“A few years ago a friend asked me if I felt feminine. My answer was no.” This is how Tessa Custers begins her description of the genesis of a female fertility focused NPO called SheBlooms. Outside of being founder and owner of SheBlooms, Tessa is a yin yoga instructor who lives between Stellenbosch in the Western Cape of South Africa and Holland. YOGICOMM came across SheBlooms recently, and after learning that it was the birth child of a yoga instructor, we sat down with Tessa to learn more. We collated her storytelling into this article, trying to best draw out her enthusiasm and direct, open style of narration.
After Tessa’s friend asked this question on her femininity, she engaged in some self-reflection and realised that she had a negative and stereotypical perception of women. She associated them with her own difficulties in finding friends and fitting in as a teenager and resonated more easily with men. She felt herself to be boyish character, who couldn’t be bothered with the, at times, awkward metamorphosis of girl-child to womanhood. That realisation came at an important time for Tessa because she was about to start a journey of self-discovery that would bring her to apprehend, accept and then embrace her unique femininity. This personal journey inwards is intertwined with her yoga practice and it lies at the heartbeat of SheBlooms.
Tessa, who is originally from Holland, started her first MA thesis research on HIV/AIDS in society at a local NGO in Kayamandi in South Africa in 2003. What was most confounding to her in that time is that there were official statistics of widespread HIV/AIDS and yet the conversations around the the tangible bodily implications of this were missing. Tessa lived in Kayamandi for some time and this hiatus of open discussion when lives, and basic essential need were so immediate fascinated her. In 2007 she returned to the same research site a second time for a second MA project, this time focused on adolescents and sexuality. Tessa looked into their cultural and social capital - in other words in how they receive messages and from whom - and which cultural aspects influence safe sexual behaviour. Glowingly, she speaks of this time as “a beautiful, intense and complex ride, and finally after a while I graduated.”
After that her life progressed on a parallel trajectory and she began her journey inwards, applying some of the formal research lessons in a visceral experience of feminine awakening. This is when she started doing yoga regularly. Her practice was at first full of kick-ass power and sweaty flows. Yet, as she deepened her understanding of yoga and began to learn to listen to her body, she was drawn intuitively to yin yoga. This is a softer practice, focused on the activation and healing of energy meridians by holding postures for up to 5 minutes. It is contemplative and restorative. It awakened an acceptance of self in Tessa:
“I learnt to love my boobs (I used to dislike and hide them) and maybe more important: my vagina (I disliked this part of my body even more). Womanhood and the period have everything to do with the vagina. I have been reading, sharing, learning, hearing and experiencing a lot about it and it made me realise that the root of womanhood lies in the pelvic area of a woman. The pelvic area that includes the vagina, the reproductive system, it is where new life is given from, it is where we find pleasure and pureness.”
It was at this time that she continued to revisit and confront her deep fascination with sexuality and her tug towards Kayamandi’s adolescent girls. Compelled to act on this new energy and awareness, Tessa recruited two design students and together they worked for a year on creating a service or product using her thesis as a base. SheBlooms was born in 2016. After successfully generating capital through a round of crowd-finding, Tessa has formulated a ‘period workshop’, with curricula manuals, two toolkits and has trained two local care-workers in a Kayamandi NGO to facilitate workshops with young women and their mothers (and grandmothers!) to begin open conversations around female sexuality. Currently, two workshops are run per year with around 80 attendants.
Alongside the workshops, SheBlooms has partnered with an botanical soap-maker, who has created three types of soaps with a blend of oils and herbs to alleviate period discomfort. Each soap has a personal message about female fertility and sexuality enclosed in the packaging and they are intended to be a gift, given to a girl as she enters puberty. The giving of this soap bar often plays the role of a conversation starter, or token of love and familiarity that a mother can hand to their daughter to begin nurturing open dialogue and trust on issues around their daughter’s sexuality.
Tessa aims to use the sale of soaps in the Netherlands as a way to leverage capital to continue to run workshops and community initiatives in Kayamandi and other sites.
This has been a challenging and rewarding journey for Tessa. She is acutely aware of the “raw energy” of female sexuality, and laughed with us about how prudish and awkward society can be on this topic. Her confidence now should not overshadow the important point that this potent subject she has dealt with has ignited negative emotions in her too. She shared descriptions of her frequent fear: “The fear of being hurt, of not being good enough, of not being worthy. Of shame. Of guilt. And this goes hand in hand with the fear of suppression and abuse - something a huge amount of women have experienced and still experience.”
Tessa told us of how her yoga journey and SheBlooms is somehow interwoven. Her yin yoga teaching has made her want to share the tactile experience of bodily healing and self-love that she went through. As we end our conversation she articulates this connection: “I have come to realise that this is what SheBlooms is all about. Embracing the sensual, strong, soft and intense nature of being a woman. I had to embody it myself, in order to share, in order to bloom from a deeply rooted base.”
This is the SheBlooms mission statement:
She Blooms believes that a happy and healthy sexual development is essential to create self-confident women who are positive and believe in themselves. Our period soap spreads this message in a creative, positive and loving way.
By buying this soap you have helped South African and Dutch girls to speak out and let their voices be heard. This will let them bloom and enable them to celebrate their feminine power.
Together we bloom!