Among the many treasures in the archives of Glasgow Women’s Library, the six issues of the 1990s menstruation-themed zine Heavy Flow is a special gem. The series was created by artist and writer Saskia between 1993 and 1995 and provides unique insight into the discourse surrounding menstruation at the time. Saskia, who has proven difficult to track down (we welcome any information you have), created a distinct visual world from which she protested against the dominant cultural depictions of periods.
Combining illustrations, anecdotes, collages of “femcare” advertisements, and comics, Saskia’s artistic strategies relied on punk political resistance, feminist analysis, and craftivist aesthetics. Here, we examine what we found in the zines, and discuss how Saskia’s depiction of menstruation interact with wider contemporary debates about women’s bodies.
In the six available issues of Heavy Flow, Saskia confronted the vast menstrual product industry of the 1990s, taking issue with the idea of menstrual products as a commodity aimed at “protecting” women by hiding their menstrual blood from the public. Saskia’s options for menstrual products were slightly more limited than today, as menstrual cups and reusable pads were not as high profile as they have become in the last five years. Throughout the twentieth century, products were mainly produced, marketed, and sold by multinational corporations, notably Procter and Gamble (Always and Tampax), Kimberly-Clark (Kotex), and Essity (formerly Svenska Cellulose Aksjeselskap, Bodyform, and Libresse).
Since the 1930s, a handful of corporations profited from the rapid normalization of disposable products, and competed for consumers in European and North American markets increasingly threatened by aging populations and the popularization of hormonal menstrual suppression techniques.1 To confront such vast and powerful institutions, Saskia turned to the punk practice of self-publishing a zine, utilizing a feminist literary and visual critique as protest.2
Saskia’s zines featured many advertisements, all of which were altered or collaged in order to question the original message. In “A Bloody History,” Saskia combined an advertisement from the pad brand Moddess (known for their 1950s campaigns featuring models in designer ball gowns) with a short account of the history of Tampax and hand-drawn comments. In this collage, Saskia used older advertising to show how little had changed, presenting a visual critique of the consistent gendered imagery of the sector.
In the Tampax advertisement there are three women engaged in “elegant” activities — strolling with a dog, ice-skating, and walking. These carefree women underscore the advertisement’s intention to demonstrate that, by wearing Tampax, “you’re quite unaware of its presence!” and its discretion guarantees that there is “no chance of embarrassment to [you] or others.” This suggests that, like these women, you should trust the Tampax product as it allows “freedom” to move and hides the apparently shameful process of menstruation. Saskia interrupted the story by writing “And it’s easier to steal” across the advertisement and by drawing flower doodles on the page.
This commentary challenged the exploitation of menstruation as a commodity by suggesting that the consumer disrupt the capitalist system. While the encouragement to steal collapses the entire purpose of the campaign, the doodle even hints that the viewer of the campaign is bored. Using humor, irony, and sarcasm in this way was a typical marker of third wave feminism in the 1990s, when feminists used and critiqued gendered culture to deflate its corporate messaging. Saskia, like women in the contemporary music movement Riot Grrrl, was not interested in being traditionally feminine, and was bored by such marketing, seeking an alternative menstrual discourse.3
Although the zine was created at a time when alternative menstrual care was difficult to find, Saskia recommended that readers use a sponge as a natural, cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and less profit-driven alternative. In the fifth issue of Heavy Flow, Saskia considered how her advocacy for natural sponges in the previous issue gained a lot of interest from readers wishing to try it.
In the article “Kicking the Tampon Habit,” a reader explained how she was looking for “just a little natural wilderness,” which the sponge delivered. In describing her reasons for switching, the reader suggested that: “Toxic shock was in the news and [she] was tired of paying too much to bad companies for over packaged future landfill.” This refers to the Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) scandal of 1980, in which women died after using high-absorbency Rely tampons from Procter and Gamble. This tragedy changed the way women thought about their menstrual products, despite the scandal being mostly contained within the United States.4
In her illustration, Saskia recognized that there was also a chance the natural sponge could cause TSS, but underlined, “Most importantly, THINK POSITIVE about menstruation. It’s fun to bleed!” Since Saskia wrote this, there have not been many studies on the sponge, and menstrual cups and cloths have dominated in the alternative and natural sectors. Knowledge of the sponge in the late twentieth century was also not new, as the feminist self-care movement advocated this as an alternative in the 1970s. Buying a sponge in the early days of the Internet would have been difficult, suggesting that Saskia was clued in to alternative shops and knowledgeable about feminist self-care practices at the time.
Proposing the sponge as a solution was also part of Saskia’s aim to make menstruation a “fun” experience. The theme ran throughout the issues, both in the articles and the visual representations. For example, it can be found in a monochrome comic by the Canadian artist Julie Doucet, included in the first issue. An autobiographical comic, Doucet woke up in the early morning to find that her period has started and urgently went to the bathroom to look for a tampon. On discovering that she had run out, she cries “BAAAAAH” as her arms and legs flail, and blood flows. Doucet forced us, as readers and observers, to confront the everyday situation of menstruating, as she stared intensely back at us to involve viewers in the scene.
