Twenty-six-year-old Kiran Gandhi started bleeding on the night before she was set to run her first-ever 26.2-mile race, the 2015 London Marathon. Nerves struck. She had spent a full year training and Gandhi, a self-proclaimed “liberated boss madame,” had never practiced running marathon-length distances while on her period. To her, the thought of enduring such an intense mind-body challenge with a tampon or pad in between her legs just didn’t make sense.
“It seemed like it would chafe me, it seemed uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to have to stop running to deal with something, I wanted to just go and be free,” Gandhi said. Armed with the power of personal agency, she completed the London Marathon in 4 hours, 49 minutes and 11 seconds on April 13, having run alongside her friends to raise funds for the support charity Breast Cancer Care. They finished the race hand-in-hand and with blood running freely between Gandhi’s legs.
A native New Yorker and graduate from Georgetown and Harvard Business School, Gandhi’s decision to free-bleed came after she recognized that she was debating tampon use to prioritize “somebody else’s comfort” and to protect “somebody else’s eyes over my own ability to run the marathon.” She considers herself lucky to have access to menstrual products, but to her, the expectations placed on women’s bodies and the shame induced when a woman does not adhere to norms—like cleaning herself throughout her period, for example—represent a larger societal problem.
“Women’s bodies are supposed to constantly be ready for public consumption,” she said. “The second that [I do] something that is not necessarily about [another person’s] comfort, or about their enjoyment of my body, it makes everyone so deeply uncomfortable.” Using her period flow as a form of protest would speak to her belief that the period is completely natural—“something we should honor, enable, allow”—but is considered shameful and still lacks the comforts of language and supportive community in many places around the world. “To me, that is the definition of ‘oppressive’: when you can’t speak about something that is natural and pure, of the body and completely okay,” Gandhi said.
“Why is that someone who is doing something that is actually for themselves, for their own comfort, makes everybody else so angry?”
The London Marathon and the timely onset of her menses proved an opportune moment for Gandhi, who toured as the drummer for M.I.A. in 2013 and gave a TEDx talk on “Atomic Living” in the same year. “A marathon in itself is a centuries old symbolic act,” she told Aburdist, “Why not use it as a means to draw light to my sisters who don’t have access to tampons and, despite cramping and pain, hide it away like it doesn’t exist?”
On a monthly basis, women around the world are subject to menstrual bleeding. But in a survey conducted by UNICEF, almost a third of women and girls know nothing about periods and 70 percent believe them to be dirty. In places where women cannot afford sanitary products, or spaces without proper facilities for changing and disposing the products, women are forced to hide at home until the end of their flow and miss out on opportunities like education. “You [can] miss out on being a leader in the public sphere, you miss out on participating in life,” Gandhi said. Bleeding at home is not a guaranteed comfort for many women in the world either, like those in some parts of Nepal who are sent away to sleep in small sheds while they bleed, despite the custom’s illegality. These women, known as “chhau” (a word that has come to mean “untouchable menstruating woman” from the Rawte dialect of Achham), are just one example of the detrimental shame societies around the world place on bleeding women on a monthly basis.
Where period taboos exist—male-preferring societies—inequality follows.
“Let me lay it out for you like this: we’ve created a stigma around periods in which you can’t talk about them and you have to clean them up and pretend they don’t exist. Then we say, in order to do those things, you have to buy these boxes of tampons or pads or napkins. You have to pay money for these things. If you don’t have money to…afford those, how can you do that?,” Gandhi explained. “Around the world, regardless of what women choose, they have very [few] ways to protect themselves. Women…who can’t afford tampons, even if they want tampons.”
The feedback she received while at the race, where she donned a hot-pink outfit in honor of breast cancer awareness, was mixed. She was approached by a woman who made a “disgusted” face and murmured about Gandhi’s blood-stained pants, but nine miles in to the course, she spotted her father and brother cheering her on wildly from the crowd. “The two most important men in my life were down for team feminism,” she said, as were the families of the friends she ran alongside. Other runners she saw along the way also chose to exhibit pain and persecution, with some running barefoot and another with a 40-pound backpack strapped to their back. “Everyone was running for their own personal mission,” she said, “And all of a sudden it felt entirely appropriate that I got my period on marathon day.”
“I’m gonna get inspired by all the Boston runners I see every day running powerfully on the Charles River, in the snow, in the hail, going for it—I want to go for it too, in the way that’s best for me.”
Collectively, she and her team raised $6,000 for Breast Cancer Care. Individually, as just one woman bleeding in the name of many, she started a dynamic international conversation about how the world views the functionality of women’s bodies.
Access to education about women’s bodies and menstruation’s important functions is a wide step toward leveling the inequalities that girls and women face. Kiran Gandhi’s run helps to further build a reality in which “a woman’s comfort supersedes that of the observer,” at a time where protest and action allows us to conjointly unlearn the language we’ve developed to speak about women altogether.
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