Rebecca Siddall challenges the narrative menstruators are fed by international pharmaceutical companies, like ads showing pads adorned with petalsPexel/Karolina Grabowska

Just over a quarter of the world’s population has a period, and yet we are forced to go to extreme lengths to hide them. Periods are often framed as a shameful health condition from which one must be “freed” in order to be able to function as normal.

‘Mother Nature’s special gift for you!’

When Lioness Beth Mead declared last year that the England women’s football team might finally be changing from white shorts to navy, I felt a small glimmer of hope. This month, the team revealed their new kit, sparking a wider debate on the topic within women’s sport. The foundations of this debate cut far deeper into the history and politics of medicine.

The menstruation market is an arena filled with contradictions. Products menstruators use are monopolised by international pharmaceutical companies, and marketed as providing a certain kind of woman with a certain kind of lifestyle: she’s sterile, sporty, and upbeat – the model of a neoliberal consumer.

“Blood is replaced by sanitised blue liquid, pushing the idea that menstrual fluid is something abhorrent”

I still remember the exact words of the pink leaflet I was handed in Year 7, replete with butterflies and photos of smiling blonde tweens. At the time, I didn’t have the words to adequately express everything that was wrong with this Proctor & Gamble marketing campaign, but I’m sure many people reading this article (menstruators or not) will identify with the discomfort produced by menstrual marketing.

Blood is replaced by sanitised blue liquid, pushing the idea that menstrual fluid is something abhorrent. The women are either the epitome of femininity or obsessively athletic, dressed head to toe in Lycra. Both of these stereotypes feed into damaging narratives of who menstruates and how it should be managed.

Specifically, products whose sole purpose is to fulfil what academic Jill Wood has labelled the “menstrual concealment imperative”. They are doing their job when no-one knows that you are using them, reinforcing the idea that people with periods must always “pass” as non-menstruating, hiding their bodies and experiences.

“If men could menstruate, there would be no menstrual taboo”

From the first patented pads and tampons in the early 20th century, the focus has been on concealing any signs of menstruation.

Women wearing white was (and remains) a common motif for advertisements, symbolising purity and femininity as well as a symbolic demonstration that their periods have been rendered invisible. The wording of adverts themselves often used euphemistic language, urging discretion: “She must remain a mystery!” Under this perspective, it was a woman’s responsibility to prevent men from coming across any evidence of menstruation.

Compounding this erasure is the fact that menstrual product manufacturers have historically been male. Tampax tampons were developed and patented by a man, Earl Haas, who adapted a design that had previously been used for gynaecological treatments. Today, Tampax and Always brands are both owned by Procter & Gamble, giving the company a virtual monopoly over period products. Their CEO, Jon Moeller, was reportedly paid over $17 million in 2022; while in the same year 12% of women in the UK were experiencing period poverty.

“We can hope to make lasting change – periods that are free, in all senses of the word”

If men could menstruate, there would be no menstrual taboo. Feminist activist Gloria Steinem’s essay If Men could Menstruate highlights the ridiculous nature of the status quo. While her comments are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, she also hits a hard truth. Periods would be something to be envied, a power that women did not possess. Most importantly, menstrual products would be government-subsidised and free, with their purpose to provide comfort rather than secrecy.


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A dose of optimism?

We are starting to see a genuine pushback against this state of affairs. In 2020, the Free Periods Campaign successfully obtained government-subsidised period products in UK schools. At the same time, a new wave of “Femtech” startups such as Thinx, Clue, and DivaCup purport to put menstruators’ needs first.

But as “Femtech” takes off, scholars such as Camilla Mørk Røstvik warn that consumers must not become complacent: there is always room for these companies to continue to reinforce the menstrual concealment imperative, continuing the same regulation and invisibility of periods even while supposedly standing against the menstrual taboo.

The diversification of affordable (and sustainable) menstrual products, designed by and for people with periods, is the first step towards a more equitable industry. It is only by discussing the many ways that menstruators are still prevented from accessing affordable and reliable products that we can hope to make lasting change – periods that are free, in all senses of the word.