Code red: Rupi Kaur’s menstrual activism that invited online trolls
When Rupi Kaur’s photograph of herself in bed with period blood stains got removed from Instagram twice for "violating its community guidelines", the situation asserted that there was still uneasiness when talking about ‘menstruation’ - a taboo. This article discusses how Rupi Kaur attempted to empower women’s menstruation cycle through her art and also analyses the consequences the Internet made Kaur pay for her activism.
Using Chris Bobel’s 2010 chapter The Emergence of Menstrual Activism, this article aims to point out the chapter’s relevance in today’s current society. Bailey Poland’s Don’t Feed the Trolls chapter from 2016 will guide this article to explain the act of online trolling experienced by Kaur. Ultimately, this article raises the issue of the ongoing stigma around menstruation and the effects talking about it online can have on an individual.
Who is Rupi Kaur?
Born in 1992, Rupi Kaur is an Indian-Canadian poet who is also known to be an artist, illustrator, and performer. Kaur initially started writing poems anonymously throughout high school and eventually moved to Instagram and Tumblr to showcase her work, this time without a pseudonym. As her audience on both platforms grew, Kaur self-published her milk and honey poetry collection in 2014 through a platform called CreateSpace (Kaur, n.d.).
After her viral photograph, which will be explained below, turned Kaur into a social media personality, milk and honey was re-released by a publishing house. Her book sold over 8 million copies and was translated into more than 42 languages (Kaur, n.d.). Kaur then published more poetry collections, namely the sun and her flowers and homebody, both of which followed the success of milk and honey.
With 4.5 million followers on Instagram alone (July 2022), Kaur can also be considered an ‘Instapoet’, or someone who posts their poetry on Instagram and other social media platforms. She has embarked on various activities such as book tours, interviews, and spoken-word performances while maintaining her social media presence on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.
Kaur’s menstrual activism
In March 2015, Kaur took to Instagram and posted a photograph of herself as part of her university project. The photograph, as seen in Figure 1, showed Kaur lying on her side facing the wall with period blood stains on her pajamas and bedsheets. Kaur’s project intended to see how media outlets would react to her photograph considering the stigma surrounding menstruation (Tsjeng, 2015). Within a few hours, Instagram had taken her post down.
Kaur re-posted the same photograph only for Instagram to take it down yet again for the second time. She then turned to Facebook and complained about not only the deletion of the photograph but also about the censorship of women’s natural body processes on Instagram. Her Facebook post garnered 73 thousand likes and 17 thousand shares as of December 2021, with comments ranging from supporting Kaur’s activism and others finding her photograph ‘disgusting’ (Rupi Kaur, 2015).
Nevertheless, the attention that her outrage sparked managed to convince Instagram to put the picture back up on its platform. Instagram apologized to Kaur, explaining that a member of their team had "accidentally removed" the picture. Kaur did not believe this explanation and asserted that Instagram’s reaction was the “exact response my (her) work was created to critique” (Tsjeng, 2021), proving that menstruation is indeed still considered a stigma.
Kaur’s menstrual activism went further from her viral photograph. Through some of her poems, she advocates for women’s bodies and attempts to destigmatize the shame that women had been accustomed to feeling about their bodies and periods. Kaur’s poem below was part of her milk and honey collection. The poem describes menstruation and how openly talking about periods is deemed as "ungraceful". Kaur included an illustration below the poem that resembles and represents period blood flowing from a woman’s vagina. She uses elements of nature, like the twigs and leaves, to emphasize how natural menstruation is and compares periods to the natural growth of plants, expressing the natural beauty of the menstruation process.
Kaur uses a variety of modes (photographs, words, illustrations) to try and make menstruation something that both men and women can openly discuss. Although not many of her poems are about menstruation, Kaur often touches upon the topic of women’s bodies, womanhood, and the common concept of hiding women’s body parts. To further declare her activism, Kaur incorporates illustrations, like the one pictured above, to accompany her poems. Her line illustrations are often simple but candidly show women’s bodies and body parts that are usually kept ‘hidden’.
Kaur’s menstrual activism through her art may seem explicit in the sense that she is making use of elements like illustrations and photographs to openly raise discussions about menstruation. Her activism is considered to be loud and explicit due to the fact that mainstream Internet users do not regularly talk about menstruation, making Kaur’s activism appear more prominent online. But menstrual activism is not something new: it is something that had been fought for since the 1970s but still very much remains a taboo today.
