Blood Studs: Q&A with a Feminist Jewellery Maker

This week we (virtually!) met the lovely Autumn Aurelia, jewellery maker and owner of aureliola.com about what inspired her to create her unique collection, her personal experiences with period shame, Endometriosis and Vaginismus and what she has planned next. Menstrual Cup earrings, we hope!

Hi Autumn! We absolutely love your jewellery collection - no surprise, the period-positive ‘blood studs’ are a favourite in the BeYou office! Your collection features everything from croissant necklaces to pro-choice brooches  - where do you find your inspiration?

Thank you so much! I think that everything I create comes from some aspect of my life — whether that’s my likes (croissants!) or my experience with mental and chronic physical illness. I make what I love, essentially, or that which I think needs to be spoken about.

You’ve previously spoken to us about your experiences of being shamed by a family member for being vocal about your period. As a brand, we can’t believe this is still allowed to happen every day all over the world and one of our key goals is to eradicate period stigma. Please tell us more about your experience of this and how this has motivated you as an adult to raise awareness of period shame. 

I was made to hide any discussion of my period by my father who would often tell my mother and I how ‘disgusting’ we were for talking about our periods. Over time, I grew afraid of his explosive reactions and so I learned to go inward. There’s so much wrong with that, of course, but mostly it taught me that I should be ashamed of bleeding and to never talk about it because it wasn’t considered ‘normal’. I also recall him shaming us for hanging our ‘dirty underwear’ on the washing line because neighbours would see how ‘filthy’ we were. He was referring to stains caused by discharge and period blood.

Honestly, it took me years to unpack that internalised shame and it was only when I read something from the Vagina Museum, earlier this year, that bleached patches in underwear are a very natural and healthy thing. Up until that point, I had always tried to hide my underwear from my partner because, despite him being nothing like my father, I feared he would also be disgusted. For the first time ever, I am now able to look at my underwear and not call myself dirty. That’s the power of organisations like the Vagina Museum and BeYou who are actively talking about periods and bodily functions.

Also, despite how much I love my mum, she was never the parent I needed her to be. Instead, I was left to parent not only myself, but us both, in so many ways. It's a hard thing to admit to myself or to anyone because I carry a lot of guilt when I say that.

I was never taught what a period was, so when I was away on a very stressful 'holiday' with the woman's refuge we'd been staying at and I went into the bathroom and found myself covered in blood, I screamed and screamed because I genuinely thought I was dying. The kids were cruel, but one of the leaders took me aside and sat with me for hours, explaining everything my mum should have done.

Parents, please speak to your children. Please tell them that there is no shame in having a period. Please welcome their questions and curiosity because the lessons you teach them now will be carried forever.

I think growing up in a toxic and abusive household has pushed me to speak out about a number of issues from domestic violence to period shaming. Having been silenced so much as a child, I am passionate to reclaim some of my most painful memories by raising awareness however I can, whether that is through my work or the conversations I’m having with friends or on social media. 

Like many of the BeYou community, you have both Endometriosis and Vaginismus. We regularly hear from women facing a lack of understanding from employers, family, or even friends, as to how these conditions can affect them. Is this something that resonates with you? 

Yes, absolutely! I must say, my friends have been incredibly supportive in all aspects of my life, so I’m extremely fortunate there. I’ve definitely experienced a lack of understanding and compassion from medical staff, be it in relation to vaginismus or body shaming because of my weight. Several doctors have berated me for being unable to endure a Pap smear test, despite my best efforts and despite me explaining to them that I have Vaginismus. One nurse went as far to tell me that I was “being such a baby” for screaming and crying out in pain during the process of trying. Unfortunately, these negative experiences seem to be quite common among the Vaginismus community and more definitely needs to be done to raise awareness of it.

Like so many of us, I wasn’t aware of my own condition until I was in my late twenties. Until that point, I had spent my entire teenage and adult life believing that there was something physically different about me, that I must have some kind of ‘wall’ blocking the entrance to my vagina that prevented me from having sex or using tampons.

Like so many of us, I still recall the first time I tried to insert a tampon and cried out because the pain was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was excruciating. My mother, who was on the other side of the bathroom door, screamed at me for “being such a baby” — a phrase that is thrown around a lot, it seems. I’m sure she didn’t intend to hurt me, but that has stayed with me into my adult life.

In general, Vaginismus is not something my mother seems to understand unfortunately, despite my being incredibly vocal about my experiences with the condition. Just a few years ago, she ‘reminded’ me to use condoms with my partner. I told her that we weren’t having sex because of my condition and my sexual trauma, and her reaction was quite simply to laugh and say ‘sure you’re not’. I think that’s the trouble about conditions like Vaginismus — the expectation that we can quite simply ‘get over it’. 

It makes me incredibly sad and frustrated that many people take for granted what is, to them, so easy: having sex, to give birth, use tampons or have Pap smear tests. For those of us living with this condition, we are made to feel less than, which only adds to our shame and, for many, the depression that occurs from living with something so cruel and painful.

As well as being sold on Etsy, your ‘blood studs’ are stocked in The Vagina Museum, the world's first museum dedicated to all things vaginas and vulvas (how BeYou is that?!). How did this partnership come about?

As soon as I heard there was a Vagina Museum, I sent them an email in the hopes they’d want to work with me, and they did! 

You know, I still cannot believe I’m stocked at the Vagina Museum. If someone had told 15-year-old me, even 25-year-old me that I’d be making period and vulva-related products one day, I’d have squirmed and probably walked away in shame. Having been sexually abused as a child, I do think I developed more slowly than most children and I certainly carried (and still carry) a lot of shame surrounding sex and sexuality. When friends were discussing their sexual encounters, I’d very often panic and try to find a way out of the conversation.

It is only over the past few years that I have began to talk more openly about sex and sexuality, and I am starting to learn how empowering it can be and that there is honestly nothing to be afraid of. While I’m not having yet sex myself because of my ongoing battle with multiple sexual traumas and Vaginismus, I am a lot more willing to engage in conversations surrounding sex now.

In fact, I make the pieces I do as a challenge to myself — a way to break down my own shame surrounding my body and to hopefully empower others to do the same. Earlier this year, the Arts Curator at the Vagina Museum commissioned me to make them a vulva necklace, and you know what… it was the first time in my life I had ever seen a vulva. I’m 35-years-old and I’ve never ever seen a photograph of a vulva because my shame and trauma have prevented me from doing so. That commission was, at first, uncomfortable, but I do believe it made me stronger.

What does the future hold for you? We’re hoping more period jewellery! 

Yes! In fact, just a few days ago I released some Period Positive Pad earrings and I am donating 50% of the proceeds to Bloody Good Period for the first week of sales. They’re such an incredible charity who offer free menstrual products to refugees, asylum seekers, and those who otherwise can't afford them.

I also have tampon earrings available and I am looking into making more vulvas in a range of different colourways to represent BIPOC, too. So far, all of my Period Positive range, including the blood studs, the tampons, the pads, and a vulva flower brooch and necklace are all available to buy from my Etsy and can also be found at the Vagina Museum, too.

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