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Leaky Ladies and Their Worrisome Wombs

This week’s post is an extract from Nina Funnell’s chapter in the recent feminist anthology, Destroying The Joint – Why Women have To Change The World (edited by Jane Caro). I was prompted to share this post after viewing an advertisement for menstrual products that I think is just fabulous – do take a look:

The announcement came on a Monday morning during full-school assembly. As the students sat quietly in the school gym, the deputy principal took to the stage and with her usual unimpressed air, she declared that the tampon and pad vending machines located in the girl’s bathrooms had been deemed ‘inappropriate’.

‘These machines’, she announced, ‘give an unladylike impression to our school’s guests, particularly male visitors who on, occasion, have cause to occupy the female facilities. They will be removed immediately.’

I bristled uncomfortably. What exactly did she mean by ‘unladylike’? How could there possibly be anything unladylike about products which – by definition – only ladies had cause to use? …

At recess I took the issue up with my friends. We talked about the stigma surrounding menstruation and the ridiculous tampon and pad ads on television: Why do they always use that stupid blue dye? What do they think we are, Smurfs or something? And why do the women always dance around like getting their period is the Best Thing Ever? It’s sooo patronising. Why can’t they ever just portray the subject realistically?

We talked about the decision to remove the tampon machines and the significance of it being a woman who had passed down the order – what does she use when she’s got her period? Doesn’t she remember what it is like to be caught without a pad or a tampon? Besides, if you can’t acknowledge female menstruation in a woman’s bathroom, then where on earth can you acknowledge it? – and together we agreed that something had to be done. Someone had to take action.

The following day I met with the other members of our Student Representative Council. I raised the issue and there was universal agreement that the tampon and pad machines should stay. Later that week I met with our principal, a kind and liberal man who immediately recognised the ridiculousness of the situation; he overturned the decision and we got to keep our machines. It was a small victory but it gave me a taste of something bigger. Girls could rewrite the rules….

Lifting the Curse

The year I got my first period was the same year that the movie How to Make an American Quilt came out. I remember this, because before seeing the film I had felt anxious and deeply ashamed about the changes that were occurring in my body. In the opening scene of the film, Winona Ryder’s character introduces the woman she idolises: ‘[Marianna] had lived in Paris which made her very mysterious to me when I was a kid. She taught me French, made café au laits and the year I got my period, she gave me a glass of red wine.’

This may not sound particularly remarkable. But as a thirteen-year-old girl, it had a profound impact on me because it was the first time I had seen menstruation portrayed as something which could positively bond women together. My body was changing in a way that I couldn’t control, but this was the first time that I felt that maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. In fact, this scene struck me with such force that when the movie came out on video, I immediately hired it just to watch that one scene over.

For women and girls around the world, it’s vitally important that we develop narratives about menstruation which counter the dominant cultural and religious discourses. And there is good news here. After all, the only thing more powerful than a taboo is breaking one.

Thankfully, feminists, women’s health professionals, artists, individual women and even some advertising executives are already doing this work. And since I don’t like to acknowledge a problem without also acknowledging those who are trying to fix it, let’s take a look at a few examples.

In 2010, the tampon and pad company Kotex produced a bitingly satirical video that parodied the conventional pad advertisements on TV. The clip formed part of a wider campaign called ‘Break the Cycle’, which aimed to challenge the stigma around menstruation. The clip begins with a woman on a couch saying, ‘How do I feel about my period? Ah, we are like this.’ She then crosses her fingers indicating tight friendship. She continues: ‘I love it. It makes me feel really pure. Sometimes I just want to run on the beach. I like to twirl, maybe in slow motion. And usually by the third day, I just want to dance. The ads on TV are really helpful, because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s what is supposed to happen!’ The video quickly went viral, and dozens of articles were subsequently written about the unhelpful ways in which menstruation is discussed and depicted in the public arena…

Even vampire themed texts, which have historically been read as allegories about monstrous menstruation, are beginning to play around with the stigma. In the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, for example, Buffy’s superpower strength is intrinsically linked to her menstrual cycle and every time a vampire is near she experiences light period cramps. This operates as an inbuilt alarm system to alert her to the danger around her. While this ‘ability’ was dropped for the series of the show by the same name, its inclusion in the movie represents an interesting break with conventional portrayals of menstruation in vampire-themed texts.

Moving away from art and popular culture, community workers and not-for-profit organisations in the developing world are doing some amazing work to address the social exclusion of menstruating women. For example, in Rwanda, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) has partnered with existing local women’s networks to offer microloans to women who then use the money to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality and eco-friendly sanitary pads. Not only does this provide the community with access to low-cost sanitary goods, but the model also offers women financial independence and increased economic security. Already this model has proved effective in increasing the school attendance of girls who may otherwise have stayed at home during their period.

But perhaps the most important work is the work that is being done by ordinary women in every day settings. In households, workplaces, schoolyards and online, girls and women are breaking a powerful taboo by talking about their experiences. Sisters, mothers, daughters and friends are blogging and speaking out about the menstrual stigma. They are developing new ways of thinking and talking about women’s bodies and, in the process, are fighting back against outmoded patriarchal attitudes. These women and girls are changing the future for all of us. They are our destroyers.

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

Published inAdvertisingBody ImageFeminismSexual harassment and discrimination

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