Free the period: Why some women choose to free-bleed

There’s more to it than eschewing tampons.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Originally published March 8th, 2017

Joelle Barron isn't afraid of a little menstrual blood.  

"I just always was more comfortable without anything on," said Barron, now 26, a writer and doula who lives in Kenora, Ont. "(Though I) ruined lots of underwear and sheets."

Barron is part of the free bleeding movement, in which women go without tampons, pads or other fluid-barriers and let their period blood flow. The act might seem radical, considering how few people even speak openly about menstruation, but free bleeding is now receiving mainstream attention, thanks to the likes of Kiran Gandhi, the former drummer for singer M.I.A., who ran the London Marathon while free bleeding in 2015, and others. In Toronto, photographer Rupi Kaur spoke out after Instagram removed a photo of her wearing period-stained pants in 2015, forcing the site to apologize. Most recently, Texas yoga instructor Steph Gongora posted a video of herself bleeding while practising yoga in white leggings on Instagram. The video garnered more than 500,000 views.


Still – why do it?

For many free bleeders, the answer is three-fold: they don't like the feeling of wearing pads or tampons, they want to help the environment by avoiding disposable products and they want to normalize menstruation, forcing society to get comfortable with the fact that women bleed from their vaginas.

For Barron – who uses the gender neutral pronoun "they" – it's these three things, plus, they just like menstruating. "I find my ability to grow people inside of me to be really, really cool," said Barron, who has a 2-year-old. "Every time I get my period it feels like a celebration of that."

When Barron was a teen, they free bled because they didn't like tampons or pads and didn't want to contribute to environmental waste. They kept the practise to themselves, believing others would think it "gross". But at age 20, they read Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio, in which Muscio discusses the patriarchal constructs around periods and how women are made to feel menstruation is shameful. Barron started to understand free bleeding could be political too.

"Society, in general, is really fearful of menstruation and people who menstruate," Barron said. "This is a bodily function that we're told is gross and that we have to conceal."

Today, more women are speaking out when they feel period-shamed.

In one high-profile incident, women fired back at now-U.S. President Donald Trump after he appeared to imply reporter Megyn Kelly was on her period when she questioned him during a debate.

"You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes," Trump told a CNN reporter in August. "Blood coming out of her wherever." (Trump later said he meant "wherever" to refer to her ear or nose.)  

Within hours, women were tweeting at Trump using the hashtag #periodsarenotaninsult. One example: "@realDonaldTrump I've been bleeding for two days and my brain is STILL working better than yours."

"Menstruation is a natural process just like peeing and pooping and getting mud on your shoe," said Jerilynn Prior, a professor of endocrinology at the University of British Columbia and founder of CeMCOR, The Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research. "It's just part of life."

Prior said it's taken too long for society to get comfortable talking about menstruation. She sees the free bleeding movement as pushing society towards that point.

While there's no real health benefit to free bleeding over wearing tampons – aside from eliminating the possibility of toxic shock syndrome, which is rare and unlikely to occur if women use tampons as directed – Prior said some women are just more comfortable without any sanitary products blocking their flow.

One new product, called Thinx "period-proof" underwear, is now on the forefront of helping women who want to bleed without sanitary products. The underwear costs between $24-$38 USD depending on the style and coverage, and are washable and reusable. They can be worn with or without tampons or menstrual cups. According to the Thinx website, it uses "anti-microbial, moisture-wicking, absorbent, and leak-resistant" technology to help absorb menstrual blood. 

So far, reviews are mixed. Not everyone feels comfortable free bleeding, even with Thinx.

"To be honest I don't think I really liked the experience," said Erin, a 35-year-old Torontonian who used Thinx underwear and asked to only use her first name for privacy reasons. "It doesn't feel good. You can tell that it feels wet."

Erin said she initially tried Thinx six months ago because she wanted to reduce the waste that accompanies traditional tampons and pads. But she disliked both the wetness and odour that she experienced when wearing Thinx and now only wears the specialized underwear when she knows her period is about to come, or on light days. The rest of the time she uses an organic, applicator-free cotton tampon.

As for Barron, free bleeding is still best. To manage blood at home, Barron sits on a towel and changes their underwear as needed. When leaving home, they wear a reusable menstrual cup to catch the blood.

"I'm not brave enough to have a big blood stain on my butt," they said. However, "I honestly can't remember a time ever in my life that I've actually bled through my pants."

In the end, it's all about choice and comfort. Period.

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. Find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.