Erika M. Thomas’ (2007) study of Proctor and Gamble’s “Protecting Futures” campaign highlights how the reproduction of Western menstrual discourses, such as that of freedom, is problematic because “when the West attempts to define…women from other cultures through a Western lens, they deny culture, identity, and alternate perspectives of citizenship” (p. 82) to these women.
The message in the above campaign video is clear: Western menstrual products will not only allow girls in developing nations to go to school, but also provide them with a future much like one of Western girls. Although access to education and health care is essential for women in the developing world, I fear that those viewing the campaign video in the West will miss the point.
Women in developing nations don’t need the same future as young women in the West; they need a better one. They need a future where women will stand for justice concerning menstrual care. They need a future where women will learn to take responsibility for their own wasteful practices, their own ignorance towards menstruation and their own contribution to the negative images and discourses that circulate within menstrual culture (For more on this check out this article from the New York Times).
In the past ten years menstrual advocacy has gone global. While I find this to be incredibly exciting, I worry that our Western attempts to ‘liberate’ women in developing nations from the effects of menstruation do more harm than good. In the last hundred years our culture managed to create an entire industry dedicated to hiding the fact that women menstruate. Even more frustrating is that another industry created little white pills, that if desired, could eliminate menstruation all together.
Are menstrual messages of concealment, regulation and control really what we want to impart to young women in developing nations?
It is true that in many developing nations young girls and women miss a week of work or school each month due to their inability to access feminine hygiene products. While the menstrual advocacy campaigns of Proctor and Gamble, Lunapads, Huru International and She28 draw awareness to issues of women’s health in developing nations, I find that they also continue to perpetuate negative discourses of menstruation.
All women deserve the right to access menstrual products. However, this does not mean that they need to access the same ‘disposable’ products or menstrual strategies women in the West have adopted. In an ideal world, all women would use reusable menstrual cups and napkins. In an ideal world, women wouldn’t ingest harmful hormones. In an ideal world, men and women would know the truth about menstruation, both culturally and biologically. In an ideal world, menstruation would be celebrated.
But we don’t really live an ideal world.
Instead we live in a world controlled by industries that make us believe we are in control of our bodies, our menstrual cycles and our reproductive selves. Just as popular feminine hygiene advertisements of the West encourage women that they will be freed and protected through a product, women in the developing world are promised the same thing.
While I am not suggesting that women in the developing world should be denied access to menstrual products, I do contend that the highly Westernized discourse, and process through which this distribution takes place, attaches a negative signifier to menstruation.
I do find the campaign strategies of Lunapads and She28 to promote sustainable menstrual practices and that in itself is more than can be said of our own practices in the West. Although I know many of us have begun to incorporate ‘reusable’ into our menstrual management strategies, we are far from being the example. I would definitely encourage you to look through these campaigns and see if there is one you want to support. Be careful though, it would be wrong of us to fund something we don’t actually incorporate into our own menstrual care strategies.