Last month, a dripping egg white caused an advertising campaign to be rejected in New York. So did a picture of a fresh halved grapefruit.
Innocuous in themselves, these images were juxtaposed with a photograph of a woman modestly attired in a tank top and pretty underwear in an advertisement for a new line of panties called Thinx. They are sexy and lace-trimmed with a built-in patented anti-microbial fibre that prevents leaks. The tag line: "Underwear for women with periods." (The grapefruit symbolized the vulva and the dripping egg white from a broken egg suggested menstrual blood.) But you would have thought the ads were a threat to society, not a cheeky – and tasteful – campaign for an innovative product that addresses a normal bodily function.
Thinx was making people think, all right – a bit too much, for some people's liking, proving that the culture remains squeamish about menstruation, even in metaphors. (The ads, initially called "offensive" by public-transit executives, were later approved after Thinx pointed out that other advertising, showing women in breast-augmentation ads for example, were far more explicit. The ads will run in New York subways, as originally designed, starting Nov. 9.)
Since the first anthropologist investigated ancient and indigenous cultures, there has been an enduring fascination with menstrual taboos, which vary widely. Some celebrate the spiritual power of fertility; others cast menstruating women as impure and evil, restricting them from cooking food for their husbands and sleeping with them in the same bed. If one needed confirmation of cultural history's ambivalence about women's bodies – a love/hate approach as either goddess-like or witchy – menstrual taboos are fertile ground.
It's a big task to remove the stain of that long-standing cultural taboo. But feminists are trying – some in ways that are unhelpful, in my opinion. (More on that later.) We are in a moment – a period, dare I say? – of menstrual activism or menstrual anarchy; "menarchy" as it has been called. The move for a positive, educated appreciation for menstruation is important. Consider a recent Buzzfeed video "Men Explain Periods" that showed their lack of basic biological facts. And then there's the infamous Donald Trump insult of broadcaster Megyn Kelly, saying, "You know, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever." If Trump says it, you know, sadly, that he's echoing what many people think but dare not say. The incident led to the PeriodIsNotAnInsult hashtag.
The social silence around menstruation can be harmful. If girls can't talk openly about it or sex education is inadequate (relegated to some embarrassing snickering and euphemistic jokes), life-threatening issues such as toxic shock syndrome with tampons are less understood. In 2013, HelloFlo, a women's wellness company started up in the United States, offering, among others things, period starter kits and tote bags for college students with the words, "Have a Happy Uterus." Progress is being made. In January this year, Heather Watson, then the British No. 1 tennis player, actually admitted that her loss in the first round of the Australian Open was likely a result of her period. Still, she reverted to euphemism, explaining it away as "girl things."
Clearly, more needs to be done. In Britain there are continuning protests to remove the "tampon tax" on feminine-hygiene products because the European Commission deems tampons a "non-essential" item. And in the workplace, women are often too embarrassed to tell their employer – even if their boss is a woman – that they're suffering from menstrual problems.
"There are clear indications that we still live in a patriarchal, double-standard, sexist society," says Miki Agrawal, CEO and co-founder of Thinx, in a telephone interview. Agrawal, a 36-year-old Canadian who has lived in New York since 2001, doesn't just want to help First World women with their menstrual cycles. (The panties, which took three years of development, are washable and last for up to two years.)
She is driven to change the lives of girls and women in the Third World. In 2010, she went to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup, and an encounter with a young schoolgirl changed her life. "She was 12, and she told me that she missed a week of school every month because of what she called 'my week of shame.' She said she tried using leaves and old rags or bits of a mattress during her period, but none of them worked." Agrawal did research to find that more than 100 million girls in the Third World are missing school and falling behind because of a natural bodily function.
"Feminine hygiene is a root cause of cyclical poverty in the developing world," Agrawal says.
With each sale of a pair of Thinx panties, a donation is made to Afripads, a company in Uganda that trains women in developing countries to make and sell reusable pads for affordable prices. Already, she says, they have helped 30,000 girls go to school regularly in Uganda.
The company's approach is smart, innovative and helpful. I can't say as much for some other feminist approaches to the problem of menstrual taboos and lack of access to sanitary products. For some "menarchists," shock is the tactic. Louelle Denor, a university student in the United States, recently posted a selfie holding up her overflowing Diva Cup – a small reusable cup that's inserted into the vagina during menstruation – with blood running down her hand. "If this was a picture of blood from a finger laceration, there'd be no issue," she wrote.
And do we really need to see a menstruating woman "free-bleeding," as Kiran Gandhi did in the London Marathon in August to raise awareness of women in developing countries who don't have access to sanitary products? In media reports about the incident, Gandhi is described as a Harvard graduate, the subtext being that even really smart women do stupid things. And I have to agree.
Still, such protests get attention. In 2010, British-based artist Ingrid Berthon-Moine made a video for the Venice Biennale in which she twanged her tampon string to the tune of Slave to the Rhythm. She is now working on a series of portraits of women wearing menstrual blood as lipstick. In 2012, a Spanish protest group called Sangre Menstrual took to the streets in Madrid wearing white pants stained with menstrual blood in support of their "Manifesto for the Visibility of the Period."
And okay, I get it. To make change, you sometimes need to go to the extreme in order to find the middle ground.
But to me, some form of body etiquette is not the same thing as taboo. Just because I don't want to see women with flowing menstrual blood in public doesn't mean I am fearful of menstruation. I just think some modesty is in order. Some feminists feel that the objectification of the female body, using it to make a point, no matter now lacking in dignity, is okay if they're the ones doing it.
Besides, if feminism really is about building bridges to equality with men, shouldn't we be doing that with calm, intelligent innovations and points of rational argument rather than by being in-your-face street (or Internet) shock performers? That feels so second wave. If anything, it simply reinforces an uncharitable stereotype of wild, ranty women on their periods. We can dismantle more of the patriarchy when we simply point out the obvious double standards, as Thinx did regarding the initial ban of their advertising, or concerning the tampon tax. What self-respecting, rational man or entity wouldn't see the merits of a sound argument?