An estimated 500 million women worldwide are having their period right now.
Five. Hundred. Million.
500,000,000 women are menstruating at this very moment.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
And then consider the fact that it’s the year 2017 – we have learnt to eradicate disease through mass vaccination programs, mapped the entire human genome, made nuclear weapons that have the potential to destroy the planet, have actually sent people into space and a rover to Mars! What an incredible species we are!
And yet, even in the UK (a G7 country!), you can buy just TWO types of product from a supermarket to help you manage your period. Two products.
Additionally, a quick search of the words ‘period’ and ‘menstruation’ in a well-known online grocery shopping website returned 0 results. Nothing. ‘Sorry, we couldn’t find any results for ‘period’, please try another term.’ An ambiguous and lexically incorrect term such as ‘feminine hygiene product’ perhaps?
(Interestingly as an aside, this use of vocabulary probably comes from the passing of the 1873 Comstock Act in the US which made it a federal crime to distribute or sell conception-related materials (this included menstruation) or text in the United States. The birth control and period management industry thus coined the term ‘feminine hygiene’ to advertise their products and despite being technically incorrect, the term stuck.)
For a developed nation we sure do have some funny ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable in society: our children play games of war in which they stab, shoot and murder other people, yet talking about a completely normal bodily function that affects half of the world’s population is so taboo that the word ‘period’ wasn’t even mentioned in an advert or commercial until 1985. Even today, menstruation is still something marketing companies believe we should be ‘discrete’ and ‘quiet’ about – we’ve all seen the magical blue liquid in the tampon/ pad adverts!
Of course, the stigma of menstruation most likely arose in ancient civilisations that had little knowledge of the female reproductive system. They simply saw women bleeding in correlation with the phases of the moon (which is enough to make anyone suspicious!). Menstruation became shrouded in mystery and the development of misinformed religious and medical beliefs resulted in the wide array of sometimes quite shocking ‘period cultures’ seen throughout history.
In the golden age of science however, the lack of innovation and education surrounding modern day menstruation is truly extraordinary. Pads have been used for thousands of years, sanitary bloomers (period underwear) have been used since the 19th century, tampons were invented in 1931 and the menstrual cup was invented in 1937. Despite these products being further developed and refined over time, there hasn’t actually been a new menstrual product invented in over 80 years. We are still essentially using the same products our great grandmothers used in WW2. To put this into perspective, this is also about the same time as the invention of the first electromechanical computers – you know, the ones that weighed a good few tonnes and took up an entire room. You only have to look down at your phone or laptop to see how far we’ve come in that field.
There hasn’t actually been a ‘new’ menstrual product invented in over 80 years.
Well, what did women do in ancient times?
A common misconception about the history of menstrual products is that the ancient Greeks and Romans used tampons made of papyrus or wooden sticks wrapped in lint or cotton. As popular as this theory is, there is in fact no evidence to support it. There is actually very little documentation of menstruation throughout ancient and medieval times likely due to most scholars and scribes being men – history was therefore recorded from their point of view. One thing we do know is that menstrual rags/pads have prevailed and are still widely used today – from simple wool, moss or animal skins, to the synthetic ones we use in the majority of developed countries.
What about the middle ages?
Pre-industrial revolution, it may have been pretty uncommon to have a regular menstrual cycle. Malnutrition resulting in vitamin deficiencies and a lack of contraception resulting in multiple pregnancies meant that women probably menstruated less and therefore had less of a need for effective menstrual products. It was only in the late Victorian era that concern began to grow about whether bleeding into the same clothes you wore for a week was healthy and sanitary. Thus came the invention of sanitary aprons, catamenial sacks and sanitary bloomers. Needless to say, despite paving the way for more modern period pants such as Thinx or Dear Kate, these early contraptions did not prove to be very successful!!
So when did menstrual products become commercialised?
