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Menstrual Education. Brought To You By A Tampon Company?

Sponsored menstrual education in schools. Founder of the #periodpositive project Chella Quint isn’t happy about this at all. Especially now Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is about to become a compulsory part of the National Curriculum in the UK. That’s why she started a petition on Brands Off.

Boost brand loyalty by giving out free samples

What’s the big deal? In the UK, and a lot of other countries, menstrual education resources for schools are sponsored by manufacturers of sanitary pads and tampons. Apart from information, these companies also give away free samples of their products. Which is great – at least for those manufacturers, as marketing studies show that youngsters often remain loyal to the first brand they’ve been introduced to.

Being taught about menstruation by the manufacturers

This way of marketing sanitary products isn’t new. Already back in 1946, there was the animated movie The Story of Menstruation, produced by Walt Disney and commissioned by the International Cello-Cotton Company (now Kimberly-Clark, aka Kotex). Approximately 105 million American students have seen this film in their high school health education classes. Also part of the package: a booklet called Very Personally Yours, which discouraged the use of tampons, as this market was dominated by rival Tampax.

About 70 years later, we’re still being taught about menstruation by the manufacturers. In the Netherlands, teachers can choose between packages that have been commissioned by Johnson & Johnson (o.b.) or Procter & Gamble (Always). In the UK, there are more players in this field and educational material is also offered by Lil-lets and Bodyform (Libresse). All free packages include information about body changes during puberty. But what they also offer: product samples, logos and links to company websites, all of which is passed on to easily influenced adolescents. Sometimes these websites aren’t directly recognisable as such, but look more like an independent health and menstruation forum. Exception to the rule: the Natracare school programme that focuses on the effect of disposable feminine hygiene products – and baby diapers – on the environment.

‘Companies reinforce menstruation taboos, by associating periods with shame and secrecy’

Presenting it as ‘education’ seems a perfect way to by-pass the UK’s Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) guidelines. Quint states in her petition that this practice is actually in breach of the code. She also explains why these guidelines should be updated so this advertising method won’t be able to slip under the radar anymore. Her pet hate: the companies reinforce menstruation taboos, by associating periods with shame and secrecy. Another point: the education resources don’t mention cheaper, and more environmentally responsible, reusable menstrual products, such as cloth pads or menstrual cups.

Quint (pictured on the left) has been interested in the marketing strategies of tampon and pad manufacturers for years: ‘When I was 13 I had my period at a sleepover and I leaked. Instead of being supported, I got picked on by the other girls there and shamed. As I got older, I realised that part of the reason they acted that way was because of menstrual product companies using shame and stigma around periods to sell their products.’ What started as a comedy project about vintage advertisements, led to serious research.

‘No other school subject is taught this way. It’s unethical’

Quint: ‘When I became a teacher and head of PSHE in Sheffield I realised that many of the resources used in menstruation education were still provided by disposable menstrual product companies. No other school subject is taught this way. It’s unethical. So why are we letting it happen with periods?’ In the TedEx-talk Don’t use shame to sell Quint talks about her findings.

‘Brands hide behind third party companies to promote their products under the guise of menstrual activism. Companies send unsolicited ‘free’ samples to schools, create lesson plans that promote sales and imply that their activities fall under corporate social responsibility, rather than marketing.’ Which is especially bizarre when realising that no other school subject relies on free samples or branded teaching resources. The physical education teacher doesn’t receive 30 pairs of Nike shoes for every class. And the math lesson isn’t sponsored by Casio calculators. With the Brands Off campaign, Quint wants companies, but also parents, teachers, schools and the government to take responsibility.

‘Informed, not influenced’

She encourages pupils to challenge menstrual taboos, parents to talk openly to their children about menstrual management, and companies to remove the logos and branding from their resources. Naturally, these resources shouldn’t use language or images about secrecy or shame. More recommendations: teachers and schools should use resources as recommended by research conducted by reputable independent experts. And the Parliament and the Department for Education should ban menstrual product advertising within schools and support detailed regulation guidelines.

Quint: ‘Menstruation education should become ad-free and pupils should be ‘informed, not influenced’.’ This of course includes giving information about reusable menstrual products, such as a menstruation cup. This doesn’t only benefit the environment. It also lowers the personal economic cost of buying disposable products every month, just because that brand was introduced to you in class and claimed to protect against leaks and odours. Quint: ‘Education should be for the benefit of children, rather than big brands.’

Agree with Quint? Sign the petition here.

Your story?
What’s your opinion about sponsored menstrual education? And what are your experiences when it comes to learning about menstruation, either at school or at home? Share your story via redactie<@> or leave a reply below. 

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Shen Schol

Shen Schol

nice to meet you, happy face

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