Many cultures around the world place a stigma around menstruation. Even in the UK, 26% of women are affected by period shame (ActionAid 2022). Despite being a monthly part of life for half the population, periods are often shrouded in secrecy, and so it is hard to know how women think and feel about them.
As a women’s health communication agency, Thrive wanted to learn more about how women experience menstruation, how it affects their everyday lives and how women talk and feel about this very biological but hidden monthly occurrence. We believe that in understanding how women relate to their periods, we can communicate better with them about their menstrual health and help close the information gaps that exist.
We teamed up with researchers from the University of Nottingham’s School of Linguistics to do a linguistic analysis of how Gen Z and Millennial women talk about periods and menstrual health. In conducting 10 focus groups with 50 women in the UK, we discovered some interesting shifts in the discourse around menstruation.
- An increasing openness about menstrual wellbeing
Compared to Millennials, Gen Z women are much more open about their periods. They are happier to share their thoughts with their friends. Many even talk about the experience of their very first period as a time that brought them closer to their girlfriends, a time of sisterhood that continued as they got older. Millennials, while being more open now, remember a time when they felt governed by the need to keep their period hidden from everybody.
“I think when I was younger, I used to kind of hide my pad when I go into the loo.” [Mill]
“It can make me feel closer to other people who go through it, like my sister and my girlfriends. We have that kind of bonding experience that not everyone understands.” [GZ]
- The use of euphemisms and metaphors
Our research also revealed the frequent use of euphemisms and metaphors to denote periods. An interesting array of terms and phrases were provided, such as ‘on the blob’, Aunt Flo is visiting, ‘on my reds’, ‘werewolf time’, ‘mother nature is visiting’, ‘Niagara Falls’, and so on. A further exploration of the slang terms and phrases used around the world revealed a few global themes. For example, the invasion metaphor is quite frequently used to describe the arrival of the monthly period – ‘The English have invaded’ (France) or ‘The Russians are coming’ (Germany). The visit of a ‘friendly relative’ metaphor is also evident in some of the terms, such as ‘Aunt Flo’ (England) or ‘Little Sister’ (China) or ‘my chum’ (India).
The menstrual cycle is also seen to be connected to the cycle of the moon as evident in ‘going to the moon’ (South Africa] or ‘mooning’ (Brazil) and ‘werewolf time’ (England). In some places, it is even seen as a magical event – ‘week of magic’ (Korea).
- Shifting priorities in period product choice
Women talked in depth about how they choose their period products and how the factors that influence their buying choices have evolved. While Millennials seem to prioritise habit and brand loyalty, Gen Z women are increasingly governed by value for money, reusability and sustainability. Millennials tend to stick to the products/brands they know, with tampons being their preferred product.
“I’d rather use known brands like Always night pads and Tampax during the day, just because they are proper brands and not low cost.” [Mill]
Younger women revealed a squeamishness and sometimes fear, in relation to tampons.
“I think the idea of a tampon scared me a lot – the information on the back about toxic shock syndrome that just freaks me out.” [GZ]
We also discovered that women are increasingly interested in alternative products such as period pants and menstrual cups, with reusability being a big plus for Gen Z women.
“I use a menstrual cup because you buy it once and you don’t have to keep buying them.” [GZ]
A key takeaway was that while sustainability was a factor, especially for younger women, it wasn’t the driving factor for their period product choices. It was more of a ‘nice-to-have’ than a ‘must-have’.
- Much more talk about the emotional effects of menstruation
While pain and heavy flow are still major concerns, women are increasingly talking about the hormonal and emotional effects of periods, and the impact this has on their everyday lives. Gen Z participants admitted that they experience far more anger, irritation, and mood swings during and before their period. There was discussion in both groups about how mood swings can impact their relationships.
“I think the only person who would necessarily know that I was on my period without me telling them, based on my moods, would be my partner.” [Mill]
- Moving away from traditional healthcare
Our discussions revealed that women are looking for new ways to access health information, moving away from GPs to digital platforms. For example, nhs.uk is seen as a place where women can get expert health information without judgement. Our focus groups also revealed that Gen Z women are more likely to talk about their experiences with healthcare professionals in negative terms. They expressed a preference for getting their menstrual health information from social media and tracking apps.
“My app does help me know when to expect it and you I can look ahead then if there’s something troubling me or it’s mostly about my mood really.” [Gen Z]
- Changing the narrative
Our discussions revealed that women are fed up with period product ads promoting unrealistic aspirations and perpetuating shame – they want brands to keep pace with wider cultural and social changes.
“Annoying. Tampax, with the ‘You can do anything’ roller-skating and then horse riding. None of us want to do that when we bleed. None of us do. It doesn’t reflect me in those adverts, it’s really annoying.” [Mill]
Women are also increasingly aware of the ways in which period product brands can perpetuate shame in their ads.
“I really don’t like the typical pad adverts where they say you need to hide your period and our products will help. It feels slightly like its shaming women. [GZ]”
We are living through a time of heightened awareness about female empowerment. Women in our focus groups seemed to be menstrual activists in their own way – whether it is in how they choose their products, where they go to get information about their health or how they want the conversation around periods to be framed.
Brands can and should play a role in changing the narrative around periods, and in doing so, have the opportunity to create lasting and fruitful connections with women.
Gayatri is the Head of mHealth at Thrive. With a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, she has extensive experience working in global health projects as well as national level programmes such as India’s National AIDS Control Programme.
Download our free white paper on the link below to learn how Millennials and Gen Zs talk about menstrual health and brands are getting it wrong
ActionAid (2022) A quarter of UK women face period stigma as millions miss school, work and exercise. News Release. www.actionaid.org.uk/latest-news/quarter-uk-women-face-period-stigma-millions-miss-school-work-and-exercise