Extended interview with menstruation historian and author Elissa Stein
When I spoke to Elissa Stein for an article I wrote for the Star in May, there was a lot that didn't make it into the final piece. But what Elissa said to me then is just as important now, if not more—given how the conversation about women, women's rights, sexual assault and behaviour in the workplace have catapulted to the centre of a worldwide discussion. The #MeToo campaign has been enlightening and heartbreaking, and even though there has been an outpouring of support for survivors, the way women are depicted in Hollywood and in the advertising industry still needs a lot of work.
In September, I chatted with Elissa again for a Metro News article about actress Ellen Wong and her role in the tv series GLOW.
What is your main concern with period products in advertisements?
When you’re instilling in women a message that you don’t want anybody to know this is happening— "We promised we’ll keep your secret"—you’re maintaining that mindset of embarrassment and shame, which is what sells products.
To me, the more that it’s kept a secret, the less people have open conversations about it, the better it is for product developers, and marketers and advertisers, but the more damaging it is for women’s psyches and being comfortable with normal bodily processes.
What about the language use in advertising for tampons and pads?
Five years ago, you wouldn’t see the word period or menstruation mentioned openly and honestly. So those are really positive steps forward. Using real people and talking about their experiences, also a step forward....but again it’s, "Nobody will know you have it...."
It would be great for me if we could just talk about it as something that is. Not something that we have to hide, or something that we need a product for to keep a secret. If we could just say, "Ya I have my period and that’s OK. It’s fine."
Advertising hasn’t gotten to that place yet, because for them, keeping the secret means you need their products.
That's when the advertising started...you know Kotex went on sale less than a hundred years ago, but when advertisers had to come up with how to sell something they’ve never sold before (and that) everybody’s embarrassed to talk about, the whole entire marketing plan was “We’ll keep your secret. This is a shameful embarrassing thing, if you use our products we promise we’ll support you, we’ll make sure nobody knows.”
That’s the underlying message that’s been with us for a hundred years that’s really ingrained. For decades you could never even see the words period or menstruation written on a box, so a whole language has been created so that we all know what we’re talking about if we talk about feminine care or sanitary napkins or tampons or hygiene.
We all know what it is because we’ve all been trained...but through doing that, again, you’re instilling the fact that it’s too disgusting to even use the word menstruation.
We’ve been conditioned to be squeamish. We’ve been conditioned to think that your period is something wrong that has to be hidden. That its unhygienic. But that works for business. So how one breaks out of that is a real challenge for product developers and advertisers.
Do you think the message is any different from newer companies?
There’s definitely a move toward (organic products) intellectually and conceptually, but again, coming from this place that (periods are) dirty.
I know there are companies out there trying...The conversation is getting so much bigger from the advocate side, from the sustainability side. So maybe things are shifting. There are good-hearted people out there who do want to change the conversation, but also when your livelihood and your bottom line and your stockholders don’t want to lose money there’s that pull.
I think there are people moving in the right direction but they’re still constrained to the business.
Certainly when I wrote Flow, these conversations were impossible. These new products were not on the market. So definitely there’s change in the air, which is heartening to see. It’s just hoping that the messaging can expand along with the products that are available and make the conversation more comfortable and more realistic.
Now moving onto women in Hollywood. What do you think GLOW did that other shows haven't done?
GLOW captured female relationships in a way not often seen on tv. Instead of experiencing women from a male perspective, it felt more authentic and genuine, even with such a misogynistic concept. Bonus: it tackled challenging subjects with honesty and complexity.
No one is surprised when it's all or mostly male creative teams, so while it's heartening to see shows like this come to fruition, the fact that this is a question is a sign that we still have a long way to go.
How do you think the show dealt with abortion, break ups, female friendship?
How refreshing to see these issues dealt with not as a punchline, glossed over, or barely discussed. To hear toxic shock syndrome mentioned, to watch the reality of an abortion clinic, to see best friends grapple with post cheating feelings instead of having a man be front and center? Wow.
The first step is supporting these shows. It's only through their success that similar projects will be green lighted. And then, more women need to step up and jump into the creative process. Gender imbalance isn't going to change without increased participation. Women exploring women is where things should and need to go.
Illustration from beatpie.tumblr.com