I was navigating the supermarket yesterday, toddler in tow, chatting about all the products we were passing. A constant commentary of the products, decisions about what milk to buy, what colour the bananas are. Inane chatter to an outsider, but I love these outings with my son as he learns all about the world. We read the signs and I wonder aloud whether we need venture down that aisle. We see the ‘fish’ sign, we see the ‘beverages’ sign. We talk about the ‘baking goods’ sign and how we like to bake muffins at home. Then we come to the ‘feminine hygiene’ sign. I had passed such signs countless times before, but with a toddler soaking up all there is to learn, suddenly language has a whole new meaning and importance to me. My chatter is halted for a second - “feminine hygiene”? – and I am not sure how to explain these words.
To give my son a literal explanation, it seems that females must need products to sanitise themselves. Through a young child’s eyes, I look at the marketing – ahh, feminine hygiene products – these must make women don white leotards and dance, put on a skimpy bikini and run through waves, throw on high heels, skinny jeans and grab a microphone. And some have wings! Maybe women can fly after all! As I took a moment to ponder this, my son pointed at the ‘sanitary products’ and yelled out in delight “Mummy’s nappies!” I laughed and agreed - “Those are for women to use when they have their periods”. I could almost feel the man beside us scampering past all these ‘sanitary products’ reel in horror.
I was recently alerted to a new advertising campaign by US tampon brand ’Kotex’. According to Mr. Meurer, of Kotex - “We’re changing our brand equity to stand for truth and transparency and progressive vaginal care.” Wow, ‘progressive vaginal care’ – the mind boggles! But thumbs up to them for attempting to ‘get real' in their advertising for their products, by mocking the traditional way that menstruation products are advertised. The advertisement opens with a woman declaring she loves her period, followed by “Sometimes I just want to run on a beach... Usually, by the third day, I really just want to dance... The ads on TV are really helpful because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s supposed to happen.’ ” The dialogue is illustrated by clips that had been used in previous Kotex advertisements, furthering the irony of the whole thing.
But thumbs down to US television networks who, after viewing the original advertisement, barred the use of the word 'vagina'. Even a revised version, which referred to “down there” was deemed too explicit. To quote blogger Amanda Hess, "Now, the commercial contains no direct references to female genitalia—you know, the place where the fucking tampon goes."
The way society frames language shapes the way we feel about things, talk about things. The language we use imposes a particular view of the world. The view promoted by the language of ‘feminine sanitary products’ is that women are dirty and need to buy things to sanitise themselves. Are women’s bodies and their natural cycles really that scary? I am not advocating graphic photography here, but can we not at least acknowledge what the tampons are for? Is the word ‘vagina’ really that offensive? I hope Kodex’s new approach to tampon advertising marks the beginning of a change in the language we use around menstruation. I can't help but think of all the out-there products advertising 'penile erectile dysfunction'.
I think again of the world through my child’s eyes. If his sexuality education was left to the media, he’d grow up assuming that women need to buy ‘feminine hygiene products’ in order to wear tight white spandex and dance, or play beach volleyball in skimpy bikinis. He’d also think the ‘products’ were to clean up that funny blue stuff. But for now I am my son’s teacher, and I can filter most of this stuff for him. I dance most days, regardless of what day in my cycle it is, and I most certainly never wear white spandex.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.