By EJ Dickson
I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman. — Helen Reddy
“EJ, what are you writing about? Menstrala? What is that? Menstrual art? Is that what I think it is? EJ, what the fuck? What’s wrong with you? This is what you choose to write about? I’m asking you a question, EJ. What the fuck?” — Toby Axelrod Dickson, my mother
Days 1-4: The Menstrual Phase
For as long as I can remember, I have had heavy and excruciatingly painful periods. In high school, I’d spend at least two days out of every month in bed, sandwiched between a hot water bottle and a heating pad, unable to move without shrieking in agony. I was so loud that my mother would rush into my bedroom to tell me to keep it down, so the neighbors wouldn’t mistake my high-pitched wails for my being murdered or having a particularly vociferous orgasm.
On occasion, I’ve discussed my period with a few close friends and family members. During these conversations, I generally try to tailor my descriptions to the person’s specific interests, like a campaigning politician using car metaphors in front of a roomful of autoworkers. To my boyfriend, a diehard Chelsea FC fan, my period is like “Didier Drogba repeatedly kicking [me] in the twat;” to my father, an Irish history buff, it’s “the Battle of Boyne in my pants.” Men tend to respond to these descriptions with either pity or repulsion. Women either say, “Oh, it can’t be that bad” or “Oh, you think you have it bad?” This usually devolves into an interminable series of period-related one-upmanships, as if we’re contestants in the Menstrual Olympics trying to curry sympathy with the judges.
Every month, I bleed and cramp and bleed and cramp and try very hard not to talk about it, in spite of feeling like an animal carcass that’s been dragged from the back of a truck moving at ten miles per hour. Every month, I hurt so bad and lose so much blood that I am convinced there is something wrong with me. And every month, I fantasize about how, if we lived in a fair and just society where the genders were equal and there was a male equivalent for the word “cunt,” and Hillary Clinton was president instead of Obama, I would not carry this pain inside me, unspoken and unseen. I would just bleed freely, onto a canvas or into a Mason jar, and when people doubted me I would show them the evidence, kick them in the stomach, and dance around them as they grimaced in pain, singing D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel.” Then a choir of winged tampons would descend from the heavens and gather around my head to form a crown, and as they sung my praises I would declare myself, from now until forever, the winner of the Menstrual Olympics.
Every month, I think about doing something grand, something visible, something dramatic, to prove that my suffering is worse than anyone else’s. But I never would. To render human suffering visible is the duty of an artist, and I am no artist. This is where Lani Beloso and I differ.
Days 5 to 13: The Proliferative Phase
Lani Beloso is a svelte, forty-five year old photographer with a degree in nuclear science. In the headshot on her official website, she looks a bit like the actress Tia Carrere, with bright blue eyes and burnt caramel-colored hair and lips that conjure up rude graffiti in a middle school bathroom. She is not, in short, the kind of woman you would expect to paint with the disposed lining of her uterus. But that’s exactly what she does.
Beloso is a menstrual artist, which means that she uses her menstrual blood as a medium in her artworks. Her 2010 project, The Period Piece, is a series of thirteen canvas paintings representing a year’s worth of menstrual cycles, all done in her menstrual blood. The series was inspired by her own struggles with her menstrual cycle, or what she refers to as “like someone stabbing you in the gut with a dull blade and twisting it around every so often, all the while having a burst artery inside your vagina that you are trying to plug up.” This is, all things considered, much more illustrative than my Didier Drogba analogy.
The Period Piece is Beloso’s Starry Night, her Bell Jar, her Nevermind. It is her attempt to transform her suffering into art.
Like me, Beloso suffers from menorrhagia and dysmenorrhea, the scientific terms for heavy, painful periods. “I used copious amounts of feminine products, and destroyed more than my fair share of mattresses and bed linens. No super plus plus product could contain me through an hour much less an entire night of sleep,” she told me via e-mail last week. “I am prone to panic attacks, though over the years it’s gotten better, and I would think, ‘I am bleeding to death.’” The Period Piece is Beloso’s Starry Night, her Bell Jar, her Nevermind. It is her attempt to transform her suffering into art.