In contrast to Saskia’s rejection of women’s need to use Tampax, Doucet’s comic humorously illustrated tampons as a necessary and liberating product for controlling the situation. It was Doucet’s combination of realism and comic book style that characterized her original narrative of womanhood. She also reflected on the comic book medium in relation to the expression of womanhood: the separation between the scenes of the comic visually prescribed boundaries, suggesting that a comic book representation of womanhood was limited, as it was created from several fragmented pieces.
Both Saskia and Doucet’s visuals served as feminist tools of resistance: their “low-culture” status challenged the “high-culture” of the art world, and instead urged women to start a conversation about their menstruation in the traditions of craftivism and punk.5 Saskia’s Heavy Flow created a space for a productive feminist intervention in which the person who menstruates is not a passive recipient occupied with “discretion” and “protection,” but rather is taking part in an open conversation about menstruation between women who wish to destigmatize the female body. Today, the term “period positive,” coined by fellow-zinemaker, comedienne, academic, and activist Chella Quint, encompasses many of these approaches to menstruation, from the curiosity towards one’s own body to the feminist critique in consumer society.6
Saskia identified that the ability to talk about menstruation occupies a key place in what was defined in the comics as “Biological Liberation.” To Saskia, “Biological Liberation” was an important topic in the 1990s and part of the growing public debate about hormones and women. Saskia addressed the menstruating woman’s changes in levels of hormones in an illustration entitled “Period Pieces” from the second issue.
In “Period Pieces,” Saskia compared graphs of “The menstrual hormone variation during the menstrual cycle” and “Male hormone levels during a month,” accompanied by handwritten doodles of circles and flowers. Written fifty years after medical doctor Katharina Dalton first pathologized Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) as a medical problem that could cause anything from crime to madness, Saskia was intervening in the debate about periods as illness.7 She gestured at the possibility of a culture where women are not subject to any hormonal stereotypes and railed against the simplified worldview of hormonal determinism.
At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry was developing a steady output of new hormonal birth control, some marketed as a menstruation-free lifestyle drug.8 PMS and Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) were added to various diagnostic manuals while Saskia was writing Heavy Flow, despite controversy in the medical community.9 Saskia’s critique of the medical and media interest in whether or not women changed at various stages in their cycle was thus a timely reminder of the ever-changing status of menstruation and women.
Journalist Louis Lander argued that, at any given time, depictions of and discourse about menstruation represents what society thinks about women — and who counts as women.10 Heavy Flow also appeared in its own cultural moment, seen most clearly in Saskia’s punk sensibilities and aesthetics, and in the protest against medicine, pharmaceuticals, and industry. The references to “biological freedom” and hormones are signs of the time, but Saskia’s work also has relevance today.
In terms of menstrual discourse, the 1990s might feel far away — products, advertising, and taboos have moved on or mutated.11 Heavy Flow, however, provides a reminder of what has not changed. The multinational corporations referenced still dominate the market for menstrual products (P&G bought Tampax in 1997) , and myths about menstruation and PMS are still abundant. Heavy Flow reminds us that period positivity as a concept is not new, and that this idea belongs to activists and artists like Saskia, not to the industry or advertisers who are trying to sell this message today.
Køhlert, Frederik Byrn. “Female Grotesques: Carnivalesque Subversion in the Comics of Julie Doucet.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 3, no. 1 (2012): 19-38.
Sharra Louise Vostral, Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. New York: Lexington Books, 2008.
- For histories of menstruation in the twentieth century see for example Lara Freidenfelds, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Karen Houppert, The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000). Return to text.
- This was neither the first or last person who turned to zine-making as an avenue to discuss menstruation, as evident in the analysis done of such publications by historian of menstruation Chris Bobel, New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (2010). Return to text.
- Jessica Rosenberg, Gitana Garofalo, “Riot Grrl: Revolutions from Within,” Signs 23, no. 2 (Spring 1998), 809-841. Return to text.
- Sharra L. Vostral, “Rely and Toxic Shock Syndrome: A Technological Health Crisis,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 84, no. 4 (2011). Return to text.
- For discussions about craftivism see Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017); Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg, 2007). Return to text.
- Chella Quint’s “Period Positive” website, accessed June 2018. Quint’s zine series is Adventures in Menstruating, also archived at the Glasgow Women’s Library. Return to text.
- Katharina Dalton, “The Premenstrual Syndrome,” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 4818 (1953). Return to text.
- Laura Mamo and Jennifer Fosket, “Scripting the Body: Pharmaceuticals and the (Re)Making of Menstruation,” Signs 34, no. 4 (2009). Return to text.
- Graham Scambler, “Menstrual Disorders,” (1992). Return to text.
- Louise Lander, Images of Bleeding: Menstruation as Ideology (New York: Orlando Press, 1988). Return to text.
- Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity (Arcade, 2017). Return to text.