Guest blog by Dr. Maria Tomlinson, lecturer in Public Communication and Gender at the University of Sheffield.
“I’m open to the idea of using it sometime in the future, it’s just getting over that fear”
Thanks to social media content made by advocates, influencers, and brands, Generation Z is becoming increasingly aware of the environmental benefits of sustainable products such as cups, underwear, and washable pads. This awareness, however, has only translated into a low level of uptake. Drawing on my research 16–19-year-olds across Yorkshire, this blog post explores why girls and other young people who menstruate are reticent to use reusables and what we can do to encourage them to try them.
In 2021, I had the privilege of conducting focus groups with 77 teenagers in schools, colleges, and at a university. These focus groups, alongside interviews with over 30 menstrual activists, formed part of my Leverhulme-funded research project on the impact of social and traditional media on young people’s knowledge and attitudes towards many aspects of menstruation. These included their views on menstrual stigma, menstrual equity, reusable products, and menstrual health conditions.
I’ll be presenting some of the findings of this exciting study in this blog post. These findings, and many more, will be explored in my forthcoming book, The Menstrual Movement in the Media: Reducing Stigma and Tackling Social Inequalities (Palgrave).
This book will be available online for free so that organisations and other individuals who support young people can see the impact of their work so far and plan what to do next. In the meantime, you can find some of this guidance in a document that I have co-created with the amazing menstrual advocacy expert, Acushla Young: ‘Using Social Media To Communicate Effectively with Young People about Menstruation’.
How and what do young people learn about reusables?
My findings demonstrate that social media is playing a significant role in spreading awareness about reusables amongst young people of all genders, including those who do not menstruate. The girls and non-binary participants in my study were learning about reusables from feminist accounts, environmental-focussed accounts, influencers, YouTubers, TikTokers, and advertisements.
Some of the boys in my research were also aware of reusables. One boy, for example, learned about reusables from an influencer who was sharing her experiences of revising for exams: “I follow a lot of female Youtubers, and they always talk about periods. Unjaded Jade, she talks about cups and stuff and how she uses them to be more sustainable”. Another boy explained that he had learned about the detrimental environmental impact of single-use products from watching a documentary by Sir David Attenborough.
Many of the boys, girls, and non-binary students in my study praised reusable products for their environmental benefits. Most participants spoke about cups, but others mentioned underwear and reusable pads. One girl, for example, said that she learned about the negative environmental impact of single-use products from a post on social media: “There was a break-down of how much people go through in their life, just one person was an astonishing number”. Another stated that menstrual cups are “very environmentally friendly” and that various posts had recommended that she use “tampons without applicators” and “reusable pads”. One teenager also praised reusable products for being a more sustainable solution to “period poverty” than single-use products.
The small number of my participants who had tried reusable products explained that they had started to use them after seeing advertisements on social media (often in conjunction with influencers). One girl stated, “cups are advertised a lot on social media, so I did a bit of research and switched”. One of the main reasons that some of my participants switched to reusables was their desire to produce less waste. According to one young woman, “I’ve started using the cup because I feel so bad every time that I put pads in the bin”. Some participants praised the advertisements of reusable products for being less stigmatising than those for single-use products. As one girl explained, reusable product advertisements from smaller brands are “more open than Tampax and Always adverts”. My findings therefore show that reusable products are appealing to Gen Z, not only for their environmental merits, but also because of the less stigmatising way in which they are marketed.
So why are so many young women and other people who menstruate still reluctant to try reusables?
Although social media has been an amazing tool for raising awareness of the benefits of sustainable menstrual products, my findings also indicate that this awareness does not frequently translate into uptake. Indeed, most of the girls and non-binary participants who were aware of the environmental benefits of reusables had never tried them. They expressed a variety of reasons for why they were reticent to try reusables.
One of the barriers to accessing reusables was their upfront cost. Many participants, especially those from lower-income households, were unwilling to risk money on a product that they might neither like nor be able to use. Secondly, the girls and non-binary people in my study considered the available facilities in schools and other public places when deciding whether to try reusables.
In institutions that did not provide sinks within toilet cubicles, my participants explained that they felt too uncomfortable using sustainable products because they required rinsing during the day. For instance, one girl said, “If you’ve got to nip out of the cubicle to wash [your cup] in the sink, and then there are other people in the toilet, it’s a bit awkward”. Suggesting that menstrual stigma is a key factor behind young people’s reluctance to use menstrual products that require handling their own menstrual blood, other students also referred to cleaning reusable products as ‘awkward’ or, in one case, ‘gross’.
The significant role played by menstrual stigma was also evident when my participants expressed their fears of leaking when testing reusable products. Explaining that her uncertainty on how to use a cup could result in leaking, one girl articulated: “I’m open to the idea of it sometime in the future, it’s just getting over that fear”.
This response, which indicates that a combination of menstrual stigma and a lack of knowledge are key barriers to uptake, was also echoed by other participants who were too “anxious” or fearful to try reusables.
Although some of my participants had watched videos on social media about how to use sustainable products, these videos did not inspire them with enough confidence to use them. They believed that offline demonstrations and education could help. Indeed, many participants mentioned that a lack of education at school was a key reason why they were reluctant to try reusables, including cups, underwear, and washable pads.
The girls and non-binary students commented that their teachers had neither demonstrated how to use these products nor offered any information on their benefits and disadvantages. They therefore feared that they would leak when trying them for the first time. The limited nature of menstrual education in schools was beautifully summarised by one girl who criticised her school for only educating her class about single-use pads and tampons: “They never really spoke about the ones that help with the environment. They only gave us two solid options and that were it”.
So how can we encourage more young people to try reusables?
Even though my research indicates that there is significant reticence amongst young people to try reusables, I do believe that these barriers can be overcome.
Firstly, if young people are offered free reusable products in school, financial barriers can be removed. Since reusable products are part of the government’s provision of free period products, it is most definitely possible for schools to offer a range of reusable products that suit the preferences of all pupils.
Nevertheless, even in schools that provide these products, girls and other young people who menstruate do not always know how to access these products and who to ask. Solely distributing these products, however, is not enough. Schools need to ensure that their menstrual education includes in-person demonstrations and accurate information about reusables.
As my findings illustrate, without this education, girls and other young people who menstruate will likely remain reluctant to try reusables. My research therefore demonstrates why Wen’s call for a ‘Menstrual Health, Dignity and Sustainability Act’, which includes stigma-free menstrual education about sustainable products, the provision of free reusables, and improved access to facilities in which to clean them, is so important for young people in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Maria Tomlinson is a lecturer in Public Communication and Gender at the University of Sheffield. Her research looks at the impact of social media and journalism on societal perceptions of gender, health, and social inequalities.
Maria is the author of From Menstruation to the Menopause: The Female Fertility Cycle in Contemporary Women’s Writing in French (Liverpool University Press, 2021). Her forthcoming book, The Menstrual Movement in the Media: Reducing Stigma and Tackling Social Inequalities (Palgrave), will be available open access. Maria collaborates with NGOs, charities, and policymakers that support women, non-binary people, and transgender men who menstruate. Maria contributed to the development of ‘BS 30416: Menstruation, Menstrual Health and Menopause in the Workplace – Guide’. She has also co-authored the following research-based guidance: ‘Using Social Media to Communicate Effectively with Young People About Menstruation’.
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