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I’ve stopped saying 'feminine hygiene products'. Here’s why you should too

Period talk and menstruation taboos have been exploited by multinational companies for so long that we don’t even notice how much we use their language to talk about our bodies

Chella Quint
Saturday 14 October 2017 15:18 BST
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Why have we let corporations decide what language we use to describe period products?
Why have we let corporations decide what language we use to describe period products?

I recently tweeted at Boots to ask them to change their sign above the menstrual product aisle to, well, “the menstrual product aisle” rather than “feminine hygiene”. They replied saying: “Thanks for getting in touch Chella. We’ve shared your feedback to the relevant teams for internal review. – Staci”.

I’m calling on all chemists and supermarkets to take this step. Why? Because periods are still enough of a taboo subject that when we talk about them, we often resort to beating about the bush, and this affects both the way we see our bodies and the way we choose to consume menstrual products.

Sure, you hardly ever hear of “the curse” anymore, “Aunt Flo” may finally have gone on permanent holiday, and we reached peak “monthly gift from mother nature” in 2012.

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But in a more subtle way, some euphemisms are still there – I mean the ones that companies coined to shift product in a bygone era. You know the ones: Sanitary, Feminine Hygiene, Femcare – and the utterly vile “sanpro”. I noticed my language was constantly reinforcing the taboos we’re trying so hard to break. So I changed it. And everyone still knew exactly what I was talking about.

Period talk and menstruation taboos have been exploited by multinational companies for so long that we don’t even notice how much we use their language to talk about our bodies. It’s time to stem the tide of negativity by making sure that our language matches reality and doesn’t play into corporate manipulation.

As a menstrual activist, performer, #periodpositive founder and education researcher, I’m here to set down some rules that will challenge menstruation taboos.

Stop saying “sanitary”

Don’t say sanitary towels, don’t say sanitary wear, don’t say sanitary protection.

Periods aren’t any more unsanitary than any other bodily function. Of all the gooey stuff that comes out of our bodies, periods are the only thing we describe in terms of sanitation so explicitly, and we need to stop doing this. It implies that we are unclean and that menstrual products are cleaner than our bodies. Actually – vaginas are self-cleaning. Like ovens. Let’s show some David-Attenborough-nature-documentary-level respect to their natural fauna.

Same goes for saying “hygiene”

If you live in a place with infrastructure that includes bins, running water and sewage systems, you’ve got enough privilege not to worry in general about hygiene.

Sure, manage your personal levels of cleanliness. But again, don’t single out one self-care activity for “extra hygiene” treatment. Periods aren’t unhygienic!

Also, “feminine”? Really?

What if you consider yourself a fairly androgynous, utilitarian or macho menstruator? What if you are a trans or nonbinary menstruator? What if you’re a totally on fleek high femme, but don’t take it as far as stereotypical bling or fussing over your fooff?

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I mean… how feminine are we talking? Matching our tampons to our handbags, belts and shoes? Vajazzling? Faff Kidston? What is happening here?

“Feminine hygiene products” takes us three euphemisms deep. It’s like the film Inception, but everyone’s dreaming about periods, when in reality feminine hygiene products are simply reusable and disposable menstrual products.

They’re disposable menstrual products

“Disposable menstrual products” is the term you’re looking for instead of “pads and tampons”, because there are reusable cloth pads out there. Every time you say “tampon”, a Procter & Gamble marketing fairy gets its wings.

The reason we should say “disposable menstrual products” is because that’s what they are. You throw them away after you use them – that’s why they’re called disposable. You use them for menstruation – that’s why they’re called menstrual. They are manufactured products with a carbon footprint, a price, packaging and advertising. That’s why they’re called products.

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They are not more sanitary and hygienic than reusables. They are not more feminine (or masculine, for that matter). They are products with a production line and a chain of commerce that has an impact on the environment and the economy. They have producers and consumers.

Oh, and they’re not “femcare”, because ultimately the huge multinational corporations that make them don’t care.

Reusable menstrual products

“Reusable menstrual products”, on the other hand, can be made at home, or made by small companies that trade on their reputations and their ecological footprint. Their corporate social responsibility tends to reflect their actual ethics, not their desire to look like they have ethics.

Reusable menstrual product companies don’t use shame in their advertising. Most of the time they don’t have the overhead behind them to mount huge ad campaigns. But they can actually be harder to find if you stick to words like sanitary.

Language affects the way we consume

A lot of young people find out about menstruation online these days. There are many different menstruation management options out there, and more and more people are switching to reusable products like cups and cloth pads. It’s not so easy to find them though – companies that make disposable products dominate the market, optimise the results, and use language that encourages secrecy and taboo.

When you do a Google-image search for “menstrual products” you get a fairly even spread of reusable and disposable products. Same with “period products”. If you Google “sanitary products” you’ll get images of disposables and pictures of bathroom furniture. If you search up “sanitary towels” you’ll only get images of disposable ones.

Anything with “sanitary”, “feminine”, “hygiene” and even “towels” in its name is going to be disposable. But search for “menstrual products” and you’ll get a fairly even spread of reusables and disposables, providing long term options that promote sustainability and can end period poverty.

Words are powerful. We internalise the meaning of the things we say, and if we don’t question them, we might keep passing corporate and damaging language onto the next generation.

From schools to sales figures, sociolinguistics to search terms, “sanitary” has become unsavoury. It’s time to clean up our act, and start using our own language for our own bodies.

Chella Quint is a comedian, education researcher and former head of PSHE who coined the term “period positive”. Her campaign, #periodpositive, provides long-term solutions to period poverty through evidence-based free resources and period positivity. She is performing Adventures in Menstruating as part of the Women in Comedy Festival in Manchester on Friday 27 October

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