Media and the Ideology of Menstruation in America

Media and the Ideology of Menstruation in America
Michael Bell
University of Pittsburgh

Every culture has myths surrounding menstruation.  In some cultures it is considered to be unclean and women are forced to be alone during these times.   In pre-modern times it was believed that a woman who was menstruating could cause wine to spoil, meat to go rancid, and bread dough to fall (Merskin, Debra, 1999.) Native American cultures thought that women who were menstruating were unsafe to be around and would force them out of the village to sit alone until they were done bleeding.  Female peers, parents, and community leaders passed these myths down from generation to generation.  Women are taught from an early age that is something embarrassing, painful, and often times shameful and not to be talked about.  Even today, the myth that inserting a tampon will take away your virginity still prevails (Merskin, Debra, 1999.)
How does American culture portray menstruation in the media and why?  To find the answer to this question we must first examine where the ideas come from at a cultural level. Has the idea that menstruation is unclean, taboo, and embarrassing changed from the past? I interviewed five female friends about their views on menstruation and asked them what cultural taboos they felt were still in place.
One interviewee told me that when she was approaching 12 years of age, she was told by her aunt that she would “get the curse soon.”  She didn’t know quite what the “curse” was because her Aunt would not elaborate nor would her Mother. She had her first period soon after and her Mother said “now you know what the curse is.”  She explained that she was mortified by the thoughts of some mysterious curse and was relieved to find out that it was just her period!
A second coworker told me a story about how she was never told what to expect and menstruation was not discussed in her household.  She started bleeding one day and approached her Mother who told her that she was just having her period but because her Father was not home with the family car she would have to “stuff a cloth diaper down there and sit on it” until her Father returned with the car after work.  She told me how embarrassing it was.
During my interview, all five of the women in the group began talking about “the old days” when they were forced to wear bulky pads involving a belt device used to hold the pad in place.  They all agreed about how embarrassing and uncomfortable it was.  One woman talked about how that prior to modern products women were forced to stuff rags down their pants. All of the women agreed that menstruation was something that was not to be discussed growing up, was something embarrassing and not to be shared around men, and also that it was something that was miserable to go through.
Being a male, I can tell you that growing up my Mother would never discuss her period in front of me or my Father.  She would just say that she was “having female troubles.”  I can also tell you that the most humiliating thing was to be sent to the store to pick up tampons when my Mother ran out.  As a male, I was taught that menstruation is something taboo, dirty, and even the idea of taking about it makes you feminine. My Father’s face would turn ten different shades of red if the word Tampon or Maxi Pad was even mention within earshot.  An uncomfortable silence would permeate the room and a hasty change of subject would quickly ensue. Words like “vagina”, “period”, and “ female problems” also brought on the same reaction.
It seems that in America, menstruation is something thought to be embarrassing, taboo, dirty, and shameful.  How does this common way of thinking about menstruation translate over into American advertising strategies toward women? According to research, since the early 1920’s American advertisers have focused on the negative when it comes to menstruation.  Their message focuses on the consequences of “showing” that you are menstruating (Merskin, Debra, 1999.)
I took a look at several recent commercials and found that most marketing revolves around “the big cover up.”  One advertisement for Kotex showed a woman dressed in white from head to toe rolling around on a bed with white sheets in a white room with white curtains.  The add had no dialog but just said the name of the product at the end and the word “freedom” in prominent script on a black screen.  What message is this sending?  It is saying that “if you use our product, no one will have to know that you are bleeding!”
Some advertisements incorporated humor in advertisement to promote their product.  One such advertisement involved a woman in a white bathing suit diving into a pristine pool, swimming past a shirtless well-built man, and then exiting.  She looks back and the man is standing in water that is around his ankles.  She says “sorry about that.”  The inference was that her tampon had absorbed all the water from the pool.
  Almost all of the advertisement s that I looked at all had the same consistent theme, use our product and you can swim, run, and be in public, without having to be embarrassed by someone finding out that you menstruating. 
In a study done at the University of Oregon in the late 1990’s, researchers took a look at advertisements targeted at young girls from two popular magazines, Teen, and Seventeen, over a ten year period and did a content analysis.  A total of 94 advertisements were examined for content and broken down into textual content.  Several underlying themes emerged; Fear, Secrecy, Freedom, Peace of Mind, and Comfort.  Fear was the most commonly used element and occurred in 83% of the advertisements and it focused on retaining ones virginity and dispelling the myth that inserting a tampon would cause one to lose it.   One advertisement for Tampax portrayed a girl asking “Are you sure you will still be a virgin?", and another replies “Yes you will still be a virgin. No. We won’t laugh.”
The second most commonly used theme was secrecy, with an occurrence rate of 38%.  An advertisement for Stayfree Ultra- Thin tampons had a headline that stated “No One Ever Has to Know that You Have Your Period.”  Another for Tampax showed a young woman in a ballet class telling her friend that “Everyone will know I am wearing a pad.”  The tampon was the solution to her problem! The message of this advertising theme was that having your period should be kept a secret at all costs and that feminine hygiene products will help you do that.
Freedom was the third most commonly occurring element used in the marketing researched, with an occurrence rate of 24%. The idea that was communicated here was that feminine products could “set you free from worrying about others knowing that you were having your period.”  An advertisement for O.B. featured a woman in a white bathing suit with a slogan of “Keep it Simple, Set Yourself Free.”
Peace of mind was the fourth most commonly occurring theme used in marketing at an occurrence rate of 14%. Trust our product and you will never have to worry about being found out was the primary message being delivered by the advertisers. “Trust is Tampax” was one of the slogans used by Tampax in an ad featuring two girls riding bicycles while wearing white pants (Merskin, 1999.)
How does the public feel about feminine hygiene advertisements?  I think that a lot of people think that feminine hygiene ads are in poor taste. The women that I interviewed expressed this.  They said that they found advertisement to be “stupid” and distasteful.  A study done by Advertising Age did a survey about different types of advertising categories found in both magazines and also on television. The Mamaroneck, N.Y., research company surveyed 2,006 men and women ages 18 and older in in-home interviews.  Consumers were asked whether advertising was interesting/informative, entertaining or in bad taste. In TV spots, 39% regarded advertising of feminine hygiene products as being in bad taste.  Magazine ad results were similar, with feminine hygiene products drawing disapproval from 34%, cigarettes from 27% and liquor from 26% (Advertising Age, 1994.)
One must wonder if the distaste for the ads stems from people feeling that they really do a poor job of representing women or if it is just the cultural taboo coming through in their opinions?  In other words, did the people surveyed feel that the ads were in poor taste because of the way that the portray women who are menstruating or because old cultural taboos were rearing their ugly heads and the people being surveyed just felt the ads made people uncomfortable by forcing them to hear about menstruation?
Advertisers have done both good and bad things for women. They have done good things in the sense that they have made women’s bodies and biological functions more prominent than in the past when those things were not discussed.  In the contrary they have also used their marketing to send a message.  “If you don’t buy our product, you might have to face humiliation when someone finds out that you are menstruating.  On one hand, they are helping to make people more aware that, yes, women in fact to have periods, on the other, they are perpetuating the myths of the past.

Works Cited:
 Merskin, Debra. Adolescence, Advertising, and the Ideology of Menstruation. Proquest Psychology Journals. June 1999;40: pg. 941-957.
Rickard, Leah. Consumers Would Rather Skip Feminine Hygiene Ads. Advertising Age. Section: Research News, 1994; pg 29.

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