Isabel Bürger, a champion of intersectional feminism, has taken to Instagram to fight against the stigmatization of menstruation—by stitching delicate and powerful embroideries that depict periods on bodies of shapes and sizes. Born and raised in Berlin, Germany, Bürger recently completed her Masters in Arts and Cultural Management, and has previously worked as a freelance reporter for a local radio station.
Bürger talked to Ms. about her artwork, her inspiration and confronting menstrual blood.
What inspired you to create these embroideries?
Do it yourself stuff. I always loved it. I was actually writing my Bachelor’s thesis and I wasn’t feeling good at all–kind of like a writer’s block. And I felt like I need to do something creative, that I need to do something new. I think it was probably on Pinterest, you know how they’re always throwing ideas at you and I am like yes, I want to try this! So I went in super late, it was a Friday evening and all my friends were out partying, and I took the Metro to this little store where they have fabrics and different stuff, and I spent a ton of money on embroidery stuff.
I had been doing it back in the day as a kid with my mom, but never since then. And I just started and it felt so good. And I feel like embroidery really used to be a very traditional feminine thing to do, and I personally feel that it was never really credited as actual art or something serious. There are amazing embroideries out there—it’s crazy what they can do! They are painting pictures! It’s super underrated as a medium.
When I talked to a friend of mine, a female friend, it was about periods. She was super shy about it. It was not not an open talk, instead it was super shameful and not open at all. I felt like, “okay, what is going on here?” I started to paint pictures with red acrylics and I really started to express these “taboo periods” with paintings. I had them hung on my wall and the reactions I got were so interesting! People were offended by it! They were like, “what the fuck?! Why would you do that?” All I said was, “why not?” It’s super interesting.
This is something I actually need to talk about—this should not be such a huge issue. Why is this offensive to you?
I started to do the same embroidery. I started with a picture of a friend of mine. I was embroidering her torso body outlines and just added this paint or blush to it and so it’s her basically. I gave it to her like a joke present and she loved it! I was like, “oh, she likes it,” so I just kept going. I give them to them now as presents. It’s just fun.
It’s absolutely stunning. Especially the fact that you don’t just stick to the stereotypical understandings of the woman’s body—a slender shape. Instead you incorporate all types of bodies in your art.
Actually, I was realizing myself how close-minded I am sometimes, and I felt like “what is wrong with you?” While I was wiring my thesis I gained a lot of weight, and I felt like, “okay, why do I care? Why would I paint someone that is super skinny if this is not something I feel comfortable with?” And then I started thinking—why not be more open-minded in gender about everything?
It is a lot about helping people feel comfortable with themselves and what’s healthy. I stopped doing this white, very slim, kind of not like a real person but someone we would think what a person should look like.
Kind of like a Barbie doll?
Yes, more like that. This is so contrary to what it should actually be about. You cannot be positive about periods and then be like very judgmental about different body types. I try to catch that but I am always really glad and open for any suggestions as long as it isn’t hateful—you know the internet.
Can you talk a little bit about the process? What does it feel like—mentally, physically, overall—to create one of your pieces?
I don’t really do a lot of sport, and sometimes sitting at home I feel terrible. Embroidery is a way for me to be active without actually being active. You’re just sitting at home but then I can start to do something. This is giving me such a good time and such a positive feeling to just be active. My friend sent me a new photo and I was like, “okay, I will do this now! I will transfer it to thinner paper and then transfer it onto the fabric.” Once I stitched myself accidentally so maybe there’s some real finger blood on there!
I just started to share on Instagram, and I didn’t really know if I should or not, as I told you, even in my apartment people were offended by it. But then I just kept doing. I need different fabrics, different colors, different body shapes. I feel like embroidery is really doing something good. I wish I knew about it before.
What do you think is the current dialogue around periods and menstrual blood in our generation? How would you interpret past connotations surrounding this subject, and what does the future of such a conversation seem like?
I personally feel like that it is very different in different countries. My experiences have been only in the United States, Germany and Namibia. I remember when I was in the states, back in the day, nine years ago, that was the first time I saw tampons with the applicator—the plastic thing that you use to push it in. That is not common in Germany at all! Here in Germany you use your hands. Friends in the states were very super irritated by that: “that is super disgusting! How can you just use your hand?” It was the first time I really realized that it might be different for different people.
There has definitely been advocacy for the period-positive movement in the last few years—even the last decade! There were lot of women fighting for it, doing art, and I think it’s going more and more public. Periods are getting more and more public. But in my friend circle, my university circle, I feel like it’s still very shameful. I don’t know if shameful is the right word, but it’s not normal to talk about it. It’s still mumbling “hey, do you have a tampon?” You wouldn’t ask for something like a napkin or piece of paper or pen like that. It still feels very different, and I think that is super weird.
Nonetheless, I myself feel bad too, sometimes. That’s what I think probably surprised me—that I felt very uncomfortable talking about it. And now we are sitting here, talking about periods. I think that’s a good thing. Especially with everything happening today—I mean, yes, of course one could say it’s a very small issue, there are more important problems. And yes, there are a lot of very, very important topics out there—but again, this is too! There are still communities where women on their period are considered dirty. They’re pushed out of society, out of school. They are not treated as normal people.
If you were in actual dialogue with our readers, what would you say are the most effective ways to deal with this stigma around menstruation?
That’s a very hard question—and it is so important too! Because it’s like, focusing on what can we actively do right now—well, I am just going to start with me. I started to openly talk about periods, because it’s a thing and it happens every time, like all the time. It’s a huge part of your life, I would say. It’s not constantly talking about periods, but I feel like I don’t need to hate it anymore. The different body parts, which different women or people that bleed, feel pain. It’s important to talk about it, to not be ashamed or intimidated even, because I feel like a lot of us are taught not to talk about it. I’s like a private thing that, especially for a lot of people that don’t have their periods, as soon as they see it, they’re super irritated by it—and I think it’s important to start there. Talk to your partner, your friend, your family. Be open about it.
There was actually this quote by Maia Schwartz at one of the marches: “menstruation is the only blood that is not born from violence, yet it’s the one that disgusts you the most.” That is a super strong statement. Like, you’re not irritated when someone is bleeding from their hand, you don’t feel like this is private or please cover yourself up. I just feel there shouldn’t be such a huge taboo!
Since we’re on the topic of taboo, why do you think there’s this stigmatization of periods?
I think it’s part of the patriarchalischen—patriarchal system. And this might just be my experience and it might be different in other parts of the world I don’t know about but, like you need to make the extra step. There is no one coming to you and being like “hey, this is totally normal! Be cool with it. It’s your body.” No one’s doing that. If you don’t make that extra step and then take your normality and bodily functions, then it’s not talked about. I don’t think that there are people doing it on purpose, like they’re purposely talking about your period, but they’re just not affected by it. They haven’t experienced it. For them it’s not a topic at all.
But I think this is starting to change a little bit. I would talk to my children about it—not only to my daughters but also to my sons.