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Commercialised Menstruation

How is the commodification of periods impacting those who menstruate?

From small wearable devices designed to help with period cramps to ‘intimate care glow-up’ products, menstrual capitalism is a beast – we question if the marketisation and politicisation of periods helps or hinders

It’s hard to believe that one of the biggest obstacles those who menstruate still face today is periods being taken seriously. From countries initially failing to list period products as essential at the start of lockdown to the APPG on Endometriosis Inquiry reporting that the average diagnosis time hasn’t improved in the last decade, it’s clear the needs of thousands are being ignored. 

Ever since 2015 was dubbed ‘The Year of the Period’, we have seen menstruation become less taboo and more marketable. This has led to a monopoly of products, services and even software that focus solely on reproductive health. This corner of the market has grown so rapidly, it even has its own term: femtech. It was the rise of period and fertility tracking apps that first propelled femtech into the mainstream. Since then, we have seen tech used to enhance women’s health in other areas such as: pregnancy and post-care, sexual wellness as well as chronic conditions and hormone disorders. 

One area in particular that has grown is the rebranding of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machines. These are wearable devices that use a mild electrical current to treat pain. TENS technology is nothing new, the first was patented in 1974 and has long been used to help chronic pain patients. These days they are marketed as the latest drug-free solution for period pain. With brands like Livia and ovira asking questions like ‘had enough of popping 100s of pills each month?’; these products create new insecurities and capitalise off them.

When it comes to pain, anecdotal evidence and research shows people are treated differently based on their gender. One study found that women are less likely to be given effective painkillers than men and another showed that women have to wait significantly longer to see a doctor in emergency departments. This long history of dismissing pain means many feel they have to justify the ways in which they manage. With products focusing so heavily on being a natural way to gain relief, they further this problematic narrative that tells us we have to manage our pain a certain way.

It’s not just technology that brands are using to perpetuate myths in order to turn a profit. Vagisil recently came under fire for their new OMV! line aimed at teenagers who want to do something about “period funk” and achieve an “intimate care glow-up”. These products continue to be developed because we are constantly told the lie that vaginas are dirty. The obsession with cleanliness and freshness has long been conflated with good vaginal health, and doctors are contending with an increase of concerns thanks to the market.

“I have many patients that come in after seeing videos about how to care for the vagina. Oftentimes, they are concerned about how their genitals smell. Their genitals are completely normal but because there are so many products that are supposed to make you smell better, many patients wonder if there is something wrong with them,” says Dr Heather Irobunda, MD. “It often takes multiple appointments and tests to show there are no infections and that there is nothing wrong with them.”

One byproduct of menstrual capitalism is the increase of self-proclaimed women’s health experts becoming “personalities” on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. One of which sells a cycle syncing supplement kit that claims to help people with tough PMS symptoms feel great all month long. All they have to do is ingest the right superfoods and herbs at the correct time in each phase of the menstrual cycle. This miracle product – for which there are no studies that prove it helps – can be yours for a modest price of $299.

Another barrier patients are struggling to overcome is ineffective treatment being suggested. After Dr Jen Lincoln posted a video that suggested a hysterectomy is a cure for endometriosis to her impressionable audience of nearly two million viewers on TikTok, she was soon met with backlash from those who suffer with the complex condition. A hysterectomy is a surgical procedure in which the uterus is removed. Not only is this an irreversible, major surgery, it is not ‘a definitive treatment’ for endometriosis as Lincoln claims. Endometriosis is not confined to the uterus and endometrial-like tissue has been found in every major organ besides the spleen

One person leading the call-out was endometriosis advocate and author of Vagina Problems, Lara Parker. “I became aware of her after she referred to endometriosis as ‘fixable’. She presented the information with such confidence it actually worried me. I immediately wondered how many people might unnecessarily remove organs because of this doctor’s videos,” she tells Dazed Beauty.

Several of the comments on Lincoln’s now deleted video were from patients who said they were led to believe a hysterectomy would cure them when there currently isn’t a cure for endometriosis. This sea of misinformation makes it even harder to get an accurate diagnosis and access the correct treatment. “It took me seven years in total to get a solid answer to what was going on with my body” says Lara and she is not alone. Endometriosis impacts one in ten women and AFAB individuals of any age and is the second most common gynaecological condition in the UK.

If there is a silver lining to be found, it’s the communities that lead the pushback to unnecessary products and myths surrounding menstruation. Many are able to access accurate information thanks to advocates sharing information and their experiences. “The only reason I know about endometriosis is because of the work that other patients and advocates have put in to making sure that accurate information is dispersed,” says Lara.

Fortunately, there are doctors out there making a difference too. Dr Irobunda says she chooses to have open conversations with her patients about why they may feel dirty: “I usually ask them how they came to this conclusion that they need to use certain products and I use the space we’ve created to discuss the function of the vagina. When I educate my patients about how their body works, they usually have fewer issues.”

One could argue that the commodification of periods has led to menstruation being more on our radar than ever before. But as long as there is money to be made in menstrual shame, the period will never truly rid itself of stigma that has followed it for centuries. 

Tara Costello is a writer and educator who has been talking frankly and writing about menstruation for more than a decade. Her debut book Red Moon Gang: An Inclusive Guide To Periods is out now.