Menstrual activism then and now
Chris Bobel (2010) explained that menstrual activism started gaining visibility in the mid-1970s, stemming from the women’s health movement, environmentalism, and consumer activism. Women started becoming skeptical about the safety of menstrual products and became increasingly aware of the “social construction of menstruation as little more than a shameful process” (Bobel, 2010). According to Bobel, menstruation activism advanced in 3 stages.
The first stage was regarding the shift of menstruation products from being a convenience for women to something more concerning. Feminists criticized companies for promoting hyperconsumerism through menstruation products but showed no defiance towards the taboo surrounding menstruation. Menstruation products were something women ought to have while menstruating, yet talking about it was seen as inappropriate.
The second stage concerned the safety of menstrual products and was brought to attention after a series of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) outbreaks. Companies were aware of the dangers their products have but “failed to notify consumers” (Bobel, 2010), causing women’s health and safety to be jeopardized. Menstruation is a natural body cycle that occurs throughout many women's lives but yet women had no choice but to use products that have negative effects on their bodies.
Bobel described the last stage to be a shift to alternative menstrual products, such as menstrual cups and reusable pads. Feminists were concerned about the environmental issues that the manufacture and disposal of menstruation products generate.
The three stages described above can be considered as a long journey to destigmatize a notion that has been inherently engrained to be a shameful topic for women to discuss. Although we cannot single out Kaur’s menstrual activism to be specifically part of one of the three stages described by Bobel, we can see that menstruation is still a stigma in today’s society, both online and offline.
Online affordances had developed a change in how feminists voice out their concerns and disagreements about the taboo over menstruation. Kaur acts as an activist through multiple affordances, all through different media channels but still accessible online. She is active on various social media channels, where she posts pictures, tweets, and videos. She does spoken interviews that get published online as videos or articles. Kaur also performs most of her activist roles through her poetry collections, which take on topics such as womanhood, heartbreak, and equality.
People no longer have to gather in one specific place to protest- what trends online convey the collective voices of people coming together virtually, sometimes more effectively than offline protests.
Through social media, activists, students, or merely Internet users can be brought together from all corners of the world to share menstrual activism as their common ground. It is now easier and faster to spread news and awareness about menstruation- pamphlets and posters turned into something shareable with just a few clicks in the form of pictures, videos, websites, and many more. People no longer have to gather in one specific place to protest- what trends online convey the collective voices of people coming together virtually, sometimes more effectively than offline protests. Having an online presence allows menstrual activists to display their different opinions, and emotions and engage in many discourses.
Instead of experiencing menstrual activism in progressing stages, activism today encompasses the mixture of all stages altogether. There are companies specializing in reusable feminine products, such as ‘Lola’ and ‘The Honey Pot’. There are activists like Candice Chirwa, who focus on spreading knowledge about menstruation and continuously raising discussions about it to minimize the taboo around menstruation. The different stems of menstrual activism come together on social media platforms, where activists attempt to create discourses to increase their visibility online in order to reach a variety of audiences.
Talking about menstruation was taboo in the 1970s and still is taboo today, which is shown through Kaur’s experience after posting her photo. But despite the presence of this taboo, menstruation is more often addressed today through social media, artworks, and written texts. Everyone can become an activist and is free to express their emotions, feelings, and beliefs, but sometimes with consequences that lie beneath this freedom.
Online trolling as Kaur’s consequence
Kaur’s viral Instagram photograph had brought attention to her, both good and bad attention. Many people may have come for her support, but many left hateful comments, some even abusive. According to Merriam-Webster, the act of ‘trolling’ can be defined as “to antagonise (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).
Bailey Poland’s 2016 chapter about trolling described the five most common pieces of advice people, in particular women, receive as victims of trolling. She claims that the methods of handling trolls today do not work and by using Kaur’s case, this article will refer to the five pieces of advice to show how Poland’s perspective is valid and important to be addressed.
In her interview with HuffPost (2015), Kaur conveyed how she had gotten numerous death threats following the growing virality of her photograph. Boys she went to high school with made fake Instagram accounts and modified Kaur’s personal photos to make them sexualized and “pornified” (Rao, 2015). Kaur did not reply to the hate messages but that did not make her trolls stop. Ignoring trolls, or not “feeding” the trolls, is common advice that people give to trolling victims (Poland, 2016).
