Saturday, March 13, 2010

Discussion Topic: Advertising, Menstruation, and the book FLOW

Some of you know that I work as an advertising copywriter. When I first started this blog, I talked about my work sometimes, but about two years ago, posts about books took over and Presenting Lenore became a book blog.

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?

36 comments:

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

I'm so glad you posted this, Lenore! It's a unique perspective from what's been submitted so far, and I love the insider's look at advertising.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Looks like this post drew the spam! I have a long and ugly history with my periods, but only in the last five years with a wonderful IUD have I enjoyed a period about three times a year. It was the best thing that happened to me!

valentina said...

this post came up just at the right time. I'm in bed moaning for period pains, and reading your post made me feel a tiny bit better. There's women who enjoy having their periods! wow, I didn't think they existed.
i don't know if I have been influenced by advertisement, I just know I can't wait till they go away.
But something I'm concerned about is the environmental impact of tampons and pad. I've been thinking a lot about getting one of those mooncups, but never actually went and buy one. I know a friend of mine has one and she's very happy with it. That could change my idea of having periods completely. Or just stress me out more, who knows.

Lu @ Regular Rumination said...

This is a really great post! Shame to see so many spammers got through. Like you, I had very debilitating periods for a long time, until I went on bc and now it's wonderful! I don't know if I celebrate my period (outside of what it means I am not), but I don't hate it anymore.

Deb said...

Sorry the spams got through. This is an important conversation. I don't know if it's from advertising or not but I have never been comfortable with my period and can't imagine that some people actually enjoy it. Now that my children are practically grown I am ready for them to go away for good.

Lenore said...

Man, leave for a few hours, and look at all the spam! Well, I deleted it now...sorry about that!

Jeanne said...

The Red Tent is the first place I ever read about women enjoying periods (and it's fiction based on biblical times). My daughter and I have had trouble wearing tampons comfortably. Once we tried the moon cup but couldn't get that comfortable either. So we use pads. I'm not sure how we've been influenced by advertising; we use the ultra thin ones because they feel better.

Although I've been on the pill since I was 18, I've never been able to use it to skip periods; I can delay them and make them a bit shorter, but that's about it.

My favorite joke about this issue is the YouTube video about the ipad--this was before the actual product with that name came out.

Meghan said...

I am also surprised that women genuinely enjoy their periods. Like you I also had debilitating ones, but every month like clockwork. I was always missing school for them - they made me completely weak and brought on extreme stomach problems. The pill has helped me a lot too, although I didn't have any specific reason for my extreme pain. I actually had a friend who had never had a period cramp in her life, I can't tell you how jealous I was of her!

It's so interesting to hear about this from an advertising perspective. It's kind of sad that the industry has shaped our perceptions in such a way but I have no idea how we'd avoid that. It's incredibly hard not to think of it as disgusting, especially when it brings misery with it, but I think my attitude can change.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I really enjoyed hearing about the advertising side of this. I've never been a person who felt like my period was empowering or appreciated the fact that it means I could have children, so that idea is pretty strange to me. But I think that's cool too -- being proud of something that society keeps telling you that you shouldn't be.

Lenore said...

Thanks for having the contest Rebecca. It's been interesting to read what everyone has been sharing about the topic!

Sandy - Yep, my thinking has always been, the less periods the better.

Valentina - Sorry to hear about your period pains. I still get them from time to time, but really not often. So I consider myself lucky!

Lenore said...

Lu - I'm probably not going to be throwing any period parties anytime soon either, but it's nice not to think of it at a vile process that should be hated!

Deb - It's still hard for me to believe that some women actually like it...but I heard it with my own ears!

Jeane - The Red Tent is one I never got to finish because I had to return it to the library before moving away from the states for good. I need to get that one again!

TERI REES WANG said...

I was always so proud that I had a "normal" healthy 28 day standard flow, complete with cramps and crankiness, just like everyone else.

I has also been "sick" for years, and once I set a game plan to search out better health, I found. I was told by my one last healer, that all the women he had helped, ended up changing to a 23-24 day cycle, and that I needed to get there.

