By Giorgia Baldi

It is ironic that a simple TV advertisement should create such a controversy in Italy in 2020. Nuvenia, a company producing female sanitary napkins, launched a campaign named ‘Viva la Vulva’ linked to the taboos associated with the female body. The TV advertisement shows diverse objects which represent the vagina (‘vulva’) such as shells, fruits, an embroidered picture and a stained sanitary pad. All these objects open and close like lips, singing ‘Take Yo’ Praise’ by Camille Yarbrough, culminating in the message ‘Free to dare’.

Despite the advertisement having won more than 60 prizes, only in Italy did it trigger such controversy. Maybe because the advert emerged in a context where the representation of women’s body is still strongly linked to traditional gender roles. Until the 1960s, with the birth of the feminist movement (Cantarella, 2010), which has slowly changed the perception of gender roles within society (Bimbi & Trifletti, 2006), Italy was strongly characterised by a hierarchical male-dominated system (Perra and Ruspini 2014). The influence of the Vatican on the social and political life of the country, and its position against ‘gender feminist’ ideas, considered an ‘anti-family ideology’ (Köttig et al. 2017), has contributed to the perpetuation of traditional gender roles, often hampering the claims of feminist and LGBTQA+  movements. The economic crisis, which has particularly affected women, relegating them to traditional gender roles, political instability, and the persistence of traditional values, have all contributed to the re-emergence of what Braidotti (2005) calls the ‘master narrative’ about hierarchical determination of gender difference. This is mirrored in the representation of women in TV and mass media today, where they are portrayed as ‘the good mother and wife’ or as hyper-sexualised objects of male desire. This, in turn, perpetuates the traditional dichotomy between the ‘housewife’ and the ‘whore’ (the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ woman), where the female body is accepted only when it is sexualised; conversely, the vision of something reminiscent of the vagina or menstrual blood horrifies many Italian women and men.

This is clear in the 20 second Nuvenia advertisement (the original is 3 minutes) which opened up a debate in the country about the appropriateness of showing such images. Some applauded the courage of the company for publicly showing, for the first time, blood on a sanitary napkin and objects reminiscent of a vagina. The feminist, LGBTQA+ and student movements in the country also met representatives of Nuvenia to ask them (unsuccessfully) to reduce the price of sanitary pads (a long-lasting struggle in Italy). Many others, however, considered the advert to be offensive. This is clear when reading the many comments written by some women on YouTube: ‘it’s horrible, …like a horror movie’; ‘horrible advertisement, dirty and ambiguous. It is offensive towards women’; ‘I feel violated in my intimacy! Certain issues should remain personal and not public. Where is our dignity? […] shame on you!’; ‘I and my mother are both women and we find the advert vulgar! They show it even at dinner time!’. The only man who posted a comment wrote: ‘as a sales assistant, I feel ashamed for you [women]. Not only that but I want to inform you that my wife has stopped buying Nuvenia. Congratulations!’[1].

But why are some women so concerned about seeing objects that remind us of the vagina or menstruation? How and why is a part of our body such as the vagina, or a natural process such as menstruation, considered to be ‘dirty’, ‘ambiguous’, and ‘offensive’? After all, scenes of sex or blood have become normal in today’s TV shows and movies. Is it just a sense of ‘modesty’ inherited by traditional religious values or there is something else that should be taken into consideration when thinking about the debate arisen by the advert? In what follows, I offer a brief analysis on how cultural stereotypes about the vagina and menstruation are still vivid in Italian contemporary society.

Representing the ‘un-showable’

Anthropological and cultural studies show that the association between menstruation and pollution, as well as the link between the vagina and a sense of shame, is linked to historical and cultural taboos associated with the female body based on gender and sexual differences. Those taboos, which were linked to the need to control women’s sexuality, are still present in today’s Italian society and they have an impact on women, transgender and non-binary people[2]. Recent studies have highlighted that the historical and cultural association between menstruation and femininity, based purely on biological differences, along with the essentialisation of the relationship between menstruation, femininity and womanhood, represents a challenge not only for women who do not conform to social gender norms, but also for transgender and non-binary people. Frank (2020) shows that the identification of menstruation with femininity contributes to the formation of a contested gender identity for many transgender individuals, as they find themselves in contraposition to a constructed idea of femininity and womanhood.

