In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Elizabeth Kissling originally appeared November 19, 2009.
I think few people would consider menstruation per se a disability, with exceptions for menorrhagia and unusually painful periods. But I’ve been reading a bit in the field of disability studies lately, for both professional and personal interest, and starting to think about disability differently. I’m currently reading Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body and finding it especially powerful and provocative.*
She writes of disability as social construction; that is, disability cannot be defined solely in biomedical terms but must be considered in terms of a person’s social, physical, and cultural environment. A person is disabled when they live in a society that is “physically constructed and socially organized with the unacknowledged assumption that everyone is healthy, non-disabled, young but adult, shaped according to cultural ideals, and, often, male” (p. 39).
A feminist philosopher by training, Wendell points out that feminists have long sustained criticisms that the world has been designed for the convenience of men and male bodies.
In many industrialized countries, including Canada and the United States, life and work have been structured as though no one of any importance in the public world, and certainly no one who works outside the home for wages, has to breast-feed a baby or look after a sick child. Common colds can be acknowledged publicly, and allowances are made for them, but menstruation cannot be be acknowledged and allowances are not made for it. Much of the public world is also structured as though everyone were physically strong, as though all bodies were shaped the same, as though everyone could walk, hear, and see well, as though everyone could work and play at a pace that is not compatible with any kind of illness or pain, as though no one were ever dizzy or incontinent or simply needed to sit or lie down. [p. 39, emphasis added]
It is this physical structure and social organization that causes much of the disability in our society. Similarly, it is the physical structures and social organization of my culture that make menstruation a problem and a secret. I’ve written about some of this before (and SMCR members probably also see Emily Martin’s work echoing here), but was reminded of this issue in a recent conversation with a reporter about attitudes toward menstruation.
The journalist wanted to know if perhaps menstruation was kept hidden just because it’s private, rather than shameful. I asked her to think about the ways our society structures work that compel us to keep it private and secret. For instance, how easily can you find menstrual products in your school or workplace when you need them? (There’s a tampon dispenser in the women’s room in my campus building, but the sign has read EMTY for the all the years I’ve worked there.) I also spoke with her about a terrific study by Tomi-Ann Roberts and her colleagues about attitudes toward menstruation, in which a research confederate dropped a hair clip in one scenario and a tampon in another. Dropping the tampon led the research participants to offer lower evaluations of the confederate’s competence and decreased liking for her; they even displayed a mild tendency to avoid sitting close to her. This suggests that women conceal menstruation for good reason – to avoid appearing disabled.
Prejudice against menstruators is similar to prejudice against people with disabilities, particularly in judgments about competence, intelligence, and strength. Many disabled people do their damnedest to pass as non-disabled to avoid these same judgments. And in most of North America, people who menstruate do their damnedest to conceal their menstruation, because our physical and social structures are configured in ways that make it disadvantageous to menstruate.
Is menstruation a disability? No, but it surely is perceived as one.
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Elizabeth Kissling originally appeared September 29, 2009.
Apropos of Chris’ most recent post, the video of Serena Williams’ new ad for Tampax just popped up in my RSS feed. You can check it out at right.
I’m so torn on this. I’m pretty certain that this is the First. Time. Ever. that the word “blood” has been used in an ad for menstrual products. Do you know what a huge step forward for body acceptance and menstrual literacy that is? When I was growing up in the 1970s, pads were advertised by showing how well they absorbed BLUE fluid. (So were diapers, by the way.) Kotex was the first company to use the color red and the word “period” in ad campaign less than ten years ago. So there is a part of me that is delighted when Catherine Lloyd Burns, playing Mother Nature, smiles slyly and says, “Well, there is plenty of blood, but none of it’s bad”.
But the core message and most troubling element of this entire “Mother Nature” campaign is the idea that menstruation is the gift nobody wants. Can’t P&G (and Kotex, and every other femcare advertiser) just promote the damn products without promoting shame and body hatred? Women will buy menstrual products without being told that periods should make them feel “not so fresh”. In fact, the ads might be more compelling if they emphasized the absorbency of the product and treated menstruation as a fact of life, rather than a secret disaster. Just spare us the blue fluid, please.
It’s Throwback Thursday on social media, and we’re joining in with this ad for Pursettes tampons that ran in Cosmpolitan (U.S.) magazine in 1966. Nearly 50 years on, little has changed in femcare marketing: Look at the familiar themes of medicalization of menstruation, secrecy, fearmongering, and the dreaded scourge of odor problems.
