Over this long period of lockdown, there seems to have been an increase in the circulation of articles, debates and opinions on the process of menstruation and how it is currently perceived and perpetuated within our society. As an avid user of such social media platforms as Twitter, I have witnessed rather unsettling threads relating to the media exposure of the process, with some users defining it as ‘disgusting’ or ‘offensive’. There is another side of this debate in which some individuals with a high following (I will not gratify their existence with names) believe that menstruation is solely a ‘women-centric’ process, in that it only affects cisgender women. In my opinion, this belief is wrong and denies menstruation’s existence for so many people in our country and around the world. This harmful narrative also adds to the shame historically embedded within the process. While these damaging opinions continue to be re-tweeted and shared, it is encouraging to see individuals taking a stand, with many beginning to have open conversations about their experiences. For example, various articles break down the taboo of ‘period-sex’ and why people should have open, ongoing conversations about it, instead of shying away and simply ignoring the subject. Others are calling for increased representation of periods on screen. The new BBC drama I May Destroy You, written by Michaela Coel, illustrates the normality of menstruation during sex and in everyday life, which is refreshing considering the narrative of unseemly disgust usually attributed to its depiction on screen. These instances led me to believe that, despite the disparaging debates on social media, we as a modern society were finally beginning to oppose the existing, negative stigmas on menstruation.
Nevertheless, I have been left disheartened by the recent case of a Tampax advert being banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI), as some people deemed it as ‘demeaning’ and contained ‘sexual innuendo’. The advert has now received more than 150 complaints, with the ASAI commenting that individuals found it ‘offensive’ and ‘overdescriptive’. After watching the advert (I strongly encourage you to do so for background), I am shocked that individuals would go out of their way to complain about its content, which is essentially educating people on how to use and insert a tampon correctly. Yes, the tone is light-hearted and the language animated, with such phrases as “you gotta get ‘em up there”, which contrasts with other more reserved tampon adverts. However, I believe the creators of the advert use a light-hearted tone to make the instructions and message more accessible to their target audience. Many people may be unaware of how to use a tampon, and so being exposed to this advert may help in establishing a healthy relationship with and awareness of their menstruation from an early stage. Unfortunately, this is a strand of the advert which complainers did not seem to readily grasp, denouncing it as ‘belittling’ instead of educative. It seems they are still shrouded by the shame and disgust narrative wrapped in entrenched opinions of menstruation. As a result, they become irritated by an advert which is attempting to do something different and counter this pre-existing stigma. Tampax themselves remarked on the situation, stating that ‘since the advert aired in Ireland (…) 67% found the advert educational’ and that it was designed to ‘address a common usage question’. Therefore, there is evidence that the message of the advert is working, and that education and normalising open conversations helps with understanding the natural process. These complainers are denying a right to education which is necessary in the dismantling of the stigma. I personally applaud Tampax for their open and frank take on how to use their tampons and believe it adds to the normalising image of menstruation within the media.
Nevertheless, I feel that more education is drastically needed, especially in schools, if harmful narratives are to be eradicated in favour of embracing menstruation. I was lucky in that my family educated me when the time was right and, consequently, I felt much more comfortable when the process began. However, I remember in secondary school perhaps receiving a handful of biology lessons on the subject that were cold and objective in tone, with laughter from certain corners of the room instilling the opinion that young individuals should be ashamed of this process. It was something to be laughed at and not embraced. There needs to be an overhaul in the systemic teaching of menstruation if individuals are to accept this natural bodily event. I believe that having more practical lessons and in-depth, overt conversations will lead to young minds being more ready to accept menstruation and will dismantle the concept that periods should be a hidden, private subject. Increased education in schools and the media is important as it will begin to dismantle this stigma from an impressionable age.
Although the lack of education negatively impacts the perception of menstruation, I have noticed recent initiatives which are incredibly encouraging with regards to eradicating period poverty and environmental issues related to sanitary waste. For example, Queen’s University Belfast have introduced bio-degradable and environmentally friendly sanitary towels in their campus toilets, with the aim to decrease the waste associated with period products. QUB also offer free sanitary towels and tampons in the Student’s Union and campus toilets, contributing to the alleviation of period poverty, which unfortunately affects many students and individuals globally. Additionally, The Homeless Period Belfast is an incredible charity which strives to provide period packs to people in need and to normalise the discussion of menstruation and how it can impact everyone differently. I admire this focus on giving free products to those who desperately need it or to those who maybe cannot afford it (thankfully the tax on sanitary products has finally been scrapped by the UK government, which on average will save a person £40 over their lifetime). The inaccessibility and expense of sanitary products adds to the stigma of menstruation as an unhygienic, expensive process. However, the introduction of initiatives by QUB and charities such as The Homeless Period Belfast combat this and reinforce the fact that menstruation should be a hygienic, safe process for all and that a heightened accessibility to products should be prioritised by the government.
Certainly, there are glimmers of hope that the circulating stigmas veiling the process of menstruation will eventually be undercut in favour of normalising conversations and depictions of periods within the media and our modern society. Nevertheless, we must use our voices to silence damaging, discriminating opinions on social media and share resources which educate and permit people who menstruate access to products if they need them. With this aura of positivity and acceptance, we have the potential to destroy the stigma which still clings on to cultural attitudes of menstruation once and for all.
Molly Quinn-Leitch is a 23 year old student living in Belfast, originally from Omagh. She has an undergraduate degree in English from QUB and is currently working towards a Master of Arts degree in Literary Studies.