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Reel vs Real: How Pop Culture Misrepresents Menstruation

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Menstruation is a tricky issue to deal with, not so much because it’s taboo but more so because of the unrealistic representations of movies, television shows, and advertisements. Since pop-culture and the audio-visual medium, in general, have an unmitigated influence on the audience, it is best to distinguish real from reel once in a while, to bust some myths and reclaim some stereotypes.

The Advertisements That Undermine Eco-Friendly Options Like Menstrual Cups

Most of the advertisements on periods on television that revolve around sanitary napkins, completely undermining the importance of generating awareness regarding more eco-friendly, economically viable, and sustainable products like the menstrual cup or tampons.

If that was not a big problem in itself, there is a bigger one on hand. Sanitary napkin companies like Stayfree, Whispers, and Sofy continuously use what I call – the “Rahul kya sochega?” (What will Rahul think?) trope to sell their products (Rahul is a generic, independent name to address the trope.)

Menstrual cups or tampons are eco-friendly, economically viable, and sustainable alternatives to sanitary napkins.

If you have not yet grasped what this trope is, let me explain; most of these advertisements depict a girl on her periods, sitting and sulking on some college campus when her bubbly best friend comes and asks what the matter is. You would, in real life, expect her to say that it’s because of her cramps, but she proclaims that it’s because she had to cancel plans of going out for a movie with her boyfriend.

After all, she’s afraid that her sanitary napkin will stink. The bubbly best friend then offers the advertised product as a solution for all-day freshness and comfort. There are two problems here. Firstly, no sanitary napkin is supposed to keep someone fresh as a flower all day long on a heavy-normal flow day.

Doctors agree that a pad should not be used for more than a few hours, to say the least. Moreover, the “moisture-lock” for “all-day comfort” is just a concoction of synthetic dehydrating, perfumed chemicals that are true to their name- they lock the moisture inside, making it not only a potential breeding ground for bacteria but it also severely affects the normal and natural ph balance and moisture of the vagina, causing rashes, itches and sometimes, even a full-blown infection if used as long as is advertised.

Your Periods Shouldn’t Be A Reason To Restrict Yourself

Secondly, your period is not about Rahul. It’s natural for your vagina to smell like blood and sweat on days you are menstruating, and the smell is rarely ever so strong that you will have to cancel plans with your “Rahul.” On a more serious note, this trope not only encourages gendered dogmas about menstruation to stay put in one place but also shows how low the bar for men really is all over the world and how the liability to look still and smell like a flower falls on a woman, bleeding her ovaries out.

There are also the “I cannot do xyz activities, because what if my sanitary pad overflows” tropes. Staining is a legitimate concern for many people who have heavier flows, and though there are pads that help a lot with it, this is exactly where awareness about tampons and menstrual cups could be useful.

In making these advertisements, it is essentially telling young girls and women who haven’t still had the opportunity or exposure to learning more that there are limitations to what they can achieve during their periods, simply because these companies have failed to advertise or altogether introduce alternative products in the market.

Movies And Television Shows That Isolate Entire Demographics With Problematic Menstruation Representation

The most famous tropes in TV and films include the ‘my friend/boyfriend brought me ice creams’ trope or/and the ‘periods are nothing to me while I rock the world’ trope, seen in No Strings Attached, End of the Fu**ing World and other pop culture productions, respectively. While both of these tropes do not at first glance seem to be problematic, they somewhere isolate an entire demographic of people in both cases.

While it is absolutely okay and much wanted that people care for you on your periods, it is also tricky if that is the ONLY ‘real’ representation of care. There is an entire population of women/ transpersons and their friends or partners who cannot afford ice creams, food, cozy retail therapy just because they are on their periods. Menstruators worldwide work in factories, agricultural fields, mines, making ends meet on their periods while their partners and/or friends do the same.

As someone rightly pointed out to me, “It is a first-world capitalistic concept.” While a little good food and some gestures help people feel good, it is only limited and restricted to a certain stratum of society. In contrast, the other, not-so-privileged strata do not have any real or reel examples of gestures of care and kindness during the menstrual cycles of their menstruator folks.

Stereotypical Representation Undermines The Argument For Period Leaves

Gestures of care are inclusive of, but not limited to, ice creams or food; sometimes it’s about helping with household chores, helping in, making the bed, or washing the utensils to help your partner. While the “ice-cream” trope rages on in popular culture, it still does not evolve into a more intersectional trope of thoughtfulness to serve as an example to people from all backgrounds.

The second trope of ‘I rock the world, periods doesn’t matter’, is yet another reductive trope that is totally oblivious to countless people who suffer from various kinds of dysmenorrhea, hemorrhage, PCOS, anemia, and other periods related complications every month.

For them, shame, embarrassment, a sense of being a burden, etc., come hand in hand. Moreover, this type of stereotypical representation throws the argument, and the movement for period leaves, for people who really need it, out into the trash can.

Representation Of Transpersons Community Is Almost Absent In Pop Culture

You are supposed to brave it all, ride it out, just like countless glamorous, emancipated, and liberal on-screen presences have since time immemorial. The reality of it is, you are not obligated to treat your period sickness as just some headache because of the serious health issues that can arise if not properly taken care of.

These are just some of the tropes that are so detached from real life, that it fails to paint a holistic picture of the daily tribulations of a person undergoing complications regarding menses. My choice of using ‘person’ also indicates that pop culture has zero to hardly any representation of menstruation in the transpersons community like dust under the carpet.

It’s 2020, and all we want for Christmas is some realistic, intersectional, inclusive, and unbiased representation of menstruation on-screen.

Image is for representation purposes only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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