athletes · body image · menstruation

Bleeding while running and ending menstrual stigma

An awful lot of people have sent us the story about the woman who ran a marathon while menstruating and asked us to say something about it. Since I’m still menstruating despite my age (see an upcoming post called “Menopause: Seems I’m Late to the Party”) I thought I’d chime in.

Here’s the People Magazine version: Woman Runs London Marathon Without a Tampon, Bleeds Freely to Raise Awareness. That should give you a sense of how much attention this story is getting.

Kiran Gandhi, who has played drums for singer M.I.A. and Thievery Corporation, decided to run the London Marathon without a tampon. Gandhi let her blood flow freely to raise awareness about women who have no access to feminine products and to encourage women to not be embarrassed about their periods.

“I ran the whole marathon with my period blood running down my legs,” the 26-year-old wrote of the April race on her website.

Oh, and for God’s sake, whatever you do, DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS!


Here’s what Kiran has to say, in her own words, from her blog:

I RAN THE WHOLE MARATHON WITH MY PERIOD BLOOD RUNNING DOWN MY LEGS. I got my flow the night before and it was a total disaster but I didn’t want to clean it up. It would have been way too uncomfortable to worry about a tampon for 26.2 miles. I thought, if there’s one person society won’t fuck with, it’s a marathon runner. If there’s one way to transcend oppression, it’s to run a marathon in whatever way you want. On the marathon course, sexism can be beaten. Where the stigma of a woman’s period is irrelevant, and we can re-write the rules as we choose. Where a woman’s comfort supersedes that of the observer. I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist. I ran to say, it does exist, and we overcome it every day. The marathon was radical and absurd and bloody in ways I couldn’t have imagined until the day of the race.

I think there’s lots and lots to love about this in a society in which women’s menstruation is hidden and stigmatized. Think about all the BLUE BLOOD spilled on television commercials advertising “sanitary”(what the heck does that even mean?) products.

I’m not sure how effective this is a measure to raise awareness about women who have no access to “feminine” products but I take her point about stigma and embarrassment. Indeed, this was confirmed for me reading the comments on our Facebook page when I shared her story. There were more than a few people who thought it was disgusting and unsanitary. Exclamation marks were used.

They ought to read  IT’S NOT “UNSANITARY.” PERIOD.

Here’s an excerpt:

And then there’s the term “sanitary products” or “feminine hygiene products” to describe pads and tampons. That is so cold and distancing. We don’t call a band-aid a “sanitary napkin,” do we? No, we don’t. We call it a band-aid. When somebody gets shot in the arm and blood seeps through his shirt, he doesn’t blush and hurry to cover it up or run from the room full of shame and embarrassment. He worries about taking care of himself! And in turn, we don’t wrinkle our noses in disgust or revulsion and whisper scandalously to our neighbors. We worry about taking care of him! The message is clear: regular blood is a normal part of life and the experience of the person bleeding is most important. Menstrual blood, on the other hand, is dirty and shameful and the experience of the person bleeding, rather than being important, is something to cover up.

Women learn to be disgusted and angry with their periods, because they “get in the way” of “normal” life (i.e. the way a man lives). We distance ourselves from our blood and feel disgusted by it, even though it is, for all intents and purposes, a clean and nutrient-filled substance. For God’s sake, babies are swaddled in this stuff for the first 9 months of life—it is clearly healthy and safe!

Here’s Everyday Health on this topic, ” Menstruating Women Are Not “Dirty”: No way! There are many ancient menstrual myths about women being “unclean” when they menstruate. Some cultures and religions separate menstruating women from others during their time of the month. Menstrual blood is not dirty or dangerous. Although the thickness and color of the blood might change depending on the day of your cycle and your hormone levels, it’s not dirty or gross and you should not allow old beliefs about it to make you feel unclean.”

The belief that women are unclean when menstruating leads to nothing good. It’s led to the segregation of girls and women during menstruation. It’s a barrier to girls’ schooling in many parts of the world. See What Life is Like When Getting Your Period Means You are Shunned.

I also think Kiran got something just right when she picked a marathon to do this. Marathons aren’t for the squeamish. Don’t believe me? Here’s the five most disgusting marathon photos of all time. Click through. I dare you.

You can see from those photos that she wasn’t the first women to finish a marathon covered in blood.

In 1996, Uta Pippig became the first woman to win the Boston Marathon three times in a row. This historic accomplishment seems even more remarkable when you consider that she reportedly crossed the finish line with menstrual blood and diarrhea dripping down her legs — and live television cameras rolling.

As Pippig recalls, “I started having stomach cramps about 5 miles into the race, and shortly after I had diarrhea. I was self-conscious [about it] not only for me — but in a caring way for our sport.”

She considered dropping out 7 or 8 miles in and even walked a little. Although uncomfortable, her focus shifted from winning the race to staying in it and running as well as she could in this situation.

Later in the marathon, she admits “I was frightened when I felt blood flowing down my legs.” That red trickle was widely attributed to menstrual problems, which Pippig says was a misconception. After winning the race, she was diagnosed with “ischemic colitis,” or inflammatory bowel disease.

What’s my experience with this? I haven’t ever run while menstruating and gone without tampons but I have chosen to ride that way.

Why? It’s not that I can’t afford menstrual products now though I remember being a student and that being an issue. (I’m still shocked when I see places giving them away. Our business school has free tampons and pads in the washrooms, for women who presumably could afford their own. And when I’m there the student in me is still tempted to take a stash for later.)

Here’s why: I don’t find tampons that comfortable for long rides. It’s hard to find a place to change them anyway without bathrooms and making do with roadside pee breaks. I’m cerainly not going to stick a maxi pad on to a bike short chamois. Bike shorts have their own built in padding and they’re black so there’s no visibility issue. And I have quite a few pairs of old bike shorts I’m not worried about staining. I don’t think I’d run that way, not because menstrual blood freaks me out–it doesn’t, but because I don’t think I’d like the squishy wet soggy feeling of running with bloody clothes. But that’s me.

How about you? What do you think of Kiran’s choice as a move towards ending the stigma around menstruation? Would you do it? Why/why not?

Natalie has blogged about menstruation in her posts Period Panties and Have Diva Cup, will travel?and Tracy has  written about menstruation and women’s sports, see The Taboo of Menstruation in Sports.

6 thoughts on “Bleeding while running and ending menstrual stigma

  1. Excellent analysis of a hot topic! Thanks for informing me about the awesome Uta Pippig. Lynda Wallenfels won the Arizona Trail 300 mile mountain bike event (beating men and women) while having her period, back in 2011. Read about her epic journey here:

  2. Thanks for blogging about this important topic Sam!!!

    FYI: I will be presenting a paper on menstruation, frailty and myths in sport at the upcoming International Association for the Philosophy of Sport (IAPS) conference in Cardiff Wales. see:

    The claim that Pipping wasn’t bleeding because of period and instead it was from an inflammation– is a Wikipedia source. Interested readers on Pipping should check out Elizabeth Kissling’s (1999) work: “When being female isn’t feminine: Uta Pippig and the menstrual communication taboo in sports journalism”. Sociology of Sport Journal. 16. 79-91.


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