What's in a name? How changing our language means the beginning of the end for period taboos.
By Chella Quint
How does that Shakespeare quote go again?
“That which we call a sanitary product by any other name would smell as ...artificially scented?’
It’s something like that, right?
Chella coined the term 'period positive' in 2006
Okay, I may be paraphrasing Romeo and Juliet just a little bit, but stay with me here. I want to take us on a quick literacy tangent before I talk menstruation as per my usual.
When Juliet says ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ she’s saying that it doesn’t matter what Romeo’s family name is or where he comes from; she loves how he makes her feel, and she can overlook his troubled past.
For me, though, after learning more about the history of disposable menstrual products, the companies that make them, and how they’re advertised, I couldn’t pretend about the problematic product name any longer. Just like Juliet, the problem goes beyond the name, and — just like Juliet — it’s harmful to ignore the impact it could have on me.
To explain this we need to leave Shakespeare’s era. Let's time travel forward to the 1920s and 1930s when disposable pads and tampons were first starting to catch on big time. Before that, anyone who needed a menstrual product had lots of options for sure: but they were usually reusable, had to be washed, and were mostly homemade (exceptions were things like rubber menstrual aprons - a real product!). Back then, no matter what you did, some aspect of menstruation management was time consuming.
But in the early part of the last century (particularly after World War I when bandage companies repurposed and aggressively marketed their surplus) there were these new products that did the job of catching your blood; you didn’t have to make them and you didn’t have to wash them - you could just throw them away. And they weren’t that expensive.
At a time when gender stereotypes were being challenged, household products and toiletries were being marketed at more women with more responsibilities outside the home and more purchasing power, you would think that the advertising for a convenience product like this would write itself. Instead though, menstrual product companies didn’t trust their mostly female consumers to work out the unique selling point of this newfangled product and become loyal customers.
I guess these multinational companies feared that since more sustainable options did the job well enough, disposables might only be a niche product for use at work, and that most home-based consumers and those on lower incomes would probably continue to use petticoats, cloth pads or even a brand new 1930s invention, menstrual cups.
Chella with vintage menstrual product. Photo: Nynke Wierda
So the marketing executives chose to change tack. Instead of highlighting the positives of convenient purchase and disposal, they crafted an entire narrative of embarrassment, secrecy and fear (that eventually leached into the public consciousness like so much chlorine-bleached cotton wadding). A quick skim through archives of magazines from back in the day reveals advert after advert using language and imagery that frame what they sell as clean and pure, and those who use them as dirty and desperate. You’ll be helpless without these products, say the adverts. You will leak through your clothes! But we can hide that! We will imply that you smell, (but won’t tell you that your body is self-cleaning, like an oven) but we can cover for you! We will shame you if your menstrual products are visible through your clothing, lament that you should have relied on ours, and warn you that the next time you ask for one, you’d better whisper...but we can protect you!
You see what I mean?
For most of us, the language we use helps us form our ideas, name our feelings, put images in our minds, and frame concepts that are hard to describe. Language can make the invisible visible, and better communication through finding just the right words for something can be therapeutic and empowering. Words with links to strong negative emotions can cause visceral reactions and embodied shame. Negative talk about menstruation can and does affect those who menstruate, and has even conditioned those who don’t to internalise those harmful messages as well.
That’s how, through nearly a century of advertising, periods were presented as something abnormal, dirty and to be hidden. Advertisers, parents, teachers and even professionals who only used euphemisms or subtly transmitted these ideas to each new generation were accidentally complicit in maintaining the notion that periods were unsanitary and menstruation was a dirty word.
This had three main effects that communities, charities and policy are still trying to address today:
it stopped people from discussing or getting help for lots of things, including difficult periods, hard to access products, and diagnoses of serious womb related illnesses,
it made healthy menstruation and menstrual blood seem dirty rather than a healthy bodily function, and kept up echoes of many historic cultural narratives that those who bleed are unclean
it made it extremely hard to spot the problem or change the narrative.
That third one is the biggie - it requires a paradigm shift - a complete change to an old way of thinking. Attitudes are changing and lots of people are making great strides - more every year! We're living through menstrual history right now! But there’s often a deep social urge to leave things as they are, to fight bigger battles, or even to meet people where they are with the language that they use, no question. Sometimes activism that nudges people along is the right choice, but we are well into this period and the menstrual moment has become a menstrual movement - we can’t just put a plaster on it.
That’s why I’ve made the language issue the first step of the Period Positive Pledge.
Changing our language can change our attitudes - faster and more deeply than you’d think. Let’s not treat words and phrases like ‘sanitary protection’, ‘feminine hygiene’ other euphemisms, and even, sometimes, ‘period’ (yep, that’s still euphemistic - it’s just short for menstrual period, don’t you know) as though they are deep and meaningful cultural traditions. They were short-lived marketing ploys that should have remained short-lived. They hide issues of sustainable production and disposal, and gloss over opportunities to say the names of reusable products like period pants, cloth pads and menstrual cups.
Because of the emotional link we’ve formed to disposable menstrual products saving us from stains, many of us have difficulties reflecting on the wider aspects of menstrual health and our focus hones in on our fears, including the fears of those making, selling and advocating for them. Will we leak? Will anyone see? Can we hide it? How will we hide it? What if we can’t?
Despite so many advances in feminist thought, in product design, in advertising standards and in consumer choice, this old trope still hasn’t shifted. I don’t even think it’s been a conscious choice of advertisers for years now. Sometimes, I’m reliably informed, company marketing teams want to say menstruation, want to show red blood but there is a battle to make the change from the television network or the internet service provider or the magazine editor, or the parent company, as well as an internal battle to maintain the status quo.
This all needs to change. We need to know what the menstrual cycle is, how it works, how it impacts physical and mental health, fertility, infertility, and the menopause. This knowledge is for everyone and using euphemisms makes it seem secret and hands-off. It’s easy once you know what to listen out for.
The truth is, the Juliet approach just doesn’t work for me with the phrase ‘sanitary protection’ or any other menstrual euphemisms. I’ve come to believe that we all need to start saying ‘menstrual products’ and ‘menstruation’ more — in fact, most of the time. To ensure menstrual wellbeing and stop stigma, we need to improve our menstrual literacy, and it starts with our vocabulary.
So from now on, let's imagine we’re the advertisers and make sure that our own style guide has more accuracy and kindness towards ourselves and our bodies whatever our gender, and whether we menstruate or not. If we’re our own marketing teams promoting menstrual wellbeing and defining what good menstrual literacy looks like and feels like for everyone, let’s choose and use our language carefully and make sure that our frame highlights how important menstruation is, and how important it is to talk about it openly, honestly, and accurately.
Chella Quint is a designer, artist, teacher, researcher, former head of PSHE, and comedian who coined the term ‘period positive’ in 2006. Through developing and sharing resources and actions via the Period Positive campaign she has inspired a movement. FInd out more at chellaquint.com.
Watch Chella interviewed by Ruby Raut in a live Q&A online for the first of this year’s Red Wave Talks this Thursday 21 May 7:30 - 8 pm.