Menstruation is having a moment and it’s about bloody time
Brands are beginning to destigmatise menstruation after decades of dubious ads
Tampon tales: The destigmatising of menstruation is beginning
The mockumentary-style advert from the original 2014 Always #LikeAGirlTV advertisement featured a bunch of gorgeously gangly youths grappling physically and psychologically with the pejorative ramifications of what the phrase “like a girl” actually means.
It seemed to suggest women had been shepherded back from the menstrual wilderness to reclaim the rights of a highly politicised consumer product. It was significant that the brand chose to focus on rectifying a misappropriated phrase, as historically language has been wielded as a weapon against female consumers.
At odds with this progressive but saccharine campaign was the story from Miki Agrawal, the former chief executive of underwear brand Thinx. In 2015 she reported that one of the brand’s print adverts was rejected by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for use on the New York subway.
Agrawal recalled at the time how the refusal to run the Thinx ad, which read “Underwear for women with periods”, coincided with subway advertisements promoting breast augmentations, products to help achieve “beach bodies” and a promotion for the latest instalment of the 50 Shades of Grey film franchise. That last ad depicted a woman being choked with a necktie.
The MTA’s refusal to run the ad was due to “the nature of the language used”. Consider that for a moment: cosmopolitan New York said no to running an advertisement selling female underwear designed specifically for periods because the ad contained the words “Underwear for women with periods”.
The stigma around menstruation existed long before the world of consumerism was born, and it’s still present in countries throughout the world. The western world has come a long way from menstrual huts(which, sadly, still sadly still exist in somecultures), designed to separate women who are menstruating from the rest of the community, and from taboos that prohibit preparation and serving of food, or religiously fuelled sex taboos:
“If a woman have issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even” (Leviticus, 15:19).
The femcare industry, the commercial arm of menstruation, has also come a long way. Industrial sounding “belts”, “pins” and “menstrual rags” have been replaced with tampons, sanitary napkins, and moon-cups. The first commercially available, disposable menstrual product in the US was Lister’s Towels, produced by Johnson & Johnson in 1896, but the commercialisation of women’s menstrual cycle did not really take off until after the first World War, when American companies who produced large amounts of medical supplies and bandages for soldiers at war were left with a surplus once the fighting halted.
These companies, operating within a growing consumerist society, devised a new way to sell this product; by reimagining, repurposing, repackaging and selling it to women for the purpose of managing their menstrual needs.
But this new consumer opportunity presented a very tricky problem.
The first disposable pads were not commercially successful due to restrictions placed on advertising and promoting. And so was born a risible modern conundrum: how best to sell a product that will be used by 50 per cent of the population for almost half their lives, without actually saying what it is, or what it is for?
The challenge of how to sell lucrative menstrual care products was tackled with gusto by advertising executives. They set about using language that shrouded the purpose of the product, subtly ostracised the female consumers and laid the foundations for the vilification of menstruation for almost a century.
The role of advertising
Advertising fulfils a social function today comparable to that of art or religion in previous eras. It has been described as a marketing tool, a cultural artefact and a social thermometer. Want to get an idea of the inner social and cultural workings of an unfamiliar country you’re visiting? Switch on the TV. Ten minutes’ worth of adverts will give you a good indication of what to expect from social values, cultural behaviours and attitudes towards money, property, drink, food and drugs.
Advertising draws on commonly shared ideologies to construct messages that will resonate with targeted consumers. In doing so it perpetuates these messages, creating a feedback system that bears similarity to the Ouroboros, the mythical coiled serpent who chomps down on its own tail for all eternity, self-sustaining and self-propagating.
Advertising only works because it seems familiar to us, but by continuing to use familiar but outdated tropes, much-needed societal progression can be inhibited.
Consumer solution to a cultural problem
In an average middle-class woman’s lifetime, she is likely to use 15,000 sanitary pads or tampons. Menarche, the onset of menstruation, instigates the journey of a female becoming a consumer of the brands designed to address her biological needs, and by default, becoming a life-long brand loyalist to the brands of her choice, perhaps even passing this preference on to her own peers and family.
Elizabeth Kissling in her text Marketing Menstruation wrote “Construing menstruation as a problem creates the possibility of a consumer market for solutions”. The construed problem Kissling’s theory alluded to is complex at best, insidious at worst.
