University of Waterloo photography student Rupi Kaur received a notification that her art was being censored by Instagram for “violating community guidelines” last Sunday.
For Instagram to remove a photo, it must depict nudity, attack a certain group, be stolen or contain spam. The girl in Kaur’s shot is fully clothed, the photo was hers, she was attacking no one and was not distributing spam.
She is, however, menstruating, as evidenced by the small spot of blood on her sweatpants and sheets. It was this frank representation of a natural, commonplace life cycle Instagram chose to forbid.
Kaur’s photo is part of a short series entitled “Period.” that covers the nearly universal experience of menstruation. Other pieces feature her laying on the couch with a hot water bottle, presumably suffering from cramps, and a pair of pants with a red stain hanging out of the washing machine. Some are more direct: Kaur’s feet in the shower with spots of blood on the tiles between them, or her hand poised over a trash can disposing of a sanitary product.
The hypocrisy to track here is twofold: that of Instagram, and that of society as a whole, whose problematic standards of “acceptability,” at least implicitly, motivated the company’s decisions.
Instagram’s double standard is rooted in its tolerance of photos with far more questionable circumstances, even if their intent is harmful.
In a letter to the company, Kaur cites a provocatively posed underage girl shared for sake of sexual exploitation. Such images clearly offend and threaten far more than the documentation of an organic biological event — or, at least, they should. Intent is tricky to gauge, but Kaur’s project was clearly an academic pursuit, and her decision to share her work was obviously for art’s sake.
The other side of this harmful coin is the social attitude toward menstruation that motivated Instagram’s decision. Widely mandated criterion of what’s suitable for public acknowledgment have fostered bad blood — pardon the pun — between women and their bodies since the ?beginning of time.
In her book “Witch Craze,” scholar Lyndal Roper cites a distrust of women’s cyclical, “leaky” natures in 14th-century Germany as motivation for condemning them as supernatural and susceptible to the devil’s influence, and carrying out massive witch hunts that ended in torture and death. Women are not witches. Our reproductive cycles do not warrant fear, condescension, disgust, skepticism or shame.
The natural rhythms that govern almost every single one of our bodies are, as Kaur says, as natural as breathing, the bridge between this universe and the next. Instagram is just a small case study in a worldwide witch hunt that photographers and truth-tellers like Kaur are trying to end; their work restores legitimacy to the female ?experience by documenting it.
“Witchcraft accusations were a hall of mirrors where neighbors saw their own fear and greed in the shape of the witch,” Roper writes.
We have projected our communal insecurities about the “leaky” nature of our physiological selves onto menstruation and made repugnant the very process by which nearly all of us enter the world.
We sweat, we bleed, we cry, our noses run, we breastfeed, and it’s all deemed gross. Imagine how much happier we’d be if we embraced our bodies, ourselves and each other — in life and in art.