What is free bleeding, really?

When we think about leaking from our periods, it may conjure up embarrassing memories from eighth-grade gym class when someone pointed and gawked at the circle of blood on our pants. 

There’s no denying it: We grew up conditioned to feel a lot of shame around our periods, from tucking tampons into our sleeves to run to the bathroom at school or work, to using language like “time of the month” or “code red” that conceals the actual, anatomical experience. 

But what if there was a way to embrace the menstrual process and make periods a less hidden experience after we’ve been taught to conceal and contain them for so long? Enter free bleeding. 

Free bleeding is the refusal to use period products to collect menstrual blood. 1 There are multiple reasons why menstruators might partake, ranging from personal benefits to displays of political activism and challenging societal taboos. 

Here at Flex®, our mission is to help people with periods thrive. Whether that means finding a new period product that just works better for your body or ditching period products altogether, we’re for it. For many, free bleeding is an excellent option in the “period toolkit,” and how public you choose to take it is entirely up to you. 

Curious about free bleeding and how it all started? Here’s what you need to know. 

The movement that reignited at the 2015 London Marathon

In 2015, Kiran Gandhi made history when she chose to run the London Marathon while on her period—without a tampon. Gandhi was photographed finishing the marathon with blood soaked through her leggings. This became an iconic image for the free bleeding movement and menstrual activism. In a piece she originally published on Medium, Gandhi explains what prompted her decision and how her personal choice turned political:

“As I ran, I thought to myself about how women and men have both been effectively socialized to pretend periods don’t exist. By establishing a norm of period-shaming, [male-preferring] societies effectively prevent the ability to bond over an experience that 50% of us in the human population share monthly. By making it difficult to speak about, we don’t have language to express pain in the workplace, and we don’t acknowledge differences between women and men that must be recognized and established as acceptable norms.”

Because it is all kept quiet, women are socialized not to complain or talk about their own bodily functions, since no one can see it happening.

—Kiran Gandhi

At first, Gandhi made the choice to free bleed because the idea of running the 26.2 miles with a menstrual product sounded impractical. She considered, momentarily, using a tampon, but was worried about chafing and discomfort. So she left her period products at home. 

As she pressed on mile after mile, Gandhi’s decision to free bleed expanded from a matter of personal comfort to an homage to bleeders without access to tampons, and a revolt against the societal norms of keeping periods hidden—both in speech and in view. 

The free bleeding movement garnered notoriety in the 2010s thanks not only to Gandhi, but as a result of the actions taken by a number of other artists and activists. 

Take artist Rupi Kaur’s photographic series depicting period blood: In March 2015, Kaur shared several images from this series on her Instagram account. Almost immediately, Instagram removed the images, expressing that they were in violation of the platform’s community guidelines. While Instagram reinstated the images not long after, this event—and Kaur’s compelling rhetoric, which she shared on Facebook and Twitter—helped the free bleeding and period de-stigmatization movement gain momentum. 

Free bleeding has roots that date back to 1970s activism, when artists questioned societal taboos by depicting period blood in art. The free bleeding movement has made it clear: Showing menstrual blood is a radical act. But…why radical? To answer this question, we have to backtrack many decades in modern and even pre-modern history. 

The meaning behind free bleeding

Seeing menstrual blood out in the open tends to elicit a strong response from the public. This is because period blood has long been concealed from the public eye, as if it is somehow infectious or demonic. From a young age, menstruators are taught to think of periods (and even their own reproductive body parts) as shameful.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Menstrual taboos and rituals predate even language itself. We see evidence of this in the first written text that mentions menstruation, a Latin encyclopedia published in 73 AD: 

“Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.” 2

There are countless historical texts in which periods are regarded as “foul,” “toxic,” or “disease-causing.” Of course, many of these were published long before modern medicine, when our societal understanding of cleanliness and disease was rudimentary at best. Some scholars have argued that period stigma originated from a more basic human fear of blood. 

But now that we know better—and now that science and medicine have evolved well beyond the era of leeches and bloodletting—why do we continue to perpetuate the shame and stigma around menstruation? It’s a perfectly normal and healthy bodily function experienced by half of the world’s population. And despite what you may have been told, there is nothing “dirty” or “toxic” about menstrual blood

As Dr. Jen Gunter writes in a 2017 blog post, “Menstrual blood is the lining of the uterus (endometrium) that leaves the body when an embryo fails to implant. If there is no pregnancy, the corpus luteum runs out of progesterone and this withdrawal of progesterone destabilizes the lining of the uterus and the blood comes out. If menstrual blood were toxic, that means human embryos are deposited in a toxic wasteland. That would be a design flaw.”

Gunter wrote the post in response to misinformation being spread across social media (originating with a group of vegan “health” bloggers) that claimed periods are inherently “toxic.” These bloggers promoted dieting to a point of near-starvation as a means to halt menstruation altogether. Their arguments, of course, were false: Having a regular period is such an important indicator of overall health that the ACOG has lobbied for the recognition of menstruation as a fifth vital sign. 3

Despite all this, menstrual taboos live on. Think back to the most recent TV commercial you’ve seen for a pad or tampon: The liquid used to display how well a product absorbs blood is almost never red or brown, like actual menstrual blood. Instead, it’s a chemical blue. 

