Earlier this year, a woman called Demetra Nyx went viral when she uploaded photos of herself with period blood smeared over her face. Naturally, this attracted a huge amount of attention and comments about how disgusting and insane she is. While I can’t say using my blood as a face mask is something I or most people have considered, I salute Demetra for being such a badass in destigmatising periods. Menstruation is a taboo in many cultures, and social stigma wraps a thick layer of shame around one of the most natural things in the world.
From the slang used to describe periods to the messaging in sanitary product adverts, menstruation is still considered to be dirty and offensive. The time of the month. She’s on. Them. Those. Granny is in town. On the rag. Aunt Flo is here. Bloody Mary. On the blob. Code Red. Some of these terms are so cringey it hurts, and while there is nothing overly wrong with using slang, there is a clear sense of obscurity that lies beneath it. There is also an emphasis on discretion, like periods are something that should be hidden away. Is it not time we completely break the taboo?
The female body has always been a goldmine for the beauty industry. Women are continually told to fix their wobbly bits; buy creams and ointments to defy ageing; do stupid yo-yo diets to achieve a bikini body in thirty days; et cetera. Advertisers play on women’s insecurities to sell body confidence and happiness in a plastic bottle or jar. The irony is that the majority of women’s insecurities spawn from these unrealistic and unattainable standards of beauty. We can’t just love ourselves for the way we are because the multi-billion dollar beauty industry would cease to exist. Our eyes are so accustomed to seeing sexualised and pornified images of women that we accept this as the norm; it’s unpalatable to see the female body in its real and functioning form. The images of Demetra with her bloody face mask were shocking and uncomfortable because they are so opposed to the sterile images of periods we are fed. Is there really a massive difference between period blood and the blood from a cut on your leg?
The femcare industry emerged during World War One when nurses realised bandages worked well for periods. Brands like Tampax and Kotex emerged in a new market of disposable sanitary products that were a very welcome change from homemade sanitary pads made from cloth and rags. Advertisers found it tricky to advertise something that had always been strictly women’s business, so they took an informative and educational stance and used medical and maternal figures in the ads. In the 70’s when second wave feminism fired up debates on women’s marriage rights, birth control and abortion, sanitary ads evolved to include more language of freedom. But the theme of periods being something to hide prevailed, and brands were not allowed to use words like “vagina” or “blood”.
The 90’s ads also told us that period blood was blue. The blue “blood” perpetuated the social shame surrounding periods and just how offensive they were. It was perfectly acceptable to watch gory scenes on television, but using red liquid in a sanitary pad advert would’ve been too horrifying.
"There is a tradition in Nepal called chhaupadi where women are banned from the home and sent to live in a shed, shack or separate room from the rest of the family."
The stigma associated with menstrual health is one of the main reasons why period poverty is a big problem in both the developed and undeveloped world. Globally, over 2.3 million people do not have access to basic sanitation, which makes menstrual health a huge challenge for millions of women every month. Period taboo, myths and misinformation also make women vulnerable to gender discrimination, child marriage, untreated health conditions and exclusion. In India, 80% of women living in poverty do not have access to disposable sanitary products, resulting in the use of homemade pads made from rags, leaves and sawdust. An alarming 70% of girls in India have no knowledge of menstruation, menstrual hygiene and waste management before their first period. In some cultures, women and girls are ostracised from normal everyday activities when they are menstruating because they are seen as dirty and impure. There is a tradition in Nepal called chhaupadi where women are banned from the home and sent to live in a shed, shack or separate room from the rest of the family. In remote and poorer communities, the huts are often dirty and women have died from freezing temperatures, smoke inhalation and snakebites. Period poverty creates a barrier between girls and education. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 1 in 10 girls miss school due to lack of toilets, access to menstrual products, menstrual pain and teasing from classmates. There is also a link between menstruation and lost wages due to a lack of workplace sanitation facilities.
Plan International found that 137,000 girls in the UK missed school because they couldn’t afford sanitary products, and 27% of girls have reused a sanitary product because they couldn’t afford a fresh one. The tampon tax, also known as the “pink tax”, is applied to menstrual hygiene products as non-essential luxury items. Items excluded from value-added tax include postage stamps, cycle helmets, bingo and edible cake decorations - all of which are apparently more essential than a tampon. Several countries including Canada and Australia have scrapped the tax on sanitary products to make them affordable for women, but it remains an issue in the UK. The UK government have attempted to change the rules on the tampon tax, but EU tax regulations have made it difficult and progress has been minimal. Brexit has also hindered any progress being made. The tampon tax makes periods a political issue. It’s ridiculous that governments are profiting from something women have no choice or control over.
The taboo and stigma surrounding periods has definitely improved compared to years ago, but there is still so much work to do. Menstrual health and hygiene is a human right, but period poverty will continue until the shame, myths and misconceptions are gone for good. People should be able to talk about periods without feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable, and women should feel empowered over their bodies. So, let’s get talking. Let’s break the taboo and normalise periods once and for all.