Unlike some young women who are scared when they get their first period, Melbourne-based artist Zhu Ohmu took it in her stride. Born in Taiwan, Zhu and her family moved to Shanghai when she was 11 years old, and then onto New Zealand to finish high school and gain her degree in Fine Arts. It was a year into her time in China that she had her first period, having received education around menstruation and her period at an early age at her Chinese school. Thanks to this education, coupled with the openness she has always had between herself and her mum, she was ready for her period when the time came, even feeling comfortable announcing the occasion to her entire family.
Cultural perspectives on the utility and purity of different period products means that in some countries, external period products are favoured by women over tampons and menstrual cups that are inserted when used. For Zhu, her environment had a big impact on how she learned to manage her period, gravitating naturally towards pads and avoiding any period products that require insertion. She remembers that because “her family was living in Shanghai at the time of [her] first period back in the early noughties, there were literally no tampons available.” Equally, Zhu’s Mum herself had only ever worn pads, having grown up in Taiwan where tampons simply weren’t an option. Even today, only 2% of Chinese period-havers use tampons, with taboos around virginity and cleanliness being cited as the main reason for the hesitancy around this product.
Despite understanding the biology of her period by the time it came, Zhu now realises how little practical information she had received while living in China on how to interact with her body when she is bleeding. “There is so little education, it is not part of the culture, so when you don’t really know how to insert a tampon, it’s really uncomfortable, especially when that information isn’t really passed down from your mother or your school,” she reflects. Even today, she only occasionally uses tampons when she swims in the summertime.
Since moving to Australia and getting older, like many of us, Zhu has become more sustainably minded in all her choices. Having dabbled in reusable pads she imported from the USA before period underwear became readily available at home here, gravitating towards period underwear was a natural evolution. Period underwear provides Zhu the comfort and familiarity that pads have always afforded her, while aligning with her desire to be respectful of the environment in all her consumption.
Rituals around menstruation of course extend beyond just period products, with women of all cultures adopting different practices to nurse their bodies through their cycles. Zhu’s rituals and approach to self-care around that time of the month is influenced by the Chinese Medicine teachings of her grandfather, who she acknowledges has had a significant impact on her relationship with her body and her lifestyle, with her period forming a significant part of that. Chinese Medicine prescribes stillness and calm when someone is menstruating, meaning there’s no vigorous exercise in Zhu’s life when she has her period. As her body naturally runs cold, she avoids cold foods, making sure her body is kept warm by hot water bottles and hot meals, and abstains from any supplements she ordinarily takes to allow her body to properly rest.
Chinese Medicine teachings of rest and respect for the body have stood Zhu in good stead in a world where rest is largely undervalued. “There’s always this kind of internalised guilt, you know, because we live in this world. And our value is our worth, based on our productivity, which is a toxic mindset because we are made to feel like we don’t deserve rest,” she sagely observes. And so when she’s on her period she makes a concerted effort to listen to her body, sleep a little more and simply rest.
Art is an inherently expressive practice, and Zhu’s work is no exception. Led largely by her intuition and the responsiveness of the clay, leaning into the emotion of her cycle can mean that Zhu’s pieces reflect what she’s feeling at any point in her period. An extension of surrendering to the need to rest when bleeding is Zhu’s acceptance that her work is seasonal, meaning she only creates in Winter, when weather and emotions align best for working with clay.
To age is a privilege, and that privilege includes taboo subjects such as periods and bleeding becoming comfortable topics of conversation amongst friends. Zhu has certainly observed this among her friends in Melbourne, where periods are openly discussed, rituals are happily shared and even non-period havers engage in conversation on the topic with curiosity and care. This ultimately leaves those who bleed with room to move through their periods with grace and comfort, the support of those around them, and to really function at their best.