Orange half, cupped in a woman's hand (suggestive in shape)

A study conducted by Nuvenia of people between 18 and 65 reveals that in Italy only 1 in 5 people know where the vagina is, and only 31% know that the vulva and the vagina are two different organs. The study also reveals that 45% of people do not speak about it and 34% of women feel embarrassed about their sexual organ. This should not surprise us, as the vagina has always been absent from public discussions: since it is considered an intimate part of a woman, it is not usually evident in dolls such as Barbie, whose femininity is expressed by her breasts while the vagina appears absent. The vagina has rarely even been named, generating many euphemisms such as ‘pussy’, ‘Lady Bits’, ‘Poon’ etc.

Historically, the vagina has been seen as something mysterious, a ‘secret’ (Osborne, 1984). McAslan (1992) reveals that in 16th and 17th century France, the vagina was referred to as ‘parts of shame’ (p. 45): as a matter of fact, the term pudendum, which derives from the Latin pudere, means ‘to be ashamed’. This sense of shame towards the female genitals has remained until today and has been shown in many studies which highlight that women and girls tend to develop a sense of shame about their genitals, perpetrating social stereotypes about the vagina as ‘dirty’, ‘unpleasant’, ‘ugly’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘unattractive’ (Shaw, 1995).

These representations (and under-representations) of the vagina show western attitudes towards female genitals and, more broadly, the female body. In fact, in the Nuvenia advertisement, it is not only representation of the vagina by various objects that annoys Italian women, but it is also the image of menstruation. In 2019, Nuvenia launched a campaign, ‘#bloodnormal’, showing images of blood along with the message ‘Periods are normal. Showing them should be too’ which provoked various critiques. But the 2020 advertisement is considered even more offensive and disgusting, for its image of blood on a sanitary napkin attached to underwear. Comments in YouTube recite: ‘it is true that in 2020 menstruation is normal, but honestly, this advertisement lacks tact and privacy’; ‘they do not leave even modesty with the excuse of ‘daring’…but what shall we dare?’; ‘we know what a sanitary napkin is. I think that it is bad taste to see adverts of blood on singing underwear’; ‘Oh my God! …I want to be in menopause and tell everybody! At least men will not imagine me ‘riding’ the ‘happy pad’!’.[3]

This feeling of disgust towards the vision of blood on a sanitary napkin is inherited from a history that has tried to control women’s sexuality through the meaning attached to menstruation as pollution, mystery, hysteria, disability, ‘curse’, and threat (Howie & Shail, 2005). Already in the sixth century, Pythagoras had defined menstruation as the need for the removal of excess blood, while Avicella considered the uterus the “weak point of the female and hence the outlet of menses,” (in Delaney et al., 1988, p. 47) inevitably linking women’s reproductive organs with their (supposed) weakness.

This belief persisted throughout history. In the 19th century in Saigon’s (now Ho Chi Minh City) opium industry, for instance, menstruating women were forbidden to work because it was believed that the opium would become bitter (Delaney, 1988). Scholars such as Ussher (2006) have extensively argued that the negative connotation associated with women’s body in western and non-western cultures has allowed patriarchy to repress women’s fecundity, where the fecund woman was seen as ‘other’ than the norm and was thus sanctioned as unacceptable. From this derives the need for disciplining and controlling women’s body, as is clear in many indigenous cultures which practice menstrual seclusion.

Let’s call it by its name: menstruation between myth and taboos

The advancement of science in the West has not changed the negative connotations associated with menstruation. Studies show that in the 19th and 20th centuries, medical science considered menstruation an illness linked to hysteria and psychic disorder (Delaney et. al., 1998). The exploration offered by Delaney, Lupton and Toth on assumptions about menstruation in various societies and in medical science shows that taboos associated with menstruation are linked to sexual difference: since menstruation is the symbol of women’s femininity, it threatens male virility and masculinity. From this derives the need to understand menstruation as a taboo (Delaney et. al., 1998).

