It’s time to talk about periods

The now infamous Instagram photo that was removed for violating the company’s community guidelines. Picture: Rupi Kaur
The now infamous Instagram photo that was removed for violating the company’s community guidelines. Picture: Rupi Kaur

By LINDSEY GREEN 

The Curse. Aunt Flo. On your rags.

While these particular terms may seem a bit outdated, the sentiment remains: periods can be a difficult topic to discuss.

But in 2015, the words “period” and “menstruation” should not be so taboo they still come with euphemisms.

When thinking about the taboo surrounding menstruation, it’s worth considering where attitudes towards periods come from and how these ideas are shaped.

In popular culture, the first period is seen as something of a rite of passage.

When Lucy got her first period in TV series 7th Heaven, she danced gleefully with her two sisters before her father Eric Camden asked: “Are congratulations in order?”

When Emma got her first period in Degrassi: The Next Generation, she boldly announced to her classmates: “I just got my period, for the first time. Menstruation, you might have heard of it?” to the utter shock and surprise of her male classmates.

University of Melbourne lecturer and author of the book Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television Dr Lauren Rosewarne says the media influences a lot of our understanding on this topic.

It's time to stop the euphemisms.
It’s time to stop the euphemisms.

“As well as fuels our fears, stigmas and anxieties – about topics like menstruation, as do the experiences of friends, and education provided by family and school,” she says.

“My hunch is that media images are most influential when they become a girl’s first information, and don’t get buffered by other sources of knowledge.”

Advertising also plays a part in constructing representations of periods.

Dr Rosewarne says advertising “reiterates the idea that menstruation is primarily a sanitary event – that it’s bathroom-business and something that needs to be sanitised, deodorised and contained”.

In saying that, Dr Rosewarne also says she doesn’t believe advertisers should be doing anything differently.

“Advertising is about selling products and doesn’t have a social engineering agenda,” she says.

“While advertising that doesn’t fuel anxieties might be nice – and, truth be told, due to customer savviness, a lot of female-targeted advertising is getting better – it’s not the job of marketers to make us love our menses.”

Several news events this year have also brought discussion of menstruation to the forefront.

In March, a photo of a woman’s period-stained pants and bedsheets circulated social media when it was removed from Instagram for violating the company’s community guidelines.

Rupi Kaur posted the photo as part of a photography series and said in an open letter on Facebook that she had intended to “demystify the period and make something that is innate ‘normal’ again [sic]”.

The photo was eventually restored to Instagram.

In August, American presidential hopeful Donald Trump accused journalist Megyn Kelly of having “blood coming out of her wherever” when questioned about misogynistic comments he made when describing some women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals”.

The JuJu menstrual cup is made from 100% hypoallergenic medical grade silicon and free from dyes or harmful chemicals. Picture: juju.com.au
The JuJu menstrual cup is made from 100 per cent hypoallergenic medical grade silicon and free from dyes or harmful chemicals. Picture: juju.com.au

Closer to home, former prime minister Tony Abbott danced around the topic of periods whenever the topic of the “tampon tax” arose, announcing: “It’s certainly not something that this government has a plan to do.”

Events like this further exacerbate the notion that periods are a taboo topic of conversation, but there are a number of reasons why there needs to be a more open discourse.

New choices for dealing with periods

Menstrual cups are gaining popularity in Australia as more convenient, safer and more environmentally friendly alternatives to pads and tampons.

The cups are made from silicon and work similarly to tampons in that they are inserted into the vagina, but they collect, rather than absorb, menstrual flow.

JuJu menstrual cups are manufactured by Freedom Products, and are currently the only brand of menstrual cups being manufactured in Australia.

JuJu founder Brenda Tootell says sales have been increasing since the cups first went on sale in 2011.

“Our sales have doubled year on year since JuJu Cup launched four years ago, albeit from a small base as the product was virtually unknown in Australia at that time.”

Ms Tootell says menstrual cups are also an environmentally friendlier alternative to pads and tampons.

“There is still some complacency about the impact our disposable sanitary products have on the environment but, to be honest, many people have never thought about it as they are unaware of the alternatives.

“The fact remains that over our lifetime we will each dispose of approximately 10,000 sanitary products if we don’t make the switch to reusable menstrual products,” Ms Tootell says.

“I’ve seen a marked increase in women wanting to reduce their eco-footprint in lots of little ways, and this is one way we can eliminate 300 of our own disposables ending up in landfill every year.”

It’s not just women’s business

Guess what? Not all women get periods, and not everyone who gets their period is a woman.

Lunapads, a Canadian business selling cloth menstrual pads and menstrual cups, posted an explanation on their website of their decision to use more gender-neutral language.

The post outlined that while most conversations around periods focus on cisgender (where self-identity matches assigned sex) girls and women, some transgender men, genderqueer and non-binary people menstruate too.

Gender Centre transgender activist Eloise Brook says it’s important to think about this in terms of “inclusivity”.

“I think it’s really important that we use the kind of language that doesn’t exclude or doesn’t remind or describe femaleness as being belonging to certain types of women.”

When it comes to choosing the right menstrual products, it’s not just pads and tampons anymore. Source: Flickr/SCA
When it comes to choosing the right menstrual products, it’s not just pads and tampons anymore. Picture: SCA

Ms Brook also discusses the notion of political correctness in terms of changing the language of menstruation.

“Twenty years ago we wouldn’t have thought twice about the types of language we used to describe women, 20 years on and now you do,” she says.

Of course, language and the attitudes that perpetuate this language do not change overnight.

Periods come with a complex set of social, environmental and economic implications that need to be addressed, but these can’t ever be properly addressed if they are not discussed openly.

Ms Tootell notes her surprise that in a country like Australia, “menstruation is still a taboo topic”.

“That’s not to say I’m an advocate for announcing to everyone we meet that I’ve got my period, but it shouldn’t be something we’re made to feel ashamed or embarrassed about.”