How can we begin to challenge period stigma and normalize menstruation when we offer a false depiction of what periods look like? 

Even actress and comedian Whitney Cummings has admitted that, as a child, she had thoroughly believed that period blood was blue. As recorded in an article for Shape magazine, Cummings “expected blue liquid to come out of her vagina during her first period, since that’s what was used in Maxi Pad commercials. Unsurprisingly, she thought the blood that actually appeared on the pad meant she was dying.” 

So, for many free bleeders, the act of allowing period blood to become publicly visible stems from a refusal to uphold a centuries-old stigma. Instead, free bleeding catalyzes important conversations around menstruation and reproductive health more broadly. It’s not just about pushing for societal recognition of periods as normal and healthy—it’s also a matter of drawing attention to larger issues like period poverty, sustainability, gender equality, and sex education.

To free bleed or not to free bleed?

Are you free bleeding-curious? Even if you’re not, that’s totally okay! As we’ve touched on above, there are myriad reasons why someone might choose to ditch period products. For some, it’s political. For others, it’s personal. 

Some of the physical benefits of free bleeding include increased comfort and a possible reduction in cramping. And, of course, free bleeding eliminates the risk for infection or TSS (which can occur if a tampon or menstrual cup is left inserted for too long). 

In a piece written for Vice magazine, Aurora Tejeida details her experience trying free bleeding for the first time. She notes that her cramps were surprisingly more manageable than they were when she used a tampon and, while she worried about the potential mess, she found that stains were largely avoidable vis a vis strategic use of a towel while sleeping and hanging at home. 

Tejeida sums up her free bleeding experience as follows: “If you want to feel liberated, try it one day. Not giving a f*ck is the best feeling.” 

There was an enlightening feeling that came with knowing exactly when I was and wasn’t bleeding. It really made me feel more in touch with my body, even if I was sure I was bleeding through my yoga pants […] As far as I could tell, nobody was offended.

—Aurora Tejeida for Vice

She adds, “I started to think that a lot of my period habits were more micromanaging than necessary and had more to do with imagined worst-case scenarios than the actual amount of blood my body produces.”

While everyone’s flow is unique, perhaps there’s a degree of universal truth to Tejeida’s last statement. Being so conditioned to fear the shame or embarrassment of a period stain, it’s possible that many of us tend to “overdo it” when it comes to period protection, anxiously changing tampons or emptying menstrual cups more often than we really need to. This creates a cycle of stress that only adds to the physical discomfort of menstruation. 

So, if you’re thinking about giving free bleeding a shot, consider not only the physical and financial benefits but also the psychological impact. You might just find yourself disliking your period a little less, or feeling more in tune with your body. Of course, there are certain logistical considerations to keep in mind (i.e. not staining your best friend’s brand new couch)—but with a confident mindset and a couple of spare towels at your side, there’s nothing to fear. 

While we’re here, we should point out that there are many people around the world who free bleed not by choice but out of necessity. Period poverty is a widespread phenomenon that impacts anyone who lacks the financial resources to obtain period products. Affected groups range from school-aged youth to individuals living in impoverished countries to the homeless and the incarcerated. 

This adds a layer of complexity to free bleeding when done as a political act: While menstrual activism on the one hand works to break down period stigma and societal taboos, it must also extend to those affected by period poverty by bridging gaps in access to menstrual products. 

What counts as free bleeding, though?

If you free bleed for only part of your period, does it count? What about if you wear a panty liner or period underwear? The dictionary definition of free bleeding is refusing to wear anything that collects menstrual blood, but we want to assure you, there is no “free bleeding police” who will confront you for doing it wrong or not being radical enough. 

We like to think of free bleeding on a spectrum. There are different “levels,” so to speak, maybe starting with period underwear as an entry point. From there, one might venture onto using only a pantyliner and, eventually, nothing at all (besides maybe a towel to protect furniture from stains). 

Some people free bleed only on the lighter days of their period, or only while wearing dark clothing. Others might free bleed at home but use traditional period products while out and about. What’s most important to remember is that how—and why—you choose to free bleed is entirely up to you

A few tips for free bleeding:

  • Put a towel down if you’re free bleeding at home or on your sheets if you don’t want to stain them
  • Bring an extra pair of underwear when you leave the house
  • Start free bleeding on a lighter day so you can get used to it how much blood you might lose
  • Blood stains are real! Some free bleeders prefer to wear dark clothing or have a separate set of underwear they they only wear while menstruating

This article is informational only and is not offered as medical advice, nor does it substitute for a consultation with your physician. If you have any gynecological/medical concerns or conditions, please consult your physician. 

© 2021 The Flex Company. All Rights Reserved.