Last week my social media timelines were humming with Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s revelation of the shocking truth that women have periods. Her off-hand comment that her period had started the night before her 4×100 meter relay was being hailed as a ‘groundbreaking moment in Olympic history’. I don’t think it’s conspiratorial to imagine the quirky advertising campaign that will follow Yuanhui breaking this ‘taboo in sports’, as menstrual product companies try to own this story too.
The excitement over Yuanhui’s comments was kind of a brutal reminder of how present yet hidden menstruating is for people like me, who bleed on a monthly basis.
On the one hand, there is the inescapability of my body, the ever presence of my period: it is on or just over or waiting to happen. I’m always acutely aware of this thing that is occurring inside me – and then there is this weird hiding of that fact.
There are a lot of societal pressures that control how and where I bleed. I have never been told, ‘Make sure your blood doesn’t show’, but I know this is one of the rules. I found it out from Carrie and from terrifying stories at school. I learnt it from my mother and other women around me. But I think the greatest teacher of ‘bleed invisibly’ was the menstrual industry. I wasn’t sure what the correct term is for people who manufacture and sell the products marketed for people to use while they are bleeding but then I found this:
Feminine hygiene is a term used for explanation of personal care products which are used by women during menstrual discharge, menstruation and other body functions related to the vulva.
First off, the vulva? Second, that term feminine hygiene and it’s hideous other horseman sanitary products.
As far as I can tell menstrual blood is not unhygienic or unsanitary. While it seems easier to wash or throw out a pad or cup than trying to launder clothes and furniture, this language of cleanliness – and by inference its ever-present cousin filth – seems to have been a fundamental part of the lessons the industry has taught me about my period. There seems to be an implicit idea about disease in that word ‘hygiene’, too. As there’ll be some outbreak if I don’t use pads or tampons that will affect everyone.
Feminine hygiene is a $15-billion industry. If I were making $15 billion from anything, I’d do everything I could to protect the story keeping that money coming in. All the blue liquid and swimming pools I could muster would be setting about controlling when and where women bleed and how they felt about themselves while doing it.
This $15 billion is coming from somewhere. An article in the Huffington Post last year estimated that an average woman spends $1,773.33 on tampons in her lifetime. This ‘pink tax’ comes out of a woman’s pay pack – which is on average 21 percent less than a man, who possibly will most likely never have to buy a tampon or a mooncup in his life (unless he has dependants).
Recently, in New Zealand, there was an article about young women missing school and university because they didn’t have enough money to buy pads and tampons. This made me sad and angry. It felt like something out of the dark ages. Women excluded from society because of their period. Or perhaps more accurately because of the story society tells about how and where we can bleed – what’s appropriate, what’s hygienic.
I put this article on Facebook and immediately my friends started commenting. On the whole they were advocating for homemade and reusable products – mooncups, sewn pads. Mainly because these were cheaper, lasted longer but also there were a few replies that pointed out these products were better for the environment. Their response made me look at the article in a different way. I felt angry at the way capitalism had taken ownership over where and how we bleed. I felt sad that we weren’t all sitting around sewing our pads. That this billion-dollar industry and its keep your period hidden message owned the story of menstruation, and they were holding on tight, because to keep our periods hidden we need to buy their products.
To be honest, I also feel uneasy about the suggestions of $50 mooncups and time and skill-heavy solutions to the problem of not having access to products that allow a woman to bleed in a socially acceptable way – that is, carrying on in society as if you weren’t bleeding.
But what if you don’t have $50 for a mooncup? Like those who can’t find $5 for a box of 20 tampons. What if you live in a house where ten people use one bathroom and you don’t have a place to put a bucket to soak your home-made pads in? Admittedly, some of the women in the Facebook thread were offering to sew these pads for women and some suggested that mooncups could be subsidised. My friends aren’t deluded about how complex the issue is. They were trying to find ways to make these reusable products accessible to everyone.
But I still felt uneasy. When the question is ‘Can I have a tampon?’ the Left’s reply is, ‘Let’s work together to find a solution that’s sustainable and good for us all,’ while, the neoliberal Right’s is ‘Work hard and you can get all the tampons you want.’ And, in this case, I found the Right’s a surprisingly appealing reply. It’s the reply the dirt poor twenty-year-old I was in the nineties would have found most appealing.
Upon reflection, I realised it was all tied into that story I’d been pitched since I was looking at a bloody pair of pants in a school bathroom back in the 1980s: keep that hidden. Hidden means keep it to yourself. Keeping it to yourself means not talking to others, not asking for help, acting as an individual not a community.
It dawned on me, then, how completely capitalism had taken control of the story of menstruation – that a woman keeping her period hidden might seem the most appealing option. It made me realise how important that Facebook conversation was. How Fu Yuanhui’s comments – and Kiran Gandi’s free-bleeding London Marathon last year – actually had great power and were ground breaking. A very important part of making sure no more women missed school, I realised, was taking back the story of menstruation in very public ways.
It sounds so old-fashioned, because in many ways it feels like we’ve fought and won this battle over and over, but I think it can take the weight of attention again, now.
A friend and I were talking yesterday about how we’re introducing all the menstrual options to our daughters – how we’re trying to be careful not to just favour the products we use. Our talk moved on to how expensive these products were and how easy it is to get free condoms. That’s the story I’d like to be telling five years from now, ‘Remember when you paid for pads and tampons? Remember that dark old time before they were subsidised and some people couldn’t afford them?’ and part of making that happen is taking back control of the menstruation story now. If something’s hidden then the people hiding it control the story. But if a community controls the story, I feel like great things can happen.
Writers and artists, enter our Fair Australia Prize!
- How do we make a fair society? What are the things that need to change?
- What would a sustainable future or a just justice system look like?
- How can we improve labour or employment practices?
- What might a fairer planet look like in twenty years?
Closes 31 August. Visit the 2016 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize page for details. Entry is free.