I know, right? I don’t even know who I am anymore.
I’m kidding. I’m exactly the same person. It’s the ad that’s different.
Now. I don’t promote individual femcare companies. I do ad analysis. As long as femcare adverts remain the loudest voice in the menstrual discourse, I’ll keep encouraging people to use social media to create a two-way conversation and to increase their advertising literacy. Since I started this project, though, I’ve longed to see an ad that was period positive: that didn’t use shame to sell or use humour at the expense of menstruators. This is the first one I’ve ever seen.
It’s a viral video that’s been put out this week by Mooncup UK, a small (but growing), ethical company producing reusable, medical grade silicone menstrual cups. The ad directly challenges the current market leaders and promotes their own product without once dipping into the fear/embarrassment/secrecy triumvirate used throughout the history of femcare.
Here’s the ad:
And here’s the analysis:
Like a number of femcare ads that have made news over the past couple of years, it’s funny, viral, and sends itself up.
Where previous ads by bigger brands have gotten it wrong, though, it’s usually been because there were still echoes of the history of shame, fear and manufactured problems that could all be solved by the product. Ads for disposables somehow never seeming to mention the inconvenient truth (thanks, Al) about landfills and waste.
But the Mooncup ad works because:
They have a massively on-message USP. The unique selling point is that it’s reusable for years. Those who prefer tampons to pads could be persuaded to make the switch. I know many people who have sung their praises for ages, and while I’ve been doing the Adventures in Menstruating project, their company’s reach has grown far beyond its Brighton offices, and awareness around menstrual cups generally (a number of companies produce silicone and latex menstrual cups around the world), has spread, mostly by word of mouth, small distributors, and a few clever ad campaigns.
Brand loyalty for products that you don’t need to replace often is built through trust, reliability, and integrity. It’s a classic advertising model, but it’s usually applied to big ticket items like cars. Gives a whole new meaning to Think Small.
I’m aware that there are very different business models working with a one off purchase vs. repeat purchase disposables. If tampon companies respond, it’d be refreshing if they used what I like to call the Ocean Breeze Soap model. (Tampons are convenient in a pinch. Just like other disposable products are handy for the same reason. It would be way better for the environment if we used fewer convenience products, but if you do choose to use a disposable product of any kind, we hope you’ll choose ours.)Disposable femcare companies can’t deny their carbon footprint, but they frequently take the lazy option and distract consumers with shame and fear.
Shame is out of the equation. Its persuasive powers aren’t tainted by the classic canon of leakage fear, invisibility, euphemisms like ‘comfort’ or ‘freshness’, or that mysterious blue liquid. (Okay seriously – what IS that stuff? Do they use water with food colouring? Wildberry fruit punch? What?) They don’t need to use shame – no femcare company does.
They have a convincing argument backed up by statistics (that they are willing to share and which you are welcome to read and critique further). This ad lists the reasons why menstrual cups are better in a direct product comparison: better for your body, better value financially, and better for the environment than disposables. (In the style of a rap battle. But I’ll come back to that in my next post next week.)
I emailed Mooncup and requested data to back up the claims, and they, impressively, sent it straight over:
The ad works on two levels. Like Sesame Street. Sticking with the childhood metaphors for a minute here, femcare product users are kinda like belly buttons: there are innies and outies.Some menstruators prefer insertion methods of catching menstrual blood while it’s still inside the body, like disposable tampons or reusable menstrual cups. Others prefer to use external pads (disposable or reusable, including a few designs that are built into trendy underwear).There are also a fewoutliers – a small number of menstruators who choose to use nothing at all. (A couple of contributors to Adventures in Menstruating #6 product tested Nothing, with interesting results.)
The target audience for this ad – on the surface – is the innies: people who are not squeamish about blood or tampons, don’t mind insertion methods and would be more likely to consider swapping to a menstrual cup than pad users (although the ad briefly mentions pads at the end…on the off chance).
What it’s doing on another level, though, is sending a shout out to fans. With knowing puns and stereotypical send-ups of early-adopters, the jokes are inclusive and validate consumers’ brand loyalty and lifestyles. The video also provides a toolkit for encouraging others; the ad itself is a blueprint for increasing word of mouth advertising, complete with setting, arguments and strategies. Oh no…is it…
Is it 2CK? Is it 2PFPINAB (two personified femcare products in a bathroom)?
