A History of Menstrual Messages

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Menstruation is a normal, healthy part of being a woman. So why do so many girls feel embarrassed or ashamed when it comes to having their periods? Why might they hesitate to talk about or ask questions about their experiences? One way to understand why girls often feel that their periods must be “kept hidden” is to look at the messages about menstruation that women have received over time.

In ancient times, menstruating women were considered to be “dirty and toxic” or even “possessed by a demon” (Knight, 1991). If you have ever heard menstruation referred to as “the curse,” then you may have a sense of how long-lasting these messages have been! Other myths that have persisted over time include those that suggest that girls are particularly weak or fragile during their periods; that menstruation is more like an illness than a sign of health. For instance, an educational packet from the 1930’s told girls to avoid hot or cold baths, swimming, horseback riding, lifting heavy weights, “athletic dancing,” or strenuous household chores during menstruation (Delaney, 1988). Though these kinds of “rules” might seem crazy to you now, for many years they were widely accepted as being true.

If you asked your mom or grandmother about the kinds of messages they received about their periods when they were growing up, they might recall that periods were treated as a “hygiene crisis.” One advertisement from the 1930’s suggested that “ultimate humiliation would be any indication that (a girl was) menstruating” (Houppart, 1995). Girls were told to focus on keeping their periods hidden by ensuring that their bodies and clothes remained “clean,” as though there were something unnatural and offensive about menstrual blood. As feminine hygiene products such as pads and tampons became widely available, advertisements for these products reinforced the idea that menstruation was dirty and shameful -- a secret to be kept at all costs.

Even today, you may notice that you don’t hear the words “blood,” “bleed,” or “vagina” in advertisements for pads and tampons. Instead, you’ll often find that ads play on girls’ fears that others will find out they have their period, or that suggest that, by using the right product, that you can avoid having your periods interfere with your life and activities. The underlying message is that periods are shameful, talking about them is taboo, and that any evidence of bleeding should be carefully hidden.

These myths don’t have to continue to define girl’s experiences of their bodies and their periods. By talking openly about your experiences with your girlfriends, or with younger girls, you contribute to a new set of messages -- that periods are healthy, positive, and natural. You can help create a new set of norms, ones that empower girls with access to information about their bodies, and with opportunities to make decisions based on this information, rather than outdated myths and fears.  These conversations between girls and their friends, sisters, mothers, teachers, and doctors can play an important role in creating a new, healthy, positive attitude about periods.

Delane y, J., Lupton, M. J., & Toth, E. (1988) . The curse: A cultural history of menstruation.

(rev. ed.) . Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Houppert, K. (1995, February 7). Pulling the plug on the sanitary protection industry. Village Voice.

Knight, C. (1991). Blood relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Pre ss.

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