With JK Rowling's infamous tweet bringing the debate over menstruation into public discourse, should period brands enter the discussion by making their sanitary products more inclusive? Jan Gooding, the ex-Aviva marketer and former chair of Stonewall, explains why they must.
How did the phrase ‘people with periods’ come to create such an uproar? We all know it enraged JK Rowling who prefers to simply say ‘women’, instantly erasing the lived realities of trans and non-binary people who experience periods. And what does it mean if, like Bodyform, you are in the ‘womb and periods’ sector and have to navigate these sensitivities?
The Body Shop chose to wade firmly into the furore by tweeting a photo of a red canvas bag reading: "It’s bloody natural. #DropThePWord to end period shame" with the caption: "Hey @JK_Rowling here's something we made earlier, we thought you might like one! We've also popped in a vegan bath bomb and a copy of Trans Rights by @paisleycurrah for you to read in the bath!"
Rowling wrote and published an essay in the end to explain her thinking, which was even more emphatic in its exclusion of trans people. And Mermaids, the charity supporting gender diverse and transgender children and teenagers, responded in similarly long-form fashion to explain why excluding trans people from education and services focused on periods left people vulnerable to harm.
Last week, I shared a 58-minute YouTube video on social media, which set out to explain in plain English what all the fuss was about. Someone wrote on my timeline: "As someone who used to make ads, you ought to recognise it’s way too long. How many people, the kind you are trying to educate, will bother to wade through this? Not many I’d suggest.’
So, what can I say, briefly, that anyone would listen to?
Perhaps, as the video did, it is helpful to state from the outset that ‘biological sex is definitely real' – it is the meaning that we attach to it that is a construct. Women’s and girls’ rights need to be protected and fought for, as well as fighting for trans and non-binary rights. These are not two separate categories as some trans people are also women and girls. The fight for women and trans rights are complementary to each other.
Last year, Always made the decision to remove the venus sign from its branding to make its sanitary products more inclusive.
Rowling is perfectly entitled to like, support and write whatever she wants. Freedom of speech must be protected. But it does not mean freedom from the speech of others who are speaking in response to what you have said. With that freedom also comes responsibility and consequences and sneering at those who cannot conform to a simple worldview because they are different is cruel.
Yes, we can say women have periods. But some trans men and some non-binary people do too. The phrase ‘people who menstruate’ is one way of acknowledging that through language. It is also a way of telling women like me, who have been through the menopause, that we are not being referred to either in this particular context.
In 2017, period subscription service Pink Parcel placed transgender model Kenny Jones at the front of its awareness campaign.
It seems to me there are two credible proactive positions to take. The first is to ensure your brand does no harm. This would lead you to ask your trans and non-binary customers whether there is anything about the design and presentation of your product and the related customer experience that causes shame or discrimination. For example, in the language of your packaging copy or instructions or terms and conditions. A quick glance at the use of the colour pink in this sector is something all women would be open to revisiting.
Brands can get caught in the challenging space of being inclusive as well as specific with our language. Relying as they do on simple messages, and stereotypes, the world of inclusion can seem like a potential minefield. It is not enough to avoid making mistakes by remaining silent. There is a requirement to get educated, know where you stand, speak, and live up to it. Brands risk being called out for being inept or out of touch if they try to sit on the sidelines.
The second position to take is that of brand activist. This is to go further than the ambition to be inclusive and to use the power and influence of your brand to help change laws and attitudes in society. This is where the Body Shop has positioned itself, and where brands like Bodyform, which has already made such bold strides to tackle the taboos around women’s sexuality and body image, could be such a powerful ally.
I don’t know how trans men and non-binary people feel about their identity and bodies when it comes to having wombs and periods. I am quite sure there will be a range of different views. Just as doctors and the rest of the medical profession have to navigate related conversations with sensitivity and tact, so do brands. Everyone should be made to feel confident about their body and accepted for who they are as people.
Diversity champion Jan Gooding is the former group brand director of insurance giant Aviva. She was named chair of the LGBT+ charity Stonewall in 2014, a position she held until this year. She remains on the board as a trustee. Gooding is also chair of PamCo and Given.