Half of the world’s fertile population experience it 25% of the time, yet menstruation remains shrouded in mystery. When it was announced in 2020 that menstrual health would be taught to all pupils aged 11 and over for the first time, over 100,000 ‘concerned’ parents signed a petition calling for the choice to opt out.1 We live in a country where one in four women do not understand their menstrual cycle, a third of girls aren’t told about periods by their parents, and 10% receive no preparation before their first period whatsoever.2 Clearly a more effective catalyst for change to improve menstrual literacy is not only welcome, but necessary.
Pixar’s Turning Red seeks to meet that need. The 2022 film tells the story of 13-year-old protagonist Meilin Lee, whose transformation into a giant red panda at times of high emotion or stress is an apt metaphor for the tumultuous nature of puberty. Symbolising the onset on her first period, Mei mutates into a ‘gross red monster’ who, despite all the attendant awkwardness this entails, must learn to control her strong emotions (to quote the film’s tagline, ‘Growing up is a beast’).
Far from embracing the film’s message, horrified parents and critics alike lambasted Pixar on social media and in reviews, deeming the menstruation storyline too mature, ‘inappropriate’,3 and ‘embarrassing’4 for the preteen audience. However, with the average age of the onset of puberty decreasing in girls,5 and a ‘little and often’ approach recommended in period education6 (there are only two scenes overtly involving menstruation in the whole film), how can we account for the public’s unease? A significant proportion of Turning Red’s target audience are already menstruating, after all. Perhaps it’s time we all got schooled in sex ed.
While everyone performs bodily functions, evidently the only one deserving great lengths of concealment is the same one that divides us from men. We don’t routinely hide toilet paper out of sight in the same way we do period products. There is, however, a dark side to this secrecy and shame: girls in a 2018 report used negative expressions such as ‘embarrassed’, ‘scarred’ and ‘unprepared’ to describe their first periods.7 Up to 37% of UK women experience stigmatisation, bullying and isolation around periods, and 77% of this behaviour happens in schools.8 Worryingly, the onset of menstruation is also linked to girls withdrawing from lessons and sports.9
In an attempt to deliver improvements, Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) in England’s primary and secondary schools made menstrual education compulsory for the first time in 2020.10 This is an important and long overdue milestone, although parents still reserve the right to remove their children from some aspects of RSHE.11 One common argument is that parents should be the ones to discuss these issues with their children. However, few parents are equipped with the knowledge and expertise to deliver a curriculum encompassing such a complex range of issues including puberty, menstrual products, female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic abuse, revenge porn and sexting to mention but a few.
Lucy Emmerson, Director of the Sex Education Forum, points out how vital the introduction of early sex and menstrual education truly is: ‘We want to make sure that children are prepared for puberty before they experience it’.12 However, statutory guidance still makes no mention of teaching about hormones, which as period educator Chella Quint puts it, is ‘like teaching maths without numbers’.13
As Community Interest Company, Hey Girls, points out, schools are a ‘microcosm of society’. Therefore, menstrual education must reinforce the message that periods are normal and natural, not something shameful and hidden, so that this message can filter out into the wider world.14 Beginning to stamp out this shame involves understanding where it comes from in the first place.
The social and cultural factors that uphold taboos surrounding menstruation are complex and innumerable. What is seldom considered is how advertising has historically contributed to the problem. In the relatively short life of period advertising, femcare has been synonymous with discretion. Menstrual pads didn’t appear in adverts until 1972, and it would be another thirteen years before we’d hear the word ‘period’ uttered on TV by none other than Courtney Cox in a Tampax advert.15
Unsurprisingly, capitalism lies at the heart of the problem. Unlike in the cases of other brands where newcomers to the market raise the competitive bar, the big period players, products and advertising have largely remained the same since their introduction in the 1930s.16
Ever since their inception, Emma Barnett, broadcaster and author of Period., points out, femcare brands have capitalised on controlling the narrative about periods, resulting in the perpetuation of antiquated menstruation myths.17 She takes issue with cheery period advertising which tends to represent menstruating women as blithely engrossed in all manner of unrealistic sporting endeavours (while clad in the prerequisite crisp white clothing, naturally). The cliché has been parodied to death, however this stereotyping cumulates in the pervasive perception of periods as something mystifying and obscure.
Barnett has a point. Real period blood (as opposed to the blue liquid we’re all familiar with, presumably supplied by Smurfs), wasn’t depicted until Bodyform’s ‘Blood Normal’ campaign in 2017.18 Over in the US, period underwear makers Thinx faced having their ads pulled from the New York subway system in 2015, because the subway ad company took issue with the use of the word ‘period’ and the ‘suggestive’ imagery used to connote the female anatomy (think halved pink grapefruits and runny eggs).19
Even product packaging has contributed to the sense of secrecy surrounding menstruation. You’d be hard pressed to this day find the colour red among the pastel hues of the femcare section of the supermarket.20
Menstrual products have ultimately been distanced from their actual use, and it is not hugely surprising that this is the case. In one study, people reported worse impressions of a woman they saw drop a tampon from her bag than if she had dropped something ‘innocuous’, and even avoided sitting near her.21
In a world in which we balk at the overt sight or mention of period products, yet simultaneously objectify the female body to advertise just about everything else, it is little wonder that Turning Red has sparked a fierce debate. However, the power of language to disrupt and shape the narrative on menstruation should not be underestimated.
