Finally, a supermarket is calling periods by their real name

Landmark move by New Zealand retailer will see 'sanitary item' labels swapped for more straight-talking language. Will UK shops follow suit?

For something that is so utterly commonplace, it seems extraordinary that retailers still shy away from calling menstruation by what it is – a period. Instead, tampons and pads are better known as 'sanitary items' or 'personal hygiene products', subconsciously forwarding the idea that a women's monthly cycle is something to be ashamed of. 

But hurrah – there is progress. In what’s being hailed as a commercial first, Countdown, a supermarket chain in New Zealand that operates 180 stores, has become the first retailer to use the word 'period' to describe menstrual products. The new policy will see euphemistic words, such as “sanitary” or “feminine hygiene”, that are currently used to describe pads, tampons and menstrual cups, swapped for more straight-talking language.

According to a spokesperson for Countdown, no other international retailer has used the word “period” to describe menstrual products. “Words like ‘personal hygiene’ and ‘sanitary products’ give the impression that periods, which are an entirely natural part of life, are somehow something to hide to yourself, or that they’re unhygienic,” said a representative Kiri Hannifin. “They absolutely aren’t, and we can play an important role in helping change that.”

According to Hannifin, the retailer’s online shopping platform will also be updated to reflect the changes. Products previously described as “intimate hygiene” will now be categorised by their actual purpose: “genital washes and wipes.”

Many took to social media to express their approval of the move. One Twitter user wrote: “It's incredible in both senses of the word, this. No retailer has ever used the word "period" on their products before. The level of euphemism we lived with and accept as normal is extraordinary when you think about it.”

This isn't the first time New Zealand has been ahead of the game in period policies. In June, the government introduced free period products in every high school in the country. At the time the policy was introduced, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said that nearly 95,000 of those aged between nine and 19 “may stay at home” during their periods because they could not afford tampons and pads. 

In the UK, it feels like there's a long way to go to breaking the taboo around periods. One survey by children’s charity Plan UK found that nearly half (48 per cent) of girls aged 14-21 in the UK are embarrassed by their periods. Even more shocking is the fact that one in seven (14 per cent) of girls surveyed admitted that they did not know what was happening when they started their period. After years of watching adverts that show blue liquid being absorbed on to white cotton, who can blame them? 

However, there has been some progress in recent years. In 2017, Bodyform became the first brand in the UK to feature sanitary pads stained with red liquid, rather than blue, in its adverts. More recently, Tampax released a taboo-busting advert with the tagline, ‘Get ‘em up there girls!’ The slogan might be uncomfortable to some, but that’s the point: a survey by the brand revealed that 79 per cent experienced discomfort while wearing tampons at least occasionally.

Until society gets better at calling a period what it is, it's likely that the stigma will continue. But for now, the move in New Zealand  represents an important landmark for the politics of periods. 

Co-founder of the New Zealand charity The Period Place Sarah Mikkelsen said: "It's so political at the moment, taking a hardline approach around language. So to see a big brand jump on a train that they haven't really even been asked to jump onto is very cool, very inspiring.”