The day of the London Marathon 2015, I got my period. It was my first marathon and I was already feeling nervous. I spent a full year enthusiastically training, only to realize I had never actually practiced running on my period. I thought through my options. Running 26.2 miles with a pad just seemed absurd (not to mention the chafing), I didn’t want to deal with frequent stops to change a tampon, and I didn’t have a menstrual cup on me. How is it that in the past 500 years there have only been 3 innovations relating to periods? Not one of which felt right for my situation.
In this case, the best solution for me was no solution at all. So I decided to pop some Midol for the pain, bleed freely, and just run.
Before the race, I looked around me and noticed that every person on the marathon course was running for their own reasons. Some people were running to honor a family member lost to cancer. One man carried a cross on his back and ran the whole marathon barefoot. Another older man ran in a tutu while carrying a heavy amp blasting Elton John. Because everyone else was running their own way for their own reason, I felt like this marathon was a place I, too, could run the way that felt right to me.
As I started the course, I was mostly focused on pushing my body and crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t faint from exhaustion. By mile 8 I started to bleed through my leggings. Instead of feeling ashamed or embarrassed, all I felt was this incredible amount of joy and an immense appreciation for my body. And by the half marathon point, I felt like a total badass.
Stigma is one of the most effective forms of oppression because it denies us the ability to speak comfortably and confidently about our own bodies. As a result, we have statistics like only 12% of womxn in India have access to the menstrual care products they need, and 66% of girls in Senegal dropout of school when they reach puberty. Instead of celebrating and empowering women who do things like get degrees, take care of their families, work, run for office, found companies, teach, create, (and do it all while bleeding) we silence them.
The choice to bleed freely wasn’t about making a public political statement. It was about me, my body, my power, and choosing to prioritize my athletic achievement over the oppressive social norm of period shaming. It was about the fact that I even had a choice to begin with.
By the time my story went viral, people fell into one of two camps: the knee jerk reaction of, “that’s so unhygenic and gross” (which is wholly inaccurate), and the people who saw it as inspiring. People from all over the world started sending me letters, thank you cards, and samples of innovative products they were working on like organic cotton tampons and period proof underwear.
I saw how one small personal choice for me was able to impact a larger conversation. And while my small act of defiance was able to educate others, it also created room for others to educate me. It forced me to examine my own narrative and the ways in which I might be biased, as well. I was reminded that not all womxn menstruate and that not all the people who menstruate are womxn. I was reminded that the attitudes toward menstrual health are not only misogynistic, but steeped in transphobia, ageism, and socioeconomic discrimination. I was reminded that activism isn’t just about making your voice heard, it’s about learning to listen.
So yeah, I’m THAT girl—the one who ran a marathon, bleeding the whole way. And I hope by having these conversations and chipping away at these stigmas, one day you might be THAT girl, too.