Period Pieces: The History of Menstruation in Art and Advertising

door: Saskia Bultman

Last week, Bodyform – known as ‘Libresse’
in The Netherlands – launched a worldwide advertising campaign for sanitary
pads. Unlike most ad campaigns for ‘feminine hygiene products’, this one made
headlines: it was the first time ever that a company was using red instead of
blue liquid to advertise the absorbency of their product.

The ad – a twenty-second video – is notably different from the menstrual hygiene ads
we are familiar with. These normally revolve around a woman, dressed in white,
or in ultra-feminine clothes, joyously engaging in physical activities, free
from worry about her period showing. That she doesn’t need to worry about this,
these ads suggest, is thanks to the absorbent capacities of the company’s product,
which are usually demonstrated by a hand pouring blue liquid onto a menstrual
pad, which is immediately soaked up. Whereas menstrual hygiene advertisements previously
stressed the importance of a woman’s period being invisible, Bodyform’s new ad campaign is all about bringing  menstruation out into the open.

The Bodyform advertisement starts
with a woman’s hand in a lab coat pouring red liquid on a sanitary pad, while a
‘detached’ woman’s voice assures us of its ‘ultra-absorbing core’. Next, a young
woman at a dinner party asks her friend for a sanitary pad across the table.
Both men and women are present, and no one bats an eyelid. The ad then cuts to
a scene in which a man – in jeans, sneakers and a headband – is seen buying a
pack of sanitary towels. Neither he nor the male cashier seem to think anything
of it. Besides looking very hip, the man buying the Bodyform pads is also
black, has dreads, and doesn’t look like your stereotypical white ‘domesticated’
husband. It’s normal for any man to
buy menstrual hygiene products for their partners/relatives, the ad seems to be
suggesting. Next, a woman in a red swimsuit is seen from above, lounging in a swimming
pool on a sanitary pad-shaped lilo. The indoor lighting in the pool reflects on
the water in two white curved bands, whose shape is reminiscent of the female
genitalia. This image, paired with the red ‘splotch’ of the woman’s swimsuit on
the white – ‘clean’, ‘pure’ – pad-mattress, seems to suggest, oddly enough,
that the woman herself in this image
represents menstrual blood. Not only is this image difficult to interpret –
what should we make of the suggestion that a woman is her period? – but its message seems to be at odds with the ‘liberating’
intentions of the ad campaign. What comes next is a shot showing a trickle of
blood running down a woman’s leg in the shower. In other contexts – the ‘shower
scene’ in Psycho comes to mind – the
sight of blood in the shower would be threatening or horrifying.  The fact, however, that we see this shot for only
a second, as if ‘in passing’, suggests that menstrual blood running down the
leg is an unremarkable fact of life. The light colour of the blood, moreover,
adds to its innocuousness, and prevents any feelings of horror or disgust in
the viewer. After a scene in which a woman dressed in a sanitary pad Halloween
costume arrives at a house party, the video cuts to a screen-filling circular
splash of bright red liquid – presumably blood. Over a shot of red liquid (i.e.
‘blood’) flowing through water, the words ‘Periods are normal. Showing them
should be too’ appear. Finally, the Bodyform logo is shown, together with the
company’s slogan ‘Live fearless’, and the ad campaign hashtag: ‘#bloodnormal’.

The longer version of the ad, which
the Dutch Libresse website links to,
is over two minutes long, and adds a variety of scenes, including a woman
having sex (presumably while on her period) and women suffering from period pain.
Through other images in the video, Bodyform imagines a world in which a woman
can tell her employer she is working from home because she has a ‘heavy period’,
in which a girl’s classmates, male and female, can pass her a sanitary towel in
class without blushing, joking or commenting, and in which a woman can walk
through a public place (a library, in this case) with a menstrual pad in hand,
without taking pains to hide it from view. In the final scene of the ad, the
woman – clearly coded as a ‘millennial’, marking her as a member of a new
generation of young women – is shown changing her sanitary pad. As soon as it
is brought into view, however, it is blocked out, and a supposed quote from
‘Assorted TV Broadcast Authorities Worldwide’ appears, which states: ‘The sight
of period blood is unacceptable’ – something which Bodyform wants to change,
through their campaign. The company’s idealistic vision is emphasized by the
visuals in the ad. On her way to the bathroom, for example, the young woman is
shown looking, open-mouthed, at a stained glass panel showing a bright yellow
sun – presumably signalling the ‘new dawn’ Bodyform envisions.

