In the aftermath of the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland this week banning an ad intended to explain to women how to properly insert a tampon, Liadán Hynes writes about talking to her own six-year-old daughter about periods…[restrict]
Just last week, my six-year-old daughter picked up a box of tampons from a table in my room and asked “Mommy what are these?”
For a second, I stalled. It’s not that she has never seen a tampon before. For a time, as a small toddler, if she could get her hands on one, riffled from my bedside drawer or nabbed from a handbag, they were a favourite toy (to a small child, an unwrapped tampon bears a strong resemblance to a mouse).
And it’s not that she has never been in the bathroom with me when I’ve had my period. But she was younger then and easily distracted.
But I knew this time was different. She was genuinely asking me what they were for. Like I say, for a second I stalled. Is she too young to know? Would it slightly appal her? We bleed? Why? What’s wrong?
But I have an acquaintance who left it until her daughter was older than mine to explain to her how a baby comes out of a woman, and the child became for a time horrified and slightly fixated on this happening to her. It left its impression on me; the little girl pleading with her mother to offer up some other way for a baby to come out. Her tummy? Belly button?
Hearing that story, I decided then what I had already vaguely intended, that if my own girl asked about body stuff, I would tell her. And maybe even before she asked, I would tell her. Age appropriately, obviously, but as honestly as I could. She knows how babies get into a Mommy and how they come out.
To be honest, she’s possibly forgotten, because in my experience when you’re honest with them, they’re totally nonplussed and move on. It’s only when you behave like there is something to be hidden, something secret, maybe embarrassing, that they latch on.
So when she held aloft the box of tampons, I replied in as nonchalant a manner as I could, “oh women bleed every month and those things stop it coming through your knickers.” And I tried to banish the ‘eeeek’ expression I could feel hovering about my face, at the fear that the knowledge so baldly put, bestowed properly for the first time, would surely disturb her?
I’m not sure when the shame kicks in for women. Probably at different times for all of us. When I got my period, aged 12, I was so excited I ran down to tell my father. I can still remember him sitting at his computer, receiving the knowledge with completely equanimity, not in any way bursting the bubble of excitement I felt at such grown-upness.
But my best friend and I each had special little purses, meant to look like small pencil cases, which we would use to discreetly secret a tampon out of the classroom when we needed. “Do you’ve any sweets?” we would ask each other, our code word for tampon.
“Oh right,” my daughter said, with almost a shrug, at my explanation, putting the box down and moving on to an expensive moisturiser she has been repeatedly warned is not a plaything. “And this?” she asked with a gleam in her eye. “You know what that is, and it’s a no,” I replied in my fake stern voice.
I am my daughter’s blueprint. The first port of call in her own journey upon which she figures out what it is to be a woman. Sometimes it is tricky. “Why are you doing that?” she asked recently at the sight of me shaving my legs. “Ehhhh, because I like how they feel afterwards?” I offered. “It’s weird,” she replied stoutly. And I couldn’t argue.
In the same way that I want her to know innately the importance of spending time with good friends because she sees me prioritising it, or the fact that I never talk about weight or bodies in front of her beyond how deliciously edible her own little body is, or of food having value beyond how much you enjoy it, even before a Tampon ad was banned last week, I had decided to tell her whatever she asked, so that hopefully she would learn from me a lack of embarrassment about these things.
Now, I could rage cry at the thought of an ad which tries to explain to young women how to properly insert a tampon being banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland this week, in response to eighty-four complaints which variously described it as offensive, crude, vulgar, embarrassing and unnecessary.
As for the complaints that the ad contained sexual inuendo? Stop. Sexualising. Women. When. They. Do. Not. Ask. For. It.
An ad which unlike almost everything that has come before it, doesn’t seek to hide a period behind blue gel, or prove to women that they can still wear white, or be incredibly active during their period (as if you would want to), instead of honestly taking stock of the fact that you most likely feel tired, weepy, headachey, and as if you just want to crawl into a cave, rage at the world, or cry for no reason, for those few days each month.
An ad which, in its cry of “You’ve gotta get ‘em up their girls,” didn’t attempt to do what all the others before it do; enable you to pretend periods do not happen.
I cannot count the amount of women I have interviewed who went to their doctor as a teenager with severe period pains, only to be told to take some over the counter painkiller. To suck it up, essentially. Years later, often when in the middle of fertility issues, they were diagnosed with endometriosis.
“I didn’t know the pain wasn’t normal, nobody really talked about periods,” one woman told me.
When it comes to bodies, my daughter sees the future of hers in mine. “Will I get hair on my legs, under my arms?” she asks at the sight of mine. When it comes to how she talks about her own body, and what happens to it, she learns it first from me.
I would imagine I am not alone in feeling this week, in direct result to that ad being banned, even more determined to talk to her openly, honestly and shamelessly, about it all.