Sadly, there is very much still an active menstrual taboo in the West.
ActionAid’s recent survey shows that one in three women feel menstruation is still a taboo topic. Given a woman has around 500 periods in her life time, that is a huge fraction of her life not to feel comfortable discussing.
Elissa Stein, co-author of the book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, said in an interview with The New York Times: “Fem-care advertising is so sterilized and so removed from what a period is […] You never see a bathroom, you never see a woman using a product. They never show someone having cramps or her face breaking out or tearful — it’s always happy, playful, sporty women.”
I want to look at the menstrual taboo through the lens of advertisements selling sanitary products to women, advertisements that were not even legally broadcasted until 1972. The reasons for this are simple, they are snapshot into how we look at a product, and how we are told we should look at a product. I’m not preaching to you that advertising is evil – it isn’t. I’m saying that advertising that relies on stigma and stereotyping is lazy, that the stigmas and stereotypes around sanitary products are unfounded and harmful, and that there is opportunity here to recognise myths as myths and periods as, well, just periods. Biological, natural, bloody, and something that is dealth with by over 50% of the world.
Concepts of femininity being pushed as part of a campaign
Lil-Lets, as part of their campaign in 2012, published an informercial celebrating ‘What Women Really Think’, meant to encourage women “to be proud of their femininity and celebrate the things they love”. This included fun facts like, 20% of women are most proud of their breasts (only 13% are most proud of their brains). It ended with the statement: “The best thing about being a woman… Getting dressed up, wearing heels and doing hair and makeup…” The focus on appearance in the campaign means it ignores menstruation itself, filling the white space with stereotypical ideas of femininity.
Lil-Let has good intentions. Their more recent print ads in the “We are Women” campaign photograph happy, diverse women with their friends and family, with quotes celebrating what it means to be a woman, but the language they use still relies on these stereotypical ‘feminine interests’ and ‘femininity’. No matter how empowering it is to be told the world is ours for the taking, it is less so when the quote is “The world is our oyster, our stage, our catwalk.” The basis of the Always ad campaign “Like a Girl” is showing up the stereotype that women are physically weaker and worse at sports, transforming the idiomatic criticism implied in doing something “like a girl” into something to be proud of.
PMS and emotional lows being sold as something we should be fixing
In 2015, Donald Trump suggested that Megyn Kelly, Fox news presenter, was emotionally unstable due to “blood coming out of her wherever”, which influenced her behaviour towards him during the Republican presidential primary debate. A thought process that is reflected quite obviously in older sanitary product advertisements, like a Midol print ad in 1974 “Be the you he likes. Good to be around, any day of the month.” While not as blatant, the modern Always “Have a happy period” slogan, is reliant on this same fear – that menstruation means a sudden, hormonal transformation into a tyrannical loon. The issue with this is simple, there is no discussion or explanation, and therefore no normalisation, of menstrual hormones and their effects.
PMS (aka monthly “bitchiness” or “hysterical” emotions) itself is in fact quite scientifically controversial despite over five decades of research into it. American psychologist Robyn Stein DeLuca has a brilliant TED talk addressing common myths and misconceptions about PMS. Over 150 symptoms have been used to diagnose PMS. With a list that wide and varied DeLuca says, “I could have PMS, you could have PMS, the guy in the third row here could have PMS, my dog could have PMS.” DeLuca holds that it is far more likely the reason a woman is upset is because of something external, and PMS is a way to avoid dealing with it.
Ads which assume our bodies are the source of our moods (and please do not think I am belittling cramps or blood being a source of irritation because pain does of course influence how you feel) are feeding into widespread myths and misconceptions. In an environment where sexual education will no longer be mandatory in England, where we are no longer taught about puberty, and hormonal changes are not placed in a scientific context, one can assume the menstruation taboo has a long life ahead.
The idea that periods are embarrassing and we need to hide them
Advertising for Fem-Care products leans on fear appraisal techniques, by motivating consumers with fear or shame to buy their product. An example of this in another area is Listerene’s invention of the word halitosis, a medical sounding name they invented to make bad breath seem disease-like. This trend is something we can see in ad campaigns such as Kotex’s “quiet pad wrappers” that allow women to hide their period from the rest of the world (the TV ad finishes with the line “shhhhhhhh”) or Playtex’s “Embarrassment Happens. Leaks Shouldn’t.”, a campaign winning an Effie award in 2006 for effectiveness. Associated with shame and embarrassment, it is no surprise women still feel unable to have an open conversation about their periods.
A refusal to address menstruation in anatomical, biological terms
Blue liquid, euphemisms like “Mother Nature’s gift”, images of happy, carefree women dancing in white dresses in fields of flowers.
Why are advertisers so adverse to just coming out with what is actually happening? When was the last time you heard the term uterus lining in a tampon ad? The responsibility does not lie with ad agencies, it lies with our sensibilities as a society. As recently as 2010, Kodak was told by three separate broadcasting networks that it couldn’t use “vagina” or even “down there”. Clear Cast, which is responsible for approving ads for air, does not have specific rules against an accurate, scientific description of menstruation, it prevents images that may offend “generally accepted, widely held” moral standards, affirming the menstruation taboo’s existence.
There is one advertisement I would like to end this article with, created by London agency AMV BBDO, that is finally showing what advertisements in the past have been so squeamish about: blood. Part of Bodyform’s “Rev.Fit” campaign, the ad partners the brand with UK based universities, and aims to educate about menstruation and its effect on women’s bodies.