Having the Menstruation Conversation, Period.

By: Miriam Renz  |  January 2, 2017
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Recently, New York removed what came to be known as the ‘tampon tax,’ a former luxury tax that was applied when someone would purchase menstrual pads or tampons. The controversy surrounding this tax was in regard to the idea that feminine hygiene products fall within the category of a ‘luxury’ item, in contrast to items such as male condoms which have been exempt from the same tax because they are considered ‘necessities.’ Though the ‘tampon tax’ has, since this conversation began, been revoked, it represents a standard of defining ‘necessity’ one way and ‘luxury’ in another. Considering that this conversation has so recently been (somewhat) resolved in the U.S., the process of discussing menstruation and related topics is surely slow-moving. To better understand this process and how it differs depending on country and available resources, it is important to look at the following examples of cultural approaches to menstruation.

In 2012, author and journalist Rose George wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled, “The Taboo of Menstruation.” Rather than focusing on menstruation issues in the United States or the science of menstruation, George discusses the way periods are talked about, reacted to, and in what ways their treatment hinders young women in rural India. She discusses the overwhelming lack of sanitation in India, which, of course, creates problems for menstruating women. Having travelled to schools and numerous Indian towns, George writes that “23 percent of Indian school-age girls dropped out of school when they reached puberty,” a staggering, though not surprising, statistic. These places—and many like them—lack functional and safe sewage systems, creating an enormity of shame that revolves around feeling dirty. This especially affects young girls who are already processing what it means to have their periods. Unfortunately, George writes, many of these women are destined for experiences of infection and disease due to the unsanitary living conditions, perpetuating the stigma of menstruation and bodily functions in general.

Since then the New York Times—along with the Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune, among others—has published dozens of articles covering menstruation. This topic, however, has been broken down into a variety of subcategories, from menstrual cramps and ways of managing severe menstrual pain, to feminine hygiene products and the marketing that powers its industry. It’s also been divided into the culture of “period-shaming,” which is a more recent “sub-genre” within journalists’ menstruation-related articles.

In the United States, in contrast to George’s study of Indian girls and women, females can choose between tampons, pads, and menstrual cups, among other developing options. According to a recent Chicago Tribune article, the feminine hygiene product industry is a “$19 billion feminine hygiene market,” yet this money has often been used to produce advertisements that firmly discourage women and girls from accepting their periods as natural and manageable. Rather, these advertisements motivate women to “outsmart Mother Nature” and offer colored tampons to “distract from the hell you’re going through,” playing on the assumption and insistence that menstruation is intrinsically and unavoidably unpleasant.

Looking at the history in this industry, the slow movement of production and legislation becomes much more understandable: it was only in 1896 that Johnson & Johnson marketed the first version of a menstrual pad, after which it took almost half a century for someone to create what would become the tampon. Now, one hundred years later, two companies run by women have grown to compete in this industry, both with very different attitudes about menstruation than those of earlier companies. Journalist Danielle Paquette wrote in her article that “Thinx,” one of the new brands, “and Schulte’s Flex” another developing company, both work towards “rejecting the ancient menstrual stigma—the old taboos [that] deemed [women] unclean during their monthly cycles.” This insight, though to some quite obvious, is necessary when observing the scope of this stigma. From medieval up until modern times, there have been endless claims that women who are menstruating cannot approach crops because the crops will die, or even in the Jewish community the idea of niddah holds the belief that a woman is impure during menstruation, causing her to be ‘untouchable.’

Though both Thinx and Flex’s menstrual products are innovative in materials used, marketing tactics, and overall tone, they have not outsold the traditional pads and tampons. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, respectively forty and sixty percent of all American women still use either pads or tampons, with the remaining option of “either or both” rounding off the poll with one hundred percent using one or the other. This may seem like an underwhelming statistic, however, when looking at the alternative products such as menstrual cups it becomes clear that, aside from being environmentally conscious choices, menstrual cups offer a more connected way of experiencing menstruation.

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