Is it ironic that I’m bent double with cramps while writing a piece about period shaming? It’s as if my uterus knew I was writing this piece today, reminding me of the physical as well as the emotional factors that accompany life as a a person who menstruates. Last Wednesday, the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland banned a tampon ad following complaints. The Tampax ad was in the style of a mock afternoon chat show, it informed tampon users how to insert the product; “not just the tip, up to the grip”.
ASAI said that it received a total of 150 complaints about the Tampax ad. Disappointingly, 83% of the complaints were made by women. To understand why this is, we have to look at where it began. When taught that your own body is shameful from a young age, it’s easy to believe the same thing about others. If young people are taught that talking about their period is ‘crude’, ‘vulgar’, ‘embarrassing’ or ‘grotesque’ as the 150 complainants stated, it is unsurprising that 124 of them were written by women. It seems to me that there’s a strong internalised misogyny and sense of shame that needs to be addressed in Ireland.
Most young people who menstruate were either taught about periods at home as a hushed conversation with their mammy or in the form of ‘the talk’ in primary school. Usually in a mixed school, when it came to the part of the day when periods were discussed, the boys were let outside to play in the yard. From the beginning, we’re taught that periods shouldn’t be talked about around boys, that they should be ashamed of their bodies. But the same was not reciprocated with male biology. I’m sure many people, myself included, have vivid memories of learning about wet dreams multiple times during our school years. Why were we taught so openly about male biology when we still had attempted to hide our pads and tampons up our sleeves when walking to the school bathroom? Even in an all girls school, it was embarrassing to change your pad in the bathroom. When boys aren’t taught about periods, it adds to a stigma around them of being unhygienic or unnatural. This creates a generation of men who are uncomfortable and unwilling to discuss basic biology.
The period talk in primary school covered only the biological process of menstruation. The issue spreads outside of school into other aspects of society – being asked if we want an extra paper bag in the pharmacy to hide our tampons is an all too familiar situation. The stigma surrounding periods manifests after school, people who menstruate may internalise the shame that was taught to them and subconsciously act on it themselves. Many young people discover the other features and side effects that come along with periods on their own, most feel too ashamed or embarrassed to ask their families or friends. Period pain is too often swept under the rug, for some reason it is not worthy of painkillers or a break even if it’s excruciating. Endless other aspects like PMS, blood clots or sustainable product alternatives aren’t spoken about openly enough.
ASAI stated that one main issue that was brought up in the complaints said that the Tampax ad was ‘demeaning to women’, saying that it ‘belittled them and implied that they may be ignorant when it came to the matter of using tampons’. These complaints directly shame and are ironically patronising to people who menstruate for the lack of menstrual education they received. It’s clear that Tampax isn’t demeaning at all; they describe how to insert a tampon in a clear and non-judgemental way. Most tampon users will know the extremely uncomfortable but familiar feeling of a misplaced tampon, it takes multiple tries to master the art of insertion. Tampax’s recognition of this, asking ‘how many of you ever feel your tampon?’ removes stigma and educates menstruating people how to properly insert their tampon in an easy going and casual tone.
In order to tear down the stigma and shame around periods, the current sex education curriculum must be reformed. It should be fully inclusive and every gender must learn about both male and female sexual health. Our own internalised misogyny must be recognised and stopped in its tracks, we can’t cringe or turn away from natural biology anymore.
We need an open conversation about menstruation alongside discussion in the media, more advertisements and information about sexual health- not less. We should not be ashamed of our periods in Ireland, however, we should be ashamed that information about our basic human health has been censored.
Photo: Tampax advert