Around half the world's cultures celebrate getting your first period, but in the UK it is shrouded in secrecy. Lindsay Whalen explores the effect this culture has on our choice of sanitary protection.
Many Native American tribes have celebrated the onset of menstruation, and Navajo Kinaalda is still celebrated today.(1) Older women pass on their knowledge of womanhood, sexuality and childrearing, and the whole community honours the girl, who is then reincorporated into everyday life with new status and respect.(1) Similar celebrations are found in the south of India, Sri Lanka, and parts of Southern and West Africa.
It’s a far cry from the non-event more prevalent in the UK. Anthropological studies have shown that in more patriarchal cultures, this rite of passage is infused negatively, with perceptions of pain, isolation, embarrassment and shame.(1) According to the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) “disposable sanitary protection is widely seen as a significant factor in women’s liberation yet the language and imagery often used in media and adverts to express that liberation serves to reinforce the taboos.”(2) Adverts for sanitary protection promote menstrual secrecy, and whilst it’s acceptable to say “period,” “blood” is still unmentionable.(1) Blue liquid is used and packaging is so discreet it can be mistaken for sweets. So what effect does this culture have on our choice of sanitary protection?
The mainstream companies involved offer educational programmes and advisory services to schools, with the odd free sample thrown in. WEN is concerned that the marketing of products which are “wasteful and environmentally damaging” has been allowed to substitute proper education about menstruation.(6) WEN argues that “teenage girls are targeted by heavy marketing which does not inform them of environmental and health consequences and which does not even ensure a fair, informed choice of a range of products.”
This subjective approach to informing young women about their choices has meant that health issues like Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) can be brushed under the carpet. TSS is a rare but serious bacterial infection that can be associated with tampons and can be fatal. Health risks are compounded because sanitary protection products are not classified as medical products, and therefore it is not possible to find out what is in them. It is likely that products with bleach, dyes or added scents contain chemicals and additives that could cause irritation.
Women concerned about pesticides should use organically certified products, and these are labelled with an (O) on the table.
Bag and bin
The average woman uses 12,000 sanitary products in her lifetime, but the effects are less disposable than advertisers would have you believe. Products used to be marketed as flushable, but campaigning by WEN and Surfers Against Sewage led to labelling saying that products should not be flushed. Though these products are small, they block sewage systems and litter our beaches, causing health hazards for wildlife and beach lovers. WEN claim that manufacturers are still not giving enough prominence to the bag and bin message. This is exacerbated by manufacturers marketing pantyliners for use between your periods, and promoting individually wrapped products. For example, Tampax market “flushable” tampons with a plastic applicator that are individually wrapped in more plastic! Reusable products can be more discreet as most people wouldn’t be able to tell what a menstrual cup was for.
Whilst VAT on sanitary protection products decreased from 17.5% to 5% in 2000-2002, this still does not reflect the fact that sanitary protection products are a basic necessity for half of the population. Products cannot be zero-rated due to a European agreement not to extend zero-rating to products other than those already rated in 1975.(2) This rating hardly reflects equality for all, but purchasing a re-usable product will mean you can opt out of such gender discrimination.
Flagging up alternatives
A menstrual cup is a reusable cup made from latex or medical grade silicone. It is worn internally like a tampon but collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing, and needs to be emptied and cleaned every few hours. They cost under £20 and last several years.
Mooncup www.mooncup.co.uk 01273 673 845 ~ The Keeper www.keeper.com 0117 9851646 ~ Diva Cups www.lunapads.com
Washable sanitary pads are fabrics that fasten to your knickers with poppers, and are soaked and washed after use. They come in bright colourful designs, and many are made from organic cotton. Two to three pads cost around £10 and they last several years.
Lotus Pads www.lotuspads.com ~ Draper’s www.drapersorganiccotton.co.uk ~ Lunapads www.lunapads.com ~ Pleasurepuss www.pleasurepuss.com
1 ‘First Moon Rising: the making of a menarche ritual- a child’s world,’ Ksenija Soster-Olimer, 12/01
2 ‘Seeing Red: Sanitary Protection and the Environment,’ WEN, 04/04
4 Green Pepper, 07/02
5 ‘Briefing Paper on Ethics in Clinical Trials,’ SOMO 12/06
6 WEN Memorandum, Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, 1999
7 Sanitary Protection Products, Mintel 02/07
8 The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2006 report ‘Second Scoring of the Tissue Giants’
9 BUAV website www.buav.org: Heavily soiled - boycott cruelty! Viewed February 2007
10 Uncaged website - www.uncaged.co.uk – viewed February 2007