Recently Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog reviewed a book about menstruation called FLOW, and it got me thinking about the few months I worked on a project for Procter & Gamble on the femcare account Always.
Apparently, the authors, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim are very critical of the way femcare companies and advertisers have transformed menstruation “from a natural function…into a veritable hygiene crisis.” In her review, Rebecca says, “Flow’s overarching message is that it is high time women took back control of the menstruation conversation from the femcare companies who have shaped it for many years now.”
As an advertising copywriter on the European Always project, it was my job to “get inside the heads” of women who wear pads. Part of this process was to be an observer during focus group interviews. P&G invited about 20 pad-wearing British women to get together and talk about their periods. As someone who shunned pads since high school (more on that later), these interviews were extremely eye-opening.
For the first time, I heard women say that they LOVED having their period because it made them feel like powerful women who had the unique ability to bring life into the world. When their time of the month came around, these women got out their “granny knickers”, put on the biggest pad they could find, and lounged around on their sofas, reveling in their womanhood.
After the focus group, my team (3 other women, 1 very embarrassed man) got together to talk about the findings and how we could incorporate them into our latest project, a mailer with a coupon for a free package of the latest Always maxi pad featuring a “cottony soft topsheet”.
The conversation was interesting to say the least. 3 of us (well, 4, if you count the man) were not pad wearers for various reasons. The 4th woman admitted to wearing pads, but only because her body had changed after having a baby and tampons couldn’t do the job anymore. We all had a hard time believing that there were woman out there who not only wore huge pads, but actually seemed to enjoy doing so.
We shared the reasons why we preferred tampons. One team member was very sporty and active and felt that pads (and her period for that matter) slowed her down and inconvenienced her. Another cited hygienic reasons and said it couldn’t be healthy to “marinate for hours in your own blood.” The one who did wear pads said she wouldn’t wear the big ones if she could help it because they were so bulky and crinkly that she was sure everyone was staring at her and thinking about how gross she was. The ironic thing? These were all attitudes shaped by consuming years of femcare advertising! And we knew it.
My own period history is one primarily of avoidance (feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t like oversharing of personal information). My first period came late – at 14 (almost 15). As a very skinny teen who was active in sports (basketball and track), I had very little body fat and an extremely irregular period that came maybe 2-3 times a year. But when it came, it was debilitating. I had such bad cramps that I was dead to the world for a week each time. I had my share of bloody accidents too. Yes, I was that girl wearing white pants at school with a crimson stain steadily getting larger (major mortification). And pads always seemed to let me down, even the ones with wings. Friends on the track team extolled the virtues of tampons, and despite two early bad experiences with them (a wrong insertion technique and a TSS scare), I quickly latched on to them for their convenience and the fact that they let you forget about your period for hours at a time.
In college, I was diagnosed with a hormone imbalance, and put on the birth control pill. It was like a miracle to me. Not only did my skin clear up, but my periods were 2 days at the most without cramping or PMS. Then a (male) doctor told me I could skip periods altogether by simply taking the pill continuously. I’m sure the femcare companies weren’t pleased, because that meant I bought their products only a couple times a year if that. But for me, it made me feel like I had total control over my body.
I wish I could stay I started a revolution at the advertising agency – that I helped women see their periods in new, less shameful, light – but I was only on the femcare team a few months before moving on to another agency and other products. The project I was working on, at least, didn’t have an offensive tone. The main message was that the “cottony soft topsheet” could help women have a more comfortable period.
FLOW sounds like an incredibly important book, and I look forward to reading it. Tell me, how has advertising shaped your attitudes about menstruation?