Bold advertising campaigns have helped to change how we view menstruation but we need to keep the focus on women’s experience, says Sharon Ní Chonchúir
I’M on the rag as I write. Aunt Flo is visiting and it’s very much my time of the month.
There was a time when we could only refer to menstruation in code, but this is changing. More and more women are talking openly about their periods.
Look around and you’ll see that there are more menstrual products than there used to be. There’s period-proof underwear, which looks like regular cotton underwear but has a special absorbent lining that holds up to two tampons’ worth of blood. All you have to do is rinse them after a day’s use and bung them in the wash come laundry day.
Menstrual cups are increasingly popular for lots of reasons. Because they are reusable for up to 10 years, they’re environmentally friendly and you never have to worry about running out of tampons or pads. Also, as someone whose teen magazine consumption led to a lifelong fear of toxic shock syndrome (which results from leaving tampons in for too long), using a cup makes this anon-issue. The downside is that some women are squeamish about using them. Cups can get bloody messy.
Nothing like this was available when I got my first period aged 12. I remember my mother blushing as she showed me how to stick a bulky pad to my knickers. She mentioned that “other products” were available but in a tone that implied that they weren’t for respectable girls like me. As a result, I was in my late teens before I tried tampons.
Still, at least things weren’t as challenging for me as they had been for her. In the 1960s, menstruating women wore belts that tied around their hips. These had clips that could be looped or pinned onto pads. There was no chance a girl could feel comfortable — let alone attractive — while wearing those.
These days, businesses have cottoned on to the fact that there is money in menstruation. The average woman uses 11,000 tampons or pads in a lifetime so it’s worth offering her a wider choice. It’s also worth targeting her with products such as period subscription services. These packages are sent to women every month, containing treats such as chocolates, teas, and beauty products as well as tampons or pads.
The tech sector is in on the act too. Women now track their periods along with steps taken and calories burned. Depending on the app they use, they record everything from menstrual flow to emotional mood. Some even function as pregnancy aids by stimating a woman’s most fertile days. However, it’s important to remember that these apps are not reliable methods of contraception. They can only ever make an educated guess about your body’s fertility cycle.
In 2016, Gráinne Conefrey and Georgie Bruinvels set upFitrWoman, an app that allows women to match their fitness training schedule to their menstrual cycle.
Conefrey, who is from Ireland, credits female athletes with breaking the silence surrounding menstruation. “Heather Watson said she was worried about getting her period at Wimbledon and runner Rosie Clarke spoke about the toll her menstrual cycle takes on her performance,” she says.
With all these products and apps available, you might assume that young girls today feel comfortable about their periods. But, according to the children’s rights organisation, Plan International Ireland, you’d be wrong.
Last year, they surveyed more than 1,000 females aged between 12 and 19 in Ireland about their periods. Some 59% said that what they were told about periods at school was not helpful, while 10% said they were not taught about periods at school at all. As a result, 43% didn’t know what to do when their periods started. Shame was a huge factor, with 55% admitting to feeling embarrassed about menstruation.
Period poverty was an issue too. It is estimated that women in Ireland spend €208 a year on menstrual products and half of the survey respondents stated that they struggled to afford this at times. This proves the argument behind the all-party motion that was brought before the Dáil in March, calling on the Government to provide free menstrual products in all public buildings, including schools,universities, direct provision centres, refuges, Garda stations, hospitals, and prisons.
Irish writer Lynn Enright is one of the women attempting to change attitudes towards menstruation. One chapter of her book Vagina: A Re-Education deals with how women arebeginning to look at the pain, shame, and practicalities ofperiods in a new way.
“I’m 36 and I feel we are more open today than we have ever been in my lifetime,” she says.
She welcomes moves to embrace the bloody reality of periods. “Bodyform’s flash of blood in the shower advert was powerful and I think the Thinx [period underwear] ads are good,” she says.
This new openness could improve women’s lives.“We know, for example, that endometriosis is woefully under-researched and under-diagnosed,” says Enright.
“A new openness about menstruation could genuinely help change that and stop women suffering chronic debilitating pain and prevent infertility.”
Maisie Hill, who lives in Britain, is a women’s health expert and author of Period Power, a book that advises women on how to manage the highs and lows of their menstrual cycle. Like Enright, she believes menstruation conversation is changing. “More people are sharing their stories,” she says. “My hope is that this leads to an increase in education for everyone as well as more research and funding, all of which are sorely needed.”
However, she is sceptical about companies rushing to profit from this. “Historically, they sought to make us feel dirty and ashamed of the fact that we menstruate and profited out of doing so,” she says. “Some have changed tack and it’s great that taboos are being tackled as a result of their marketing campaigns, but we still need to consider who’s cashing in.”
With the global market inmenstrual products estimated to be worth €39bn by 2022, this is a question worth asking. Instead of companies leading the conversation, Hill hopes that people listen to the likes of Chella Quint, the British-based artist and educator who created the period positive hashtag (see www.periodpositive.wordpress.com for more).
Quint believes that for change to be lasting, the shift in attitude needs to come from people, not products. “Right now, large corporations are disguising advertising as activism,” she says.
In Ireland, Charlotte Amrouche is trying to do just that. She launched MÍOSTA (whichtranslates as monthly) in 2018,offering menstrual information workshops in universities, schools, and community spaces nationwide.
In these workshops, Amrouche demonstrates alternative menstrual products and discusses the stigma so many women associate with periods. “In the past year, I have met so many people with similar experiences to mine in that they received little to no menstrual education at school,” she says. “Once the conversation gets started, they have so much to say.”
Giving women the freedom to speak and share information could change lives, she says.
“They could speak without shame to medical professionals if they experience issues with their menstrual cycles or speak toemployers about creating flexible work conditions around those cycles,” she says. “They could also have informed and empowering conversations with the next generation so that they can end the cycle of menstrual shame.”
Lisa de Jong works with Amrouche. Extreme menstrual pain and an eventual diagnosis with endometriosis led her to be come a period coach.
“Speaking about my experience was my first step towards healing and I’m delighted to see more women doing it,” she says.
Yet she sounds a note of caution in relation to sharing information with the wider public through social media and apps. “I think it’s important to maintain an element of privacy when it comes toperiods and bodies in general,” she says. “It’s about sharing what we need, at the right time and with the right people. The menstrual cycle is still a personal and intimate aspect of a woman’s life, even if it’s no longer a taboo topic.”
Some women worry that over-sharing will lead to women being more defined by their bodies and hormones than they already are. Enright suffers from pre-menstrual syndrome and appreciates this concern. “I understand why some women might feel more comfortable keeping their menstrual cycle private,” she says.
“No one should be defined by their biology, but if we strip away the stigmas of menstruation, I think we can get to a place where we view its side effects dispassionately.”
Conversations about menstruation are just beginning.
“We need comprehensive, empowering and informative menstrual education for young people starting in primary school right through to university,” says Amrouche.
“Reusable and alternative menstrual products should be widely available and taxes on them should be abolished. There should be increased funding for research on menstruation across medicine, science, the humanities and technology and more training on menstruation and menstrual issues should be given to medical professionals. There’s so much to be done.”