We are conditioned to believe that menstruation is something to be kept secret, to be ashamed of and to hide; even that menstrual blood is ‘dirty’. But why, when periods are the stuff of life? After all, menstrual blood is what nurtures and protects a developing foetus in the womb. Furthermore, who is responsible for keeping this thinking alive?
Sanitising the truth: the impact of advertising
Language used around menstruation is important: the very existence of products labelled ‘feminine hygiene’ perpetuates a myth that women are somehow dirty and in need of special cleansing products.
Disposable menstrual lingerie is widely seen as a significant factor in women’s liberation, yet the language and imagery often used in media and adverts to express that liberation serves to reinforce the culture of silence. The disposables industry reinforces notions that discretion and ‘freshness’ are key, and that odour is a problem, through the products they develop and the way they advertise them.
Blue liquid is used to demonstrate absorption; adverts suggest tampons are packaged so discreetly they can be mistaken for sweets; ‘blood’ and ‘menstruation’ are rarely mentioned; new products, such as fragranced pads, are developed for problems we didn’t even know we had.
Manufacturers and advertisers will no doubt say they are responding to public attitudes, but how much are our attitudes shaped by their messages? The money spent on selling these products to us is significant: the disposables industry dedicated more than £14 million to advertising its products in the UK in 2009, while their messages had a core target audience totalling 18.6 million women in 2010.
Consequently, we are regularly bombarded with imagery and language that reflect – and therefore perpetuate and perhaps determine – negative societal and cultural perceptions of menstruation.
It’s not vulgar, it’s vulva! Created by British artist Jamie McCartney, ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’, consists of 400 plaster casts of vulvas, each one unique. The work aims to combat the anxiety felt by women about their genital appearance and the desire for a ‘perfect’ vagina.
A massive market: In the UK alone, we buy more than 3 billion items of menstrual lingerie every year, spending £349 million in 2010 on sanitary and ‘feminine hygiene’ products. What’s more, disposable panty liners used between periods are increasing the size of the market, with sales of £56 million in 2010. Meanwhile, feminine hygiene wipes have seen the biggest growth, with sales of £4.8m in 2010.
Negativity surrounding periods has been capitalised upon to such an extent that suppressing menstruation is being marketed as if the normal menstrual cycle itself were the problem. By way of hormonal contraceptive medication, it is possible to reduce the number of periods to just four a year.
Little, if anything, is known about the effects of this manipulation on women’s bodies. The pills have been targeted at younger women, focusing on the negative aspects of menstruation and highlighting none of the positive.
Historic experience of manipulation of women’s menstrual cycles and hormones resulting in adverse health effects should stand as a warning.11 Menstruation affects the entire endocrine system, as well as cardiovascular health and bone strength. The long-term health implications of manipulating natural hormone levels in this way remain to be seen.
Extract from the new Menstrual Health San Pro fact sheet produced by The Womens Environmental Network. http://www.wen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/environmenstrualweb14.pdf