The hygiene myth
By Siena Dexter
In the 2nd Century AD Greece, Hippocrates took a shot at understanding unexplained nuances of female sexuality. His hypothesis was of a condition he called - the ‘wandering womb’ in which the uterus vacates its pelvic perch and travels around the female body where it could cause any manner of ailments, from hysteria to suffocation and death, lest it was ‘drawn back down’ by a trained (and, ahem, obviously male) physician.
Menstruation and childbirth have long been associated with a prescribed ‘weaker’ status. And OK, let’s excuse Hippocrates, he didn't have access to accurate anatomical information. Yet, the ‘hygiene myth’ - which perpetuates an idea that the menstruating body needs to somehow be treated, balanced-out, or made more hygienic - still permeates the language we use when talking about menstruation today.
Take a trip to any national pharmacy ( - or if reading this through quarantine - their website,) and you’ll find the feminine hygiene section, the ‘sanitary’ category where everything that goes on or in the ‘V’* lives (*our chosen vulva/ vagina combo term). It’s the only department in the entire pharmacy which isn’t labeled according to either a) the product - i.e. vitamins or b) the problem it solves - like, hair loss.
I’m a Copywriter and Creative Director at Idea Dolls branding agency, and I'll be honest, the mislabeling of menstrual products wasn't something I had ever really thought about. ‘A sanitary pad’ was as accepted a term as ‘midwife’ or ‘mini-cab’.
My perspective changed when my agency was approached last year by the charity Binti Period to brand a range of reusable menstrual pads. Our meeting with founder Manjit Gill was an eye opening experience. Once the parallels were drawn between the stigma of menstruation and a state of ‘uncleanliness’, I started noticing evidence everywhere - in messaging from brands, supermarkets, pharmacies and even consumer trend reports.
The labels we use every day, not only feed into and support a stigma as antiquated and ridiculous as the wandering womb, but from a functional point of view are inaccurate and ineffective.
Imagine if we called incontinence products ‘geriatric purification.’ If face wash was ‘facial de-grimer’. Or, if you purchased your baby products in the ‘infant defouler’ aisle. Nappies might as well be called sanitary pads too because what does a ‘sanitary pad’ mean anyway? It could just as easily be a rag with which to mop up kitchen spills, as it is an absorbent towel for your flow.
The point is this; the terms carry instant negative connotations. Infant sanitation is not OK - then why is female sanitation even a thing? Heaven forbid we actually use the term ‘menstrual products’ on the aisle sign for all to see.
Bleeding in itself does not cause a buildup of bacteria, HPV, and heightened risk of cervical cancer, but a lack of education about what we put in our pants does.
It is therefore the responsibility of brands and supermarkets who sell and produce menstrual products to revisit how they speak.
Just a small change in messaging could lead to incredible progress - so when writing our on-pack copy for ebb, we decided to use the term ‘menstrual wear’ - because it’s not just OK to say ‘menstrual’ - it is absolutely necessary. We didn't like the sound of ‘pad’ - it wasn’t specific and is really quite a lazy word - writing paper? Call it a pad. Saddle? Pad will do. Chair cushion? Yup, pad, why bother getting creative. For us, ‘wear’ nodded to the reusable nature of the product and was a perfect fit.
Although we’ll try, we can’t do it all ourselves; we need creatives, brands, supermarkets and people everywhere to speak up against the mislabeling of menstrual products. By ditching the term ‘feminine hygiene’ in favour of ‘menstruation’ and by removing the label ‘sanitary’ we could make the taboo of the dirty period as absurd as the notion of the wandering womb.
This is your chance to be creative. With 170,000 words in the English language, (and who says you can’t invent a new one) your language has the power to change perception, attitudes and behaviour. And it could all start with the words you choose to use today.
Siena Dexter is a Copywriter and the Creative Director/Founder of Idea Dolls branding agency, specialising in rebel start-ups and wayward brands. This year, Idea Dolls branded a range of reusable menstrual wear for Binti, a charity providing menstrual products to girls and women in the UK, India, US, Nairobi and Africa (sounds bloody brilliant doesn't it!).
Learn more about Idea Dolls at ideadolls.com
Learn more about Binti at bintiperiod.org
Find Siena Dexter's Instagram @the_thrifty_freelancer