After my Mirena IUD was put in, my period slowly came to a halt. As a result, I haven't seen period blood in almost three years. Or I hadn't, anyway, until I came upon @menstrual.blood, Jennifer Williams' artfully curated Instagram account that posts user-submitted images of women's period blood. The 26 year-old writer and musician based in Oakland is, like, very into periods. We caught up with her to talk about managing dozens of period pics a week, synching her cycle up to the new moon, and embracing cramps, clots, and stained panties.
Read More: When Your Period Tries to Kill You
Broadly: What made you start the account?
Jennifer Williams: I first got the idea after seeing the Instagram account skin.is.in, which is no longer active, but they shared submissions of all kinds of bodies. I just loved seeing people celebrate and photograph parts of their bodies that are usually shamed: hair, stretch marks, scratches, scars, bruises. It seemed a lot of the participants were teenagers, and what an early start they were getting on loving and accepting everyone's bodies.
There are a handful of pictures that have a bold or interesting concept, like a bloody dildo or some minimal spots of blood on a thigh.
How did you build an audience and a submissions base? Who's sending in these images?
Most of my submissions are from regulars but there are always new people. When I first made the account, I started following maybe a hundred or so of my friends but without telling them I was behind the account. I also followed some people I found through skin.is.in. I figured the theme was simple enough and people would get the idea. After a few months, I posted on my personal Instagram about the project and encouraged more people to join. Shortly after that I received some press from The Frisky and gained around 1,000 new followers. I get more all the time, although a lot of people unfollow the account regularly.
Why do you think you get so many unfollows?
Maybe the novelty runs out, or people have their fill—I think some are mostly curious but don't want to see these photos all the time. A lot of pictures are of toilet bowls, and I'm sure many follow that knee jerk "ew" reaction and unfollow, disregarding the reasons they might have started following in the first place. There are a handful of pictures that are really artfully framed, or that have a bold or interesting concept, like a bloody dildo or some minimal spots of blood on a thigh, but the majority of the pictures show a very everyday view of menstruation—sometimes that's less exciting, but it's also real. It's looking down at your bloody underwear between your knees and being kind of impressed by the abstract stain it left behind.
What's it like interacting with so many images of period blood every week?
At first it was really exciting, and it still is, but with so many followers to moderate and pictures to submit it is definitely work. I'm never disgusted, it's just so regular to me, maybe I'm numb to it. A friend who follows the account told me she thinks a lot of the submissions are gross, especially since so many are pictures of bloody toilet bowls, but that she wants to keep following so that she doesn't have that immediate reaction.
We've been told that period blood is gross and it's a mess that needs to be taken care of in private.
I've also found some of the images on the account to be knee-jerk gross, and have kept following to try and train that impulse out of myself. Where do you think that disgust comes from?
We've been told—or at least I have, in the way I've been socialized—that period blood is gross and it's a mess that needs to be taken care of in private, with bleach white pads and tampons and douches and everything. There is also something eerie about seeing parts of our body's process outside of our bodies, or its function: hair on your head is beautiful, but hair in your soup is disgusting; you wouldn't swallow a cup of your own spit, yet it's in your mouth all day…. Something changes once it's left our bodies.
There was a bit of a fuss a few months ago after Rupi Kaur had a photo of period-stained underwear, Petra Collins' pubes got removed too… Instagram doesn't have a great track record when it comes to women's bodies. Have you had any issues with censorship?
Surprisingly I haven't, except in one case. I reposted one of Julie Montauk's pictures, similar to Rupi Kaur's, and which had also been censored. Montauk's picture shows a woman spreading her legs in a dress and you can see a stain of blood on her underwear. I don't know why certain photos are censored and not others, especially when my account is just full of closeup shots of period blood. Maybe because oftentimes the pictures submitted show disembodied blood? Blood on a pad or tampon or in the toilet bowl or sink or in a jar, therefore making it that much more intangible that the blood came from someone's body. Montauk's and Kaur's photos show the bleeder in relationship to their blood—the photos visually tie a cis-woman's body to her menstruation, maybe that's what's threatening to Instagram.
What do you think freaks people—and Instagram—out about period blood in particular?
I think it's threatening to see someone embrace their menstruation—it's something the patriarchy uses against us. It's seen as an illness and a weakness; after all, aren't monthly cycles supposedly the reason we can't trust women to be President? Plus, there's a market for it. Every month you're expected to buy all kinds of products, especially disposable products. With diva cups and reusable pads and menstrual sponges, you get more uses for less money—and also have to interact that much more with your cycle. If menstruation is framed as anything other than an illness or a freaky secret mess every month, it disrupts the patriarchy's message and its ability to make money off it.
How do you feel about periods? Has the project changed your relationship to menstruation generally or your period specifically?
I think I had a pretty standard view of periods up until a few years ago. I used disposable pads and tampons, didn't keep track of my cycle, and did everything I could to hide it from others. I remember hearing about a friend spreading period blood across the top of her thigh while she was sitting on the toilet, or that some people still have sex on their periods, or what's more, get eaten out on their periods, and I was like, that's disgusting. When I was in college, I moved into a well established co-op where we shared groceries, utilities, chores—even menstrual products were bought with house funds, including diva cups. I felt more invested in my cycle when I started using a diva cup and tracking my flow. I could see how much I bled, the color and texture of it, and you can't help but get the blood all over your hands—which just forces you to be okay with it.
More recently I switched from taking birth control pills to a [copper] IUD.There was so much more blood, but instead of dreading it, I saw it as a chance to to listen to my body when it said it needed rest and introspection, and to be a part of a cycle. I noticed my period started to line up with the new moon, started collecting the blood to feed my houseplants, and I invested in reusable pads to keep up with the flow. My feelings are the same since starting the account. I'm just happy there are so many followers with all different kinds of experiences: some hate their periods, some love them, some don't have periods, some are curious—but everyone is there to learn and support each other and to normalize the experience.
I noticed my period started to line up with the new moon and started collecting the blood to feed my houseplants.
Do you have any thoughts on the idea that contemporary internet culture is embracing the "overshare," that there's a problem with excessive divulgence or exhibitionism among young people online?
The menstrual.blood account is intentional sharing. I saw Instagram as a good venue to intentionally reach a lot of people and to open up conversation, especially for people who might not have other ways to learn or be exposed. A few months ago I got a private message from a teenage boy just asking why I started the account. I looked at his photos: beer pong, bike rides, friends—he's a totally regular guy. I told him I wanted to normalize menstruation, since it's often shamed and hidden, when really it can be seen as beautiful and powerful. I waited for him to tell me I was disgusting or shoot me down, but instead he just said, "Right on! Keep up the good work!" I hope sharing and celebrating these pictures helps people feel proud, or at least not ashamed of their bodies and their partner's bodies and their friends' bodies and even strangers' bodies. Maybe it will help them start a real life conversation about it. But at least it's getting people thinking about it differently.
Also, I don't think you have to love your period. It would be cool if people saw the pictures I post and loved their periods if they didn't already. But it's also valid and radical to hate your period. The same friend who said she is mostly disgusted, but keeps following the account, brought up this point. It's radical to just be open about it, to not hide the experience, but to normalize it, and find your own way of getting through it each month.