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Advertising is a more complicated process than, “You thirsty? Drink Coke!” It functions by converting basic human needs into consumer wants. The biological event of menstruation is experienced and perceived within a broader sociocultural context, often revealing a patriarchal double-standard. This is particularly evident in the femcare industry, where brands have harnessed familiar patriarchal themes and tropes, from self-objectification and social stigma theories to first sell women a problem before selling them a solution.
Objectification theory suggests that, as a result of external factors and past experiences, girls and women are typically primed to internalise an onlooker’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves.
Self-objectification occurs when a looking-glass perspective is adopted and can be best understood as prioritising the question of “How do I look?” as opposed to “How do I feel?”
‘Untainted femininity’ and freshness
The advertising of menstrual care brands is predicated on the idea that “normal” is a nonmenstruating state. It follows that if women want to thrive socially and economically, this is the facade they need to present to the world at large.
The brands provide us with products designed to help us feign “normality”, so we can go to that festival, smash that important presentation in work, ace that exam, and more of that general motivational messaging that suggests the pad in your pants will put a pep in your step. “Normal” in this context can be read as a hyper-real interpretation of femininity or, as many feminist scholars describe it, “untainted femininity”.
The idea of untainted femininity is the driving force behind the ubiquitous promise of “freshness”, that seeming intractable and intangible measurement of femininity. We are told we want to “feel fresh”, it will “liberate us” and help us to “get on with life”. But what’s the real message here? It seems to suggest that the very act of menstruation is offensive to decency and needs to be suppressed.
‘The gaze’ and ‘white, whiter, whitest’
The effort to achieve “the ideal” or achieve “untainted femininity” is assessed, validated and modulated by the presence of the “gaze”, the understanding and acceptance that one is a visible object capable of being surveyed at any time.
Art historian John Berger expanded on this idea when he wrote of the female gaze, “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others – and particularly how she appears to men – is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.”
Menstrual care brands tell women that they are subject to the force of the gaze at any time by using “disidentifiers” as part of their advertising strategy. Disidentifiers are key signals for women to show the world that ‘No sir, I am not menstruating!’
These particular motifs include: white – any piece of white clothing, but in particular white clothing for the bottom half of the body- and short or tight clothing. A transcript from a Tampax ad of this year promises women the ability to wear, “white, whiter, whitest”, “short, shorter, shortest” and “tight, tighter, tightest” – that’s some inspired copywriting.
Menstrual care advertising functions as a diametrically opposed force of both hangman and saviour. They bank on the notion that female consumers should feel anxiety over the perceived and suggested threat of menstruation, which would undoubtedly take place in the public sphere. At the same time they provide them with an array of options to avoid the potential shame. For the most part, menstrual car advertising promises the ability to present a white-washed, leak-free veneer of nonmenstruation to the world.
UK-based comedian, artist and menstruation researcher Chella Quint draws links between adverts old and new, and how they secretly influence our attitudes in this popular TEDx talk: Adventures in Menstruating.
Periods are nature’s original Fitbits. If a girl or woman’s cycle is out of synch it is often the first indication something is amiss, whether it be physical, psychological or emotional. How can a woman learn to speak up if she is instructed to silence the most basic biological function of her body? Another question: how can a woman learn to trust and love her own body if it is presented as a mutinous enemy?
Whether she is trapped in a tower with a dragon, walking down a dark laneway or experiencing the first day of her period, women are told they need protection.
The promise of “protection” bears a resemblance to the classic “damsel in distress” trope. Menstrual care products demonstrate gender stereotypes in advertising because they are portrayed as “rescuing” menstruating women by helping them conceal the “shame” and “embarrassment” of blood, and even the very biological fact of menstruation. The paradox of menstruation discourse is that while it seeks to liberate women from the confines of their body, it denies feminine authority as advertising continues to express a notion of women as “vulnerable” and in need of protection.
The discourse surrounding the use of panty-liners is particularly problematic, as it seeks to offer daily security and protection, which suggests that, regardless of menstrual status, a woman needs protection from her own body every day of the month. Imagine, if you can, a world where liners for men’s underpants or boxer shorts existed.
Social stigma theory suggests that concealment is required by those at risk of potential stigmatisation. The implied need for secrecy is a prevailing and universal motif employed by all menstrual care brands. Concealment is further intimated through product designs such as the Tampax Compak, a tampon with the distinctive selling point of its ability to be concealed in a closed fist, and a more recent trend of “crinkle-free” plastic.
Am I ovary-acting?
The messages of freshness, discretion, protection and the encouragement to wear short, tight and white clothes demonstrates lazy and regressive normative language in advertising menstrual care products, language we have been socialised to accept.
