Mad Men(struation): The problem with period product advertising… and why you (most likely) don’t know what’s in your tampon
"Disturbingly, there are stricter regulations for the labeling of hamster food than there are for tampons and pads in the UK. And given the fact that manufacturers and distributors aren’t legally required to disclose their ingredients, they don’t"
Things are on the move, and the U.K. is finally undergoing puberty when it comes to periods. People are talking about menstruation at a frequency and in volumes never before seen, calling for some serious taboo busting action. It’s about time. However, with every big shift in attitudes, especially when it comes to women’s health, there’s a real danger that, simply because things are moving in the right direction, we forget there’s still a long, long, way to go.
For us, our fundamental issue is that the majority of period products are actually full of toxic chemicals. But the real root of contention begins with mainstream menstrual health advertising, the taboos they propagate, and the fact that the (harsh) reality above conveniently never comes into play. And we’re done with that.
A look back at how periods have traditionally been marketed to women is almost comical. The euphemisms - “Aunt Flo” is visiting because, you know, it’s that “time of the month” - mystery blue-liquid demonstrations (clinical, clean, acceptable), promotions of products that are “discrete” (who can forget the advert where a tampon was *hilariously* mistaken for a sugar sachet by a date?), “virtually undetectable”, and countless other riddled messages around menstruation that only serve to disempower the large number of women whose main source of information on periods is still unsolicited mainstream advertisements.
In an industry dominated by a handful of large, male-controlled companies, it’s hardly surprising that the honest voices and natural experiences of real women have been subject to - and smothered by - decades of ambiguous, deceptively shiny beating-about-the-bush. Talk about fathering stigma.
Now, more than ever, as girls are reaching womanhood as fully ingrained navigators of social media, they need access to a platform where straightforward information, unfiltered stories and experiences can be shared by real, menstruating humans - everyday positive role models in confident, euphemism-smashing people who say things like they are. Until this happens, when, where and how we talk about periods will sadly be biased and bent to support and perpetuate the idea - bolstered by mainstream advertising - that vaginal bleeding is something to be hidden, wrapped away “discretely”, done quietly. But really, it’s about bloody time an emergency trip to the local shop for the sole purpose of buying period products didn’t feel so cloak-and-dagger.
Mainstream companies seem to be cottoning on (not literally, though, I’m afraid), and beginning to realise that white-girl-twirling-through-waist-high-meadow-in-white-cotton-dress adverts just aren’t going to cut it any more. So we’re beginning to see the growth of something a little different...advertisements showing red liquid being poured onto sanitary pads, boyfriends doing the dreaded night-time tampon run, and a little more diversity - in age as well as ethnicity.
In fact, these companies are almost in danger of leaning too far the other way, too suddenly: blood-like liquid poured onto a sanitary pad, blood trickling down a woman’s leg in the shower. While we applaud this, big time, as a monumental milestone in mainstream advertising, let’s not forget that many of these companies themselves were guilty (not that long ago, at all,) of using the mystery blue ink as the central (and repeated) theme of their adverts. And this feels like the act (and slogan) of companies desperately trying to swing the other way following criticism, rather than meaningfully addressing the very real problem of societal attitude to menstruation. Yes, periods are normal. But let’s not use blood simply to prove a point, because less of the issue is showing periods - much more important is to begin talking about them, and not just deliberately controversially, but in a regular, everyday kind of way.
Overall the big brands have moved away from the classic bronzed model with legs up to her armpits wearing (always) something white and skin tight type adverts to their latest, more empowering styled campaigns. We’re completely on board with the general message - anything that champions equality and addresses gender stereotypes is to be commended. But, carefully not talking about periods or menstruation serves to underline the eternal idea that it is not an appropriate subject to discuss openly. That it must be hidden. Thereby perpetuating shame, anxiety and fear around one of the most natural things in the world.
As the companies with the main market share of period products, big brands are best placed to confront these issues - and there is a very real responsibility there. These brands are making a start and things are changing, but it’s going to take more than a few ‘progressive’ advertisements - you can’t smash shame and long trodden stigma by simply (suddenly) deciding to “show” periods...that picture really isn’t worth a thousand words. Girls and women need to be given the language to combat taboo, even if only within themselves...and, the best way to learn a language? Practice. Repetition. Frequent use. Conversation. Only then will we (all genders) be able to think in that language. Only then will things be normalised.
A shift in this industry also needs to work in tandem with a commitment to improving menstrual health. This means transparency and education regarding the products being marketed to women. Because this shift in advertising is all good and well, but there’s a limit to its value when the products being promoted and sold are potentially doing damage to women’s health without their knowledge.
Disturbingly, there are stricter regulations for the labeling of hamster food than there are for tampons and pads in the UK (and Europe). And given the fact that manufacturers and distributors aren’t legally required to disclose their ingredients, they don’t. Hardly surprising, when the contents of that list would read a little something like…: rayon, polyester, viscose, chlorine, bleach (yes, apparently it’s important they’re pearly white for the 3 seconds we cast eyes on them before they go to die a vermilion death), traces of dioxin, cyanazine, dicofol, naled, propargite, triluralin, (and - if you choose a brand with odour neutralisation - artificial colours, adhesives, polyethylene, polypropylene and propylene glycol – a ‘chemical soup…. with contaminants linked to hormonal disruption, cancer, birth defects, dryness, and infertility’.
When all of this comes into close contact with our skin (and the skin of the vulva happens to be amongst the thinnest in a woman’s entire body), it’s absorbed straight into the bloodstream, making its toxic way directly to delicate organs. Unsurprising, then, that one thing has found its way onto the packaging: “Attention! Tampons are associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)”. And soreness, rashes, inflammation and thrush? All suspected accomplices of the synthetic mainstream tampon.
The average woman uses around 10,800 tampons in her lifetime, and we think she deserves to know what’s in the products she’s using. So, we’ve launched OHNE, a bespoke 100% organic tampon subscription service, to tackle the lack of transparency in menstrual health products and advertising. Most importantly, we’re working towards creating a platform and online community that is going to champion real and healthy periods, providing all menstruators with the knowledge they need to have complete autonomy over their menstrual and sexual health. We think it’s time to start talking, and we’re passionate about change.
The most powerful tool in dispelling the taboos around menstruation is getting women involved in the conversation, because with access to the right platform every voice matters. So we’re gathering together to share the challenges head-on, defy expectations of what the mainstream media claims menstruation really means to the people who experience it (and those who don’t), and commit ourselves to truly normalising periods. Because every second person on the planet has, does, or will, at some point, bleed. And every person is here as a result of a uterus which, at some point, bled. It doesn’t get more normal than that.
In it for change, OHNE it when you need us to be…
Written by the OHNE team
OHNE is a bespoke 100% organic tampon subscription service. They're taking care of your vagina and challenging the taboos around menstruation. You can order your first fantastically priced pack at https://ohne.co/