The idea that I had control of my flow!...sent me straight into gear.
Currently, I am holding strong at 26 days, a light 3 days even, and almost unnoticeable "Cranks".

Yes, it feels could to take, have, and maintain control.

Lenore said...

Meghan - That's why books like these, and open, honest communication about the topic are so important. Maybe we can slowly change our deeply ingrained attitudes...

Kim - It does seem strange to me too! But at least I don't think it's CRAZY anymore ;)

Steph Su said...

To be honest, I'm hardly aware of how advertising has portrayed menstruation, mostly because I don't watch much TV or read many magazines, I think. But I remember the ads/commercials that feature a beautiful women clad in flowing white, skipping through a golden meadow. Or something like that. I always wanted to laugh and throw things at the TV/page. Like you, I'm much happier having hardly any period as a result of being on birth control now. Menstruation was always an inconvenient and embarrassing thing for me: even tampons had the tendency to feel uncomfortable for me. Don't even get me started on the awkward feel of pads...

I wonder, though, at why we women have such a negative attitude towards our periods. I know in the past menstruation was considered the "women's curse" and women were often quarantined during their time of the month, but I wish society could be more like the focus group you sat in on, where people are unashamed to discuss their periods and to lounge around, making peace with their menstrual cycles. I think it's a fascinating subject, and it's certainly gotten me thinking today. Thanks, Lenore!

Lisa said...

Okay, your post is awesome! I am one of those women who love getting their period. And I have endometriosis and become totally incapacitated by cramps, but I still love it for the reasons mentioned. I was late getting my first one too (14) and was so thrilled to be among "women" I think that has stayed with me. And I am teaching my young daughters to celebrate every single phase of their development!

Sadako said...

I so wanna read this. It's fascinating, to think of how we're so conditioned. Like I've read about women thinking it's so disgusting to not flush tampons even though you're not really meant to (clogs and all). They talk about how disgusting it is to have a tampon in the trash because ewww, blood, and the idea of touching it and all.

I mean, I wear tampons because pads aren't comfy, and I usually manage to make a mess with pads. But it's so interesting to think about all this stuff. I will so be reading this book, and thanks muchly for reviewing it. You rock.

christina said...

OK. Hands down, IMO, periods bite the big one.

I can't feel empowered when I'm down for the count because the heating pad and way more than the recommended dosage of aleve don't work!

Linda said...

Since I am in my early 50's, and was thus a teenager in the early 70's, periods were NOT discussed in my house. I started at 12, and didn't even have a clue how to wear a pad. Once I knew what was going on, I went from pads, to tampons, back to pads. Now I'm menopausal, so I don't have to worry about it. But I must say, I have been much MORE open and clear with my teenager daughter about periods, sex, etc. I think that is one good think about the openness society has now about these things.

Diana Peterfreund said...

I don't know how you can make the argument that thinking pads are bulky, messy, and inconvenient is "shaped by consuming years of femcare advertising." It's a simple fact.

I had my period for years before I figured out how to use a tampon. Before that, I cursed my period every month it came. I lived in Florida, where it was REALLY hot, and pads WERE a messy inconvenience. Period. You sweated while wearing them, you couldn't wear shorts (in case the wings, which came undone when you sweated, started to slide out of your shorts leg), they slid all over the place, and you couldn't wear them with a bathing suit (or go swimming while you had your period -- and trust me, growing up in Florida, swimming was something you wanted to do EVERY DAY).

I hated it. ABSOLUTELY hated it and it had NOTHING to do with advertisements. It had to do with the severe and very real constriction of my lifestyle and comfort every single month.

Then I learned to use tampons (I think I was seventeen or eighteen -- my school had a beach day and it was learn or bust). the heavens parted. The angels sang.

And I never ever had a problem with my period again. I never even THOUGHT about it, the way one never thinks about going to the bathroom. It was just another bodily function.

I also don't worry much about the "environmental impact" of tampons, as another poster mentioned. I can't imagine that they are much more wasteful than toilet paper. And they biodegrade just as well. If you use the applicator free kind, you have even less waste to worry about! Pads are more like diapers, with their plastic and their "absorbent crystals." I would worry more about those.

