Why is it called “feminine hygiene” anyway?

Last month New Zealand retail chain Countdown became the first international retailer to officially ditch the “euphemistic” language commonly used around periods in retail. Words like “sanitary” and “feminine hygiene” will no longer be used to describe the products and aisles, instead, the brand will finally call a period a period.

This landmark move shows that at least one retailer is listening to calls to de-mystify the language we use around menstruation. A spokesperson for the brand has said:

“We want to help normalise the language around periods and continence as well as making products like pads, tampons and menstrual cups much easier to find when our customers are shopping online.”

Kiri Hannifin, General Manager Corporate Affairs, Safety and Sustainability, Countdown

But why do we use these words and phrases to refer to these products in the first place?

A blog by US company, Diva Cup provides us with some answers, although US specific. Their research says that in the late 1800s an anti-obscenity bill meant that companies could not talk explicitly about sex, contraceptives or anything deemed too explicit when advertising products. This lead to period companies renaming their products in a discreet way in order to get period products into pharmacies and stores.

By the early 1900s, the term feminine hygiene took off and was cemented by the popularisation of ‘germ theory’ that meant that everyday people took care to wash in order to prevent the spread of harmful germs.

Over time, advertisers have preyed on taboos and insecurities around periods in order to sell products. Focusing on discretion, covering odours, and stopping leaks to help women to hide their menstruation so they can continue to laugh and run in white trousers, the use of these terms directly links to society shaming menstrual cycles and renaming them to avoid embarrassment over a completely natural bodily function.

The words we choose today continue to embed this shame into our practices. As activist Chella Quint rightly points out, we continue to use language chosen by advertisers and product companies to describe our bodies, reinforcing old taboos that we are trying to break.

Words like “hygiene” and “sanitary” strongly imply that a period is dirty and needs to be cleaned up, which it is not. Note that we do not refer to toilet paper as “excretion hygiene” or as a personal care product instead it is called literally just “toilet paper”, the paper that is used in the toilet.

It is also important to recognise the impact of categorising products as “feminine”. For many, the implication of the word is dainty, discreet, pretty – for most this is the opposite of what a period feels like. Pastel colours and floral scents may try and make menstruation look more feminine, but the reality of popping your maximum ibuprofen for the day and laying crumpled on your bed in the foetal position waiting for the pain to subside does not fit this term.

Not every biologically female person menstruates, and not every person that menstruates would categorise themselves as “feminine”. This term excludes trans men, non-binary people and cis-women that do not identify as “feminine”, tying periods to a type of femininity that no longer (if it ever did) represents truly the people that need the products.

Countdown in New Zealand has chosen to confront the taboos around periods and have opted to take a stand, recognising its role in challenging the status quo. We can only hope that further retailers and period product makers follow suit and ditch the outdated language and branding used to sell us products.

So, let’s keep asking for better. Make it normal to refer to your chosen products as a period or menstrual product, and ask your retailers for the same.