Date of Award
Master of Industrial Design
Hey readers, Periods are normal. But you’d never know that by checking out the average bathroom. The only menstruation-related public restroom fixture considered remotely standard is the trash, the one used to hide the evidence. A tampon dispenser is a rare sighting –a functioning, stocked dispenser, even rarer still.
Dispensers’ exclusion from public space reveals the ways that menstruation is not treated like other natural body functions. Instead, it has long been considered a sign of imbalance and weakness, discussed mainly in hushed tones and sly euphemisms. Historically, the medical profession has greatly contributed to cultural anxieties about women and periods. Viewing male bodies as the biological norm, doctors pathologized menstruation as deviant from male health, inspiring misogynistic distrust of women’s emotions, physical autonomy, and mental competence. Early medicine saw menstruation as a way for womens’ bodies to restore balance of the four bodily humors, implying that women were always in a state of flux or imbalance. Even as medicine advanced into the 20th century, menstruation was thought of as a disease, requiring women to take mandatory rest from school and activities during their periods. This attitude towards menstruation did not shift until the 1940s, when WWII-era employers couldn’t afford for women to take sick days for periods. Not only did reductive understanding of menstruation as weakness cause women’s bodies to be politically and economically disempowered, it also created centuries of gaps in accurate knowledge about reproductive health and a lack of design innovation to improve the experience of menstruation. The history of period products has been an attempt to give women the ability to pass as non-menstruating.
But here’s the good news, society is finally beginning to acknowledge the strange ways menstruation has historically not been treated like any other body function. Its status in our cultural consciousness has been sharply on the rise since 2016. Activists are loudly challenging cultural and legal norms around periods and designers are responding with better products. The next battleground in menstruation will be access to free or low-cost period products in public spaces.
This Summer edition of Radically Normal focuses on the material culture of menstruating in public. Our goal is to shift the care of bleeding bodies from personal responsibility to public concern by advocating for public restroom design that reflects the banal, essential nature of managing menstruating in public.
Other hygienic essentials - toilet paper, tissues, paper towels - are seen as public goods; it’s time for period products to join.
As activists demand that we make the world more menstruation-friendly, we have a chance to reflect on what that vision looks like and how to make it actionable. What have our feminist forebears said on the matter? How can we operationalize this expanded service with consideration for public restroom custodians? What questions have we not considered about ensuring access to period products at scale because we’ve been too uncomfortable to ask?
Most importantly, how can this vision be more equitable, more inclusive? Menstruation activism is dominated by privileged, white, cisgender women (guilty) and is struggling to bring diverse voices to the table.
If menstrual equity is the goal, we need to focus on the needs of people for whom a box of tampons is a significant expense, and on vulnerable populations such as the homeless and imprisoned. This movement will be hobbled unless it becomes more focused on issues of public responsibility.
We’ll get into all these questions and more as we envision a new relationship to periods and a future where free pads and tampons are as banal as toilet paper in public restrooms.
Smiley, Kathryn, "Radically normal : the menstruation issue" (2018). Masters Theses. 238.
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