Editor’s note (October, 2015): This piece, along with the subsequent comments about it, contains some cissexist language. This would not be in the article if it was being written now, but has been left in for transparency.
How far have we come from the days of using the biblical term “the curse” to describe menstruation? Major religious doctrines, still in use today, proclaim women as unholy and dangerous sex partners when they are bleeding. A lot of men and women are still really hung up, believing that it is too dirty and messy to have sex during a certain time of the month. I wonder exactly when sex isn’t messy. Tampons adverts sell their products on a continuum of discretion, the desired result attained only when they can be confused for sweets or sugar packets. PMS is constantly ridiculed by those who poo-poo the concept as a female conspiracy to get out of the housework and nag their partners while periods in general are used to explain away any type of behaviour that doesn’t befit a lady. All of this is annoying enough and infuriating for women with anything from minor to severe menstrual problems, but what really gets to me is shelling out money every single month to a dubious industry to manage what is for all is for all intents and purposes, a health issue. Coming from America, where health care is completely privatised, I have revelled in the free healthcare system in the UK, from getting my teeth fixed to getting kitted up with methods of birth control I would never be able to afford back home. But why, in a country with a public healthcare system free and accessible to all, do we still have to pay for tampons, towels or whatever menstrual product we choose to control our flow.
Tampons adverts sell their products on secrecy, the desired result attained only when they can be confused for sweets
Women menstruate for an average of 40 years of their lives. With growth hormones added to food, especially dairy products, girls’ bodies are maturing faster and they start their periods much earlier in life than even their mothers did. As more than half of the population in the west are women, the sanitary products industry is huge and will continue to grow as women remain fertile for longer spans of their lives, developing more discreet ways to deal with periods so that no unfortunate soul around a menstruating women need know what is happening below her belt. A trip down your local supermarket aisle sums it up perfectly. On one hand, the barrage of products sold to create the illusion of normality and the fact that these are positioned around nappies, girly shampoo and other grooming products so most men don’t even have to walk down it. On the other hand, the moniker of “feminine needs” perfectly describing how menstruation is not only not a choice for women but a daily reality. I suppose we could argue that we don’t want more stigma attached to menstruation by labelling it a health problem when it is a natural and healthy part of a women’s life. But I consider birth control to be a necessary part of my healthy life. If I were getting pregnant all the time me, my partner and my children would suffer both emotionally and economically, and I am thankful that it is free under the NHS.
Having grudgingly accepted the fact that I must pay for my own tampons, my next question is why are we given so little information on alternative menstrual products? Sometimes we expect to get generic products and poor service through the NHS so if tampons or towels were made available to every woman, they would probably be like the supermarket’s value brand. Sure, your bank accounts may be more comfortable but would your minge: no wings, nappy-thick, big plastic applicators, in general no use of the technology within the feminine hygiene industry?
Why are we given so little information on alternative menstrual products?
But, since this isn’t the case, we should at least expect to receive some more frank information about the dangers of mainstream menstrual products. There may be warnings about Toxic Shock Syndrome on every box of tampons, but where is the information about dioxins, bleaching aids or the amount of pesticides used in the production of cotton that seep very easily through the walls of the uterus? I just learned that tampons have now been approved for irradiation in the US and with the ridiculously deregulated “free” market that will no doubt go unlabeled too. Not to mention the dangerous, unnecessary and offensive use of perfumes to cover up whatever you may smell like naturally. The only place I have seen organic cotton, applicator-free tampons is in health food stores and they are more than twice the price of regular tampons. The fact remains that most products on the shelves of health food stores are for those consumers who are privileged with not only the money to buy them, but also with the information that makes them saleable.
There is still less information about what would be considered more radical menstrual products like the sea sponge, washable cloth towels and the cup (almost like a diaphragm that catches the blood). Most often, women hear about these methods by word of mouth from other women sharing their delight in using them. The most obvious barrier keeping these from the mainstream is the fact that they are not disposable and therefore require a degree of comfort not only with menstruation but also with the user’s own body. The sea sponge and the cup require rinsing in the sink before reusing, which brings up the prospect of using a public toilet and having to do it in front of terrified other women. Young women are constantly told to learn to be more comfortable with their bodies and are scolded for the over-consumption of disposable products, but nobody with the power to reach large numbers of women is helping them make informed choices about how to manage their periods.
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, it seems that the male-dominated world of health care and the feminine hygiene industry have some vested interests in keeping contemporary women in the dark ages and believing that they should just live with “the curse” as they have since the beginning of time. Of course this is thinly disguised by a market that encourages women to liberate themselves by hiding it all away from the world in a tissue and sani-bin. Bloody Women, the recent programme on Channel 4 following women around as they experience their periods was a step in the right direction. It illustrated that despite the different levels of difficulty women experience during their periods, they all consider their periods an inconvenience that isn’t necessarily helped by the products available at their supermarkets or the information available through mainstream medicine. One woman chose to visit an herbalist to help with her heavy bleeding and severe pain.
As feminists interested in nurturing a brand new generation of feminists, we need to help reduce the stigma attached to the monthly flow of blood so that these economical and ecological menstrual products can be embraced by young women. In turn, the demand for both alternatives and honest information about the risks involved in using mainstream products will force health care professionals to provide both to the general public. That way, when the time eventually comes for the NHS to start supplying women with all of their necessary healthcare needs, we won’t have to pollute our bodies with the generic shit.