Challenging taboo: why it’s time to put periods in plain sight

University of Leeds
4 min readMar 8, 2023

By Rachael Gillibrand (School of English & School of History) and Katie Carpenter (School of History).

In 1848, famous art critic John Ruskin married Effie Gray, an artists’ model. Allegedly, Ruskin was disgusted with the sight of Gray’s body on their wedding night and refused to have sex with her for several years.

In 1853, she was granted an annulment the next year on account of Ruskin’s ‘incurable impotency’. The cause of his disgust? Nobody knows for sure, but, amongst other reasons, scholars have speculated it may have been the unexpected sight of menstrual blood.

Disgust, confusion and stigma associated with menstruation started long before Ruskin and continues up until the present-day.

In 2022, ActionAid (an international charity that works with women and girls living in poverty) commissioned a survey to mark menstrual hygiene day.

The survey found that more than a quarter of women have experienced negative comments about their periods (26%) and that, perhaps like Effie Gray, more than one in ten women experienced these kinds of comments from their current or ex-partner (11%).

The survey also revealed that women who have had a period in the last year felt anxious (19%), sad (19%), and annoyed (10%); while 31% of participants admitted to feeling a sense of shame about being seen to be taking period products to the toilet.

But who could blame them? Social shame is quite literally built into the packaging of sanitary products.

‘Shame’ sells

In 1950, Good Housekeeping, the popular women’s magazine, published an advert for Modess’ newly packaged sanitary towels. The advert reads:

‘We asked a housewife, “What’s in this wrapped box?” “It’s bath salts… no, it’s candy!” she said. Both guesses were wrong! […] Actually, it’s Modess — in the wonderful new-shape box! So skilfully shaped not to look like a napkin [sanitary towel] box, that the sharpest eye couldn’t guess what’s inside the wrapping.”

For all its jaunty language and cheerful images, adverts like this perpetuated an idea that women should be ashamed of their periods and feel embarrassed about being seen carrying tampons or pads to the bathroom. The use of euphemistic language and the promotion of discreet packaging for menstrual products reinforced the notion that menstruation is something to be hidden or ashamed of. Unfortunately, the legacy of this stigma can still be seen today.

In 2013, Tampax, the market dominating brand selling tampons and sanitary towels, introduced their ‘Radiant’ line of products. The selling point? A ‘quiet easy reseal wrapper [that] offers quick and easy discreet tampon disposal’.

Two years later, in 2015, Women’s Health magazine published an article titled ‘9 Stealth Ways to Transport Your Tampons’, which suggested hiding your tampons inside your hat — or better — a hollowed out book!

Changing the conversation

The Health and Wellbeing team here at the University of Leeds are already working hard to minimise anxieties around menstruation by providing free period products on campus at the following locations:

  • Edward Boyle Library — Level 10.16
  • Laidlaw Library — Level 1.11
  • LOGIK Centre — accessible toilet (staff only)
  • Maurice Keyworth Building — Level G.58
  • Roger Stevens Building — Level 7.71B
  • School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering — Level G.17
  • Worsley Building — Level 8.047

The provision of free sanitary supplies in various public spaces is a positive step towards reducing the stigma and shame surrounding menstruation.

By providing these essential products in easily accessible locations, the Health and Wellbeing Team is helping to ensure that those who menstruate do not have to feel embarrassed or anxious about managing their periods while on campus. And making them free also helps address the global issue of period poverty.

However, this is only one part of a larger effort to break down menstrual taboo and promote open conversations about menstruation. Education about menstruation and menstrual health is crucial in ensuring that people are equipped with the knowledge and understanding they need to manage their periods safely and comfortably.

It is crucial that we continue talking to people who menstruate about their health and experiences, but also that we talk to those who don’t.

Dr Carpenter and Dr Gillibrand’s new research project, ‘Stigma & Shame?: Challenging Menstrual Taboo Through Time’ intends to do just that. By bringing together historical accounts of menstruation with contemporary ‘period politics’, the project aims to open dialogues between people of diverse backgrounds, races and gender presentations in order to provide menstrual education and influence change.

To learn more, follow Dr Carpenter (@ktrcarpenter) and Dr Gillibrand (@r_gillibrand) on Twitter.

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