ARTS & CULTURE

About That Period Photo That Broke The Internet

05/06/2015 10:01 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015

instagram period photo

One in a series of menstruation-themed photographs by Rupi Kaur, the Canadian university student who challenged an Instagram ban and won.

On Monday, March 23, the poet Rupi Kaur posted a photograph on Instagram. The portrait is of a young woman -- Kaur herself -- taken from behind by her sister Prabh. She is lying on a bed. The colors are mostly white and gray, in the washed-out vein of a Scandinavian design blog, or a vintage Calvin Klein ad. Two jolts of color anchor the vignette: blood-like stains in telltale spots, at the crotch of Kaur's sweatpants and a contact point on the bed's fitted sheet.

A photo posted by Rupi Kaur (@rupikaur_) on

Every artist dreams of a defining moment, but Kaur did not intend to incite the wrath of the Instagram gods by tackling the taboo of menstruation. She is Indian-Canadian, and sensitive to the Hindu concept that a menstruating woman is ritually unclean. An undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo, she was executing a school project by testing out a theory inspired by a Susan Sontag essay on how context influences art consumption. She hoped to compare reactions on different social media platforms to a single work.

rupi kaur

An excerpt from Kaur's Facebook post criticizing Instagram for removing her portrait of a menstruating woman. The post attracted three million views in less than a day, according to Kaur.

Kaur's "period photo" subsequently went viral, and not for the reasons she expected. For a week, she sparred with Instagram as the social media site attempted multiple times to remove her image. The incident dovetailed with the celeb-backed backlash against the site's censoring of breastfeeding photographs, making Kaur an accidental icon of a feminist movement.

Instagram has since clarified its guidelines so photos like Kaur's presumably won't go missing. For Kaur, who lives at home with her parents and three siblings, the whole affair has been mind-boggling in its scale. She's gotten death threats, alongside interview requests from the world's biggest media organizations. Needless to say, her professor loved the project.

The Huffington Post chatted with the 22-year-old about overnight fame and what she really meant to say:

What was the inspiration for the shoot?
It's something that I've been mulling over in my mind for the past year. My periods personally are so crazy and painful. [They] eliminate my entire existence for a week.

Why are they so awful?
I have [a condition called] endometriosis, and it causes so much pain. Ovarian cysts rupturing, a lot of that, and it increases with stress. There was a time last summer where I was in the hospital a lot and I was growing to hate my [body]. A darkness came over me. I started to think, I don't want to feel this way.

In my last term of school I took a visual rhetoric course. My professor was talking about us doing a project that creates a conversation without words and with imagery that would battle societal norms. This was the perfect time for me to execute this project I'd been thinking about for so long. Because I was coming at it from such an educational point of view I didn't think that I was going to cause such a ruckus. These are ideas that are normal for me and normal for the people that I surround myself with. I guess I was naïve.

instagram period photo

What inspired you to post the series to Tumblr and Instagram?
We were supposed to use a lot of theories to back up our process. There was a reading I did by Susan Sontag. It was about the idea that if you're looking at the Mona Lisa, for example, and see it in person, you'll feel one way about it. When you see it on a stamp, you look at it in a different way. I thought it would be cool to place my series on different platforms to see what response it got. Instagram is the place where you don't really see things that are going to start a conversation. You upload things that are pretty: good food, travel shots. You want to curate the best version of yourself.

Your post rubbed people the wrong way.
The first reactions I got were so splendid and so positive. And then about twelve hours in or even less than that a couple of folks from my hometown ganged up and started bashing it, people I knew from high school. The moment this group of guys created an environment for negativity it began to foster that. Everything after that was negative. Eventually women took part in it too.

What sorts of things were they saying?
"You ugly feminist this and you ugly that," and like, "In a few years we won't even need women anymore because we'll just breed our babies in labs." The women were like, "I get it's natural but I hate my period. I don't like it so you shouldn't either. Why are you celebrating it?"