No. This could have mirrored the kind of print ad you saw fifty or sixty years ago: two ‘housewives’ in the kitchen worrying about how to stay ‘dainty’ for their husbands. But here, the viewers are not voyeurs, and this is not an overheard conversation – the camera angles cast us alternatively as the Tampon and the Mooncup.
It’s a very clever mash up of a reclaimed and reconstructed 2CK and a blatant product comparison ad. It’s well acted and directed, and the production values are high. Viewers aren’t patronised. We’re included.
Can advertising be ethical?
If you tell the truth about your product, use inclusive language, back up your stats, place adverts appropriately, and don’t use shame or patronise the intelligence of the viewer? Then… yeah. I mean…if we’re trying to build a better world and all that, I don’t think it’s too much to ask. Advertising may depict an alternative universe, but it shouldn’t be exempt from treating people with respect.
I contacted Kath Clements, who is Mooncup’s Campaigns and Marketing manager and the person who had sent the statistical data over as soon as I requested it. She was happy to answer all the questions I asked. I felt a bit spoilt – like I was monopolising her time. Obviously it’s in her interest if I spend time talking about and telling others about her company, but I really wanted to know about the marketing side, and she was really open about it. It made me think I could approach other femcare companies and see if they’d speak to me as well. Worst they can do is say no, right?
I asked her about the ethics of advertising. (As in, are there any? I mean…this ad seems so ethical! And funny! And not shaming! I’m not used to getting all three in one ad.)
“When I started, my job description was that we don’t do push marketing. My role was getting editorial, facilitating word of mouth and education. It’s evolved. Maybe in order to be seen we need to ‘play the game’ but it still comes from the same place of trying to be conscious of what we do. We don’t want to make women feel bad; we want women to know that they have a choice.”
I also asked for a bit more info about those stats. The data comes predominantly from the AHPMA – the Absorbent Hygiene Products Manufacturing Association, which I didn’t know was a thing. AHPMA seems to regulate industry standards for absorption measures etc. using patented absorption measuring devices that are kind of a hoot.
I feel like this is secret information – like this level of transparency is something I shouldn’t be sharing. But actually, it makes me respect a company that appears to have a business strategy as ethical as its product.
In terms of promotion, I know that when corporations use viral ads, they’re usually not going viral spontaneously – they’re seeded by professionals who get the word out through traditional PR routes and get the hit numbers up. Don’t think flu. Think 12 Monkeys.
So it was back to Kath:
“Our last viral reached 380,000 views without any seeding. As with the Love Your Vagina song, the battle is gaining views naturally through shares by Mooncup users (Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) as well as viewers who just like (or don’t like!) the content choosing to share it. As before, as the concept’s groundbreaking, we’re also getting editorial coverage which is growing its reach. Beyond that, for the first time, we’re also using a company called 7th Chamber who are seeding it for us, and supporting its positioning across several sites. We’ll be doing MPUs on some mainstream websites, and putting them against content that’s a bit incongruent to make it stand out.”
I had to ask what MPUs meant – they’re multipurpose units – the square ads on websites. I assumed that kind of thing could break the bank, and asked her how much something like that was worth.
She couldn’t tell me all the figures, but said that seeding wasn’t that expensive when compared to other aspects like the film production and the usage costs (the actors will receive payments that are like set-fee royalties while the ad is online), and that it was all far, far cheaper than a television ad. If the femcare ads on television were produced with this aesthetic, though, we’d have a totally different discourse.
I had to ask her how she and the Mooncup team were able to make ethical choices. Like…what was it about them helped them to keep femcare stereotypes out of their marketing.
“We’re aware that advertising has the power to tap into people’s void and make people want to buy things they don’t need or make people uncomfortable. Our choices about what we commission are informed by the whole team of us, each keeping an eye to the impact that any of our advertising may have on the viewer. We work to make sure that what we create aligns with our ethics both as a business, and as individuals.”
Reusables have entered the ring as a marketable commercial alternative to tampons. A new standard has been set for shame-free advertising and now disposables need to keep up. Definitely period positive.
Stay tuned to the blog next week for Rap Battle analysis!
I got a bit snippy with a new reader in our comments recently. I didn’t mean to, and I sure hope I didn’t drive anyone away from re:Cycling.
But after 20 years of studying, writing, talking, and reading menstruation research, I’ve grown weary of certain predictable responses when people learn the subject of my work. Chris Bobel sometimes talks about the “You study WHAT?!?” reaction, but that’s not the one that triggers my snark response.
