Rupi Kaur, a Sikh poet living in Canada, posted the above image on Instagram early this week—and swiftly got hit with one of these:
Instagram's Community Guidelines are pretty short and also loose for the interpretation. Here's the wording of the only rule that Kaur's photo could possibly violate:
If you wouldn't show the photo or video you are thinking about uploading to a child, or your boss, or your parents, you probably shouldn't share it on Instagram. The same rule applies to your profile photo. Accounts found sharing nudity or mature content will be disabled and your access to Instagram may be discontinued.
So, this picture of a person in pajamas with a blood stain on her pants is "mature content." Fine, sure. 11-year-olds get their periods, along with half the population at some point in their lives, but sure, whatever you say, Instagram—your house, your rules, and we all know you're like this, which is to say, frightened of female bodies presented honestly, and frequently lame.
However, it is blatantly obvious that there is plenty more "mature content" allowed on Instagram than Kaur's relatively artful, stylistically minimal photo: searching the hashtags for #adultt or #eggplantthursday will bring you a veritable forest of horrible veiny dicks, for one, and there's an anorexic "thinspo" image or a porny, near-naked underage model around every corner if you choose to look. Even the "popular" page on Instagram gets quite mature quite fast; Instagram thrives on the thirst trap; with a certain level of gloss, Instagram loves stuff you wouldn't show to a child, a boss, or a parent. Instagram loves "mature."
Kaur's photo, anyway, is part of a series that's intended to make this exact point—that the routine, extreme sexualization of female bodies is almost always seen as less shocking, or "wrong," than a messy period. You can see the series in full here, and she explains it in these grand terms:
I bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way. in older civilizations this blood was considered holy. in some it still is. but a majority of people. societies. and communities shun this natural process. some are more comfortable with the pornification of women. the sexualization of women. the violence and degradation of women than this. they cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that. but will be angered and bothered by this. we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing. as if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. as if this process is not love. labour. life. selfless and strikingly beautiful.
So, as Kaur wrote on her blog, Instagram's response proved her point:
thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. you deleted a photo of a woman who is fully covered and menstruating stating that it goes against community guidelines when your guidelines outline that it is nothing but acceptable. the girl is fully clothed. the photo is mine. it is not attacking a certain group. nor is it spam. and because it does not break those guidelines i will repost it again. i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. pornified. and treated less than human. thank you
She put up the photo again, urging people to share it and put Instagram on blast:
I would appreciate if you could "at" instagram and express your thoughts. Or even share the photo on whatever social media platform.
Their patriarchy is leaking.
Their misogyny is leaking.
We will not be censored.
Literally nothing worse than a leaky patriarchy! Anyway, the above Tumblr note was shared almost 10,000 times, and the photo received even more likes, and thousands of comments; it didn't matter, because Instagram flagged it again for being a violation.
And then, within a day of Kaur's photo and response going viral, Instagram reinstated the photo. A company spokesperson said, 'When removing reported content from the Instagram community, we do not always get it right and we wrongly removed this image. As soon as we were made aware of this error, we restored the content."
Kaur is entirely right that Instagram's response—and any response of opposition to her visually innocuous image—is symptomatic of incredible subconscious misogyny. And periods are, of course, a site of major human rights issues in many countries, of health nightmares and economic disenfranchisement and violent sexual shame.
Even more worrying (in a way) is the fact that even in comfortable circumstances, the period still appears to confound. In response to this Instagram incident, a Huffington Post UK senior lifestyle editor writes:
It's taken me almost 18 years to pluck up the courage to say it publicly, but here goes: I am a woman and I have periods.
Wow. Incredible. You won't believe what happens next.
The idea of me menstruating once a month - whether you're a close friend, colleague, stranger or even my mum - probably makes you feel a bit... icky.
Well, no. It doesn't make me feel any way at all.
I hope that it's quite clear that periods do not have to bear the burden of being sacred—or "selfless and strikingly beautiful," or "a bridge between this universe and the last," as Kaur writes—in order for their visual representation to be reasonably permitted under standards of decency, whether legal or corporate. Female subjugation is one thread of this; freedom of expression is another. Under these circumstances, the two threads can be separated in practice—if not in root. Menstruation could in theory be universally viewed as revulsive, and it would still have the right to exist on Instagram: just look at Cooking For Bae.
Image via Rupi Kaur/Instagram