Lenore said...

Steph - I am still afraid to wear white to this day!

Lisa - I am not sure I'd go as far to say we should be celebrating our periods, but we definitely shouldn't be ashamed of it!

Sadako - I've never been afraid to touch my own tampons, so if it's better not to flush, then I don't have a problem with it.

Lenore said...

Christina - I totally get that. For me, the point is not that they are fun, but that they are a natural part of being a woman.

Linda - :)

Diana - I agree. Femcare advertising for pads at least, has been trying to tell us for years that pads are discreet, will catch all your spills, etc...but I've never met a pad that lived up to its promises. Tampon advertising often uses the argument though that people will know you are on your period if you use pads and think you are gross. Of course for some people, using pads is gross and inconvient...but the act of having your period itself isn't something you should be judged for, and I think that is probably the point the book is trying to make (though I haven't read it yet, so you'd have to ask Rebecca - aka The Book Lady).

Nymeth said...

My teen experience was somewhat similar to yours. I didn't have painful cramps, but I also have an hormone imbalance that caused me to have extremely irregular periods until I got on the pill. I think that experience, more than advertisement, shaped my attitudes towards menstruation. If on the one hand I love anything that reinforces the idea that periods are natural and no shameful, I'm also wary of tying them TOO closely to what womanhood is all about. That excludes women who never get them for whatever reason, or who suffer from hormone imbalances or other issues that cause their bodies not to work according to schedule. But as long as we remember that there's more to being female than periods and babies, it's all good :P

Lenore said...

Ana - That's a very good point. Fortunately, getting your period isn't the only thing that makes you a woman. And you definitely don't have to have babies to be a complete person.

Aarti said...

Great post, Lenore! I got my period really early, actually- probably around 11 or 12. And since then, it has been pretty miserable each month! I just get a very heavy flow so I have used pads more often because some days, it would just be out of control. But now I'm on birth control and it's so much better so I use tampons more. But I always use pads overnight as tampons freak me out on the overnight front!

Lenore said...

Aarti - Yeah, it's never fun to wake up in a pool of blood.

MaplessTraveler said...

Wow, I can't wait to read this book. I grew up reading teen fashion magazines (starting at age 7), which I thought were great fun, and which included tear-out booklets about feminine products and advice columns like "Always Answers" about periods. Back then, I actually couldn't wait to get my period because it would mean I was "grown-up." But when I finally got it at age 12, I was disappointed. By then I had heard people groaning about having their own periods, and I was also a little afraid (from reading multiple period articles in the magazines) that I would bleed all over myself. Sure enough, I found it an inconvenience until I discovered tampons. Even then, my period was irregular and unpredictable enough that I bled through my pants at least four times in high school. My mother refused to take me to get the pill because she thought it would encourage me to have sex. (Little did she know, I'd lost my virginity two years before the point I begged her to help me control my periods.)
I have always been mortified about my periods to the point that I went out of my way to avoid talking about them to even my friends because I was afraid I might appear "gross." I'll never forget how humiliated I was when I went to put my backpack on the ground one day and a tampon flew out and rolled across the room. I think this embarrassment resulted from three things: my mother's "that's very private" attitude, teen mag ads with "no one will know" slogans, and the YM Magazine column "Say Anything" in which teens sent in personal humiliation stories like "I bled through my pants in front of my date" and "I dropped my tampon in front of him".
It was refreshing when I found my true love 8.5 years ago, who continuously says things like "Why are girls raised to hate their bodies?" and "A period is just a natural function ... why do people act like you should be ashamed of it?" He is awesome ... and yes, he will happily hike to CVS in a rainstorm to buy me a box of tampons! :) I think I am finally at peace with my period ... although, yes, getting an IUD and only having a few a year is something I have very seriously considered recently!
~Martha

Lenore said...

Martha - I remember reading ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME MARGARET and thinking those girls were crazy for wanting their period.

Glad you found such a cool fellow!

celi.a said...

I got my period at 14 (almost 15!) just like you, Lenore. To make matters more embarrassing, my little sister (16 months younger) started her cycle about 6 months before I did. And you know what? In my family we just don't talk about these things. So when my period started my mother gave me a tampon box and told me to read the instructions.