For Freud (1938) taboos refer to “persons, localities, objects and temporary conditions” (p. 47) that are mysterious. Although he did not fully take into consideration menstruation in his work, in ‘Totem and Taboo’ he connotes it as “dangerous, infected, powerful” (Lupton, 1993, p. 93). Drawing on Freud, Theodor Reik, an important Austrian psychoanalyst, linked menstrual taboos to an ambivalent attitude towards women in advanced societies. He argued that taboos are both a recollection and a denial of primordial societies and are linked to sexual difference: “the psychological quintessence at the root of the dread of menstruating women is… the unconscious attraction they exert on men and the power of the opposite feeling restraining them” (in Delaney et. al. 1988, p. 8). In fact, as anthropologists have observed, women’s menstruation has often been associated with both the inviolability of the female body and a sense of dirtiness. Other scholars have suggested that the rejection of the vision of menstrual blood is associated with the envy men had of women in primitive societies as reproducers of the society and so taboos on menstruation were imposed to equalise the sexes (Delaney et. al. 1988).

While scholars have long debated the reasons for menstruation taboos, what we know is that those taboos exist in almost every society and are part of our history, forging our cultural and visual values. Those values were challenged by feminists in the 1970s and 1980s who strongly reacted against the message given to women that menstruation was ‘shameful’ through the use of the speculum as a political practice of re-appropriation of their own body.

Scholars have called upon women to challenge the notion of their body inherited by patriarchal culture which has formed the very structure of their unconscious (Cixous, 1986). In Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation’ (1988), Buckley and Gottlieb highlight that the association of menstrual blood with pollution encodes the underlying structure of heterosexual male power, whereas the connotation of menstruation with pollution emerges as a repressed part of women which should be re-claimed. In this view, understanding menstruation as a normal process of the female body means challenging the actual social order of male-dominated society. It is important to re-think our own taboos by asking where they come from and what consequences they bring for women and for all those people that do not conform with normative gender identities.

Nuvenia, for the first time, has had the courage to go beyond those stereotypes by presenting an exaltation of the body that challenges societal taboos and norms. The strength of this advert, which has caused much discussion, is to show what is considered ‘un-showable’, breaking with long established cultural taboos in society: we have lived for years with advertisements for sanitary pads in which the vagina and menstruation were presented in a ‘discreet’ way, without showing or even naming them. Those advertisements, while they have worked within a ‘comfort zone’ for many, have, at the same time, inevitably perpetrated patriarchal cultural and social taboos about women’s body and femininity. There are taboos and forms of discrimination that derive from our patriarchal history which we have unconsciously introjected, to the point that we realise this only when we see them. This is what the advertisement has done: it has put us in front of our own taboos, giving us the chance to interrogate and challenge them.

Dr Giorgia Baldi is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex since 2017. Between 2013 and 2017 she worked at Birkbeck, University of London, School of Law, as Associate Lecturer, teaching a variety of law related modules. Previously, she has worked for several years in the field of International Cooperation and Development, playing leading roles in women’s rights related programmes in the Middle East (2004-2011). In the last years, she has also worked as consultant for diverse international organizations on Human Rights related issues. She obtained her undergraduate and postgraduate degree from the University of Bologna (Italy) and carried out her doctoral studies at Birkbeck, University of London, School of Law, where she obtained her PhD in 2017. She is a member of the ‘Socio-Legal Study Association’, the ‘Law and Society Association’ (LSA), the ‘Law and Religion Scholars Network’ (LARN), the ‘Association for Middle East Women’s Studies’, the ‘International Association for the study of Religion and Gender’, the ‘British Association for Islamic Studies’.

[1] My translation from Italian.

[2] Transgender here is taken as an umbrella term to indicate individuals whose gender identity does not correspond to the sex assigned at birth. However, drawing on Marinucci (2016) this should not be seen as a binary division between cis and transgender, as sex and gender are fluid categories.

[3] My translation.