Ignoring trolls can work, but only if there are a few of them. Kaur’s viral photograph gained her sudden attention that she did not expect and with that came trolls, all at once. Ignoring trolls can also escalate hate comments into threats, abuse, and harassment on multiple platforms using multiple accounts and under every post of the victim (Poland, 2016). Poland also points out that whether victims like Kaur respond to or ignore trolls, trolls have already succeeded in saying dreadful things to women and will never face legal consequences.
The second advice victims receive is that everyone online gets harassed. Not only was Kaur’s explicit menstrual activism the cause of the hate she received, but her ethnicity and gender were also factors. Poland stated that harassment experienced by men is rarely aimed at their identities and beings. However, men of color, transgender, queer or disabled men are more prone to being the victim of trolling. This does not mean men get harassed as much as women do - trolls sexualize women and threaten them, the way Kaur’s pictures were sexualized by boys. Why is it that if a male were to promote their body parts and bodily processes, people would praise them as "brave" and "masculine" but when women like Kaur do, they get sexualized and harassed for being "disgusting"?
Poland’s third and fourth point reports that abuse online is just the way the Internet works ("It’s just the Internet!") and that women can easily block their trolls or disconnect. Blocking trolls or reporting online abuse means that victims have already seen the comments and the emotional damage has already been done. When comments like “come over here and let me make your vagina bleed” (Tsjeng, 2015) swarmed under Kaur’s photograph, Kaur was not sure the school police could really help the trolling situation. Even after blocking the trolls, they can easily continue harassing under different accounts and platforms. Disconnecting is also not an option for Kaur- social media is where she positions and expresses herself as an activist. As a social media personality and activist, not using social media would mean that Kaur loses her voice and right to articulate herself, while her trolls will win and still talk negatively about her.
The Internet is often preached to be a public forum or an outlet for free speech. But following Poland, she expresses that free speech is when people can engage in discussions without getting harassed for having an opinion. Online abuse is more than deliberately hurting one’s feelings: it is the repression of one’s freedom of speech, negative social media portrayal of the victims, and the loss of a safe online space. Poland insists that the Internet should not be regarded as a place where abuse towards women is inevitable and that harassment is “the cost of entry to participation in all online activities” (Poland, 2016)- it should be a space where women can interact, play and communicate.
In this article, we discussed Kaur’s act of menstrual activism, particularly through her viral photograph. Her case of menstrual activism showed that although menstruation is currently discussed more frequently on social media platforms, in artworks, and in our public sphere, there is still a large stigma attached to it. When a person like Kaur attempts to break the stigma, there are consequences that follow. Kaur’s online activism generated both support and hate towards her activist approach, but the hate heightened to become online abuse, harassment, and trolling.
With Bobel’s text, we see that the menstrual activism advocated in the mid-1970s is still advocated today, with the main difference of menstrual activism today occurring mostly online and not in the form of stages. Menstruation was taboo then and still is taboo. Poland’s text helped this article in analyzing the common trolling advice with the example of Kaur’s trolling case. We assert that trolling should not be undermined- women should be able to experience the Internet as a safe space, not a place where trolling is to be expected.
The stigma surrounding menstruation is slowly breaking and the Internet plays a large role in providing visibility and voices for activists. More women are confidently speaking about menstruation and more are switching to reusable menstruation products. But what would cause notable change is if we find ways in which we can penalize harassment and trolling. Menstruation activism still has a long way to go and we can only hope that trolls will not stop activists from advancing through.
Bobel, C. (2010). 3. The Emergence of Menstrual Activism. In New Blood (pp. 42–64). Rutgers University Press.
Kaur, R. (n.d.). My Story. Rupi Kaur. Retrieved 6 December 2021.
Kaur, R. (2015, March 25). Thank you Instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. you deleted my photo [Image attached] [Status Update]. Facebook.
Klempka, A., & Stimson, A. (2014). Anonymous Communication on the Internet and Trolling. Concordia Journal of Communication Research, 1(1).
Poland, B. (2016). 3. Don’t Feed the Trolls: Why Advice about Cybersexism Fails. Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online (pp. 61-88). University of Nebraska Press.
Troll Definition & Meaning. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 6 December 2021.
Tsjeng, Z. (2015, March 27). Why Instagram censored this image of an artist on her period. Dazed.