Sunday, 25 May 2014
Picture the scene, dear reader: there I was, mindlessly flopping into a seat on the Central line after a long Saturday traipsing round in the sun giving out council leaflets. My eyes wandered to the advert directly across from me, read it, and returned to contemplating the floor, my expression one of someone who has stared into the depths of political apathy. Then I had the almost physical sensation of my tired mind doing a double-take. Wait a minute, what did I just read?
I re read the advert across from me with closer attention. It was not, as you might expect, an ad for a beauty product or one that promulgated an unattainable standard of beauty, my usual complaints about much of the advertising that forms the wallpaper of our modern lives. No, this was, strictly speaking, not an advert but a campaign poster for an international charity. Now I have to admit that my recollection of which charity and exactly which country the advert featured is shamefully hazy, and I have been unable to find out. Google searches and trawls of well-known charity websites have turned up nothing, and the Transport for London media and advertising management centre were unable to enlighten me. If anyone catches sight of this, a shout-out to the Huss Post would be much appreciated! [since been found, above – ed].
But nevertheless, aspects of the campaign remain crystal clear. On one level, it was without doubt an effective and worthwhile campaign message. The poster was drawing attention to the recent terrible violence and unrest in either the Central African Republic or South Sudan. It was illustrated with the standard picture of a forlorn-looking African woman in traditional dress (I know, I know, but the presentation and paradigm of humanitarian campaigning is a whole other knarly kettle of fish best dealt with elsewhere [indeed, see Dr Holmes' blog post on this which went up on an LSE blog yesterday - ed]) but this was not where I took my main issue. The purpose of the article was a worthwhile and indeed even feminist one: it highlighted the fact that women fleeing conflict and forced into overcrowded refugee camps in the country were faced with not only lack of food, clean water and medical supplies, but also lack of sanitary supplies for periods. The campaign asked tube riders to donate just £5 to help get sanitary towels and tampons included in packs of essential supplies being sent to camps.
Now this is an incredibly important step in terms of the recognition of women’s particular needs in disaster/conflict zones and I fully support the charity’s attempt to bring attention to these needs. However, the specific wording of the campaign ad is where the feminist message became twisted. It asked readers to picture the plight of the individual women in the picture: forced out of her home by conflict, now crowded into a makeshift camp for internally displaced people with uncertain access to food, water and sanitation. So far, so incontrovertible as a rallying cry for support.
But the main thrust of the ad, the attempted emotional sucker-punch to the chest that would spark tired commuters into actually donating, was how utterly awful it is that this woman not only has to deal with these traumas, she also faces (and this is an exact quote from the ad, being the part that stuck in my mind like bindweed) ‘the terrible humiliation’ of getting her period each month without the requisite sanitary supplies. Reader, EVERYBODY KNOWS. Terribly, this poor women who has survived civil conflict and is faced with a daily struggle for survival and well-being, CANNOT HIDE from people around her - without the tampons and pads and the sprays we in the West take for granted - the fact that her body is experiencing the NATURAL MONTHLY CYCLE that means she will be able to bear CHILDREN. The horror!
My apologies for the caps, but this message about how periods are something that women should be ashamed of and seek to hide, most often from their menfolk, is one that I feel is unacceptable. I don’t believe that this is a form of cultural imperialism, that other countries just have different attitudes to such things and we should respect them, as our cultures, as far as we seem to have come in accepting women’s bodies and sexuality, still retain a vestigial and prurient attitude to periods. It is seen in the euphemistic adverts for period products (remember the sanitary towel adverts demonstrating absorbency with weirdly antiseptic-looking blue liquid in place of blood?), in the constant trumpeting of the ‘discreetness’ of such products, in the terror that most of us women will recognise when there is a chance we might have leaked blood on our clothes or worse, on bed-sheets in a strange house.
We need to confront these attitudes and make periods something to be proud of. We should not squirm if someone asks us if we are on our period, but rather proudly affirm this as a demonstration of health, fertility, and as part of many people’s identities as women. Yes, the advert discussed is trying to do good work in recognising women’s basic biological needs, but it should not do so by perpetuating the discourse of shame around a natural bodily function. Points for effort, but nil points for execution I’m afraid.