Recently at our office building, there was a plumbing malfunction. The toilets stopped flushing, which, yes, was an unsavoury situation for all. During that time, a colleague of mine was in the mixed-gender bathroom when a man, who worked in another office elsewhere in the building, emerged from one of the cubicles. He looked shocked. “There’s blood in there,” he said. “There’s blood in the toilet bowl. What’s going on?”
It must have been unpleasant for him, certainly. No one likes to enter a toilet cubicle to find an unflushed toilet. But my colleague reported that this man seemed horrified by the bloody sight; he was confused; he was acting as though he’d come across something sinister, a crime scene perhaps.
“I suppose it’s period blood,” my colleague said and he looked even more shocked.
I remembered the anecdote when I saw Bodyform’s taboo-busting period-blood advert this week. As The Pool reported on Wednesday, the sanitary-towel brand became the first-ever company to depict actual period blood in an ad – it’s there for just a second, a trickle in the shower, a tiny glimpse of reality. And it felt huge. Because, while obviously everything is nicer and glossier and more ecstatic in advertising than in real life – breakfast, sex, country drives, the experience of smelling a synthetic pine scent etc – the misinformation around periods had extended beyond the adverts. The taboo of blood, the denial of pain was there in the advertising – all that blue liquid, all those bouncy happy teenagers – but it was also there in real life.
The discussion around monthly hormonal fluctuations has become joyously frank, with women swapping stories about how empowered they feel when they ovulate
Almost every woman will have her own stories of how she has been affected by this taboo. I experienced extreme pain as soon as I began to menstruate, with cramps so severe I would faint. A doctor told me that the pain would subside when I had a baby. I was 12. Now, more than two decades later, I still haven’t had a baby – so suggesting pregnancy as a solution to the problem of heavy painful periods is, well... it’s pretty crass.
The stigma attached to periods means that we allow millions of women to suffer. A survey published this week revealed that although one in five women in the UK suffers from menorrhagia (heavy, painful periods that interfere with day-to-day life), half of those women have never been to the doctor about it, believing the monthly discomfort to simply be part of being a woman.
Against the backdrop of this obfuscation of women’s pain and experiences, the Bodyform ad feels particularly revolutionary. And it’s not just the glimpse of period blood – throughout the 20-second advert, periods are depicted as almost cool. There’s a hipster boyfriend picking up some sanitary towels; there’s a woman in a red swimsuit reclining on an inflatable in a pool; there’s a twentysomething attending a house party dressed as a maxipad. It’s perhaps a sign that the advertising industry has been paying attention to women’s media over the last few years, as publications – including The Pool, alongside sites like Broadly, Teen Vogue and The Cut – have prioritised the issue of women’s pain and menstruation, as well as reflecting a shift in attitudes. Women have felt empowered enough to complain about the so-called tampon tax, so much so that Tesco felt it was wise to announce they would foot the bill from now on. Rupi Kaur took on Instagram when they got prudish about her visible menstrual blood. And the discussion around monthly hormonal fluctuations has become joyously frank, with women swapping stories about how empowered they feel when they ovulate versus the anxiety that goes hand in hand with PMS. Next week sees the launch of a new app called Moody, described as “a digital eco system for hormones, cycles and moods”.
So, things are changing – but it will take more than some period-themed Instagram posts to alleviate the problem. Doctors, employers and educators need to prove that they’re OK with period blood, too, and show that they’re willing to tackle the stigma that blights the health and wellbeing of girls and women.