Getting to the bloody truth of the femcare category
Eeeew, periods! Men and women the world over have been brought up to feel embarrassed and ashamed of menstruating women. Women on their periods are not to be discussed, because it is universally agreed that the whole thing is gross. So how do you advertise sanitary products to a marketplace that is ashamed of thinking about the ‘unsanitary’ event itself?
The femcare category has responded to that question by behaving with a hush-hush emphasis on discretion. Tampax notoriously marketed their Compak range as being so discrete, men would think they were packets of sugar. (Packets of sugar that feel like they have a tampon inside?). Bodyform recently ran an ad which featured two women doing some welding in the desert so that Bodyform could diplomatically allude to the idea of protection. Such strange, euphemistic codes have enabled femcare brands to tiptoe around ingrained social taboos without having to directly confront the very thing their product is designed to do – soak up blood. And by not talking about blood, femcare brands complicitly reinforce the widely accepted notion that women’s blood is shameful.
Despite 40 per cent of the global population bleeding out of their vaginas every month, periods have never been welcomed as a natural, interesting phenomenon deserving of a humanising rhetoric. Behind closed doors, women talk about their periods in ways that are smart, frustrated and funny. Women speak in tones appropriate to the complex biological and emotional experiences that periods represent. For an entire category to have reduced those experiences to blue water and silly euphemisms about rollerblading is a bland and frightened attempt at communication. No wonder most women think the period category ‘doesn’t speak for me’. Femcare brands, the profiteers of bleeding women, are just not trying.
Even ads that have gained attention for re-writing the category script are fundamentally meek. Kotex’s Reality Check ad pokes fun at the category for its far-fetched depictions of menstruating women, but doesn’t go so far as to say what we should replace those tired depictions with. Its rebellious edge is soft – it simply notes that current period ads are stupid, and leaves it at that. “I like to twirl, maybe in slow motion, probably in my white spandex” the woman says sarcastically. Okay – you don’t like to twirl. So what do women on their period like to do?
Always’ Like A Girl campaign has been widely celebrated for its empowering message but, like Kotex, the ads don’t even talk about periods. In line with the category, Always has opted to talk about something else entirely (in this case emojis and the social discourse around women in sport) as socially palatable surrogates for period chat. Yet, Always is fast building a reputation as the new female empowerment brand. Why is that, when they’re not advocating for a more open conversation around the realities of bleeding?
Well toilet paper brands don’t talk about shit, you might argue. And condom brands don’t talk about sperm. Why should femcare brands be literal when bodily fluid in general is a social taboo? Because, unlike spunk and shit, our shame towards period blood is a political issue that prevents women from being taken seriously. Periods play a significant role in the positing of women as incompetent, irrational human beings. They continue to be the site of widespread suspicion and ridicule. You wouldn’t find D. Trump (potential future US president, remember) openly disparaging a man’s intellectual competence by insinuating he’d just done a big shit. But he did exactly that with Megyn Kelly and her imagined period blood. Shit and sperm are not treated by society as bodily functions which bring associated intellectual or emotional disabilities. In their current status, periods are discursively vanished, (thank you Tampax-as-sugar sachet!) which never gives them the opportunity to be re-posited as a normalised human function.
If brands like Always are serious about changing young girls’ perceptions of menstruation, purposeful and bold discursive action is required in confronting period blood as a site of social discrimination, and reclaiming the way menstruation is spoken about. We need to normalise bleeding vaginas if we are to drive out society’s ability to humiliate women for menstruating.
Thank god then, for Thinx. Thinx burst on to the period scene when founder Miki Agrawal innovated against her eureka moment: “Why have I got fleece in my pants? I just want to wear underwear and bleed in my underwear”. Introducing Thinx pants – the absorbent knickers that remove the need for tampons and pads. ‘Underwear for women with periods’, their hard-fought subway ads boldly declare. The creative direction of the brand’s comms is intelligent and gorgeous – somewhere between a Celine ad and The Gentlewoman. For the category that communicates mainly through pastel cartoons of daisies, this culturally relevant aesthetic is new. Unlike its competitor brands, Thinx has brought periods out into the public sphere in a cool and compelling way.
“Period-proof underwear that absorbs up to 2 tampons’ worth of blood. No, you don’t have to change every few hours, no they don’t feel like diapers, and no, it’s not like sitting in ur blood all day. Boom.” With their sharp copy, Thinx have turned their backs on established category norms. For the first time, we see a brand communicating about menstruation in unflinching real speak – without hiding behind metaphor, or couching product benefits in polite euphemism.
Unlike Always’ timid attempt to change girls’ perceptions about menstruation (by asking women to think themselves powerful), Thinx speaks publically in the private language of a discriminated people. This is truly empowering – taking up public space with a visual and verbal language that sparks new thought as to what a woman’s menstruating body can be. Other brands must learn from this. Until there is nothing belittling or humiliating about the phrase “she’s probably on her period”, we have a long way to go.
- Article by Katharine Hill