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The Marketing of Menstruation

“The curse, on the rag, my Aunt Flo is coming to visit.” Call it what you will, but periods have been a dirty word, cloaked in shame and secrecy, since way before the first tampon ads in the late 20’s or early 30’s. [Now just to come clean, I co-wrote a paper in the journal “Sex Roles,” which was presented at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference]

“The curse, on the rag, my Aunt Flo is coming to visit.” Call it what you will, but periods have been a dirty word, cloaked in shame and secrecy, since way before the first tampon ads in the late 20’s or early 30’s.

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[Now just to come clean, I co-wrote a paper in the journal “Sex Roles,” which was presented at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference]

Since my days of researching women’s reactions to their periods and the messages they receive through the media, school, and even their mothers regarding menstruation, I have been suspicious about the marketing of women’s menstrual cycles. The commercials, showing a woman in a white skirt or white shorts playing tennis and hoping no one notices her tampon or pad, haven’t changed much. In fact, the only difference is that over the years the menstrual pads have gotten smaller, the shorts and skirts have gotten shorter, and the contempt towards menstruation has become more overt.

So it came as no surprise to me when Wyeth, the drug maker, announced a new contraceptive pill, Lybrel, which will completely eliminate a woman’s period. And it makes sense. I mean with all the negative messages women receive about their menses — it’s messy, smelly, dirty, and a nuisance — why wouldn’t women want to get rid of it? And why wouldn’t a company oblige by having women buy both literally and metaphorically into the message that their period is a curse, something to be done away with?

My personal feeling is that by taking a pill to eliminate our periods we are medicalizing our bodies and turning something natural into a sickness. But just to be clear, I believe women should be given choices. Despite the messages we hear about women and nature and motherhood and moon cycles and sugar and spice — not all women are the same. Some women have cramps. Some have PMS. And some just don’t want to be bothered with a period. All women, no matter their reason, should be given the option of not menstruating. That is not the problem. But the message the pills perpetuate, and how this message will be marketed to women, are questionable.

In a New York Times article from April 20, Ronny Gal, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, said he predicted an onslaught of advertising from Wyeth to convince women to give up their monthly menses. I can only imagine what those ads will look like:

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Two girls standing together in a bathroom:
Girl A pulls out a tampon. Girl B, with a dismayed look on her face says, “You mean, you still menstruate?”
Girl A: Yeah, why?
Girl B: Didn’t you hear about Lybrel? It’s this great new pill you take once a day and your period is gone. No mess. No hassle. No worries.
Why menstruate when there’s Lybrel?

But read the fine print. The real message here is why would a modern woman wants to have her period when there are options. Or the more insidious message: Babies are good. Periods are bad. Women should be ready to procreate, but we shouldn’t menstruate.

Ok, I get it.

And its comments like this one from Wyeth’s therapeutic director for women’s health, Dr. Ginger D. Constantine, that make the marketing message clear: She pointed out that Wyeth research found women feel “less effective” at work and school during their periods. And a Canadian research firm found that women with heavy bleeding lose $1,692 a year in lost wages.

So here women are in 2007 trying to break through the glass ceiling and prove that they should receive equal pay for equal work and instead research is showing that once a month women perceive themselves as less effective. That kind of research does nothing to further a women’s place in the workplace and only serves to perpetuate a pre-existing notion about women: that we are inherently less efficient and less capable than men.

For further reading on this topic:
Salon
and Slate

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