Currently, and as I'm sure you will have heard, sanitary products are subject to 5% VAT and are classed as 'luxury items'. I'm not going to dwell on this: we all know that sanitary products are essentials and that they are hundreds of comparisons we could draw to other, perhaps not-so-essential products that are currently untaxed and/or free. We all know that absolute carnage would ensue without them. Here I would like to propose some reasons as to why.
How many of you who menstruate have felt embarrassed to leave a room of people, hiding a sanitary towel in your pocket in case someone sees, effectively hiding your period from the world? I will admit that I am guilty of this. Occasionally I find myself unable to use the word 'period', hiding it under the guise of a whispered 'women's issues'. Through this, I not only disguise my period, I also exclude half the population from an understanding of it. Clearly there is a sense of a shame here, a fear of the exposure of reality and a creation of effectively a 'cloak of invisibility' around menses.
During the recent Commons debate, an MP (despite his being in favour of the amendment) found it difficult to say the word 'tampon'. We've probably all been there. Language associated with and conversation about menstruation has been considered taboo throughout history. It has added to the propagation of the myth of woman as 'dirty' and 'sinful', and has caused women to be excluded and even feared. Although this view is largely now outdated in the West, it is not surprising that menstruation is misunderstood and still treated in such a delicate way when it has been hidden and shamed for so long.
Even the companies who produce sanitary products make a desperate attempt to hide the truth. Instead they propagate a new, reactionary myth: according to their own TV advertisements periods are clean, stress-free and seemingly unreal. Menstrual blood is blue, women in short white dresses stay out dancing until 5 am and teams of scientists work on a new, out-of-this-world technology. Any advertisement that attempts to challenge this myth is banned. If this is all we see of menstruation in the media, it is no wonder we feel shame when the process is messy and uncomfortable. We don't see adverts of people changing their beds in the middle of the night, suffering from crippling mood swings or throwing up. We don't even see an accurate representation of the 'fluid' these products are supposed to be collecting. The products are completely taken out of their real setting and pasted into fantasy worlds. This complete and utter distortion of reality by the media, this reduction of the process to science fiction (Always Infinity, I'm looking at you) is yet another reason why menstruation fails to be understood, even by the people who go through it.
This is clearly something that goes deeper than just economics. As I have said time and time again the issues society face regarding gender and sexuality always come down to a lack of education. Unless menstruation becomes a subject that is talked about and normalised for all genders in schools (none of this segregated sex ed, thank you!), at home and in the public sphere, we will forever be trapped in this distorted and misunderstood view of a natural process which seems to be shrouded in layers of myth. Unless we rewrite our behaviour, force ourselves to be open and to reject these unrealistic portrayals in the media, the deep rooted fear and shame surrounding it will always prevail and will always be propagated.
Although we may not have directly succeeded in our primary aim this time, at least it has opened up channels for discussion, and this can only be seen as a step forward.
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