in the spring, Gandhi’s free-bled marathon began getting attention a few weeks ago and her story has since gone viral—bringing much-needed attention the shame associated with having a period. Yes, periods are a fact of womankind, but there is an enormous pressure to, as Gandhi puts it, "hide them away."
That's why Gandhi is determined to raise awareness both of period shaming and lack of access to feminine products in developing countries. She's now partnering with Thinx, a period underwear company that helps women stay dry while on the go, and AfriPads, which makes low-cost, reusable sanitary pads out of Uganda. You can follow her efforts on Twitter at @MadameGandhi.
Fusion Snapchat caught up with Gandhi, who was born in New York City to Indian parents, has an MBA from Harvard, and works as a music industry strategist—oh and no big deal, she’s gone on tour as a drummer with Thievery Corporation and M.I.A.. She’s currently working on her first solo album, Madame Gandhi.
FUSION: Growing up, were you particularly careful to hide your period?
GANDHI: Even though I went to an all-girls school, I remember that if we had cramps or were on our period, we’d tell the nurse, “I need some Advil” instead of actually honestly saying, "I have period cramps" or discussing what our bodies were doing. I remember it was mortifying if you bled through your shorts during P.E.
I have always observed that periods, something so natural, have been a source of extreme discomfort and awkwardness throughout my childhood and adult life and that of most women I know.
FUSION: Why are periods such a taboo subject, regardless of culture?
GANDHI: Women’s bodies are expected to look a certain way. And to behave a certain way, a pleasing way. Society is more than happy speaking about our breasts, our face, our butt, because these can be sexually enjoyed, but our culture is not happy to acknowledge or speak about the parts that are not meant for the sexual enjoyment of others. We are full bodies, and all parts of us must be ok to speak about.
FUSION: How can talking about the “invisibility” of menstruation help break such taboos?
GANDHI: Combatting stigma means being able to have the vocabulary to speak about the body without being silenced or shamed. By not having the vocabulary to speak about a natural process, myths fill in the voids and cloud true education; we don’t feel empowered or safe to speak up when we are experiencing real pain or a medical emergency and somebody else ends up owning the narrative and being able to use it against us.
I believe arming ourselves with the vocabulary and strength to talk about something that has been made shameful by society is the first step in being able to make a change.
FUSION: How have you dealt with the attention—the good and the bad?
GANDHI: Women from all around the world have been sharing their stories with me over the web about their personal stories of shame, and their desire to be shamed no more. The biggest lesson for me is that women’s periods have always been a stigma, and that the time is now to break down these barriers and make the next generation able to speak about their own bodies. Conversation enables innovation, which leads to better and more sustainable solutions to women’s hygiene than currently exist.
FUSION: What advice would you give to a girl who has felt ashamed about her period?
GANDHI: Test your own boundaries of comfort. What would happen if you ask for a tampon from a friend in a normal voice instead of a whisper? What would happen if someone told you “you have a stain through your shorts,” and you responded that you’ve been to busy to deal with it, but you’ll get it to it later? What would happen if we shamed those who tried to shame us?
A version of this story originally appeared on Fusion's Snapchat Discover channel (available on the international edition).