In the past week alone, digital and print media outlets in London and Geneva, my regular and current homes respectively, have featured profiles of individuals making a scene for goals of equity, awareness of gender perspectives and – less compellingly – a token 24 hours of virtual fame.
Last Thursday, Kiran Gandhi spoke publicly for the first time about her decision to bleed freely when she ran the London Marathon in April. Her feature in this month’s Cosmopolitan magazine details how her period started on the eve of her first long distance race. Correspondingly, Gandhi’s personal blog relates the choice she faced: to run (and bleed) with the flow, or to complete the distance ‘with a wad of cotton material wedged between my legs’. She goes on to reveal that, for a 26.2-mile race, ‘chafing is a real thing’.
Across these publications, Gandhi repeatedly voices her self-identified position: “I ran with blood dripping down my legs.[…] I felt very empowered by that”. The proposed motivations of exposing the often unseen reality of menstruation and to manage that biological process in a manner that is culturally liberated are indubitably admirable.
They are also, however, inherently problematic. Not only was Gandhi’s decision to forgo protection made on impulse, but so too her hoped-for impact wildly deviates from the reality. Her act assumes a collective activity of pre-menopausal women to hide their monthly ovulation in a habit of Western cultural and societal oppression. In fact, many women use tampons, sanitary towels and menstrual caps as pragmatic solutions based upon the desire for the very factors Gandhi considers to be flouted by these same tools: comfort, hygiene and management of our own bodies.
Her act has made headlines as much for its divisiveness as for being a one-hit wonder. The lexicon surrounding her decision and retrospective expression of intent is polarising. ‘Unnatural’, ‘blocking’, and ‘protective’ oppose ‘free’, ‘flow’, ‘liberated’ and ‘empowered’. That such charged language arises when reading and considering Gandhi’s act reveals the imperative need for such awareness campaigns to be grounded in mediated preparation. Although she recently claimed that her aim was to showcase the global imbalance in management of, and community-based belief systems around, menstruation, no one along the London course, at the time of her activity, was aware. Her running bib advertised her status as a fundraiser for Breast Cancer Research – but not the projected intentions of her choice to free-bleed.
Even the tone of expression in her blog presents oxymoronic opinions. Gandhi simultaneously highlights the disparate nature of menstruation management worldwide, suggesting her action was to remind spectators that females globally do not have equal access to sanitary supplies, while also claiming that free flow is a necessary choice for empowerment. Fundamentally, Gandhi is attempting to present a poorly-developed awareness drive within the context of developed nation feminism. While the two can be, and have been, effectively coordinated in global health and development advocacy initiatives, they make tricky bedfellows.
Gandhi deployed sarcasm to shut down, rather than engage with, a fellow runner who informed her that she was bleeding. The opportunity for a dialogue about menstruation in developing nations: lost. Of course, an endurance race is not the time for a fully formed conversation, but a visible sign pinned to her sportswear detailing her aims may have prompted that well-meaning peer to challenge their reasons for vocally intervening. It is challenging to support the development agenda Gandhi’s aligns with her high profile bleeding because she speaks as a female who enjoys identity privilege in terms of wealth, educational and geographical statuses. Instead, spectators watch a female who has not reconciled a desire to be an empowered woman in the 21st-century (surely the ultimate societal demand amongst any educated female youth, not to mention readers of Cosmo) and a desire to address the practical realities of a far more pressing demographic – those women who are not heard, and who will not hear.
This instance of confused motivations and ultimately a devaluation of activities that prioritise transparent and inclusive approaches to global health awareness is more alarmingly seen in the case of David Hyde. A 22-year old from Christchurch, New Zealand, Hyde was employed as an intern on the United Nations in Geneva. Since he arrived a fortnight ago, he has slept in a tent, pitched on the lakeside near the UN Headquarters – the nexus of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights outlining equal claims to shelter, food and recompense for labour.
Unlike Gandhi, Hyde had an agenda – and, superficially, a cogent and morally valuable one: to be the change by opening eyes. He pinned the colours of his action to the campaign work of the Pay Your Interns Initiative, demanding fair pay for part time and relief work employees in UN and associated NGOs, including the World Health Organization and UNAIDs. The manifesto of this movement can be read in greater detail here, but this act of apparent desperation, defiance and social responsibility for future interns has been completely overwritten in the revelation it is all a stunt. Hungry (not figuratively) for media attention, Hyde’s original discovery by a ‘journalist’, his two weeks working at the UN and subsequent resignation, are all part of a scheduled hoax in aid of little more than a scam documentary.
Whereas Gandhi’s activity and resultant articulation of intent is cobbled together from a place of impulsiveness, Hyde’s disclosure of his stunt status in light of a carefully curated plan exposes a far more damaging position: confusion over the fall-out. Furthermore, there is reason to think that Hyde’s revelation, which has become the focus of media attention, will devalue the considered, collective, and quietly progressive aims and activities of the Pay your Interns Initiative. Gandhi and Hyde reveal that change on a global scale, whether advocacy, administrative, policy, internally or externally-based, cannot be realised by an individual showman, but requires continuous – and collective – engagement.