If you own a uterus, chances are you’ll spend the next 37 years of your life (!) having your period, at a cost of around £3000 (about $6000) on tampons and towels in your lifetime.
But while periods are part of being female, it does seem rather unfair that we’re taxed heavily for having them, with tampons and pads described as “luxury” items, rather than necessities. And despite brands like Always telling us to “Have a Happy Period” in their advertising campaigns, I doubt many of us do.
Susannah Hunt may only be nineteen, but she’s leading a social media campaign hoping to make sanitary products free to all women. Her Instagram, @FreeTheP, currently has 34k followers, with her online petition gaining more and more signatures by the day.
Susannah makes a valid point: why are condoms, abortions and the Pill free on the NHS, but tampons and towels are not? Why are contraceptives deemed a necessity, but products helping us stay sanitary (which, let’s face it, is kind-of essential!) aren’t?
It’s girls like Susannah who make me proud to be female: strong, bold and independent, who fight for the rights of all women. She’s part of a movement of young, modern feminists using social media to bring attention to female issues.
I caught up with her about her petition and what we can do to help break the shame behind menstruation.
Why did you decide to start the #FreeTheP campaign?
I started this campaign about a year and a half ago, after coming to the sudden realisation that the extortionate amount of money I had just paid for a box of glorified cotton was going to hit me again and again every single month for the next 30 or so years. I did the maths, and was shocked to discover I could buy myself a car with the amount of money I was going to be spending on sanitary products for the rest of my menstruating life. I remember I was quite short on money at the time, and being frustrated that I had no choice but to spend my fiver on tampons. I started thinking about those who had even less money than I did, and who were having to make the choice between buying menstrual products and booking into hostel, which made my dilemma look trivial in comparison.
I then did a bit of research, and found that although there were already plenty of campaigns demanding tax-free sanitary products, very few people were discussing the possibility of a completely free alternative. Thus #FreeTheP was born!
Why do you think talking about periods in 2016 is still such a taboo?
Despite a degree of progression in deconstructing the idea that the exposed female body is inherently sexual (i.e. #freethenipple), openly discussing the biological workings of our anatomy still attracts hostility from those who choose to see women as sexual objects, designed for male pleasure first and human beings second.
Men have no problem openly discussing their sexual organs, both publicly and privately, yet I still feel a nervous hot flush of embarrassment when I accidentally flash a tampon in the direction a male classmate. How is that fair? The double standard lies in the subconscious mindset of a patriarchal society that caters to the male gaze; periods are considered ‘disgusting’ by men, and therefore in order to be perceived as attractive, we collectively shroud our bodily workings in secrecy so as not to shatter the illusion.
It’s time women stopped being held to these ridiculous male-defined standards of ‘perfection’ and for serious conversations on the female anatomy to be instigated. While young girls are still being taught that attractiveness is the most desirable trait in a woman, this isn’t going to happen any time soon. Ignorance is also a contributing factor – until we discuss menstruation with boys as frankly as we do with girls from a young age, they are going to continue to grow up with an inane fear of the unknown.
Why do you think sanitary products should be free?
Where do I start?!
1. People with uteruses did not choose to have periods, yet automatically from birth we are assigned a fee of over £3000 (and rising!) simply for being in possession of a functional anatomy. This wouldn’t be such an issue if everyone had to deal with the same burden, but in this case, it’s only half the population who has to literally pay to leave the house on the days they’re menstruating. (Before anyone says ‘Hey, men have to pay for razors!’ – No. No they don’t. Not in the same way we have to pay for menstrual products. You can still walk around on the street and hold down some form of work with a beard.)
2. As I said above, on the days we are menstruating, we are quite literally paying to be able to leave the house. In a society that stigmatises the female anatomy so much, it would simply not be acceptable to walk into the office with blood dripping down your leg, leaving stains on all the furniture! We are therefore paying to be able to go into work on these days – something that no man has to do. This makes me feel like our contribution to the country’s workforce is undervalued – in that the money we are using to pay for these essential products comes directly from our already taxed income – while without them, we physically couldn’t come into work seven days of every month.
3. Condoms and nicotine patches are both provided free on the NHS. Sex and smoking are choices – periods are not. I’m not saying that condoms shouldn’t be free (stay safe kids!), but the system used to provide basic contraception free of charge could easily incorporate the provision of sanitary products, particularly to those in need. Which leads me onto my next reason…
4. Homeless people and those who live below the poverty line are not in a position to fork out approximately £8 a month on menstrual products. To someone living on the street, this money could mean the difference between a night in a hostel and a night on the pavement. Of all things, this should not be a factor that increases the risk to their life and wellbeing.
What do you feel about the UK government scrapping tampon tax? How do you think we can make other governments get on board with this?
I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction!
The UK is a rather special case, as we already have set precedent for essentials being provided free of charge by the government via the National Health Service, such as contraception. The argument in favour of free sanitary products has more of a leg to stand on in a country where what is considered ‘essential’ is clear.
However, in other highly privatised countries (such as the USA), where even the majority of healthcare is hugely expensive, I can understand that free menstrual products aren’t such a priority. At the moment, I think all we can do is raise awareness through social media of the inequality in the issue and encourage people in other countries to put pressure on their governments from within. Our campaign already has quite a global following, and I believe the message is already permeating societies other than our own.
What do you think of brands like Thinx getting rid of tampons and towels & creating period-friendly underwear?
It’s great! I love it when I come across new forms of menstrual-wear as alternatives to pads and tampons. Moon cups and reusable cloth pads are other items that I know are very popular with many of my followers. Not only do they decrease dependence on expensive items, but they’re so beneficial for the environment as well.
However, not everyone is in a position to be able to use these products – whether due to personal preference or living circumstances – so sadly I don’t think they’re a magical solution to the whole dilemma. Everybody is different, and those who do require tampons or pads should not be financially discriminated against because they do.
What are your opinions on period commercials & adverts? Do you think we need to be more open & honest about menstruation?
Absolutely. I honestly snort in derision whenever a period advert comes on TV and the absorbency rate is demonstrated using a blue liquid. It looks like a potion you might see in a Harry Potter film! The reality is that periods aren’t glamorous. They’re special because they’re a part of who we are, not because they have magical powers.
As I was saying earlier, we live in a society that caters to the male gaze. Men might not want to know the realities of menstruation, so advertising companies (usually run by men) don’t dare show anything that may mildly repulse or offend any male viewers.
We need to stop pandering to cis male taste and start creating menstrual ads aimed at women; ones that don’t reinforce the perception that our cycle should remain a secret. These commercials are sometimes so heavily clouded in innuendo it genuinely surprises me when it’s revealed they’re advertising sanitary products!
September 7th 1996
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” – ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’ (Dr. Seuss)
To be a feature film director, flying the flag for women in the film industry!
To sign Susannah’s #FreeTheP petition, click here.