Coded language contributes to culture of shame about menstruating

It’s almost impossible to find any word relating to “menstruation” on the packaging of pads and tampons. (Reuters)

It’s almost impossible to find any word relating to “menstruation” on the packaging of pads and tampons. (Reuters)

For most people who menstruate, discussion about the monthly cycle is coded - and there is a stigma attached to this natural process.

This is most visibly in the wording on menstrual products. Peruse the shelves of tampons and pads in the “feminine hygiene” aisle and it’s almost impossible to find any word relating to menstruation on the packaging of products. Such is also true for the words “vaginal” or “vagina”. Only one product had the word “vaginal” on it, and even that was described as an “intimate hygiene soap” used for the “intimate area”.

The language also depends on the type of product. Tampons were more likely to use the word “flow” and one package used the word “period”. But more often than not, words that denoted the level of menstruation – “regular”, “super”, and “super plus” – replaced the conversation of the monthly act altogether.

“Branding of menstrual products does its best to keep our bodies completely separate from the equation. People find there’s very rarely a mention of “body”, of “symptoms”, of what menstruation actually is,” said Elissa Stein, author of Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation.

“It’s way more abstract and the one message that it does give about your body is that if anybody found out that you had your period, it would be embarrassing and shameful.”

Because menstrual pads and tampons are relatively new products (the first pad was created by Kotex in 1920) and language for menstruation didn’t really exist, advertisers developed a way to discuss menstrual products without talking about menstruation – products that were largely advertised by men.

“So this whole vocabulary came into play because of advertisers. They’re the ones who came up with ‘sanitary protection’, ‘feminine hygiene’. Those were all just code words that we’ve all learned, meaning menstruation without having to say it,” said Stein.

“Many of them [men] are assigned to these campaigns and it’s still perpetuating this thing because what they’re doing has been successful. It’s a billion-dollar industry worldwide. So if you can sell things convincing women that this is embarrassing, you feel your products will help them keep their shameful secret, why change it?”

A study by The International Women’s Health Coalition and Clue, a Berlin-based maker of the period-tracking app, conducted a survey that found that 10 different languages used euphemisms to talk about menstruation. See the report here.

Dr Sumayya Ebrahim, a lecturer and consultant in the department of psychology at University of Johannesburg, argued that these euphemisms are common and are not particular to menstruation.

“I think that many bodily processes, such as diarrhoea and vomitting, are spoken about using euphemisms such as running tummy and throwing up, so that the crudeness about these subjects can be masked and made more comfortable to speak about,” said Ebrahim.

Because it can be potentially embarrassing to broach certain subjects, particularly in a public space, coding the language can give people space to talk about sensitive topics. Ebrahim explained that we do the same for other personal subjects such as sex.

“Think about condoms and sex, very few people say penis and vagina when talking about condom use. Other words are used to communicate about these, and moreover the purpose of these products are inferred in the packaging, ” said Ebrahim.

“So it’s all sort of sugarcoated and packaged in a way to not cause alarm and shame - to make it more accessible and make it more comfortable.”

Although coded language might make it easier for people to talk about menstruation, it may also reinforce the stigma attached to a natural process.

Professor Desiree Lewis, who teaches in the department of women and gender studies at the University of the Western Cape, said: “If you speak openly about your menstruation in terms of your period or in terms of some kind of euphemism, you almost internalise and reproduce the idea that there is something wrong with it. So the idea of the body being wrong is somehow normalised more than anything else.”

Imagery in advertising the products also affects the way people who menstruate understand their bodies. Many popular advertisements include images of women wearing white while dancing around; there is also popular symbolism using the color blue in packaging to replace the colour of red, the colour of blood.

“For the most part it’s women and for the most part it’s white women pictured in ads [who] never look like anybody who’s really having their period,” said Stein.

“Very often the women that are in these adverts are very scrubbed looking and squeaky clean and it’s this obsession with pushing the idea that you must be clean - buy these products in order to be clean. It’s the kind of commercialised, commodified and very patriarchal notion of “clean”, which is not smelling a certain way or not showing that you are bleeding,” added Lewis.

Gendered dynamics
Although navigating conversation about menstruation can be difficult for cis women, it’s equally problematic for others who menstruate but do not identify as cis women, such as nonbinary people and trans men.

“The language that is consistently used assumes that audience is cis gender and that individuals in question who will be buying the product are people who are familiar with the product already,” said Tish Lumos, programme co-ordinator of sexual orientation and gender identity advocacy at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“Because language used as part of the greater discourse that just assumes that when we talk about people who have cervical characteristics of having a vagina or a uterus, we make the assumption that, based on the six cues that we get from birth and the gender that person is assigned at birth, that those specific individuals are cis gender women are the only people who will be reached by marketing.”

For Kevin, a sociology major at Wits who identifies as non-binary trans masculine and who chose to remain anonymous, navigating the culture of menstruation is easier because they are often identified as female. Still, they find there is still a level of shyness regarding to gender identity and menstruation.

“With my guy friends I try to as often as possible just say like ‘ah man, I’m having pretty bad cramps’ or just keep it in the open because I don’t think it needs to be a secretive thing in any way,” said Kevin.

“I get pretty bad period pains in general, so I just I think it’s an important part of my life to acknowledge. I think I just don’t want it to be a thing of shame.”

Ultimately, the discourse of menstruation and advertising of menstrual products to nonbinary and trans men is difficult because it disrupts the socially and traditionally accepted gender binary of cis women and cis men.

“Even though there’s this idea of women’s bodies being fundamentally dirty and needing to be somehow cleaned up, there’s also an implicit assumption that there are real women, they are cis women, and these are the women being targeted,” said Lewis.

There are also questions about how these clients would be marketed as consumers, something that advertisers might have a difficult time figuring out.

“The gender part is really hard because there’s trans men who still menstruate and it’s a difficult thing on some many levels. If you’re using the bathroom that you might identify with but you’re still getting your period, what do you do? And within the trans community people are at such different stages. I think that for advertising that would be really hard to tackle,” said Stein.

One company has started to contest traditional menstrual product advertising. Thinx, a company that makes underwear to absorb menstrual blood, used a trans man to advertise its line of underwear. Although the approach to advertising was a step in the right direction, Stein argues that Thinx is still perpetuating a culture of shame.

“Even though it’s so much more open about the conversation and their advertising is really different and they feature different ages and genders and races, the message is still your period should be a secret. So there’s still a shame component to Thinx,” said Stein.

There is continual debate regarding whether companies have a responsibility to be more transparent about how they market their products to consumers. Ebrahim argued that companies are “there to supply a solution to a problem, the problem [being] flow”. She said this responsibility might be more appropriate for something like a health organisation.

Kevin said, although companies don’t necessarily need to make a more gender-inclusive marketing approach, they could help normalise a reality experienced by people who menstruate.

“For me the main thing is this acknowledgement as part of a lot of people’s everyday life as well as the fact that it’s not part of a lot of people’s everyday lives,” said Kevin.

“I think if it’s kind of uplifting to say that I can be masculine and still have a period, period pains, because that’s just a part of who I am and I don’t particularly want to shy away from that,” added Kevin.

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