Menstrual painting, a.k.a. “menstrala” (a term coined by menstrual artist Vanessa Tiegs), is far from commonplace in the art world. Yet there is a long history of female artists incorporating their menstrual cycles into their work. One of the best-known examples is feminist artist Judy Chicago’s 1971 piece Red Flag, a photolithograph of a woman’s hand removing a bloody tampon from her vagina. Exhibited at the feminist performance art space Womanhouse, the work shocked and confused viewers, some of whom reportedly interpreted the piece as a depiction of a penis going into a vagina (these people probably were related to the spiky-haired doofus who, in ninth grade, asked my friend and I if women used tampons to masturbate. We were too embarrassed to respond, which in retrospect was probably a great disservice to him and his future sex partners).
After the flurry of attention surrounding Red Flag and Menstruation Bathroom (an installation of used menstrual products strewn about a clean white bathroom), artists increasingly started experimenting with menstrual themes. Many of these pieces were intended as sociopolitical reflections on feminist issues: for instance, queer South African artist Zanele Muholi used menstrual blood in her 2011 series Isiilumo Siyaluma (Period Pains), a commentary on violence against lesbians in South Africa. Florida artist Charon Luebbers did not compose such an artist’s statement to accompany her 1996 Menstrual Hut, an isolation booth shaped like a pyramid, the interior of which she decorated with twenty-eight canvases of her face imprinted in her menstrual fluids, like a stamp in ink.
When Chicago’s piece was first exhibited, menstrual-themed art was considered subversive, an innovative way of bringing a social taboo to the forefront of cultural conversation. Yet it has since acquired a reputation as a pretentious gimmick, intended solely for shock value. The satirical Wikipedia website Encyclopedia Dramatica, for instance, has an entry on menstrual painting, calling it “the practice where women paint shitty, terrible pictures…and get asspats for being liberated.” Menstrual art’s reputation as an amateurish gimmick was cemented with the 2001 cult film Ghost World, in which a dippy art teacher (Ileana Douglas) praises a dimwitted student’s final piece, a tampon in a teacup. “It’s a response to a woman’s right to choose, which is something I feel super-strongly about,” the student cheerily says.
“Damien Hirst has preserved animals in formaldehyde. Do we say ‘ew’ when someone has a cut or wound? It’s not like it’s human waste, like urine or feces.”
If you look on the Internet at menstrual artists’ websites, the negative responses to their work generally fall into one of two camps: people either find it disgusting and unhygienic, or they think it is hippy-dippy feminist nonsense. For her part, Beloso doesn’t understand the “ew” reaction: “Damien Hirst has preserved animals in formaldehyde. Do we say ‘ew’ when someone has a cut or wound? It’s not like it’s human waste, like urine or feces.”
Yet it’s hard to deny that there’s something about menstrual blood that gives even the most open-minded viewer a case of the icks, perhaps because of how rarely it is made visible in our culture: until recently, for instance, feminine hygiene ads refused to show their products absorbing blood, opting instead for a mysterious, detergent-like blue liquid. Even ostensibly innocuous works like Tiegs’ 2003 Menstrala series (the term is a portmanteau of menstruation and the Buddhist design mandala), a collection of eighty-eight delicately rendered images of birds and flowers that appears to be lifted off the cover of a Lisa Frank binder, incur a measure of wrath from Internet commenters, to the point that you can almost hear them spitting on their keyboards.
“It would be one thing if you just put the pictures up and said, I painted this with my pussy blood, but going on about how it’s a celebration of your womanhood is BULLSHIT,” a man named Corey Sturmer wrote in an e-mail to Tiegs about her Menstrala series, which her website states is a culmination of her efforts to “celebrate her wonder of womanhood.” “Why in the FUCK would ANYONE want to ‘celebrate’ their uterus waste?”
Although I probably would’ve phrased it somewhat more delicately, Sturmer’s question is legitimate. While I understand the intentions of a Zanele Muholi, who uses her menstrual fluid as a way of calling attention to themes of pain and violence, my experience with menstruation has been so uniformly negative that I can barely begin to comprehend the motivations of someone like Tiegs, who wrote in an e-mail to me that she regards each one of her cycles as “the releasing or letting go of energies specific only to the life experiences that unfolded within that lunation along with the planetary transits unique to the time.”
What is a lunation? What’s unfolding, and where? What does that even mean? And to lift a phrase from Sturmer, “why in the FUCK would ANYONE” want to celebrate their periods?