READ THE INSTRUCTIONS?!

And I had to learn fast, because I was a competitive swimmer and I had to be ready for practice. What an experience...

Since then I've become a big proponent of using both tampons AND pads, because I hate any sort of mess on my clothing, and the more prevention the better. But pads were never even an option in my teenage years, so I think I either ignored all marketing or just wasn't aware of it. I'm a lucky person without cramps, but I still never relish my period. It's extra fuss and I never feel quite clean until it's over.

Joanne ♦ The Book Zombie said...

Honestly I try to ignore the advertising tactics for pads and tampons - they either seem to make the period experience look glamorous or absolutely devastating.

What I do look for in advertising is the actual details that would be helpful, like comfort, ease-of-use and ecological friendliness.

I use both pads and tampons depending on the situation and I've found reliable products through trial and error.

In my opinion there are certain brands that work better for certain people, good examples are a woman I know who cannot use tampons daily without getting yeast infections - her doctor said it had to do with mucous production, another who gets irritation when using pads with wings that rub the inside thigh. It's all about personal preference and no amount of advertising can change how a woman's body reacts.

Lenore said...

Joanne - The wings irritate my skin too.

Liviania said...

I've been using the same pad for years, so I tend to ignore advertising. I found what works for me and I stick to it!

I disliked tampons. I've tried them twice and both times it was uncomfortable.

I wear the big pads with wings, but I never notice them. I have to change it once every four hours the first two days of my period, once every six to eight hours the third-sixth days of my period, and then I switch to panty liners for the last two days. (I have a long period, which is not fun.)

I know several other girls who are pad-exclusive, and we find you tampon girls as incomprehensible as you find us.

I should mention that I try different types when they come in the package free with my regular type. And those Always Infinity pads sucked. I've never leaked like that.

Liviania said...

I should mention that I hold the second time I tried tampons strongly against them, as I got blood all over my pants . . . which I couldn't change as I was on my senior trip. (My friends, despite being overwhelmingly male, thankfully said nothing - even when we were playing Twister.)

My mother claims that going swimming and then horseback riding is not an accurate test of the tampon's abilities.

Parenthetical Sam said...

Good timing, Lenore! My friend just sent me this today: http://www.theawl.com/2010/03/vagina-less-commercial-for-vagina-product-forced-to-skimp-on-vaginas

The biggest way advertising (or Society, or some other vaguely evil noun) has changed our perception, I think, is by convincing us that our vaginas are gross and therefore we shouldn't touch them. I know so many people -- including myself, for a very long time -- who are so grossed out by having a close personal relationship with their lady bits that they won't use applicator-less tampons or cups.*

There's the environmental impact, of course (Diana, the production of cotton has a bigger impact than tissue paper, especially if it's recycled). But also, of course advertisers don't want you to use cups! You'll never have to buy their products again.

* I know there are other reasons not to. But I do hear this one a lot.

Anna said...

This book sounds fascinating. I got my period when I was 9 and a half. UGH! And I can't say I've ever enjoyed them. Most of the time, it's a painful inconvenience, but I can see how it could be kind of cool, embracing your womanhood and all. LOL

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Kelly said...

This book sounds interesting to me, and I'm not just saying that. It sounds like a more focused version of Cunt, which I loved. (Another situation where we let someone else take control over something about us women, in this case a word that wasn't always "bad".)

Thanks for this!

susan said...

Eva at A Striped Armchair was talking about this book or the topic. Love it.

I think it's odd that there's a group of women who can't understand how some of us not only wear pads but prefer them. Like other women I felt liberated when I started using tampons but if you were a young woman like I was when there was the brief but very real fear of toxic syndrome it makes sense why a lot of us at the time, stopped using them.

I never went back. Not out of fear but I don't see how leaving cotton stuck up your vagina soaked with blood is any more sanitary than if the blood is on a pad against your skin. You change both.

I suffer really bad blood clots so tampons don't work for me.

Anywhoo, I'm now considering a diva cup. It's eco-friendly and safe.