How to Be a Woman

A photograph on menstruation brought her an upsurge of internet fame. Since then, a generation of girls growing up on social media has discovered Canadian Rupi Kaur’s poetry and its message of empowerment.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: June 5, 2016 12:01 am
Stop the shame: Rupi Kaur at a performance in Canada. Stop the shame: Rupi Kaur at a performance in Canada.

The average number of photographs uploaded on Instagram every day is 60 million. Last January, when Rupi Kaur posted a photograph of herself lying down, wearing pyjamas stained with menstrual blood, there was no reason anyone should have noticed.

With its subdued colours, the photograph hardly stood out in the Please-Look-At-Me world of over-processed images of expensive food, girls in yoga pants and scenic beaches. It was made as a part of a project for a visual rhetoric course that Kaur was taking as an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. “We were asked to create a visual body of work that battled against a taboo without the use of words. Posting on social media was also a part of the study. I was looking at how the same piece of art is perceived in different spaces. So how is the menstruation photo going to be perceived on Tumblr? Instagram? Twitter? A university classroom? A gallery?” she says in an email interview.

The 23-year-old got her answer soon enough. After users flagged the photo, Instagram stepped in and took it down for “violating community guidelines”. When she re-posted the same photo, it was again taken down. This was the sort of response that was useful for her project, showing as it did a strong mainstream prejudice against anything that addresses menstruation, but it wasn’t a response that Kaur had anticipated. “There was nothing wrong with the photo, so I never assumed it would be removed,” she says.

The social experiment led to a battle-cry against period-shaming, one that was heard around the world; it launched Kaur to instant fame. In a searing post, she condemned the social media company for having pages filled with “countless photos where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified (sic) and treated less than human”. She went on to say, “We menstruate and they see it as dirty, attention-seeking, sick, a burden. As if this process is less natural than breathing.”

Those curious about the woman behind the image soon realised that Kaur was a poet with a certain amount of renown in the performance poetry circles of North America. Her first collection of poetry, Milk and Honey, self-published in November 2014, was in such demand that it was released again by Andrews McMeel Publishing in October 2015. It went on to dominate the bestseller charts, with Amazon listing it at the 17th position in its Top 100 Books of 2015, and at the time of going to press, it had been on the New York Times bestseller lists for the previous six weeks.

Kaur is a poet, artist and spoken word performer in Toronto. She addresses a cross-section of concerns in her work — femininity, love, loss, trauma and healing. With her stark, confessional style of poetry — reminiscent of the Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire, her self-confessed insipiration — Kaur speaks to and for a generation of girls growing up on social media. A sense of compassionate, encouraging sisterhood runs through much of Kaur’s poetry, and this is something that many of her young, mostly female followers, strongly respond to. In one Instagram post, for example, she shares a poem: “If you are broken/and they have left you/do not question/ whether you were/ enough/the problem was/ you were so enough/they were not able to carry it.” Among the 2,000-odd grateful comments below is one that says, “You are going to save lives with this one.”

Much of Kaur’s work is fuelled by her own struggles with low self-confidence, something that can be traced back to when, as a child, she moved with her family from Punjab to Canada. Unable to speak English, unlike the other children in her class, Kaur says she had a hard time fitting in and ended up spending a lot of time alone. She sought solace in drawing and painting, a hobby that she picked up from her mother, and continued to spend most of her time drawing until the age of 17, when she began to tend more towards writing and performing poetry.

Kaur became a voracious reader once she picked up English, and also began writing as a child. She says, “I always wrote stories but I do remember a particular moment in middle school where I became passionate about essay writing. I won the speech competition in class and I always say this was my first ‘spoken word performance’. It was the first time I got on stage and recited something. I fell in love with the stage at the age of 12.”

Kaur has used many platforms not just to chronicle her own journey towards self-love, but also to reassure her “sisters” that they too are worthy of the same. The message might ring hollow if it were couched in “girl power” platitudes, but Kaur’s message of empowerment is strong because she puts her finger on specific vulnerabilities and addresses them directly.

Her poems about body positivity stems from her own experience. She has spoken frequently about how, when she was younger, her distinctly Punjabi features made her self-conscious among people who looked nothing like her. She once did a photo series to address the “Eurocentric beauty standards” that made common south Asian features like body hair and bushy eyebrows seem like flaws. In an untitled poem from Milk and Honey, alongside her spare but evocative illustration of a woman with a garden growing on her outstretched legs, Kaur writes, “The next time he/points out the/hair on your legs is/growing back remind/that boy your body/is not his home/he is a guest/warn him to/ never outstep/his welcome/ again.”

“I think I finally overcame my self-esteem and confidence issues at around 20. I could go on and on about this but I think the folks reading this will understand what I mean. Feeling ‘ugly’ or ‘unattractive’ seeps into your life like poison and it affects everything. Feeling worthless does the same. We internalise these limitations and it takes an internal revolution to get rid of them,” she says.

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