US television and radio networks banned menstrual product ads until 1972, and no one had said the word “period” in a commercial until 1985. Menstruation has had such a bad rap for so long that period product companies used blue dye in advertisements for decades to curb people’s discomfort with accurate depictions of menstrual blood.
The stigma around menstruation has come a long way, with more brands raising awareness around period poverty and countries eliminating the tampon tax, yet the media and entertainment industries continue to censor the natural process worldwide.
Australia-based period underwear company Modibodi launched a short film as part of the New Way to Period campaign to break down stigma, start open dialogues, and normalize periods on Sept. 28. In the film, a woman is seen crying on her bed. “We’ve been made to feel gross,” the narrator says, as the camera pans to a white piece of cloth soiled with period blood, then a trash can full of bloody toilet paper. Later another woman washes her period underwear in the shower, as blood drips down the drain.
Facebook initially flagged the film and then banned it for violating advertising guidelines regarding “shocking, sensational, disrespectful, or excessively violent content,” Modibodi said in a press release issued to Global Citizen. The platform resumed running the ad after further consideration. YouTube similarly removed the film, then later retracted the decision after review. The commercial continues to air on Australian television.
Modibodi’s controversy is one of several menstruation censorship stories in recent years. Just this summer, a Tampax ad was pulled off the air in Ireland. Last year in Australia, a sanitary pad commercial received 600 complaints for being “offensive” and “disgusting.” Meanwhile, in the US, some television networks banned period company THINX’s ad that depicted a man menstruating, because it showed his visible tampon string.
The list goes on and on. Back in 2018, the film “Padman,” about a man breaking period taboos, was deemed inappropriate in Pakistan and poet Rupi Kaur sparked international outrage when Instagram removed a photo she posted of herself bleeding on her mattress during her period in 2015.
People who menstruate worldwide miss work, school, and don’t participate in other daily activities because culture and traditions perpetuate the idea that periods are shameful, impure, and unnatural. The global menstrual equity movement is working to ensure that people who menstruate can continue to lead their lives without discrimination or stigma because of their monthly cycles.
Achieving menstrual equity requires all sectors, from advertising to art, to stand behind the fight for political and societal change, according to Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, founder of the organization Period Equity.
"We're trying to normalize and destigmatize menstruation so that it doesn't pose a barrier in anybody's life,” said Weiss-Wolf, who is campaigning to end the tampon tax in all 50 US states.
“When platforms like Facebook — and the very image of menstrual blood are considered to be offensive — that's sending a huge message ... that further stigmatizes menstruation,” she said.
Equal representation indecision-making is essential to achieving menstrual equity. When people who menstruate hold positions of power, they have the ability to advocate for policies and laws that support menstruation. Weiss-Wolf questioned who is behind the development of algorithms that label menstrual blood inappropriate.
“At the very core, our systems are structured such that menstruation is considered the outlier, it's considered the other, it's considered the thing that's going to get a flag,” she said. “It's automatically offensive. And that's ultimately the core of what we're fighting.”
Advertising has the ability to influence social attitudes and people’s self-confidence, yet many of the executives calling the shots in film, TV, and tech do not have periods.
Not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women, but the demographics of people who do experience menstruation are more likely to feel unrepresented in commercials and ads. Research shows that 85% of women feel that advertising “needs to catch up to the real world when depicting women.” What’s more, only 0.3% of advertisements feature transgender people even though they make up an estimated 1% of the population.
Weiss-Wolf is calling on larger menstrual companies to use their influence to deliver accurate portrayals of menstruation in advertising and urging everyone to join together to end period taboos.
“We should all be worried and angry when we hear that just a very basic and a very artistic depiction of menstruation that's realistic is deemed offensive,” she said. “That's a problem for all of us in this movement.”