Menstrual health has taken a backseat in the list of our institutional priorities for the longest time worldwide. In India, menstruation has been a closeted topic. The continued silence around menstruation, along with the limited access to information at home and schools, has resulted in millions of girls dropping out of schools, lack of self-esteem, cultural discrimination, and exposure to health risks. We have come a long way when it comes to acknowledging that people menstruate. But acknowledging does not solve all problems. Advertisements of sanitary napkins can also play an important role in breaking the stigma around menstruation.
Though many assume that television channels or radios advertising sanitary napkins will do its part in breaking the stigma, unfortunately the advertisement industry continues to propagate age old notions associated with menstruation.
According to William J. Stanton, “Advertising consists of all the activities which involve presenting it to a group, a non-personal, oral or visual, openly disseminated through one or media and is paid for by an identified sponsor.” We have several sanitary napkin brands which pay huge sums of money to air their brand’s advertisement. However, we need to critically engage and try to understand what exactly is being shown in these advertisements. Are they all correct? Or is it time to restructure these advertisements?
Advertisements for sanitary napkins in India have few things in common. Girls jump fences, become confident about their job or exams. But how do they suddenly become sporty and active? The reason that is shown is that they wear a sanitary napkin of a particular brand. Sanitary napkin companies, rather than making attempts to challenge the taboos associated with menstruation, prioritise their brand value in the market.
With an aim to increase the usage of sanitary napkins, these advertisements portray a wrong notion—they encourage the idea of concealment. For centuries women have been told to hide that they menstruate. Hence, wearing a sanitary napkin of a particular brand claims to ensure that they don’t stain their clothes and that they can even go to the extent of wearing white clothes during their menstrual cycle, thereby reproducing the very stigma they are attempting to challenge.
Further, the misrepresentation of menstrual blood as blue gel is problematic on several levels. The failure to include menstrual blood which is red in colour and not blue, depicts the age old notion that menstrual blood is dirty and unclean; hence, blue gel is a better choice for advertisements. These advertisements continue to match the socio-cultural taboos regarding menstruation.
Television is the primary source of information for many people, including young children. Children learn a lot of things, both good values and bad from viewing various visual content on television. However, when young children watch these advertisements, they get confused and do not understand that one bleeds red blood and not blue. This leads to misinformation among children, who continue to nurture wrong notions unless they are corrected. Many times, they are not corrected unless they themselves start menstruating.
Several cis-heterosexual male children develop wrong notions about what menstruation is by just watching these advertisements. Later, when they grow up, they consider menstruation as something which is unclean. This is how the cycle of stigmatising menstruation goes on.
In addition to this, the sanitary napkins propagate a “culture of silence”—they reinforce the idea that menstruation should not be spoken or discussed about in public. Paulo Freire, first used the phrase, ‘culture of silence’ in his book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2005). He based his analysis on third world countries where the culture of silence is perpetuated by those in power in order to keep others under control. If we were to understand Paulo Freire’s analysis in terms of sanitary napkin advertisements in India, we can see that some of them do not even mention the word ‘menstruation’ or ‘period’ as it is popularly known.
Several code words are used in the advertisement. For example, in Hindi advertisements the code for periods is ‘un dino’ ( those days). Similar words are used in other regional languages as well. Thus, the silence around menstruation is maintained. If a sanitary napkin advertisement does not even mention the word menstruation, it becomes nothing more than just another commodity available in the market that is being advertised.
One noteworthy and important point about any sanitary napkin advertisements in India or for that matter, in any part of the world, is that they fail to recognise that not every woman bleeds and not every menstruator is a woman. Trans men and non-binary people also menstruate. Sanitary napkins are always marketed as ‘feminine’ hygiene products. The language that is used in these advertisements does not use the term ‘menstruators’ but is instead marketed as a product exclusively for ‘women’.
Advertisement moguls too are also skeptical about the fact that if they deviate from the general advertisement pattern their advertisements will not sell. The ‘culture of silence’ along with the lack of proper terms being used in these advertisements leads to menstruators developing issues of self-esteem and experience body dysmorphic disorder. Unfortunately, our sanitary napkin advertisements unknowingly play a part in us developing a negative body image of ourselves.
Nearly 121 million women and adolescent girls in India use on average eight sanitary napkins per menstrual cycle. That translates to 1 million pads generated monthly, which then results in 12 billion pads produced and disposed, annually in India alone. As the use of sanitary pads increases, so does the amount of sanitary waste generated. The primary concern, for now, is how these pads are disposed and their impact on the environment. In such a situation, alternatives to sanitary napkins such as menstrual cups and tampons should be encouraged and the best way to do so is to advertise them.
Although alternatives to sanitary napkins such as tampons, menstrual cups and cloth pads do exist, they are usually available online but are not advertised on televisions. Access to such products is limited to the urban centric people who have enough money to pay both the amount as well as delivery charges for the products. For menstruators residing in rural areas, there are almost no options. Even sanitary napkins are not available in most rural areas.
If eco-friendly alternatives to sanitary napkins are not advertised, how will one know about it?
One of the possible reasons as to why they are not advertised is that they are more expensive than sanitary napkins. Another reason are the myths that surround around these products. Many believe that using these products would lead to loss of ‘virginity’ as these products need to be inserted into the vagina. These myths are not true. Prevalent notions and deep rooted bias against these products prevent advertisement companies from advertising them. Thus, advertisement agencies in India, instead of trying to change the ongoing narrative, choose to continue advertising sanitary napkins as the ‘only’ alternative for one’s menstrual cycle.
To conclude, we can say that we have progressed a lot in terms of at least acknowledging that menstruation exists. Previously, too many attempts were made to hide it. It is not that attempts to hide menstruation have disappeared, but at least we have progressed to the extent that we can engage in discourses around menstruation.
However, we need to be more inclusive towards our approach to the subject of menstruation. We need to encourage more dialogues that will lead to breaking the stigmas associated around menstruation. Our advertisements too need to be more progressive and inclusive. We should not continue to show misleading advertisements. We do not realise, but advertisements do affect us more than we can think of. It inculcates wrong notions in the minds of children and people in general.
There is an urgent need to restructure our advertisements! Perhaps, this step could be taken by you. So next time, when you see an advertisement of a sanitary napkin brand, instead of just changing the channel or putting it on mute, engage in a small conversation with your family about the advertisement and then perhaps you can tell them more about the advertisement and what needs to be changed.
Small steps taken will one day lead to the final destination of a gender equal world.
Featured Image Source: Clue App