Hazel Mead grew up feeling shame around menstruation and sexuality, but you wouldn’t guess that based on her Instagram account

After studying fine art and illustration at Coventry University in the UK, a social media and illustration internship at the feminist organization Verve inspired Mead to pursue social commentary in her work.

The British artist posts playful illustrations calling out inaccurate pornography by making light of awkward moments like pets watching during sex, and informational posters normalizing premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms like bloating to a feed with over 188,000 followers.

Mead, who is often celebrated for helping girls and women feel seen, is currently the featured artist on view at the Vagina Museum in London. Her pieces include menstrual cups that turn the medical device on its head with glitter for blood and an illustration in response to Pantone’s “period” color highlighting the different shades blood can take during a menstrual cycle. Her work can also be found in projects for companies including Netflix, Adobe, Facebook; organizations such as Amnesty International and Bloody Good Period; and in sex education classrooms.

Global Citizen spoke with Mead over email about the power of social media to promote healthy conversations, the challenges she faces as a feminist artist fighting to normalize taboo topics, and more.

Global Citizen: How do you hope your work changes the conversation around taboo topics such as vaginismus and menstruation?

Hazel Mead: The reason I create this type of work is two-fold really. Firstly, it’s cathartic for me — I use my art to open up about things that I was too shy to talk about when I was younger. And secondly, I think this type of work coupled with social media has the power to start conversations, create community, and make people feel less alone. That’s something I want to keep up in my work, as feeling isolated or shameful in having a condition like vaginismus is a very sad, lonely feeling. Talking about things helps — a lot!

Menstruation being a taboo topic was ingrained from an early age. I remember at age 11 in school, the girls went into one room to talk about periods and the boys went into another room — just the act of separating us subconsciously gave us the idea that it was something that we were meant to keep to ourselves. Phrases such as “time of the month” and other period euphemisms reinforce this. Interestingly, many cultures have different period euphemisms — it’s not just a British thing. I find the euphemisms fascinating. 

I do think things are changing — especially with social media, it’s much easier to create a community with people from all over the world, rather than only talking with people from your hometown. It feels like everyone, especially younger generations, is talking about menstruation. I’m here for it! 

Do you ever face backlash for the topics you address in your work? How do you deal with the criticism?

Not too much, actually. I don’t think my work is that controversial. The biggest backlash I received was probably from my print, “Things You Don’t See in Mainstream Porn.” I think that’s just because it reached a wider audience and the only comment I received over and over again is “I’ve seen all these things in porn” — which wasn’t really the point of the piece It was more about normalizing sex being messy, clunky, and funny, and it doesn’t have to follow a script and look a certain way like it often is depicted in porn and film. But for the criticism I do get, some criticism I’ll engage with or send a private message, some I leave up for others to debate with, but if something is particularly nasty, I’ll block and delete.

How did it feel to be able to contribute pieces about menstruation to the Vagina Museum this year?

This was such a great opportunity. This is actually my first solo exhibition, so I’m thrilled about that. The museum itself is doing fantastic taboo-breaking work! Unfortunately, COVID has affected the museum and exhibitions, which was a shame, but they’re back up and running a few days a week and to be able to exhibit is exciting. 

I created three new pieces: Period Pantones — something fun — [which is] aesthetically just something pretty from a distance, and on closer inspection, you notice the names of the Pantones are period euphemisms! [With] Period Bingo, I wanted to be relatable to everyone with periods: the bad bits, the funny bits, the taboo bits. Finally, my favorite one — A Brief History of Periods — I created with the help of Sarah Creed, the museum’s curator I did some research and she fact-checked and gave me many other bits of history to include! I found this one so interesting to create and it was definitely a labor of love, but I hope others, and perhaps schools, will enjoy!

You generally have a playful style. Is it a challenge to tackle sensitive issues like sexual harassment and gender-based violence when humor isn’t always appropriate?

There is a skill to challenging sensitive issues — not a drawing skill, [but] more knowing how you can allude to something without explicitly showing anything that could be offensive and triggering to others. I worked on a really tough brief from [the organization] Plan International this year, who were creating a sex education pack for their global branches to deliver in different countries.

Most sections were fine — diagrams, how fertilization works, condoms, etc. — but there was a section that required an illustration about physical violence, child labor, child marriage, FGM [female genital mutilation], child recruitment in armed conflict, and other tricky topics. I didn’t want to shy away from these, these topics need to be discussed, but I also didn’t think it was appropriate to show anything explicit. 

This is where your role as an illustrator comes into play — how to allude to something and communicate exactly what the topic is, what is going on, yet not showing the violence itself. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to get the balance between acceptable yet clear. It was one of the most challenging projects I’ve faced so far! 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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