Code red: how brands have challenged period taboos

“There will be blood. Get over it.”

These are the words that dominated News Week’s front cover in April 2016. The accompanying article read: “The fight to end period shaming is going mainstream”. An interesting thought – and a bold one given the enduring culture of silence around periods at the time. It wasn’t cutting through as a mainstream media topic despite it being a shared experience by almost 26% of the world’s population. But great strides have been made since then.

In the UK, the likes of Ohne, Thinx, Callaly and DAME burst on to the scene with a central rallying cry: “we need to normalise the conversation about period health and we need to reinvent femcare products”. Concerted marketing efforts have helped to engage a wider consumer base too. The ‘Mooncup vs Tampon’ rap battle went viral in 2013. A rebellious push that pitted the emotional reactions of people using traditional sanitary products against the benefits of Mooncup, setting a punchy tone for the narrative.

Taboo smashing campaigns have run the gamut – including Modi Bodi’s ‘The New Way to Period’, Thinx’s window display at Selfridges – a bright red balloon squashed between blocks of concrete, and Hello Flo’s ‘The Period Fairy’, a short mockumentary that investigated the mythical creature who visits girls when they first get their period.

And it’s not only the challengers that have sought to change the conversation. Bodyform became the first brand to replace blue blood with red blood in TV advertising in 2017. It was a key moment in the fight to normalise the external image of menstruation blood and evoked an emotional response from viewers around the world.

These campaigns put out a very clear message – we need to talk about periods in a way that isn’t veiled with subtext of secrecy or shame. It led to a small boom in the sector. Activist comms and marketing tactics helped to recruit an army of like-minded women to spread the word. The conversation about periods hit the mainstream, and it wasn’t just the narrative that came sharply into focus. A lack of inclusive menstruation education also hit the headlines.

While menstruation is a part of every school curriculum in the UK, there is an evasive attitude towards it, and this has fuelled the social stigma surrounding periods. Women and girls need to feel they can talk openly about their cycle so future generations feel better informed and prepared. Young people, boys as well as girls, should be educated to tackle the culture of embarrassment around periods, because we need to make this everyone’s problem.

Hey Girls, a Scottish social enterprise set up to tackle period poverty, has dedicated itself to grass roots causes. Since 2018, the organisation has provided lesson plans, teaching resources and training to educate students and teachers – men and women – about periods. It is also a major provider in the Scottish Government’s lauded initiative to provide free sanitary products to Scottish councils and universities to help those in need.

PRs, brands and consumers need to continue this drive to ensure brands not only eradicate stigma, but also emphasise the importance of access to – and education about – menstruation and reproductive health. We’ve made great progress in the past five years, but more can be done to ensure change is meaningful and long-lasting – because we haven’t yet won the fight against period shame. Not by a long way.

A recent Tampax ad named ‘Tampax and Tea’ set out to educate young women about the correct way to use a tampon but it was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority shortly after launch upon receiving 84 complaints from viewers. They described the ad as being “crude”, “vulgar”, “disgusting”, “embarrassing”, “inappropriate”, and “offensive”.

This exposes the huge stigma that is still attached to the dreaded P-word. Tampax merely sought to educate consumers about how the product works – it came in response to research that found 42 per cent of women use applicator tampons incorrectly. This is an issue that needs to be addressed head on, but our period-fearing instincts said ‘no’.

If we continue to bow to this pressure and ignore the lived experiences of menstruation around the world, we will never truly break the taboo. We need to confront the key issues facing our society to make progress – namely better, more inclusive education, improved accessibility to environmentally friendly products, and better support when it comes to coping with pain and emotional changes.

That requires a concerted effort from brands, not only to promote their products in a way that helps to normalise the conversation, but also to push for action that eradicates the ‘menstrual curse’.

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