Days 13-16: Ovulatory Phase
When Beloso was developing the concept for her Period Piece, celebrating the wonder of her womanhood was perhaps the furthest thing from her mind. In her e-mails to me, she wrote that she did not intend for her work to have any feminist or spiritual subtext: “If [menstruation] is some kind of ancient curse because some ancestor of my gender believed what a talking snake said to her, to that god I say, FU and F off.” Yet in the same way that Adam and Eve’s fall from grace stemmed from Eve’s quest for knowledge, the genesis of The Period Piece arose from sheer human curiosity: Beloso wanted a way to measure how much blood she lost every month.
At first, she thought of collecting her blood in a bucket, but that “seemed so boring.” When she came up with the idea of bleeding directly onto a canvas, she created a customized table to lie on and bleed through during her first cycle. She sat on the table for twelve hours, passing time by chatting and watching movies with a friend. “Every now and then a larger amount would pour out of me making a sound when it hit the canvas,” she says. “We would laugh a bit and go on about our conversation.”
Although Beloso created the initial piece in the series by squatting over the canvas, she made her other pieces by collecting her blood in a menstrual cup, then applying it to the canvas. “I [got] really excited about clots,” she says. “They make great textures. It’s a bit like watercolor.” After the paintings were done, Beloso applied a coat of resin to the canvas, in part to mask the odor and in part to separate the blood from the resin, so the substances look distinct from one another. Once, she squatted over a canvas in the back of her SUV as she was driving from New York to Miami, mixing her resin on the spot when she pulled over and riding with the windows down. “I always wondered if I’d been approached by police or security what their reaction would’ve been,” she says. “Because I definitely would have told them what I was doing.”
Even if you didn’t know they were painted with menstrual blood, Beloso’s pieces are somewhat jarring, the canvases juxtaposing angry, Pollock-esque splotches of red with violent slashes of deep browns and maroons. Although they are all done with the same medium, they are fairly distinct from one another: for instance, the graceful, serpentine swirls of deep purple on one canvas provide a sharp contrast to the clumps of red and brown on another.
When The Period Piece was displayed at an art gallery in Miami during 2010’s ArtWalk, some found the series repugnant, comparing it to fecal art or Andres Serrano’s famous Piss Christ. Others found it inspiring to see menstruation exhibited out in the open, and interpreted the pieces as a celebration of womanhood. Beloso, however, insists that her pieces were not motivated by a political agenda, but by a desire to turn something she had previously considered a painful burden into something useful—and, perhaps, even beautiful.
“I consider my pieces abject art,” Beloso says, referring to the art-historical movement that places an emphasis on the transgressive and taboo. “My menstrual fluid is useless to me. I have never wanted children. But I did give birth to something through it.”
The capacity to create both art and life, or invenzione, was exclusively attributed to men, while women, the biological recipients of a man’s potent seed, were capable only of imitare, or copying preexisting works.
Days 16 to 27: Secretory phrase
During the Italian Renaissance, the processes of creative generation and sexual reproduction were considered inextricably linked. The capacity to create both art and life, or invenzione, was exclusively attributed to men, while women, the biological recipients of a man’s potent seed, were capable only of imitare, or copying preexisting works.
In his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters and Sculptors, the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari sets forth the painter Sofonisba Anguissola as the exception to this rule. A Cremonese noblewoman and court painter, Anguissola was an exceptional portraitist, and although poets hailed her a “miracola di natura,” Vasari argued that it was precisely her feminine qualities—i.e., her ability to conceive children—that made her such a magnificent artist. “If women know so well to produce living men, what marvel is it that those who wish are also so well able to create them in painting?” he wrote.
If the ability to procreate makes women inherently more creative, one wonders what Vasari would have made of Beloso and her peers, who use evidence of their monthly failure to conceive as their artistic medium. One also wonders what he would have made of the thriving community of amateur artists who have taken to the Internet to share their own menstrala (“May this word become universal, just like our cycles,” Tiegs writes on her blog).
On websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and blood-art.livejournal.com, amateur menstrual painters convene to share their work, posting images of their menstrual paintings and photographs. Some, such as a misshapen, maroon womyn sign on A4 computer paper, are clumsy and amateurish; others are delicate and oddly lovely, such as an image of a butterfly clinging to a bloody cocoon. A handful of users flock to the LiveJournal communities for tips on how to create their own menstrala (“How do you store your blood until you use it? Does it need to be refrigerated, or just kept in a jar?”) Others simply want to express their appreciation that the forum exists (“I am sixteen…I recently joined and it’s great to be able to communicate with others who share an interest in the honoring, instead of shaming menstruation”).