Photo by K Connors
What grates my cheese is when someone listens respectfully for a moment or two to the elevator speech version of my latest article or talk, and then says something like, “Well, why should people talk more about menstruation? It’s not like I go around talking about my bowel movements all the time. It’s a natural function, too, it’s just private, yadda yadda, end of discussion. Period.”
No. Not end of discussion.
I’m so, so tired of this comparison. It’s not about ‘they’re both natural and they’re both private’. Menstruation is shamed and vilified because women do it. I turn, once again, to Simone de Beauvoir: “the blood, indeed, does not make woman impure; it is rather a sign of her impurity” (p. 169). That is to say, menstruation does not make woman the Other; it is because she is Other that menstruation is a curse.
Just as the penis derives its privileged evaluation from the social context, so it is the social context that makes menstruation a curse. The one symbolizes manhood, the other femininity; and it is because femininity signifies alterity and inferiority that its manifestation is met with shame. (1952, p. 354)
httpv://youtu.be/JAzqGuZfo00 One only need take a quick look around to see differential treatment of body functions. Are manufacturers of toilet paper trying to sell you TP based on how shameful it is to poop? Consider those dirty-ass bears in Charmin ads telling you to “enjoy the go”– a marked contrast from femcare ads.
Is the average time from onset of pain in bowel diseases to diagnosis eleven years because people think pain with bowel movements is normal or because physicians and/or family members think you’re exaggerating how much it hurts? Compare documented endometriosis research.
Plus, people do talk about bowel movements. All the time. They talk about how particular foods affect their digestion. They excuse themselves from meetings and social gatherings to use the bathroom, sometimes saying why in euphemistic terms, sometimes in coarse and graphic language. The older they get, the more they do it.
This is not merely about what’s ‘natural’ or ‘private’. It’s about women, and about who counts and what matters. Women count, and menstruation matters.
The Occupy movement is about equality. Its primary aim is to create a more just world economically, but socially, too, for economic justice and social justice are inextricably linked. The specific focus of each local group may be somewhat different, but Occupiers share a distrust of corporations and financial institutions and concern for erosion of democracy. Globally, this movement suggests another world – another way of doing politics – is possible, as protesters visualize and plan for one.
If you think the Occupy movement has been lying low since they were kicked out of Zuccotti Park last fall, you’re wrong. They’re still going strong, helping New York and New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy. Occupy Sandy is a coalition from Occupy Wall Street, 350.org, recovers.org and interoccupy.net. Another off-shoot of Occupy Wall Street started the Rolling Jubilee, a project that buys debt for pennies on the dollar and abolishes it, instead of collecting it. It’s basically the people’s bailout.
Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne
Exploring missing menstruation on screen
Periods are depicted far more often on screen than I could have ever imagined; perhaps the biggest surprise I got from spending a year researching the topic.
Less surprising however, was that most presentations depict menstruation as the messy, embarrassing, sex-interrupting, mood-swing-inducing week-long hell ride that women have grown to expect from Hollywood.
While 200 scenes were many more than I expected, given that nearly all women will menstruate monthly for some thirty-odd years, 200 scenes actually isn’t all that many.
While most of Periods in Pop Culturefocuses on what those scenes themselves reveal about society’s fraught relationship with periods, one chapter in fact explores the why so few portrayals. Given how very common and normal it is, why is the topic so frequently eschewed?
I proposed a handful of reasons including Hollywood’s aversion to telling female stories, narrative distraction, and the show don’t tell nature of the screen. In this post I offer two other explanations: menstruation as a non-event and political correctness.
As one of the millions of girls who got an (albeit long outdated) menstrual education from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, I learnt that some girls apparently eagerly await their first period kinda like Christmas. I wasn’t like Margaret. I didn’t pine for it, and when I got it I didn’t look down at my underpants and throw my head back in delight like Debbie (Nell Schofield) in the Australian film Puberty Blues (1981): for me it was a non-event.
The non-event nature of menstruation appears a central explanation for its absence.
In an episode of sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), Sophia (Estelle Getty) reflected on her periods: “I got it, no one told me. I didn’t get it, no one told me. I figured, this is life, and went back to my meatballs.” In this scene, Sophia reflects that many women don’t see any overwhelmingly need to talk about menstruation or complain about it or even to honor it, but that it is simply something that needs to be gotten on with.
Aside from those times when pregnancy is feared or desired, there are few occasions when menstruation is experienced as particularly memorable or gets bestowed with any great significance. I think this fact significantly underpins its absence on screen.
