I don’t share things on Facebook often, but in October this year, I saw a video I couldn’t ignore. It was the new Bodyform advert for sanitary towels, accompanied by the hashtag ‘#bloodnormal’. Hailed as ‘taboo-breaking’, the global ad campaign from Bodyform and Libresse is the first to depict period blood realistically – as red not blue.
A man buys pads in a shop, presumably for a woman in his life; a woman showers with a trickle of blood making its way down her leg. On googling the origins of the ad, a longer version appears showing the everyday experiences of young women on their periods – the pain, the emotion, the physical act of removing a pad in the toilet. One narrative line in particular which struck me was a woman in a library who got up from her seat, pad unashamedly in hand, to go and change it. This resonated as a familiar thought process of mine whenever I go to change my pad in a public place – how blatant should I be with my intentions? Should I hide the fact that I am going to go and deal with a bloody mess behind the closed toilet door? Would the men around me be disgusted by this concept? Should I shield them from the harsh realities of life as a menstruating woman?
Frankly, no. The secrecy surrounding periods, pervasive in media narratives throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, only serves to stigmatise and shut down conversations before they’ve begun. This stigma is damaging to those who menstruate, making them ashamed of their own bodies and its natural processes. If we are seen giving in to the pain we are marked as weak. If we leak or free-bleed we are marked as dirty. I can only speak for myself here, but I would not be surprised if other menstruators also thought to themselves or said aloud ‘I wish I were a man’ when they were on their periods. And why is this? It’s not that I couldn’t handle the pain or lacked the capacity to remember to change my pads when I was bleeding. No – it’s the emotional labour that comes with having to hide, be discrete, invent reasons to justify why I’m feeling tired/grumpy/sad/in pain. It’s having to consider the possibility that your feelings could be somehow invalidated by others; dismissed because you’re on your period. It’s feeling the eyes watching you in the library or the café or just the room of friends when you get up to go to the bathroom with your whole bag to avoid having to rootle around to find a sanitary product in public. That’s what makes me think in that moment that life as a man would be easier.
But I just want to feel comfortable in my own skin as a menstruating woman – I want to not think twice about when to buy pads in the supermarket in case I don’t have a bag to hide them in. A recent survey by the global hygiene company Essity found that nine out of ten women attempt to hide their periods. 56% of girls would prefer to be bullied at school than talk to their parents about periods. A survey in India found that nearly 25% of girls drop out of school permanently when they reach puberty because they have no toilet at school. Though it is perhaps somewhat ironic that the Bodyform and Libresse adverts were written and directed by men, they have finally pushed menstrual marketing into the twenty-first century. I now make a conscious effort not to hide my pad when I go to the toilet and I feel better for it. I feel confident. I am in a position where I can act on small things like this without repercussions. Others are not so lucky. The more we scratch away at the stigma, the more people can be free to feel this way.
In the words of the Bodyform:
Periods are normal. Showing them should be too.