The Business of Bleeding

By Rosanna Stevens

A month ago I stood in a basement belonging to a man called Harry Finley. Harry is 75, and has spent an impressive portion of his life collecting menstrual ephemera. You know: pads through the ages, tampons famous as the culprits of toxic shock syndrome, ancient knickers, the prototype for the menstrual cup, whatever; you name it, he has it.

Once, these items were displayed around the downstairs of his home. In its heyday, mannequins hung from the ceiling adorned with white cotton menstrual wear, and display boards offered viewers a range of historical period zines and pamphlets. Visitors would book in to view the private collection, known as the Museum of Menstruation. In the humidity of midsummer in Maryland USA, surrounded by walls of cinderblock and shelves and containers spilling with his library of items, we chatted about the catalyst for his collection: advertisements.

 ‘I had the impression up until the museum opened that women spoke among themselves about menstruation all the time.’ He explained to me as we stood over several cardboard boxes of sanitary pads, a basement tap hissing like a third character.

‘You see it in ads – but they don’t. That’s incredible – it still amazes me. I mean I have ads from the 1920’s and 30’s – cartoon kind-of ads where ‘Janet’ is talking with her neighbour, house to house. ‘Oh have you seen this new Kotex pad?’ And I thought, well this is the way it happens; women chat about this kind of thing. It was a shock to me when I would ask museum visitors about this stuff, and they would look at me with surprise and say – ‘Oh… no.’

Unless they were in a radical underground menstrual cult, no woman was having a conversation with another woman about Kotex in the burbs of white America in the 1930’s, because of hundreds of years of menstrual stigmatisation. Instead, like a literally bloody Trojan horse, Kotex dressed itself up as two buoyant housewives and, in pantomime, had a conversation with the menstruating people of white America in the 1930’s. Kotex told menstruating people what to buy, why covering up your period was desirable, and who menstruated – like it was your doctor or your friend.

In case you’re thinking anything has changed since the 1930’s, let me take you on a journey through time and space.

Earlier this year, a brand called Bodyform was praised for their progressive menstrual product advertising campaign, which featured a montage of feminine-presenting women playing sport, dancing, boxing and skateboarding, despite visible cuts and bruises marking their bodies. The slogan that won them praise was, ‘No blood should hold us back’. Hold us back from what? Death? Isn’t this a grittier version of the magical advertisements of the 90’s, featuring white pants, horses, and beach-runs? Doesn’t the ad ultimately tell us that the best period is an invisible period, and that we should want to be highly functional during our period, at all times? That periods are our enemy? Or are our bodies are our enemy; that somehow it’s still an inconvenience to be a woman, or a menstruating person?

Recently, Dear Kates – a kind of menstrual underpant self-branded as ‘REVOLUTIONARY UNDERLUX TECHNOLOGY’ – sent me an email titled, ‘Girl, are you ready for the revolution’ – not even a rhetorical question. The revolution they offered was sweat and leak-proof active wear, and underpants that would let me dance ‘restriction free’.

The technology these brands are offering is new and interesting, and in many ways very experimental and liberating: Dear Kates offer menstruators the opportunity to move with new comfort, and because menstrual pants are cloth, it also offers us an opportunity to familiarise ourselves with menstrual blood in newly confronting and physical ways.

But these new brands are also offering us a dangerous old idea as a new product: menstrual invisibility served up as progressivism. They don’t just sell us ideas of why menstruation is bad and we should defy it; who they use in their ads, and the language of their ads, also tells us the lie that only a certain type of woman bleeds.

Advertisements sell us successful states of womanhood – the runner, the boxer, the football player, the yogi and the pamperer, the sufferer and the joyful beach-runner. These are ideal representations that rely on erasing anyone else who may menstruate, such as non-normalised women’s and  trans, non-binary people’s experiences of menstruation. It is an erasure that shows the business of bleeding is booming but it’s not taking part in our revolution – it’s selling an evolution in the controlling of feminine idealisation and menstruation.

Advertising doesn’t know anything about our bodies: it isn’t a doctor. Advertising isn’t even a social studies lecturer. Advertising isn’t your mother, and most importantly, it isn’t your friend. Menstrual product advertising wants to be your friend, but in that way someone befriends you because you have a nice car they want to borrow. Menstruation is a really nice car that menstrual products and advertisers would like to take for a spin once a month, at a cost to you: because, so long as you’re paying to have your period, menstrual technology companies will want to own it.

In her piece in Overland, Bloody girls: on periods and poverty, Pip Adam writes about a similar revelation: ‘It dawned on me…’ she writes, ‘how completely capitalism had taken control of the story of menstruation – that a woman keeping her period hidden might seem the most appealing option.’

Your period is yours – it happens in your body, it belongs to you and is your experience to have as you please. That’s why menstrual product ads tell you hiding it is your personal responsibility. Nobody else wants your period: they don’t want to see it, they don’t want to hear about it, they don’t want to smell it. It’s yours, and I can’t even pretend to be sorry about that for you, because it means you’re in control of the future of menstruation.

Instead of allowing the modern version of Kotex’s Janet tell you what your period is, wants, and needs, start your own revolution: ask questions, work out what your period means to you outside of the products available, talk to your friends and family about menstruation. It’s an uncomfortable task – almost as uncomfortable as, oh, I don’t know, bleeding. But telling yourself that your own period is a problem has got to be harder.


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Rosanna StevensSupplied by author

Rosanna Stevens is a writer, researcher, and musician based in Canberra. She is currently completing a PhD in decolonisation, and she is this year’s Anne Edgeworth Fellow. You can find more of her writing on menstruation in bookstores across Australia in November, in The Best of The Lifted Brow Vol II.

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