Lately, it seems free-bleeding has been ripe fodder for satire, art, and social protest. Whether or not you agree with the principle of freely shedding the lining of your uterine wall in public, the so-called "free-bleeders" movement has facilitated a more open and accessible dialogue about menstruation overall. But what is free-bleeding, exactly? Where did the idea come from? And given that you're technically only "free-bleeding" if you're naked or going commando in a skirt or dress (otherwise your pants are basically your pad), why is it important to talk about free-bleeding at all?
Free-bleeding is the practice of purposefully wearing no feminine hygiene products during one's period, and its history goes back so far it's almost impossible to trace. According to the scholarly article "Thy righteousness is but a menstrual clout: sanitary practices and prejudice in early modern England," in the 17th century women with more money and heavier periods wore cut-up rags or "clouts" to soak up their flow, prostitutes probably used sponges, and—surprise—the majority of women likely used nothing at all.
4chan trolls will have you believe they popularized the idea of free-bleeding in early 2014 as a way to somehow make feminists look dumb. They may or may not have helped popularize the term. But instead of discrediting anyone, their efforts to hijack social media with incredibly unsuccessful satire accounts belonging to fake women's-rights advocates not only quickly revealed a tragic disconnect between idea and execution, it also coincided with a much-needed discourse that's slowly yet blessedly been de-stigmatizing menstruation. As a result, fertile women can finally heave a collective sigh of relief when discussing something that happens to 50 percent of the world's population.
Even in the years right before 4chan's pathetic "Operation Freebleeding" campaign, the concept was already a thing. People started to question if tampons were anti-feminist while others were confused about the idea of free-bleeding in general. Through it all, however, something amazing was happening: Women started to talk about their periods.
So 4chan's Operation Freebleeding basically landed with a big fat thud, inspiring a confusing anti-free-bleeding piece of satire with earnest and misogynist comments targeting the nonexistent crusaders of the free-bleeding ideology. Meanwhile, women began to examine what life is like when getting your period means you are shunned, and periods became the topic du jour.
Then, when a Harvard MBA and drummer for M.I.A. free-bled while running the London Marathon last year, all hell broke loose.
Kiran Gandhi didn't set out to make a statement. When her period decided to show up on the same day as the 26.2-mile-run for which she had been training for a year, she basically said "fuck it" and proceeded to bleed right through her tight shiny neon leggings.
Women's bodies have never been burdensome to the Earth, and the products we use to care for ourselves should not be either.
"When I free-bled at the marathon it was the first time I had ever done it," Gandhi tells Broadly. "I was definitely expecting discomfort, but I did think that I was going to prefer it to wearing a tampon that might need to be changed halfway through the race. I remember I started to show at mile 8, but the truth was that I didn't feel it at all. I was so surprised because I actually felt so good—my cramps had gone away, and I felt uplifted and happy and stoked to be running on my period since it had always been such a menace to me. I kept running. I remember runner friends of mine had warned me that I would hit a wall at mile 18 and that I'd want to walk, and I definitely thought that would happen since I was on day 1 of my period, but once mile 18 happened, I found myself still running. Once we crossed the finish line I couldn't really believe it—we hadn't stopped running once, and free-bleeding ended up being the best and most comfortable decision."
Women who advocate free-bleeding typically cite two main reasons for doing so: comfort and the environment. It's estimated that women in the US throw away about seven pounds worth of feminine hygiene products a year. With an estimated 100 million menstruating American women, we're collectively ditching about 700 million pounds (350,000 tons) of tampons, pads, plastic, and cardboard boxes annually in the United States alone. There are health concerns, too, the biggest being the fact that tampons actually contain carcinogens.
What if sanitary supplies reflected the same relationship to our planet, as opposed to contributing to its destruction.
This heavy environmental toll adds to the stigma and frustration over current menstrual products. "I often explain in my talks that stigma is the root issue for lack of innovation for more sustainable products today," Gandhi says. "If we cannot talk about our own bodies comfortably, how can today's best innovators know what we even want, and then go and build a better and more eco-friendly product? Women's bodies have never been burdensome to the Earth, and the products we use to care for ourselves should not be either."
The truth is, Gandhi ran the marathon to raise funds for breast cancer research, and when it wound up being all about her period, she decided to call attention to the fact that 66 percent of girls in Southeast Asia have no idea about menstruation until they start getting their periods; only 12 percent of women in India use pads or tampons; and as many as 40 million women in the US can barely afford tampons at all. Gandhi also shined a spotlight on the work of photographer Rupi Kaur, whose photo series on menstruation was repeatedly removed from Instagram.
"We should probably all just free-bleed though!" Gandhi says, laughing. "Then we'll have zero stigma and better products available to us."
"I think this is an imperative conversation to be having as menstruation becomes less of a taboo in US culture in tandem with the increasing level of crisis facing our ecosystem," says Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, author and editor of My Little Red Book, an anthology of women's stories about menstruation.
"A friend of mine who is a doctor pointed out a connection to me the other day that I love: given that periods are connected to nurturing life, how powerful it would be if sanitary supplies reflected the same relationship to our planet, as opposed to contributing to its destruction."
Free-bleeding can be viewed as a brave, controversial idea while also inspiring some extremely unfunny sketch comedy. ("It's important to inform friends and family that you're free-bleeding. Otherwise, they might think you've been bitten by a dog!") But the truth is, free-bleeding is something women have been doing ever since women have been around. It's nothing new.
Even after close to two decades of using tampons, Marla, 31, from Los Angeles, never got used to them. "Whenever I would get home from school or work, I would immediately slip into a pair of loose, dark pants and just bleed. I still do that." This was something Marla would not readily admit to her friends; she made sure to hide stained sheets or underwear whenever a boyfriend would come over. "What's been great about the whole free-bleeding thing is that, it turns out, a lot of women do it and like doing it!" For Marla, a tampon feels too invasive to wear through the course of her menstrual cycle. "I hate it—I don't like this thing in me. I use one only on the first day of my period, when it's at its heaviest. Then I typically just bleed onto dark underwear for the rest of my cycle."
Marla says she first learned about free-bleeding about ten years ago when she read Igna Muscio's Cunt. "I think she used a sea sponge during her period and then nothing at night. It blew my mind, I felt like, here was an adult giving me permission to just do this thing I wanted to do but thought was somehow shameful. Even though I think it's totally natural and fine, it still feels weirdly slovenly and gross to talk about—which it's not!"
Marla likes that now there's an environmental edge to free-bleeding, an aspect she had not considered before. "It makes sense," she says. "I mean, you can't go into a single bathroom stall without signs screaming at you to 'not flush tampons.' These things are tough, bleached, thick. I'm sure their impact on the Earth is not good."
Now, free-bleeding has become a call to action—a way to get women to openly discuss menstruation, end stigma, and think about safer ways to care for ourselves. In the UK women started to free-bleed in order to protest a tampon tax while also calling attention to the fact that many homeless women can't afford tampons at all. Like it or not, free-bleeding is providing both men and women the opportunity to look at menstruation from a new perspective, which is much better than no perspective at all. It just took an Internet stunt and a marathon to get us to actually talk about our periods—finally.