Quint argues part of the problem is that we don’t notice how much we have absorbed (sorry) femcare giants’ lexicon when talking about periods.22 Terms like ‘feminine care’ alienate trans consumers, whereas the term ‘sanitary products’ inaccurately suggests there is something unclean about menstruation.
Encouragingly, Boots and Asda are among retailers who have earned widespread praise from campaign groups and social media users for dragging their language into the twenty-first century. Last month, they ditched names like ‘feminine hygiene’ from their aisles,23 despite unfathomable, disgruntled protests from some about ‘pathetic wokism’.24
Language disrupts, and no one has the power to manipulate language quite like popular culture’s ‘ultimate punching bag, cash cow, and gatekeeper’25 – teenage girls. Often mocked for their vernacular before it catches on, teen girls prove to be the reliable harbingers of all things trendy. Crazes first liked by teenage girls and ridiculed by others tend to take over the world, so it will be interesting to see how the future of period advertising plays out on apps like Gen Z’s beloved TikTok, particularly when we consider the potential impact the ‘sustainable generation’26 could have on the 200,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated by disposable menstrual products per year.27
But marketers and investors are reluctant to engage with these predictors of pop culture. Women influence up to 80% of consumer decisions,28 and yet due to stigmatisation our pain points remain overlooked. It is time to embrace media such as Turning Red for what they are; useful vehicles for starting frank conversations around menstruation. As Turning Red’s protagonist quips, ‘We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out’.
1. Global Citizen. Menstrual Health and FGM Will Finally Be Taught in England’s Schools by 2020. https://www.globalcitizen.org/es/content/school-curriculum-UK-periods-FGM-gender/. Accessed April 2022.
2. Hey girls. Our approach to period education. https://www.heygirls.co.uk/our-approach-to-period-education/. Accessed April 2022.
4. The Federalist. Disney’s ‘Turning Red’ Is An Embarrassing And Offensive Allegory About Menstruation. https://thefederalist.com/2022/03/15/disneys-turning-red-is-an-embarrassing-and-somewhat-offensive-allegory-about-menstruation/. Accessed April 2022.
5. The Guardian. Girls beginning puberty almost a year earlier than in 1970s. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/10/girls-puberty-year-earlier#:~:text=Girls%20are%20beginning%20puberty%20almost,decade%20since%20the%20late%201970s. Accessed April 2022.
6. Hey girls.
7. Girls’ Globe. The Importance of Menstrual Health Education. https://www.girlsglobe.org/2019/05/28/importance-menstrual-health-education/?doing_wp_cron=1648037802.7386538982391357421875. Accessed April 2022.
8. British Science Association. Inclusive menstrual health education is essential for equality. https://www.britishscienceassociation.org/blog/inclusive-menstrual-health-education-is-essential-for-equality. Accessed April 2022.
9. Hey girls.
10. British Science Association. Inclusive menstrual health education is essential for equality. https://www.britishscienceassociation.org/blog/inclusive-menstrual-health-education-is-essential-for-equality. Accessed April 2022.
11. gov.uk. Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education: FAQs. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/relationships-education-relationships-and-sex-education-rse-and-health-education-faqs. Accessed April 2022.
12. Barnett, E. Period.. Page 140.
13. Ibid. Page 141.
14. Hey Girls.
15. The Drum. From ‘gory’ to glory, the evolution of period advertising. https://www.thedrum.com/news/2020/10/12/gory-glory-the-evolution-period-advertising. Accessed April 2022.
16. Period.. Page 186.
17. Period.. Page 182.
18. The Drum.
19. Shape. Were Thinx Underwear Ads Nixed Because They Used the Word ‘Period’? https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/were-thinx-underwear-ads-nixed-because-they-used-word-period. Accessed 2022.
20. The Atlantic. Don’t Let Them See Your Tampons. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/dont-let-them-see-your-tampons/394376/. Accessed April 2022.
21. The Atlantic.
22. The Independent. I’ve stopped saying ‘feminine hygiene products.’ Here’s why you should too. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/periods-period-poverty-tampons-menstruation-empowerment-language-sanitary-a8000641.html. Accessed April 2022.
23. The Independent. BOOTS RENAMES ‘FEMININE HYGIENE’ AISLE TO ‘PERIOD PRODUCTS’. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/boots-period-products-inclusive-b2053631.html. Accessed April 2022.
24. Birmingham Mail. Boots slammed for ‘wokism’ after changing name of feminine product aisle. https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/whats-on/shopping/boots-slammed-wokism-after-changing-23654732. Accessed April 2022.
25 .Vox. Who runs the world? Not teen girls. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22352860/teenage-girls-pop-culture-tiktok-olivia-rodrigo-addison-rae. Accessed April 2022.
26. Forbes. Gen Z Is Emerging As The Sustainability Generation. https://www.forbes.com/sites/gregpetro/2021/04/30/gen-z-is-emerging-as-the-sustainability-generation/?sh=2dd48a5c8699. Accessed April 2022.
27. Wen. ENVIRONMENSTRUAL FACT SHEET. https://www.wen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Fact-Sheet-Environmenstrual.pdf. Accessed April 2022.
28. Forbes. 20 Facts and Figures To Know When Marketing To Women. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescontentmarketing/2019/05/13/20-facts-and-figures-to-know-when-marketing-to-women/?sh=4aa4eaf1297e. Accessed April 2022.