By Jessica Sutton.
I have spent 8 years of my life purchasing tampons, and I’m mad about it every single time. Why? The outrageous prices, that will cost me nearly $16,000 over my lifetime? Sure. The fact that most pads and tampons contain carcinogens and other toxic chemicals because apparently no one cares about female health? Definitely.
But most of all, my supermarket period rage is fuelled by seeing the words “feminine hygiene products”. Or “sanitary products”. Or “intimate hygiene products”. Take your pick.
Countdown New Zealand has recently begun calling these items “period products”, making the chain the first in the world to describe these items by using the word “period”. In the hallowed halls of Countdown, New Zealanders who menstruate are at last free from discomfiting euphemisms for a totally natural biological process that impacts half the human population (at one time or another).
Some may wonder what the big deal is about this change in term. What’s wrong with the sanitary/hygiene phrasing?
The language we use matters. Using the term “feminine hygiene products” suggests there is something especially unclean about menstruation, and about women in general. In reality, having a period is not unhygienic. It is not dirty. It does not require “sanitising” products. Period blood is just as sanitary as anything else in the human body. But we don’t call non-gendered personal care items, such as tissues, “intimate hygiene products”. This kind of language allows periods to be miscast as yet another aspect of womanhood that makes us less than men. Women growing hair on their legs? Unhygienic. Women having periods? Unhygienic. This constantly reinforces that whatever is natural about your body is disgusting and deviant. There is no right way to be a woman, because womanhood is so inherently wrong.
The ultimate issue with this kind of terminology, is that it reinforces shame. The first thing most people who menstruate are taught is the importance of discretion. Don’t talk about it at home, except quietly to your mother. Don’t talk about it at school. Hide your tampons in your pocket and hurry in mortification to the bathroom. Even in the supermarket a euphemism is used, because society can’t take the word period, it is shameful. (How this societal disgust for periods is consistent with the huge pressure on women to be fertile and destined for motherhood is honestly incomprehensible).
Meanwhile, transgender men, intersex people, and non-binary people who menstruate are excluded altogether from any messaging about periods. Purchasing and using “women’s hygiene” products can increase gender dysphoria. We have seen some pointless debates in the media recently about the use of the word “menstruators”, when all this term is doing is making marketing more inclusive and scientifically accurate. Just because trans, intersex and non-binary interests are being addressed, does not mean that cisgender women suddenly don’t matter. This misnomer of “feminine hygiene” harms all people who menstruate.
Period taboos exist in almost all cultures, to greater and lesser degrees. We only have to look at the terror most period product marketers seem to feel when it comes to their own adverts. In the same magical world where a woman with no hair on her legs ecstatically shaves her legs, women frolic among flowers in totally white clothing, while clinical blue liquid is used to represent period blood. If menstrual blood is so terrifying for these marketers, perhaps they should have pursued a different profession. Shout out to Kotex for not being afraid of the colour red.
This shame extends to people who menstruate as well. Women bond over the “embarrassment” of the pad wrapper crinkling when you unwrap it or dropping a tampon out of your bag as you head to the bathroom at work. “Oh my god”, a female friend once grumbled to me, “I think my (male) colleague saw a pad in my bag, and he looked so grossed out”. There is a special kind of shame felt by this kind of woman, the woman who conceals pads and tampons in a special drawer, secretes them in sleeves and pockets, terrified of the ever-present male gaze falling upon that most shameful of indicators that she is in fact, plagued by menstruation. This fear goes deeper than being seen as ‘gross’, but extends to being seen as hysterical, feeble, and irrational due to menstruation.
Of course, cisgender men are primary offenders when it comes to disgust for periods. A certain kind of man does not want to be reminded of the aspects of female life that he does not find attractive or useful. If this kind of man had his way, vaginas would only exist for intercourse, and the messier side of living life as a human woman would disappear. After all, what are women for, if not sex?
Honestly, if you’re a heterosexual man, and you find periods “gross”, either grow up or do the female community a favour and become a committed bachelor. No woman should have to pander to your immaturity.
This disgust comes down to the twin evils of hating women, at the same time as over-sexualising them. This therefore extends to sexualisation of period products. I read an interesting post from a young woman who was reprimanded by her stepfather for not hiding her box of tampons, with him arguing that, just like a box of condoms, these items should be concealed from sight in polite company. I won’t restate the very funny and accurate response this young woman gave, but suffice it to say, this kind of reaction from men shows they give tampons and pads a sexual connotation. Because anything involving a vagina is hyper-sexualised, basic needs such as menstrual products are sexualised as well.
In short, language is so important. The way periods are spoken about affects the way each generation of young people feels about their bodies, and about their place in the world. The more we suppress and stigmatise discussion about periods, the more we teach young women and others who menstruate that their very existence is something to be ashamed of. We need more period positive retailers and producers, which are trans and non-binary inclusive, to push back against period taboos. Straightforward, accurate and inclusive language about periods takes a stance on both misinformation and misogyny.
And if the fragile sensibilities of misogynists are irreparably harmed by seeing the word period on display in a supermarket? Well, we can only hope.
The struggle to find a period-related picture for this article that didn’t involve women posing suggestively with fruit, reinforces my point.