The existence of such a space for openly discussing menses is heartening to menstrala artists like May Ling Su, an adult performer and photographer whose 2010 book, On My Period, was nominated for a Feminist Porn Award. “The Internet has made it so we’re more open about our periods, so the topics that in the past were hush-hush can now be out in the open,” Su says. “And now everyone’s like, ‘Oh, really? They wanna talk about it? They’re not embarrassed about it?’ It’s shocking to them.”
As a teenager growing up in the Phillippines, Su also struggled with painful and irregular periods. After two years of documenting her menstrual cycles through photography, painting, and journaling, she has learned to embrace her period, to the point where she has been experimenting with using her menstrual fluid as fertilizer (though she recommends diluting it first, as “it’s very high in nitrogen”). Although she doesn’t necessarily recommend that all women should follow her lead in making menstrual art, she thinks that in order for our culture to overcome the stigma associated with menstruation, women have to develop better relationships with their cycles, rather than consider them an inconvenience or an enemy.
“It’s within us,” she says. “It’s inside of us. We have to remember we’re not waging war against an other. We’re basically waging war against ourselves.”
Days 27 to 27: Ischemic Phase
Two summers ago, while I was still at college, I went to the emergency room and told the doctor I was suffering from stomach pains. After I received an ultrasound, I was diagnosed with ovarian cysts. Although they are mostly benign, ovarian cysts are likely to recur in women of childbearing age, often resulting in symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, and extremely heavy, painful periods. I was given birth control pills, which alleviate the condition, and the number of a local gynecologist, and I was sent on my way.
I had always thought that my periods were so bad that there had to be something wrong with me. Although my condition is transient and quite treatable, it turned out that I was right. My lifelong suspicions had been confirmed, but this victory didn’t feel as sweet as I’d always suspected it would. For one thing, certain types of ovarian cysts can lead to infertility; although I had often prayed for a lack of a reproductive system while stretched out on the bathroom floor in high school, I never truly thought this wish would come true.
“It’s within you. It’s inside of you. You’re not waging war against an other. You’re waging war against yourself.”
Furthermore, after I went on birth control a few months ago, the cramps and aches and nausea went away almost instantly. For the first time ever, I could have a period without it taking over every other aspect of my life. I felt like the girl in the vintage Tampax commercials, astonished at her friend’s suggestion that I could run and swim and horseback ride while Aunt Flo was in town. “You mean I can do all that, and have my period too?!?!” I thought. “Jeepers! It sure is swell to be a woman!”
Yet despite my relief at feeling like a functioning person instead of a sick, pasty, lumbering animal, there is some part of me—albeit a very small part—that misses the desire to prove that this pain is unique, that it’s greater than anyone else’s. When I started researching menstrual art, I had not gone on the pills yet, and I marveled at what these women were doing; I wondered if I, too, could ever be brave enough to throw on a rain slicker and slosh some blood on a canvas and create my own Nevermind. Now, it seems unnecessary and maybe even a little bit silly.
Nonetheless, a few days ago, under the guise of picking up cat food, I went to a local arts supply store to buy a paintbrush. I wondered if painting with my menstrual blood—I had already decided I would paint a snowman, the only thing I know how to draw—would make me feel empowered, enlightened, like I was releasing energies specific only to the life experiences that unfolded within that lunation along with the planetary transits unique to the time. I wondered if my aesthetic would be more like Lani Beloso’s—violent, angry, Pollock-esque—or like Vanessa Tiegs’—delicate, womanly, Lisa Frank-esque.
Ultimately, I realized that I would never know, because I just couldn’t go through with it. When I walked out of the store, I thought about what May Ling Su had said to me: “It’s within you. It’s inside of you. You’re not waging war against an other. You’re waging war against yourself.” For my entire life, I have felt like this, like I was fighting a losing battle against my own body. (Now, thanks to the magic of hormonal birth control, I no longer do.) I don’t know if it’s squeamishness or self-loathing or being a bad feminist or what, but either way I am no menstrala artist; I lack the necessary invenzione. I leave the freezing, the sloshing, the dripping, the squatting, to the Lani Belosos and the Vanessa Tiegses and the May Ling Sus of the world. But I think we’re all champions of the Menstrual Olympics.
EJ Dickson is a writer whose work has been published in Salon.com, Nerve.com, and Heeb Magazine. She enjoys doing crossword puzzles and writing about boys who rejected her in high school. You can follow EJ on Twitter @ej_dickson. She lives in New York City and does a spectacular impersonation of 90s R&B star Macy Gray.