Bodyform’s political message is made
even more clear on the company website. Here, they assert that periods are a ‘natural
part of life’, but are only rarely shown. According to Bodyform, this
contributes to the ‘shame and embarrassment many women feel when it comes to
their periods’. Basing themselves on a survey in which 74% of 10,017 men and
women wanted to see more realistic representations of periods, Bodyform has
taken it upon themselves to ‘kill stigma’ by ‘bringing blood out of the dark’. Online
discussions on the campaign show that, while many are celebrating the ad
campaign, opinion on the issue of depicting menstrual blood is starkly divided.

The practice of making menstrual
blood visible is not new. There is a tradition of feminist art that does precisely
this. The best-known examples of this are the artworks Red Flag (1971) and Menstruation
Bathroom
(1972) by feminist artist Judy Chicago. While the former is a
photolithograph of the artist from the waist down pulling out a used tampon,
the latter is an installation of a bathroom with a rubbish bin overflowing with
bloody tampons. With her art, Chicago was calling attention to the taboos
surrounding menstruation. Her work can be seen in what Norma Broude and Mary D.
Garrard describe in The Power of Feminist
Art
as a wider context of feminist artists at the time, who were
‘reclaiming’ traditionally feminine iconography (as well as objects, shapes and
materials), and politicizing them, in order to draw attention to feminist
issues (24).

Nowadays, too, women artists continue
to make art using menstrual blood. While this art is highly diverse, and there
is no room here to reflect on it in detail, there was one ‘trend’ I noticed: in
doing research for an unrelated project, I came across three artists – there
may be more – who made Rorschach-like ‘blots’ out of their own menstrual blood.
Their artworks included Patricia Munson’s Menstrual
Print with Text
(1993), Sarah Anne Ward’s photograph series of ‘period
stains’ in the form of Rorschach inkblots (http://sarahanneward.blogspot.nl/2013/06/tbt-rorschach-cycle.html),
and the print series She’s on the Rag by
Xandra Ibarra (http://www.xandraibarra.com/shes-on-the-rag/).

The Rorschach inkblot test was
developed by Swiss doctor and psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921, as a tool
to diagnose psychiatric patients. In later decades, however, the test was
reinterpreted as an instrument that could reveal the ‘hidden’ inner self of the
test subject, and it came to be very widely used, in Europe and the US, in a
variety of domains, including career aptitude testing, military selection, cross-cultural
anthropology, psychiatric hospitals and correctional institutions. By now, the
test, with its iconic inkblots, is exceedingly well-known, and has come to
function as shorthand for the discipline of psychology or psychiatry in popular
culture. While the Rorschach test was highly technical, and had very specific
concerns, the popular opinion on the test is that it can be used to
straightforwardly determine whether the test subject is insane or pathological.

All three of the artworks mentioned
above can be interpreted as commenting on the history of the pathologization of
women in psychiatry (represented by the Rorschach test), widely discussed in
academic literature on the history of the discipline. Ibarra, for instance, sells
her Rorschach-prints on Etsy, and then gives the buyers a ‘reading’, parodying
the practice of Rorschach-psychologists and psychiatrists.

In producing their ‘menstrual’
Rorschach-art, these artists are invoking a long history in medical and
psychiatric science of pathologizing women’s menstruation. In the European
scientific literature of the late nineteenth century, notably, Italian doctor
Cesare Lombroso’s work on Criminal Woman,
the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman
(1893), women’s menstruation was
linked with sexual precocity, cantankerousness, a proclivity for lying,
criminality (specifically: shoplifting; and more specifically: stealing
‘feminine’ products such as perfume), insanity and lasciviousness. As Elaine
Showalter noted in her well-known work on female insanity in England, The Female Malady (1985), in the medical
and psychiatric sciences in the Victorian era menstruation was associated with
anxiety and shame, and women’s physical activities were severely curtailed when
on their period. Specifically, travelling, exercising and studying were
prohibited (57).

In the nineteenth century, then, the idea that women had to hide their periods, as well as avoid activity, gained scientific legitimation. While there have been repeated attempts to normalize menstruation and make it visible, only now, in 2017, has the topic been tackled in a mainstream ad campaign, calling on everyone, men and women, to ‘bring blood out of the dark’, and into the open.

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