Periods, Consumerism, and My Gentle Menstrual Activism
Today Nursing Clio welcomes a guest post from Jenna Tucker, a graduate student in English at the University of Oregon. She studied Creative Writing at Emerson College in Boston and maintains a personal blog under a pseudonym on the complexities of practicing an ethic of consent in everyday life.
The Camp Gyno ad sparked debate this past fall in the feminist blogosphere about menstruation and feminine care products. When I watched the ad, it managed to evoke just about every contradictory emotion I could feel in relation to periods, gender, and feminism. I felt everything from shame to ’90s girl-power pride to anti-capitalist rage. I’m a tiny arena in which contradictory personal and cultural history plays itself out.
The Camp Gyno ad has been praised by some feminists for being period positive. Others have seen Hello Flo’s discreet packaging as hiding menstruation and perpetuating young women’s period shame, which I would actually call period horror. The extreme taboo and shame around menstruation arise from a culture that devalues women. Watching the ad, I was reminded of Gloria Steinem’s marvelous piece of 1970s humor, “If Men Could Menstruate,” in which she imagines how periods would be represented in our culture if men had them instead of women. So the ad did make me smile. Part of me knows that this ad would not exist were it not for a great deal of effort on the part of feminist activists. I see that the ad is both better than the norm in feminine care product marketing and still not that much better, but my focus settles more on what I feel to be the weightier feminist issue of first-world consumerism and its harm to global health.
It is important to discuss the ad on the level of representation, but it also warrants a discussion on the underlying level of production. Consumerism tends to offer an escape from intimacy with the body, including bodies marked and shamed by gender, as part of the package deal. And not just our personal bodies as consumers but the collective body, as well. The effects of consumerism and environmental degradation are unequally distributed, globally and locally. Economic equality has always been central to feminist movements. If solidarity is to be maintained across lines of race and class, then these are undeniably feminist issues.
There is a rising awareness that companies “greenwash” product lines, adapting their marketing to sell the idea that they are earth-friendly without authentically alleviating the environmental cost of their product production. Part of what our system of production sells is the privilege of ignorance about realities of production, usually exploited labor and externalized cost. Greenwashing is a response to rising collective consciousness and unease about our economic system, a response that placates us and prevents the build up that would demand major change.
Likewise, advertisements seek to capitalize on feminist consciousness. I would use the term “fem-washing” for ads that take a tiny step towards progress without addressing real, deep feminist issues. They try to be generally positive towards women to sell their products. I compared the Camp Gyno ad with my favorite piece of feminist media of all time: Sarah Haskins’ brilliant series of “Target Women” videos on Infomania. Haskins satirizes advertizing campaigns that target women as their demographic. I especially love the moment in “Target Women: Birth Control” when Haskins lists off the things women like to do when not controlled by their periods, because she goes beyond the blatant sexism of these ads and reveals their shallow and gimmicky images of liberated women, as well.
As an alternative to mainstream consumer fem-care products, feminist activists have long advocated the use of products like sea sponges and menstrual cups. In the mid-1970, Second Wave menstruation activists promoted the use of alternative products along with familiarization with and celebration of women’s bodies. When, in the 1980s, a line of tampons marketed by Proctor and Gamble resulted in the toxic shock syndrome epidemic, the movement grew stronger. Under government pressure, Proctor and Gamble withdrew their product, and the company later rebounded and became the makers of Tampax®. I grew up with warnings for TSS on the boxes of tampons I purchased. Meanwhile, I was told that TSS “was a myth.”
Third Wave feminists and others who promote environmental awareness have continued the trend of informing and advocating for alternative, less costly products. I found ready support online some years ago when I bought sea sponges and a Divacup®, planning to wait until a “high self-confidence day” to try and transition to one or the other. It ended up being the Divacup®. After, I had a patch of intense anger that I had ever been taught to use disposable products in the first place. Nothing about them was better. Switching made a huge difference in my relationship to my period. My period caused me less anxiety, less discomfort, and less money. I was more self-reliant and had more positive awareness of my body. I’d been taught a way of managing my period that was in no way best for me, but instead best for companies who wanted to profit off me as much as possible.
We face a contradiction when our bodies are already politicized, policed, and controlled by mainstream society, to then also face pressure to make our bodies counter-culturally political. We can wind up wanting to assert ourselves, once again, to these demands. I’ve seen friends weep with shame because they were not “strong enough” feminists to maintain sexual boundaries.
So I’m a stealth, gentle menstruation activist. I’m trying to find that balance between becoming more critical and demanding of my society and becoming less critical and demanding of other women. On a societal scale, I try to fight normalization, oppression, rape culture, and coercion. On a personal scale, I try to give love and support and generate options. I regularly put the existence of menstrual cups and cloth pads made by real people (often moms) and available for purchase on Etsy onto the radar of my friends. I tell them my story. Once they show an interest, I support their transition. I guess I get to be a period Santa like in the Camp Gyno ad. Except I don’t have to come back every year or be paid once a month.
1 Chris Bobel, “From Convenience to Hazard: A Short History of the Emergence of the Menstrual Activism Movement, 1972-1992,” Health Care for Women International 29 (2008): 738-754.
2 Chris Bobel, “Our Revolution Has Style”: Contemporary Menstrual Product Activists ‘Doing Feminism’ in the Third Wave,” Springer Science and Business Media, Inc. (2006).
Featured image source: Fleurcup and tampons.
Additional image by Instead Softcup [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons