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What Are We Doing to Tackle Period Taboos?

As a culture, we’re not particularly good at discussing our bodily functions, regardless of what they may be. However, it cannot be denied that menstruation comes with its own particular brand of taboo. When it comes to using the toilet, we may not do our business in public, for example, but we have no qualms about buying toilet paper out in the open or even telling a friend, co-worker or even a total stranger that you are just going to “use the bathroom.” We keep a sort of polite distance from the topic at hand, but certainly do not shy away from it. 

Menstruation, however, is pushed further under the rug of public consciousness. For the most part, girls are taught about their periods separately from boys.  Even though it is no longer a completely unmentionable experience, you need only ask any woman that has felt the need to grab one other last minute item at the checkout to purchase with her sanitary products to know that the societal taboo is far from expiring. 

The reticence around menstruation is, unfortunately, often rooted in sexist attitudes within society, advertising and the media; however, there are ways in which companies, businesses and even individuals are beginning to take a stand to create a more open environment for both men and women to discuss periods without shame. 

The Period-Moji

Despite what The Emoji Movie might have told us, emojis are not the ultimate form of human communication we have available to us. What they do provide, however, is relatively unique form of communication that some, especially young people, may find extremely useful. 

It might not seem like much, but having what many people have dubbed as the “period emoji” (though the same symbol could be used for things like blood donation), is a small step forward in a universal acceptance of “period talk.” For many people, in order to accept something as “normal”, it must first appear in the mainstream as a form of validation. Whether that comes from TV, music or even something as insignificant as a blood drop emoji on a smartphone. The bottom line is, its inclusion tells people that this topic of conversation is not – or should not be -taboo. 

Additionally, a period emoji could be a great tool for young girls to communicate with their peers and friends. This is especially the case if they still, for whatever reason, feel embarrassed about actually discussing periods out loud. It is much easier for the socially anxious to send a simple image than to write to someone “I am on my period.” It may be a subtle difference, but it can be the perfect conversation starter. 

Out With the Blue and in With the Red

Of all the ways in which menstruation has been kept out of sight and out of mind in  mainstream discourse, nowhere is this more evident than the representation of period products in advertising, which has stalled around frank discussion of the issues for decades. In 2017, Bodyform became the first company to use red dye in their sanitary product commercials. 

Not only that, the ad even went as far as to show a woman getting out of the shower with realistic looking blood dripping down her legs, even portraying men proudly buying menstrual products without hiding them underneath a tactically positioned magazine. 

One of the reasons why the period taboo has managed to prevail for so long is the implication that menstrual blood, and by extension menstruation itself, is somehow dirty. Representing period blood as blue dye in commercial contexts only reinforces this concept and carries the implication that red dye (even if it does not look like blood itself) is unfit for public viewing. 

Bodyform said it themselves; “We believe that like any other taboo, the more people see it, the more normal the subject becomes. Portraying periods, simply as they are; not in “gruesome” detail; is a terrific step forward in normalising this experience for everyone. 

A Period of Storytelling

Taboos are a learned habit and not something that we inherently understand from birth. That’s why the quickest and most effective way to break them is not only just breaking down existing taboos in ourselves and other adults, but starting from the very bottom; educating children. After all, it is the experiences of the next generation that will inform what the world looks and feels like once they are old enough to change it. 

When it comes to discussing anything taboo or uncomfortable, whether it’s death, sex, puberty or anything else, sometimes the best way to introduce these topics to younger children is through the art of storytelling. These days there are so many amazing children’s books out there specifically designed to help kids understand difficult concepts such as periods, or learn about their bodies. 

Most recently, Japan has made headlines for its manga (and now movie) character, Little Miss Period; a pink blob with red lips and red pants designed to represent period blood and menstruation. Of course, the existence of characters like these invites criticisms from certain sectors, especially in a country that is a little more conservative about menstrual education. However, the general consensus towards both the manga and its film adaptation have been positive and many people, including teachers and parents, have praised its existence for breaking down certain barriers. 

The Power of the Individual

Of course, it is hugely important to remember that women do not experience the same levels of stigmatisation surrounding menstruation everywhere in the world. While women still face significant social barriers to openly discussing their periods on a social level, there are plenty of other ways in which menstrual taboos affect women all over the globe. 

In some countries, girls are even sent home from school should they bleed through their clothes, which often occurs due to lack of sanitary products, bullying and ridicule is normalised and that is to say nothing of the taxes that many countries still place on tampons as a “luxury item.”

One of the most important ways in which menstrual taboos and their effects on women are being fought and changed – albeit slowly – is through the work that individual activists are putting in to create a bloody revolution across the globe. 

For example, Zhanar Sekerbayeva is the founder of Feminita, an initiative protecting women’s rights in Kazakhstan. Samikshya Koirala is a youth executive from Amnesty International in Nepal, which seeks to change the way people think and view menstruation through educational videos, rallies and local community programmes. 

But even closer to home, we can see signs of this kind of passionate activism. Activists such as Hazel Mead have lent their personal talents to the cause of destigmatising menstruation. In her case, she helps to challenge stigmas by providing stunning illustrations for websites, campaigns and even satirical art pieces. 

While it is of course important for large companies and corporations to take a stand against menstrual taboos through their messaging and marketing, the actions of individuals are proving encouragingly that you do not need to have your own company to make a difference. Individual and independent campaigning regarding periods by all sorts of people can help to spread positive social messages and information that helps countless people.

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VR San-Co work with clients across Kent, Sussex and London providing Washroom Services and Sanitary Care Solutions.

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