The first commercially available disposable sanitary pad ‘Lister’s Towels’ was invented in 1896 by Johnson & Johnson. However, there was such a taboo surrounding menstruation that women did not want to be seen buying sanitary products and so the towels weren’t very popular. It remained this way until WW1 when Cellucotton realised that field nurses were using their cellulose/ cotton bandages meant for the soldier’s wounds as menstrual products because the nurses could see that the material absorbed blood much better than standard cotton. The company soon began marketing the first ever disposable pads held in place by an elastic sanitary belt worn around the waist. Shopkeepers were encouraged to place a discrete money box next to the display so that women could purchase the pads without even having to say anything to the cashier. It wasn’t until 1969 that the first maxi pads with an adhesive strip became available, and women could do away with the nightmare belts, clips and safety pins!
The first applicator tampon was patented by Dr Earle Haas in 1931 after a friend of his confessed that she inserted a small piece of sponge to absorb her flow. It was a very avant-garde idea for the time, and was not expected to take off. Entrepreneur Gertrude Tendrich saw the opportunity and bought the patent in 1933, going on to make tampons at home with her sewing machine. Her small business would later become Tampax – the leading brand in a multi billion dollar industry. Non-applicator tampons weren’t developed until the 1950s when a company called pursettes began marketing tampons to teenage girls. This was almost revolutionary – initially tampons were only marketed at married women due to the fear that using them could break a girl’s hymen.
However, it wasn’t always plain sailing.
In 1975, the invention of synthetic polyester/ carboxymethyl cellulose thickening agents enabled Rely to make super absorbent tampons. In May 1980, a huge increase in the number of people diagnosed with Toxic Shock Syndrome (90% of whom were menstruating women using tampons) caused widespread panic as doctors and scientists tried to work out the menstruation-tampon-TSS link. It was discovered that women were leaving the synthetic high-absorbency tampons in for longer, and this coupled with the pH change during menstruation promoted bacterial growth which resulted in fever, shock and sometimes organ-failure. Since then, tighter regulations on tampon manufacturing, TSS warnings on packaging and a better understanding of TSS itself means that the number of menstruation-related cases has dropped from 814 in 1980 to just 5 in 1997.
Hang on, haven’t menstrual cups been invented recently?
It may be surprising, but the first menstrual cup was actually patented in 1935 by Leona Chalmers.
Her design is almost identical to the cups on the market today. The cups weren’t very popular in the 20th century due to the convenience of disposable pads/ tampons, but their use is now increasing as the population becomes more environmentally aware. The average woman will use 12000-14500 disposable tampons/ pads in her lifetime which is an enormous amount of non-biodegradable waste to put into a landfill and at around £3 for 16 tampons, using a menstrual cup could save you a lot of money in the long term!
Can’t I just take the pill or use other forms of contraception to stop my periods?
The invention of Enovid (the first birth control pill) in 1960 revolutionised contraception and the way we think about both sex and our periods today. However, a large number of women developed life threatening blood clots – the dosage of hormones was actually ten times higher than it needed to be! In 2003 the FDA approved the first continuous birth control, allowing women to have just four menstrual periods a year, but a study to determine the long term safety of the drug hasn’t actually been conducted yet. Nowadays, there are dozens of pills containing different combinations of hormones, and there are even some, such as Norethisterone, which are designed to delay menstruation by up to 17 days. New long-acting hormonal contraceptives such as the implant and the coil can also stop or reduce menstruation eliminating the need for menstrual products, but this is a side effect of their primary intended use of preventing pregnancy. There appears to be a lot of focus at the moment on the general disregard of some doctors and women of the side effects that hormonal contraceptives can have on the body. These can include things such as nausea, migraines and depression – symptoms which could end up actually being worse than just having a period on expedition!
Like all other menstrual products, the pill works great for some women, but terribly for others. The real issue we face is the lack of widely accessible, affordable and innovative options for not only ourselves here in the UK, but for women all around the world. Half of the world’s population deserves more than just a handful of options! So come on ladies, lets get inventing!