When you go to your local general store to buy a packet of Whisper or Stayfree, it is unlikely that you’re thinking about the gigantic inner-workings of the economy. You are more likely to be concerned with internalised embarrassment as you buy it from the cis-male shopkeeper.
The research publication ‘Cash Flow: The Business of Menstruation’, however, identifies menstruation as inevitably interlinked with corporate functions—given that, increasingly, menstruators are dependent on industrial menstrual products. Similarly, with the rise of the menstrual equity movement, it understands how the industry is catching up.
Dr Camilla Mørk Røstvik—a scholar with expertise in visual cultures and feminist art hisotries—herself introduces the book splendidly, with her 15th October tweet: “Wonder why you are paying for menstrual products? I’ve got answers from history, babe. <3 #MenstruationMatters”
The Brand as a Competent Producer
With a cyclical history of dynamic developments in menstrual cultures, the industry has followed through with its own adaptations. Its actions–whether through marketing or production—have influenced this socio-cultural understanding of menstruation by both augmenting and subverting the stigma.
Røstvik examines the cases of various brands in the industry. Her work delves into the implications of their specific advertising campaigns, branding strategies, and internal organisational structures. More importantly, she places the brand as a witness (and propagator) of the transition from homemade contraptions to disposable products. Her uncanny identification of multinational corporations (MNCs) as the major players within the industry further discusses this economic movement. She also examines how the revolving market enables new smaller brands to enter through various niches: the inclusive, the eco-conscious, and/or the feminist.
Also read: Periods Are Not Just Pads, Period.
Brands can be seen as both forces of social good and as mere corporate agents. Often, both sentiments co-exist within the industrial space.
To study the role of all stakeholders within an industry, it is critical to include the perspective of the invisible hands behind these products. Røstvik interviews employees from various companies and refers to a previous scholar’s body of work to conclude that gender exists within the spaces of production as well.
With women being seen as traditionally “suitable” to manufacture these hyper-gendered products, they are observed to be hired by cis-male CEOs and managers. This places the patriarchy within the industry—giving rise to well-documented issues like pay gap disparity and poor working conditions, but also issues like prejudiced advertising.
In a way, these leaders’ ‘masculinity’ is preserved by being in traditional leadership positions and their association to menstrual products being through control. On the other hand, female employees faced low-pay, long-hours, and the stigma associated with their employment should they have to explain their work to others.
“And for those experimenting with the boundaries of their own internalised menstrual shame, trying out free bleeding—if only once—may challenge an individual’s perceptions.”Dr Camilla Mørk Røstvik
This enabled the industry to continue to maintain binary gender roles, with uproar setting in whenever employees deviate from the norm—for example, when Saba employees asked for training that was reserved for male employees or when Thinx hired cis and trans male models. The predominance of “whiteness” and exclusion of indigenous perspectives is also highlighted within labour representation.
The industry as an employer, thus, Røstvik concludes, upholds certain paradigms of productivity, purity and discretion.
The Menstruator as a Dependent Consumer
Menstruation is seen as consumption. With a homogenous industry prominently monopolised by disposable pads and tampons, a menstruator who bleeds typically purchases menstrual products.
They also have a role beyond mere consumers, acting as individuals within public discourse. Menstruators represent various critical perspectives—namely feminist and Marxist (when it comes to issues pertaining to period poverty.) As activists and critics, they have exacted their role beyond just mere consumers, through boycotts and public awareness.
She also refers to ‘Free Bleeding’ as a concept, brought to light by American-Indian musician Kiran Gandhi’s move to run the London Marathon through her periods without any products on. Free bleeding has existed before this as well. People have ‘opted out of menstrual consumerism’ due to varied reasons—poverty, gender dysphoria, shame/stigma/embarrassment associated with menstrual products, disability, and/or chronic pain. She thus highlights the intersections between menstrual consumerism and personal identity—studying the intricacies of this deeply radical choice.
Quoting a beautiful line from the book’s conclusion, “And for those experimenting with the boundaries of their own internalised menstrual shame, trying out free bleeding—if only once—may challenge an individual’s perceptions.”
The Research as a Contextual Work
Cash Flow focuses on the US-European market and doesn’t shy away from self-criticism of its own eurocentrism. An Indian perspective is brought, momentarily, in the discussion of works of media as still being “products” for the entertainment market—for example the movies Pad Man, Phullu and Period. End of Sentence. She highlights how these mass media films were both acclaimed for bringing public attention and criticised for focusing on pads and the industry, rather than the menstrual experience.
Similarly, she also touches upon the lack of research on newer reusable and sustainable menstrual product markets. The possibility of research into the intersection of ecology, capitalism and menstrual health is intriguing, as well.
Hence, she gives way to the need for further research from the intersectional perspectives of menstruators, brands, and researchers in the global south.
She also discusses the research within a time of reforming ideals surrounding menstruation, in terms of inclusion and the introduction of menstruator-led startups. The book concludes on a hopeful note, illustrating a potential future of true impact and solidarity across the gender spectrum, beyond mere monetary machinations.
- Røstvik, Camilla Mørk. Cash Flow: The Businesses of Menstruation. UCL Press, 2022. JSTOR.