Thinking of menstruation as somehow naturally insignificant or uninteresting however, would be premature. In the film To Sir With Love (1967), there is a scene where teacher Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) reprimanded girls who he believed burnt a menstrual product in his classroom: “A decent woman keeps things private. Only a filthy slut would have done this!” Here, Thackeray refers to the most important rule of menstruation: concealment. On screen, if audiences see menstruation or if a character identifies as bleeding, she has neglected her most important gender burden. By infrequently portraying menstruation, the secrecy imperative is upheld. When women downplay the significant of their periods, when they believe their periods are uninteresting, internalized sexism is highlighted.
Another explanation for missing menstruation is so-called political correctness; that avoiding it reflects the contemporary dictums of liberal feminism: shunning topics which play up differences between men and women.
Given that menstruation is so common and that so many taboos exist surround it, it might be assumed that including it in narratives would be a feminist act. The flipside of this however, is that doing so might do gender equality a disservice; that presenting it reminds audiences of biological inequalities between men and women.
In a scene from the series Californication (2007-), Hank (David Duchovny) is about to have sex with his daughter’s teacher Mrs. Patterson (Justine Bateman). As they undress, Mrs. Patterson says, “Just so you know, I’m on my period.” Mrs. Patterson didn’t – and likely in our culture couldn’t — automatically assume that Hank would be fine and thus gave him an exit strategy. By mentioning menstruation in a sex scene, it existed as a glaring biological power imbalance; that an opportunity was offered for Hank to reject her on the basis of her biology.
By excluding menstruation, a female character can be interpreted as having the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with her male counterpart; that she can be as sexually aggressive as she likes and not have to query whether her partner is bothered by her period. In turn, she doesn’t get limited by her biology.
Predictably, there are some serious limitations to this argument. On screen and off, women’s biology is ever present. Eliminating reference to menstruation certainly doesn’t make female characters any less female; in fact, disproportionate inclusion of, and focus on women who are stereotypically feminine demonstrates that biological differences between men are women continue to be crucially important on screen.
Over 200 scenes of menstruation did indeed surprise me, although admittedly it’s quite a bit sad that it did. Given how common menstruation is, given that the good majority of women cope each month without drama, fanfare or hijinks, one might expect that more presentations – notably more normal presentations – would redden our screens.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne is a political scientist based at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of four books; her newest, Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, will soon be published by Lexington Books.
I always felt that airline travel involves building many short-lasting friendships where people bond over delayed flights, weather problems and luggage issues. Recently I was traveling and had to make a connection in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. I was using the restroom and I could hear the lady in the stall next to me change her sanitary napkin. She dropped the plastic wrapping from the new pad and it floated into my stall. Without hesitation, I picked up the wrapper and disposed of it. We both exited our stalls around the same time and as we approached the sinks she turned to me and said quickly but firmly, “Thank you so much for doing that.” I was a bit taken aback but responded “Oh, no problem,” we washed our hands and we bid each other farewell as we left the restroom.
The reason I was taken aback was because I felt she had nothing to thank me for. I simply picked up a piece of wrapping and threw it away. However, the serious tone of her voice told me that she was grateful for what I did. Perhaps it saved her what she deemed the embarrassment of picking it up herself? Or maybe she was just thanking me for a kind gesture. It wasn’t as if I gave her something (like a pad or tampon) that she could thank me for and the act in no way inconvenienced me. I wonder if she would have felt inclined to thank me if she had dropped a candy wrapper or tissue instead.
While there has always been this overall social need to conceal the period, it seems lately that there has been a surge in the desire to conceal menstrual products. Procter and Gamble has a site, Being Girl, that gives the Dos and Don’ts of tampon usage, including practicing at home to “see how quiet you can be when making a quick change.” And silence is one aspect that P&G tends to advertise, especially with its Tampax Pearl product. The wrapper becomes a selling point for Tampax Pearl because of its quiet and easy-to-open tabs that allow for utmost discretion.
I’m sure most re:Cycling readers have seen the U by Kotex line of menstrual products. This line is aimed at a younger crowd, the website has a section for tweens, and takes the idea of concealing in a different direction. Instead of making the products discreet and quiet the company advertises “hot new colors and wrappers.” However, changing the color or design of a tampon wrapper is still missing the point and is just as damaging as advertising products with quiet wrappers. The period is still being hidden. If a woman drops a bright green tampon wrapper on the floor is she now going to be less embarrassed because of the color? It doesn’t matter if the wrapper is white, pastel or a bright color, she shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. That is what needs to change — the embarrassment factor women have about their periods, not the colors of the products used.