Other women were like, "I totally see you celebrating your period but I don't see the need to." That's because they grew up as white women. They didn't have this thing that women of color feel.

instagram period photo

Kaur and her sister shot the series in four hours over two days, using fake blood they made in their parents' kitchen.

You're referring to the notion that a period is defiling. It's a common idea among Hindus, but then, your family is Sikh.
In Sikhism, [menstruation is] totally accepted, yes. But growing up there was still that cultural idea. When I was on my period I remember I wanted to go for a bike ride once and my mum was like, "You can't because you're sick." I didn't understand it. Or jumping on the trampoline, I wasn't allowed to do that. I've always had to whisper the fact that I'm on my period or hide my pads so my dad doesn't see them.

My dad's actually an open-minded guy but my mum's been groomed to think that these things are taboo. We're working on changing that mindset, creating an environment at home where it's okay, we can talk about this. It's normal, she doesn't have to worry.

What response did your series get in the Indian community?
"You shouldn't talk about this. It's dirty, it's taboo." I was at an art show last week and [some Indians in their 30s compared what I did to] uploading a dick pic.

A vlogger and friend of Kaur's, Kiran Rai, recalls the difficulty of having her period during a trip to India.

How did your parents feel about the project?
My mum knew that I was shooting it with my sister. I don't purposely go out of my way to keep it a secret when I'm creating. I don't want to explain anything later. [After the backlash] I was so scared. I was like, the world is so angry. Naturally my parents will be too. When I told them, they didn't understand why it was such a big deal. They were like, "That's cool. Good job!" My mum was laughing after she heard people talking about it on Punjabi radio locally in Toronto.

Being Indian, their pride makes total sense to me. The fact that you're being talked about almost supersedes the reason why.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly!

So how did the work perform, in the Sontagian sense?
It's harder to tell on Tumblr because of the Notes system, but I knew that the photo set was doing well. It was getting a lot of traction. It seemed more positive, more in line with how my classmates reacted. On Instagram, it was obviously mixed. I eventually stopped reading comments. At one point it was around 11,000 comments. Now they've put the photo back, it's at 71,000 Likes. Basically, I'm never going to get a photo as popular as that.

Instagram actually removed it twice, is that correct?
I posted it on the 23rd of March around 11 p.m. By the next day, 24 hours later, they took it down. Two hours after they took it down I reposted it. They took it down again in less than 12 hours.

What happens when they remove a photograph?
You hit your Instagram app and then it gives you this screenshot saying that they've removed whatever. Whatever didn't follow community guidelines. Help keep Instagram safe. I didn't put it up a third time because I was scared they might take my account away. Instead I thought I'd post a screenshot of what they wrote. I tagged Instagram in my captions when I posted the screenshot. I asked folks to raise an issue about it, so they were tagging Instagram in criticisms. I tagged Instagram in any pornographic pictures that I could find.

So you found truly explicit posts?
Oh, my God, like guys jerking off. Videos. People having sex. I never knew this existed until this whole fiasco started. People were sending me links. Search the hashtag #girls and you'll see a ton of crazy stuff. The ones with folks actually having sex or people jerking off are not popular accounts, but there were other accounts not as extreme but super popular advertising porn sites and so on and so forth. One popular account is just this guy who wears women as scarves around his neck. They're naked women and they look like they're dead. It's really creepy.

:trophy::snowboarder::trophy::snowboarder::trophy::snowboarder:

A photo posted by Trophy Scarves (@trophyscarves) on

The bio for the Instagram account @TrophyScarves -- run by performance artist Nate Hill -- is representative of the double standard Kaur feels guides the platform's censorship shakedowns: "I wear white women for status and power."

How did the photograph eventually get reinstated?
I was in a state of feeling super passionate and appalled. I made this post on Facebook at 12:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday and then I completely logged out. I went to the museum with my friends. By the time I came home at 9 or 10 p.m., the post had reached 3 million views. I guess it had gone viral. I woke up at 11 o' clock on Thursday -- Thursday was the day of my presentation for this project, and I was so exhausted. I went on Instagram and my photos were back up. I was really happy

Did you get an A?
Oh, of course. Yeah!