But am I ovary-acting? I don’t think so. The problem is that these messages are telling women and men how to feel about, talk about and manage menstruation. They tell our dads and brothers to be embarrassed and they tell our colleagues that we are a professional liability. Most damagingly, they invite women to consider their periods as dirty, to regard their menstrual cycle with apprehension, anxiety, embarrassment, bewilderment and to think of themselves as at-risk or vulnerable.
Promoting positive menstrual attitudes could be a first step towards protecting young women from many of the threats they face. Self-objectifying can lead to negative behaviour such as habitual body monitoring, which can reduce opportunities for peak motivational states, diminish cognitive performance and reduce awareness of internal bodily states. Accumulations of such experiences may help account for an array of mental-health risks that disproportionately affect women: unipolar depression, sexual dysfunction and eating disorders.
Blood, sweat and fears – evolution
Menstrual progress has spluttered and thrashed about in a mysterious blue liquid for long enough, but, as alluded to in the beginning of this article – times they are a-changing.
I really like the Bodyform “Blood” advertisement from last year, which depicts women in a variety of gruelling scenarios – none of which involves a white bikini at a beach party. Nervous parents of pre-teens might enjoy some comic relief from the Hello-Flo’s “First Moon Party” YouTube advert, and Always has just unveiled the third chapter of the Like a Girl campaign, this time focusing on failure. It is worth spending some time investigating this current evolution apparent in the femcare industry and attempting to understand why these changes are taking place.
Social anthropologists suggest that cultural meaning is transmitted to consumer products through two conduits: marketing activities (advertising) and “fashion systems”, which is a combination of various forms of personal expression and social expression, such as music, art, architecture, journalism, politics, speech, entertainment and technology.
There are many examples of how cultural meaning has been proscribed to menstrual care products. Product ads from the 1970s sought to capitalise on the burgeoning feminist movement by linking their product to women’s emancipation.
Viewed in this light, it is possible to interpret contemporary advertising campaigns such as Always’s “Like A Girl” (2014 onwards), Bodyform’s “Live Fearless” (2016) and Kotex’s “Let’s Move On” (2017) as a continuation of feminist activism, and draw parallels between the strong visual and linguistic messages that connate agency and empowerment with social shifts such as third-wave feminism, a greater emphasis on female reproductive rights and gender-pay equality and representation.
Most importantly, fashion systems pass on meaning from the culturally constituted world to consumer products via radical reform. Western countries constantly undergo systematic change and the fashion system serves as an important conduit to capture and move radical and innovative cultural meaning. The people responsible for this reform are the people at the fringes of society, in this case third-wave feminists (or fifth wave if you subscribe to Caitin Moran’s feminist calendar) who have helped to redefine cultural values by overturning the “established order”.
Artist and menstruation researcher Quint had her STAINS™ project featured in the Blood exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin a couple of years ago, designed to ‘reclaim the stain’ and establish periods in fashion as ‘leak chic’.
It is encouraging to see progression and evolution in contemporary menstrual care product advertising and marketing strategies. However, the danger lies in the commercial brands’ lack of initiative to foster their own sense of self-derived responsibility, because they will wield power and influence regardless of the message they choose to communicate.
A very progressive sixth-class teacher in a Catholic school told me that in almost 10 years of teaching she has never received any guidance or training to teach her pupils about menstruation. The only option available to her was a promotional starter pack sent to the school by the Lil-lets brand of menstrual care. But are we happy to continue to defer such imperative societal responsibilities to corporate or religious entities?
We need to provide our young with the tools to equip themselves. For parents, research suggests that the mitigation of self-objectification is possible in three key areas; the fostering of an attitude that considers what the body is capable of, not how it looks – best achieved through exercise and sport, the development of critical-thinking skills and the development of interpersonal skills.
Quint, who went on to set up #periodpositive asserts that we need to take responsibility for our own societal progression and not rely on commercial brands to do this for us. Her Brands Off! campaign hopes to influence governments to stop advertising menstrual products in schools.
We need to take responsibility for our own societal progression. We need to rewrite the anachronistic scripts of advertising, replete with the vestiges of patriarchy. We need to positively educate young people, carry out inclusive conversations with boys and girls using language with ease and confidence, not with stutters and blushes.
This bloody fight is not over yet. Period
- Deirdre Hynds specialises in consumer psychology and is a director at Sound PR. @deehynds