Period positivity and pride could undermine treating women’s bodies as the norm

There must be a middle ground between finding menstruation disgusting and finding it self-defining, politically impressive or worth spending half your salary on. It’s just a period. It’s normal.

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“The much maligned paramenstrum (defined as the two days before a period and the first two days of it) floods you with insight, with surges of instinctual thoughts, with demanding intensity, with burning innerness, thinking at full feeling,” according to the writer Jay Griffiths.

This may be something you recognise. Alternatively, like me, you may find it a time for donning your ropiest pair of pants, stuffing your face on Wispa Duos and curling up in bed, nursing a hot water bottle and a sense of grievance that set in when you were 11 and has never gone away.

Just how the modern woman should approach menstruation has yet to be defined. Should it be something we celebrate, boldly, in defiance of age-old taboos that have held the female body in check? Or should we all just admit that periods are pretty rubbish, really, and bond over a monthly misery shared? Either way, the one good thing is we can be open about their existence. It wasn’t always like this.

Growing up in the 1980s, I was always intrigued as to what those strange machines in the ladies’ toilets were. My Catholic mother wouldn’t tell me. Whatever they contained were, like Holy Communion, something secret that she could have but I couldn’t. Even now, the two things are fixed in my mind. I half imagine the Tampax drawer to offer up the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

These days, I imagine most girls don’t need telling what a tampon machine is. Women now laugh at the coyness of “feminine hygiene”. We’ve moved beyond euphemistic adverts that leave us to figure out the link between blue water splashed on a pad and rollerblading with dogs while wearing a leotard.

Online information has overcome the need to pass around dog-eared copies of Have you started yet? and Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. Being open and honest about our periods is seen as a feminist act; witness, for instance, the rise of so-called “menstrual activism”. This is great. Period positivity is essential if we want young women to be kind to, and accepting of, their bodies (although I draw the line at wearing one’s menstrual blood as lipstick. Blusher, perhaps, but that’s as far as it should go).

So far, so good. But as with all feminist progress these days, one never has too wait too long before it’s being hijacked by the market. As the journalist Katharine Viner once wrote, “feminism is used for everything these days, except the fight for true equality – to sell trainers, to justify body mutiliations, to make women make porn, to help men get off rape charges, to ensure women feel they have self-respect because they use a self-esteem-enhancing brand of shampoo”.

In recent years we’ve witnessed the way in which body positivity – once a grassroots movement encouraging women to question the mainstream images of female beauty has been picked up and sold back to women by the beauty and diet industries. Your body lotion isn’t anti-ageing, it’s pro-age. Your starvation diet isn’t making you less of yourself, it’s making you your very best version of you.

That body positivity comes with a hefty price tag is something we’ve come to accept. After all, isn’t a willingness to shell out evidence of self-respect? We’re worth it, right? We’re body positive, age positive, and now we’re becoming period positive. So why should we be surprised if the cost of the latter is starting to mount?

Take the Pink Parcel, for instance. For a mere £12.99 per month (£155.88 over the course of a year), you can get your own subscription box, containing “everything you need to get you through your period”:

Pink Parcel takes care of all the essentials, including your chosen pads or tampons for the month. And we’ll pamper you with lots of extra treats and surprises like soothing tea and a range of beauty and lifestyle products. Oh, and chocolate. There will always be chocolate.

This is all very nice, I guess. But if I really wanted to spend £12.99 on my period every month, I think I’d buy my own tampons and chocolate and fritter the rest on something more alcoholic than “a soothing tea”.

Okay, it’s not an absolutely terrible idea. It’s not, say, making dramatic cuts to women’s sector funding then magnanimously telling women they can make up the difference with the tax they pay on sanitary products.

But in using slogans such as “it’s time to open up about periods”, the Pink Parcel seems to be trying to cash in on feminist efforts to break menstruation taboos, and to be doing so in a way that gleefully reinforces gender stereotypes (pink! Beauty! Pampering! Never have leaking rust-red clots from your vagina seemed so cute!).  

Then there are specially designed Period Panties at £9.99 a pair. According to the advertising blurb, a pair of special, garish pants only to be worn at certain times “affectionately says ‘now is really not a good time dear’”. I have several problems with this. It’s not just that I’m fiercely wedded to the tradition of using menstruation as a time of getting some final usage out of whatever everyday pants are about to die an elastic death. It’s that I think if you don’t want sex with someone, it’s probably better not to show them with your pants. Indeed, if you’re going to use any item of clothing to do this, pants should be the last thing to go for. Better still, just tell them. With words.

And sure, Period Panties may also claim to be “a proud celebration of those glorious ovaries” but actually, I’d rather “celebrate [my] womanhood” by getting full recognition for female reproductive labour and full, non-conditional abortion rights for all, thanks all the same.

On top of all this we’re seeing the rise in alternatives to tampons and towels. While I’ve nothing against these – indeed, the long-term cost-effectiveness and ecological soundness of products such as the Mooncup and Thinx are to be lauded – I find myself getting increasingly stressed about the way in which these come with a political identity attached.

When I first started menstruating, tampons were considered the edgy option. As a Tampax user, I considered myself pretty hardcore compared to all those women still faffing about with Dr Whites. Now I feel guilty at my own inability to get along with the Mooncup. I consider myself a Mooncup sort of person – feminist, idealistic, keen to embrace the realities of the female body in all its fleshy glory. But I just don’t find it comfortable. It’s as though my own vagina is trolling me about the insincerity of my political beliefs (and as for Thinx, even though the advertising blurb tells us to “use as you choose”, I can’t help thinking there’s an unspoken play-off between those who use the absorbent pants on their own and those – like me – who’d only dare use them as a back-up to tampons, like the sell-outs we are).

It matters hugely that we combat the taboo associated with periods. We know that, on a global scale, the onset of menstruation can mean the end of an education for many girls. This has to change. But there has to be a middle ground, somewhere, between finding menstruation disgusting and finding it self-defining, politically impressive or worth spending half your salary on. It’s just having a period. It’s normal. If there’s a remaining challenge we face, it’s normalising not just the mess, not just the power, but also the pain.

Recently there’s been much debate about whether or not businesses should offer women flexible “menstrual leave”. As with pregnancy and the menopause, we’re dealing with something that is not an illness as such, but which can still put some women out of action for quite some time. This brings us face to face with the fact that having a female body, with all of its variations, is still not seen as the norm. We feel we must either confess to female “weakness” or deny difference, not just with men, but between women, altogether.

We still have a long way to go when it comes to being able, as women, to ask for the things we as individuals really need.

But should we be feeling disheartened, we can always think of Donita Sparks, lead singer of rock band L7. Faced with a difficult crowd at the 1992 Reading Festival, Sparks took it upon herself to remove her own tampon and hurl it into the crowd, yelling “eat my used tampon, fuckers!” It’s a response I often picture when faced with difficult job interviews or business presentations. I’ve never done it yet, but the thought that I and countless other women potentially could is nonetheless a comfort to me. We don’t need £12.99-a-month pamper boxes. Just our own blood and a sense of righteous, flaming fury, and who knows what we could do?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.