What an unbelievable undergraduate presentation to give.
The media picked it up on Friday morning, so I presented before the media went crazy. At school I'm a totally different person. I don't advertise the fact that I write. It would feel very self promote-y. But before I presented there were a lot of folks who knew. People were hooting and hollering.

What happened after the photograph reverted?
I assumed it was over but it wasn't. I woke up on Friday and my inbox had blown up. Radio interviews, this and that. I was dealing with so much I couldn't feel anything for two or three days. All I did was interviews. When I went back to class on Tuesday, I was still getting emails. My TA was like, "You're on the front page of Reddit." People from all of my classes were emailing me: "You're on Buzzfeed." I was like, "Oh, true. Crap."

The same guys from high school that worked very hard to make sure the photo was down now obviously felt really silly so they started to make fake [Instagram] accounts. I know it was them because they were following themselves. They'd take my own personal photos and cut and paste them, making them like, pornified. Putting dick pics over my face, and random labels of porn sites across my breasts. Really silly things.

Was that where the criticism ended?
I was getting a lot of death threats. My professor insisted the university help and now I've been working with school police. I don't think anyone's actually going to do anything, but still.

i am power. #InternationalWomensDay

A photo posted by Rupi Kaur (@rupikaur_) on

Kaur's poetry -- some of which she self-published as a collection last fall -- tackles issues of femininity and self-love.

Do you feel pressure to come up with something provocative for your next project?
I understand that anything I create after this might not cause such a stir, but I feel good about the fact that I've gotten so much attention and I've grown an audience and I can share my work.

Many people may not realize that you had a sizable Internet presence even before all this, because of your poetry. [This January, HuffPost blogger Erin Spencer deemed Kaur "the poet every woman needs to read."] To quantify the difference, how has your Instagram follower count changed?
Before March 23, I'd say I was at 35,000. And then within the course of like two or three days I went to 185-ish [as of publication, that number is 189,000]. So it was intense. That scared me a little. It's always been organic growth for me. Those supporters are there because they value the work. Now my audience has grown so much and I just hope it's for the right reasons.

instagram period photo

For me, the Instagram photo really captures the shame and anxiety that comes with your very first period. Of course, the whole series balances muted colors with the stains in a way that brings this out, but this one feels particularly resonant. How did you choose it to represent the series?
I love the photographic perspective and the composition of the body. It's almost like you're looking into this woman's world and she's doesn't know you're watching. I imagined most people could relate to it. If I'd used the one with the toilet I would just be trolling. This was a good balance.

Where did the blood come from?
Food coloring, ketchup, soy sauce, brown sugar. I Googled it. I think it was an About.com article that gave me ten different recipes to make ten different types of fake blood. I used a conglomerate. I asked for everybody's opinions on how it looked, my brother, my mum.

Have you spoken to anyone at Instagram?
Thursday night [after the photo went up] around 2 a.m. I got an email from them, basically apologizing. It seemed like a very automatic canned email so I didn't respond. They have given statements to different papers and stuff like that. I hear that they have changed their community guidelines now so it's a lot more open.

[The new guidelines, which differentiate between nudity in artwork or active breastfeeding and forms not allowed on the site, was in the works since before the dustup with Kaur, according to an Instagram rep.]

instagram period photo

In the Facebook post that went viral, you wrote that Instagram proved your point of a societal misogyny that encourages the objectification of women but won't tolerate "a leak," as you call it. Was your purpose to uncover hypocrisy?
I like letting people into my world. That's why I'm a writer. This was a way to start a conversation about something that really affects me. I always see women complaining -- I'm one of them -- about how much our periods suck. But they're also so beautiful. They give rise to life. If I have to live with mine the next 40 years, I want to make peace with it.

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