Instagram’s Period Wars
When a woman posted an Instagram photo holding a used menstrual cup, it sparked a debate about periods. Why should they be endured but hidden—even censored—from sight?
On August 16th, Louelle Denor posted a provocative picture of herself holding a bloody menstrual cup to her Instagram account. It’s still there.
“It’s come to my attention that women are having their accounts banned for showing menstrual blood (and no nudity),” wrote Denor in the caption. “This is very seriously fucked up.” The photo, she later said, was intended to “prove a point, that point being that Instagram’s policy regarding such matters was outlandish and indefensible.”
The photo—and the backlash that predictably followed—later went viral on lifestyle blogs, news outlets, and social media earlier this month, leading Denor herself to pen a first-person account of the experience on Medium: “I Posted a Picture of Menstrual Blood. Now People Want Me Dead?” Denor did indeed receive a horrifying number of violent messages on Instagram, such as: “Feminazis should be put in a shower dispersing male semen onto their faces.”
But there’s a problem with the narrative that has emerged around the controversy: Despite a spotty history, Instagram is just fine with period blood. An Instagram spokesperson confirmed to The Daily Beast that photos showing menstrual blood are, in fact, permitted on the service. Denor’s photo has not been removed for this reason.
The furor around Denor’s photo reveals just how thoroughly feminist organizing around menstruation, breastfeeding, toplessness, and other bodily phenomena have become entwined with social media. In one sense, that’s a natural fit. As intimate, often visually-driven digital spaces, services like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook are allowing women to normalize once-taboo topics. But when the news cycle surrenders itself to social media, complicated conversations like the one surrounding menstruation have a way of getting flattened into easy narratives.
In the rush to cover the reaction to Denor’s photo, for example, bloggers and reporters seem to have forgotten to verify her claim that Instagram accounts are being banned for showing period blood. Bustle made reference to “Instagram’s policy against pictures that included period blood.” No such policy exists. On September 3rd, Seventeen repeated Denor’s assertion and asked, “So, why are they being banned?” The next day they posted a key update: “Instagram told Seventeen.com that it does not ban photos of menstrual blood.”
In her Medium post, Denor claimed to be “standing in solidarity with women who had their Instagram accounts banned for showing menstrual blood.” But which accounts, exactly?
When asked by The Daily Beast whom she was referring to in her original post, Denor cited the recent stories of Rupi Kaur and Kiran Gandhi. Kaur is a Toronto-based poet who posted an artful photo of a sleeping young woman bleeding through grey sweatpants. Instagram removed the photo at the time, citing their Community Guidelines, which make no mention of menstruation. Sharp criticism ensued.
But Kaur’s photo was restored after she drew media attention to its removal and an Instagram spokesperson apologized, saying, “In this case, we wrongly removed content and worked to rectify the error as soon as we were notified.” This took place back in March and Kaur’s account was never banned, only the photo, briefly.
Gandhi, the second woman Denor referenced, made headlines last month for running the London Marathon on the first day of her period without any form of menstrual product. By the end of the race, Gandhi’s running pants were stained with blood. Her story, like Denor’s, was an instant Internet sensation.
Gandhi, however, told The Daily Beast that her photos from the marathon were not removed from Instagram. In a wryly amusing and revealing bit of censorship, the Daily Mail did pixelate the crotch of her running pants but nothing of the sort occurred on the popular photo-sharing service.
Suddenly, the narrative of a censorious Instagram waging war on women’s periods is no longer quite so clear. Denor told The Daily Beast that she may have heard misreporting about some of these incidents before posting her photo and added that she has seen other instances of censorship of menstrual blood on Instagram, although she did not cite specific occurrences.
Period shaming is real, as the vile, misogynist messages that Denor received after posting the photo can attest. In countries around the world, a broad array of social, cultural, and religious factors stigmatize menstruation, transforming it from a normal bodily process into a source of shame. For example, a study in Uganda last year found that girls in rural areas were missing school because of their periods, in part because of bullying from their peers.
In the United States, menstruation stigma has structural consequences as well—for example, a scarcity of pads and tampons at some homeless shelters—but its most publicized effects are cultural ones like feelings of shame or embarrassment.
Combating this stigma is a popular cause among young feminists but in a media economy given to headlines about how things are either “perfect,” “epic,” and “amazing”—or “terrible,” “gross,” and “awful”—the complexities of menstruation start to look amazingly, awfully binary. Everything about periods is good. Everything that questions their goodness is bad. Suddenly, we’re chastising Instagram and praising depictions of Disney princesses with period stains instead of addressing the issue in a more nuanced way.
Some of this binary thinking is, of course, occasioned by the pressures of the stigma itself. As Alana Massey wrote for The Atlantic yesterday in an essay about curtailing her periods with an IUD, “The demands that periods be endured as a function of womanhood while at the same time being hidden from sight understandably prompts many to defend periods as worthy of celebration.”
If Instagram takes down a period photo, then posting one in celebration—or in defiance—must be good, right?
Writer Nico D. described this reflex in a Medium post as “reach[ing] immediately for a blanket of total positivity” and noted that the problem with the current culture of celebrating all things period-related is “that it leaves us no room to express our negative feelings about them.” As she and Massey both argue, it is possible for women to not like their periods, to not see them as a defining feature of womanhood, and to not want to share pictures of them, while, at the same time, supporting others’ freedoms to do so. Some women, as Nico D. observes, have uterine conditions like endometriosis that make periods especially painful.
Postmenopausal women and women who undergo a hysterectomy no longer menstruate but, on services like Instagram where 90 percent of users are under age 35, those facts seem far from mind. As it turns out, these are exactly the sort of messy issues that exit the discussion when the emerging feminist conversation about periods is reduced into an easy story of good and bad, censorship and social media protest.
Menstruation and the stigmas that cling to it are worthy of discussion and deconstruction. But Instagram is not coming for your period photos anytime soon. Post away.