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How Bodyform is bringing the ‘gender pain gap’ to life with new language for women

Bodyform has already explored the unseen, unspoken, unknown stories of periods, vulvas and wombs through its ‘Womb Stories’ work. Now, the brand is back at it again with another taboo-busting campaign. Today we talk to the creative women behind ‘Pain Stories’, which highlights the ‘gender pain gap’ and supports earlier diagnosis for the relatively known condition of endometriosis.

Having banished blue liquid in favour of bright red menstrual blood and covered off everything from IVF to nipple hairs with its more recent ‘Womb Stories’ campaign – which revealed the physical experiences of women everywhere – Bodyform is back to bust more taboos with ‘Pain Stories’.

The push will also be adopted by sister menstruation brand Libresse and is designed to highlight the ‘gender pain gap’ and support earlier diagnosis for endometriosis (a disorder in which the lining of the uterus extends to grow outside the organ).

The launch work from AMV BBDO has seen the collation of the ‘Pain Dictionary’, a new lexicon for pain. As part of the project, people with endometriosis were asked to describe their pain, and their testimonials were then turned into striking illustrations.

The impactful visual tool will be distributed to NGOs, influencers and GPs with the hope of increasing the rate of women being diagnosed with the condition, with definitions ranging from ‘misery roulette‘ to ‘inner nails‘ and ‘womb war‘.

“When we look taboos like this this, we look at the barriers presenting them being discussed in society,” explains Luciana de Azevedo Lara, global brand communications manager at Bodyform owner Essity. “Language can be one of those barriers, we want to help women express how they really feel and make them feel understood by health professionals.”

The wider ‘Pain Stories’ campaign is an extension of the ‘Womb Stories’ journey, which will see the towel and tampon maker dive deeper into endometriosis and pain. The campaign will also live on Instagram and in a visual ‘museum’ created by Ketchum where endometriosis sufferers will share raw accounts of their suffering.

All this forms part of Bodyform’s ‘Project V’ scheme which will see the business lend its support to women’s empowerment projects globally.

Creating a new ‘verbal and visual’ language

Bodyform’s own research shows that 51% of women and 52% of men agree period pain is ‘just something women have to deal’ with. It also finds that one in 10 women (or 176 million globally) suffer from endometriosis but it takes an average of seven years for a diagnosis, due to the perception of severe period pain being normal for women to endure, says De Azevedo Lara.

The consequences can be devastating – unconscious medical bias, a dearth of research, chronic misdiagnosis, a continued lack of funding and an ingrained culture of neglect, leaving women suffering undiagnosed and untreated for years.

And so, ‘Pain Stories’ was born out of the insight that women’s pain is all too often dismissed as a symptom of ‘over-sensitivity’ or ‘hysteria, when it doesn’t have to be this way.

The brand’s longtime agency AMV BBDO had already brought women’s ‘womb dwellers’ to life through illustrating in ‘Womb Stories’; presenting viewers with the flame-engulfed apartment of a perimenopausal woman; a monster ripping at an endometriosis sufferer’s uterus and a ‘flood gate’ moment following an unexpected sneeze.

But for executive creative director Nadja Lossgott endometriosis was a particular area of interest.

“Endometriosis itself feels completely underfunded, underdeveloped, and there’s not a knowledge around it overall. It’s like women are being held to ransom by shame,” she explains, which left the team hungry to develop a “visceral” idea built around removing the stigma associated with the condition.

The ‘Pain Dictionary’ uses real descriptions of pain from people with endometriosis. It includes new words and definitions which have been visualised by artists and creators, whose powerful depictions bring their experiences to life, resulting in a “new verbal and visual language for endometriosis pain”.

Contributors include illustrator Venus Libido, and textile artist Ellie Pearce, both of whom suffer from endometriosis.

The campaign’s lead copywriter and creative Augustine Cerf has undergone her own “debilitating” journey with the disorder and has found a power in taking that struggle and turning it into something “creative and productive”.

“When we started asking women questions for ‘Womb Stories’ it unlocked so much sharing and so much openness about subjects that were before shrouded in pain and silence, because women especially haven't been given permission to talk about their bodies,” she says.

The terminology used to talk about women‘s pain can be reductive, she notes. “It‘s always ‘what is your pain on a scale of one to 10‘, but that‘s hard to answer because pain is so subjective. So, we felt there was a need to create a rich visual language based on women's own experiences.“

Using Instagram as a ‘portal’

Art director Lauren Peters says the brand wanted to showcase a whole spectrum of pain, so it used Instagram as a portal to seek out female artists – some of whom had endometriosis themselves – and commission them for the project.

Going full circle, the dictionary will be shared on Instagram Stories and as an ‘Insta Book’, where Bodyform and Libresse will continue to listen to women and encourage a culture of sharing experiences online.

“Instagram feels like a place where there is a blossoming community around women’s health. There’s an environment of sharing and empathizing around endometriosis. It feels like the right place to put it out there for people to engage with the work. If it resonates, hopefully people will feel more understood and use it as a practical device to get support for pain if they’re experiencing it.”

The brand has also created the world’s first virual ‘Pain Museum’ for people to explore the gender pain gap one story at a time. It will take people on an expressive deep dive into pain – telling the #painstories that need to be told, exploring the taboos that fuel the silence around pain through artwork, and includes interviews with endometriosis sufferers and medical experts.

Devised by Ketchum, the online exhibition is a true education into the experience of pain that brings women’s narratives to life and addresses how society can create a language to confront it.

As both a sufferer and a lead on the campaign, Cerf hopes that ‘Pain Stories’ gives people with endometriosis the ability to express their pain and feel empowered to do so.

“The ultimate aim is that this will be a tool that shortens diagnosis time and plays a more general awareness role in helping people to feel more seen and understood,” she says.

Check out The Drum’s special Health hub, which examines how the key players – from health agencies to pharma firms to brands – are doing their part to return the world to normality.