File image: Woman suffering cramps
File image: Woman suffering cramps
File graphic: Menstrual cycle
File graphic: Menstrual cycle

That time of the month, Aunty Flo, the red robot, the red Ferrari, shark attack; anything but call it what it is - menstruation.
Also known as a period, menstruation has been given many softer names as it has been perceived as unclean or embarrassing. Young girls are taught from a young age to “never discuss” their menstrual cycles in public, and if they must, only the aforementioned euphemisms are permitted in social talk.

This censorship cuts right down to even broader sects of society - the media and advertising.

Women professionals in corporate companies feel ashamed to take sick leave from their jobs when experiencing period pains or endometriosis out of fear of being perceived as “weak”.

Dozens of advertisements about periods either reinforce how embarrassed or self-conscious young women feel during their monthly cycle, or how they dread having to deal with uncomfortable “accidents” such as flow leaks evident in their clothes, or how women should watch out for odour control.

The “femcare” industry is largely conservative. According to the MayoClinic, an online medi- cal portal for doctors and patients, the menstrual cycle is the monthly series of changes a woman’s body goes through in preparation for the possibility of pregnancy. Each month, one of the ovaries releases an egg, a process called ovulation. At the same time, hormonal changes prepare the uterus for pregnancy.

If ovulation takes place and the egg isn’t fertilised, the lining of the uterus sheds through the vagina.

In October last year the world’s first Vagina Varsity was established where women could learn about their bodies in a private, safe setting, guided by professionals online. The Vagina Varsity course covered everything from anatomy to discharge, contraception and when to see a doctor.

After four weeks, subscribers would “graduate” from the online “institution”. With about 8500 subscribers to the varsity and 35000 Facebook followers, the varsity has kept women informed in a non-judgemental platform.

This month, Libresse, which founded the varsity, launched another initiative to “un-embarrass your period”. The campaign is now taking the conversation right where menstruation gets the most judgement - prime-time television.

“We think the first step to getting people unembarrassed is to get them to realise that they are embarrassed. That’s why the campaign is pointing out just how crazy it is when we don’t say what we mean when we talk about periods,” the feminine hygiene brand said.

Gynaecologist Mpume Zenda said she was particularly passionate about creating greater awareness on menstruation and destigmatising it, which is why she was proud of the campaign.

“Statistics show that 66% of girls go into their first period not knowing what it is about. For a majority of girls it also interferes with the enjoyment or even ability to go to school.

“Boys are clueless about periods too, and tend to bully girls because of their periods. If we haven’t had conversations about periods, how do we talk to our children about sex and sexuality?” she said.

Chief executive of advertising agency Net#work BBDO South Africa, Boniswa Pezisa, said the success of the Vagina Varsity rested on its position as a “safe space” in the form of the digital environment.

“We could choose our audience and they could choose us. Worldwide, women just aren’t comfortable talking about pads and periods. In SA’s conservative society, stigma and shame about periods are entrenched. SA girls and women learn not to discuss vaginal care or associated concerns like odour control out loud and the result is that myths abound and health problems are common,” Pezisa said.

In the new ad campaign, YouTube sensation Pap Culture uses a metaphor to talk about odour control and then refers women back to Vagina Varsity. Once online, viewers can star in their own version of the advert to share the message that it’s silly not to say what you mean when it comes to periods.