Culture has come a long way when it comes to depictions of, and conversations around, menstruation. Period product advertising has turned its back on blue-dye euphemisms to reflect the reality of the most natural thing in the world affecting half the population, with brands such as Bodyform and Tampax celebrating and normalising the blood, the pain, the inconvenience in their most recent campaigns.
And while period brands still face backlash for 'daring' to open up the conversation surrounding menstruation, it seems that the tide of rebellion is generally winning. This is being helped, in part, by wider goings-on in culture. Images and visual narratives of menstruation in major hit TV shows, I May Destroy You, Sex Education, and BBC’s most recent adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, give space to period reality on our screens. Period product innovation - from a multitude of period pant brands, to eco-friendly tampons, show investment and demonstrate worthiness.
And, louder acceptance and spotlight on the female body generally - think the rise of candles shaped in the female form, influencers’ public celebrations of their “body imperfections”, vulva designs for clothing lines and spaceships, and a wiki page for The Orgasm Gap phenomena - create a broader ecosystem of acceptance, that strives to undo the historical and cultural roots of shame and embarrassment around the female body.
It's time to talk about the emotional side of things
But, amidst this all, there’s an absence at play. Amidst the visual revolution of periods and the celebration of the body, the force of hormones and the impact they have on emotional and mental well-being are lacking mainstream airtime, despite the fact they form a crucial part of existence, and despite the fact that women are asking for the same normalisation, support and exposure as the physical impact of periods in culture.
"Just once I'd like to see a realistic tampon advert, with a woman crying herself to sleep in ripped pjs with a half a chewed mars bar hanging out of her mouth! That's reality too!!"
Our research, from in-depth interviews to nuanced linguistic analysis of mass online conversation, showed how aware and in-tune females are to how their hormones affect their mood, behaviour, and thoughts, as well as more physical things like their skin, sex drive, and pain.
For many, it’s obvious that their hormones have an impact on their emotions specifically. Definitive and causal word types appeared time and time again in conversation, including... “because”, “I know”, “happens when”, “aware”.
And actual descriptions of the mental impact of hormones from women range from tolerating PMS short-term “mood swings” with memes and retrospectively funny stories, to real distress and fear that their mental health is suffering considerably as a direct result of their hormones.
"I really hate this emotional meltdown I have every time my period is coming holy shit my depressive ass gets even worse and even though I know it's because of that. My mind keeps on dwelling in the void. I'm tired 🥲🥲🥲"
Sometimes the latter experience can be so severe it’s medically diagnosed as Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (although many women struggle for years to get a diagnosis from medical professionals), and symptoms include everything from anger, insomnia, and anxiety to depression and suicidal thoughts. The condition is said to affect up to 800,000 women in the UK alone, (although barriers to diagnosis is likely to affect that number) and there is considerable community-driven conversation about it with analysis showing just how debilitating it can be for women, their lives, and families.
The rise of FemTech
While this emotional nuance and crucial detail of the female experience remains absent from mainstream comms, the momentous developments in FemTech - namely the ability to track and understand more about hormonal effects - are empowering women to talk about their hormonal and mental health with knowledge and authority. Apps such as Moody Month and Balance specifically connect women with solutions to track and support their most common moods and symptoms in relation to their period cycle or menopause.
"My period tracking app has a community feature where girls give each other PMS support and it's so nice"
And brands are leveraging these tracking opportunities - albeit not in relation to emotions and mental health (yet). Cosmetics leader L’Oréal recently unveiled a partnership with period tracking app Clue to deepen knowledge on the relationship between skin health and the menstrual cycle. This is a great example of merging hormonal health knowledge with a branded product, and proves opportunity exists in the area for brands with something relevant to say.
Branded reflections of the whole experience
But, opportunities for brands to reflect the whole experience of periods - including the emotional and mental - also exist. Tena’s April 2022 ad does a wonderful job of doing this for menopause; giving space to the physical and the mental symptoms in a visual, realistic narrative. Period advertising feels like it’s close to doing the same, but for the most part, overcoming the visualisation of blood and pain is the focus.
A stand out depiction, however, can be found in the May 2022 campaign from Hertility (At-home hormone and fertility testing). Their “Ooh Someone’s Hormonal” TV ad seeks to flip the narrative around “being hormonal”, turning it into something positive as opposed to a way to cause confusion and shame on women’s bodies and, significantly, their minds.
But, it’s not just up to period product brands to have the conversation about hormones and mental health - other brands, people, and policies are shaping the conversation and help to evolve culture too. For example, the upcoming women's health strategy for England published a summary of findings from the call for evidence last year, with a key priority being the impact of PMS on someone’s quality of life. Celebrities are also speaking about the realities and struggles of hormonal-driven mental health.
Hormonal health and the emotional, mental effects of cycles are nothing new in the lives of women. But, access to information about specific conditions is increasing, as is the ability to track the body and mind in minute, real-time detail. The conversation is growing. Education is growing too. Couple this with our increasing need as consumers for reality and transparency, and it's inevitable that women are going to be expecting culture to keep up. It’s time to look to the emotional and mental realities of female health and undo the final taboo.
By Casey Wright