The History of Menstrual Health Stigma


Periods have been widely stigmatised throughout human history — even until as recently as the late-20th century, people who menstruate were viewed as “impure” or “unclean”, or seen as biologically and physically unfit during their menstrual cycle. These views had an impact on societal practices, causing menstruation to become something to be “ashamed of", and a private matter not spoken about openly. These views and norms are particularly reflected in the educational and media portrayals of menstruation throughout the years.


Period Product Advertisements


The conversation surrounding menstruation would make its first appearance in the late 80s and early 90s when companies like Kimberly-Clark released print advertisements for menstrual products. These advertisements referred to “bandage suspenders” and “combination belts” in an attempt to be discreet, and did not refer to their actual function. Such advertisements reinforced the stigma surrounding menstruation by marketing period products as something to be bought discreetly in stores “to save embarrassment”.


Although the first commercial advertisement for menstrual products, such as sanitary napkins and tampons, was aired on “family-viewing” network programs in 1975, it wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1985, that the word “period” was used in a commercial advertisement by Tampax, featuring Courtney Cox.

In 1976, American scholar Fred E.H. Schroeder authored an article surveying the lack of public conversation surrounding menstruation. Schroeder argued that despite the technological and commercial advancements at the time in normalizing menstrual hygiene, menstruation was still regarded as “tabooed uncleanliness” and a shameful bodily function that was meant to be dealt with in private.


Menstruation Education Videos


The educational content produced by manufacturers of menstrual products continued to reinforce these narratives. “The Story of Menstruation” was an animated film commissioned by Kimberly-Clark (who owns Kotex) and produced by Walt Disney Productions as part of a series of films produced for American schools. While the film remains accurate in some respect to this day, providing animated diagrams to detail the menstrual cycle and information debunking myths about menstruation, it conveyed the idea that menstruation is meant to remain hidden and unspoken in order to maintain a “normal” lifestyle.


While the film “Always Changing: About You”, created by Procter & Gamble (who owns Always) in 1995 as part of their “Always Changing” school program, provided valuable biological information about menstruation, it still conveyed the idea that periods are a shameful occurrence. The video contained comments such as “the only one who has to know that you’re wearing (a sanitary napkin) is you”, reinforcing the notion that menstrual cycles are a shameful occurrence.


Conclusion


Although in many countries periods, menstrual health and period products remain heavily stigmatised, throughout the past two decades, period product companies, social activists and NGOs have been improving the experience of menstruation through more sophisticated technologies, and working to erase the taboos associated with periods by revolutionising the narrative and discourse surrounding periods. It can be hard to imagine that just a few decades ago, things were quite different, and it is due to the collective efforts of these actors, that the discourse is now starting to change.