The future is period positive. Or, as Chella Quint puts it: period neutral using a positive approach. But to get there, we need to grapple with menstrual stigma — and that means interrogating the language, beliefs and practices that support it at every level.
You might think critiquing the phrase "feminine hygiene" is trivial, but for some of us, it really matters and is connected to larger systems of oppression. Challenging the convention of categorizing menstrual products (and by extension, those of us who use them) as inherently feminine, is just one of the ways some of us choose to resist the biological essentialism that genders our bodies without our consent.
Questioning why shifty, gendered euphemisms are an acceptable stand-in for straight talk about periods also pushes back against coded language that instills shame into our everyday lives.
Here are 3 reasons to say um can you not? to anyone calling period products “feminine hygiene”.
ˈyo͞ofəˌmizəm/ a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.
Speaking openly and honestly about menstruation helps break the cycle of secrecy and misinformation that unjustly impacts so many lives worldwide. To genuinely care for our whole selves, we need to find and support ways to talk about — and really advocate for — our bodies and our health needs without embarrassment or apology.
While euphemisms might make us feel marginally less awkward in the moment, they’re not really a great long term strategy for eradicating shame or nurturing more informed and empowered relationships with ourselves and each other. You might not be conscious of it, but over time, they can discourage self acceptance and reinforce negative thinking.
"Feminine hygiene" doesn’t conceal periods; we all know what it means. But when we defend the term as status quo, or use it to avoid speaking plainly about menstruation, it can have the effect of further reifying periods as taboo or inappropriate to talk about. The culture of silence this feeds isn't good for anyone, and can directly contribute to broader public health concerns too.
Changing the name of a section in a drugstore, or the way a tampon company talks about its products, won't be the final blow that ends menstrual stigma - but it will send a powerful message that periods are normal, okay to talk about, and don’t need to be hidden.
Feminine hygiene was never not a problematic phrase. But in 2017, it feels like a dinosaur walking among us.
It’s rooted in outdated, binary assumptions about sex and gender that uphold cisnormativity by centering cisgender bodies as natural, while simultaneously classifying cis women + trans and nonbinary people who menstruate as unnatural, inherently flawed, or unhygienic. That’s like quadruple the patriarchy.
Because "feminine" means "female" and "woman" in this context, it can be argued that "feminine hygiene" sends a reductive and objectifying message — to trans & cis women alike — that womanhood is defined by genitals and reproductive capabilities.
Transgender men and nonbinary folks who have periods shouldn't have to suffer the same invalidating messages, or feel forced to adopt a label that doesn’t represent us either. Having to walk down an aisle or purchase products labeled "feminine hygiene" can be pretty alienating and emotionally difficult for trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people for whom menstrual products are a basic necessity. This kind of experience is really representative of other barriers trans and nb people face in a world that’s not designed to accommodate the complexity of our bodies and identities.
Calling menstrual products "feminine hygiene" may seem like small potatoes, but the implications behind it - that the functions of your body determine your gender and who you are - can contribute to trans people avoiding doctors who may not understand their health needs, or being denied service outright when they do try to access medical care.
After the passage of the 1873 Comstock Act in the United States, which made it a federal crime to distribute or sell conception-related materials, the birth control industry coined the term "feminine hygiene" to re-brand their products.
Over time, this term evolved to refer to menstrual products instead, illustrating how products and services related to birth, birth control, and menstruation have historically (and to this day) been contested and controlled. Feminine hygiene went from describing something that was actually illegal, to describing something that’s sometimes treated as though it practically should be - hidden from sight and segregated to its own private aisle.
Target's path to inclusion
Recently, a request was posted on Target’s Facebook Page by the Campaign to Degender Menstruation asking that they consider changing the category description on their website from Feminine Products to Menstrual or Period Products. A totally reasonable request, and worth a shot given Target's history.
In 2015, Target started phasing out gender-specific product categories and switching to gender-neutral displays, saying "we never want guests or their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented".
A year later, Target issued a Stand for Inclusivity statement in response to legislative proposals mandating that transgender people use the restroom that reflects what’s listed on their birth certificate, rather than that which corresponds with their gender. In the statement, Target reaffirmed their support of the Federal Equality Act, which provides protections to LGBTQ folks and opposes action that enables discrimination.
They further demonstrated their commitment to inclusion by explicitly welcoming transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room that works for them.
I support this campaign's request 100% and hope Target will continue their inclusion efforts by introducing gender-neutral, non-euphemistic labeling of menstrual products in their stores. Other companies and brands should step up to do the same, and I totally encourage anyone who cares about this issue to speak out about the changes they want to see. Even if you're initially dismissed or met with confusion or resistance, know that your voice matters, and that together we're laying the groundwork for progress to come.
Update: Target removed this call for more inclusive language from their Facebook page shortly after this post was published. I reached out to Target's social media team for comment but didn't get a response. It's frustrating and disappointing, but par for the course for those of us working to build a more inclusive menstrual (etc) health space. Cis allies, we need you to take up the fight too - please support your trans and nonbinary friends who are trying to carve out some space in this world. It's not easy, and we can't do it alone.