Are brands finally over body taboos?

For years, advertising has dealt with bodily functions in hushed tones. But are recent ads showing period ‘blood’ and female body hair a sign that brands are ready to be frank? As part of a week-long special on the CR site devoted to the Body, Emma Tucker investigates

If advertising is to be believed, women on their periods love nothing more than leaping out of planes, galloping along the beach in silk trousers and windsurfing in bright white costumes. For years, feminine hygiene brands have dealt in euphemisms, hinting at bodily functions without ever getting into the gory details.

It’s a tradition that goes back to the 1920s, when many of the tropes around period products were established. “Ends discomfort and apprehension” reads one Kotex ad from 1929, while another – under the bizarre headline of “women’s daintiness” – describes periods as “the most trying hygienic handicap”. In the 1940s, Modess took an even more delicate approach, with a series of ads showing women in lavish evening wear, accompanied by the obscure tagline “Modess… Because”.

This obsession with discreetness doesn’t just apply to periods though. There’s plenty of other brands that deal with body ‘taboos’ by simply pretending they don’t exist, or referring to them in patronising tones (think TENA’s trampolining women and their joyful exclamation: “I just had an oops moment!”) But there are signs that things are changing. Earlier this year, US razor brand Billie filmed close-ups of women’s hairy bellies, underarms, and toes as a retort to the usual ads showing people shaving already silky legs. Images of hairy women in the media are rare enough that makeup brand MAC caused equal parts praise and consternation on Instagram recently, when it posted an un-retouched image of a model with a few stray upper lip hairs.

There’s signs that feminine hygiene brands are also taking a more direct approach. US brand HelloFlo has taken a frank and comedic approach to talking about periods for a while now. And in the UK, Bodyform and Libresse’s award-winning Blood Normal campaign was the first advert to ditch the much-ridiculed blue liquid in favour of red ‘blood’. It also showed men buying pads, the realities of period pain, and women speaking openly about their experience. So, is advertising finally ready to let go of its tightly held body stigma?