News broke last week that the New York City public transit system is considering banning advertisements for Thinx, a company which sells stain-resistant absorbent menstrual underwear. A representative of Outfront Media, the corporation that evaluates ads for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, called the Thinx copy “inappropriate” and worried that it showed “a bit too much skin.” The ads feature photographs of women wearing the underwear next to suggestive food items, such as a halved grapefruit or a cracked egg. Not only does the controversy perpetuate society’s reluctance to discuss menstruation, but it also furthers the notion that advertisements involving women’s bodies are only permitted in a sexual context.
The fact that the Thinx ads were objected to on the grounds of sexual content is surprising, especially given the track record of the MTA with suggestive ads. Last year, a breast augmentation ad that featured an up-close photo of a woman’s cleavage appeared in numerous MTA subway stations. That ad depicted the same amount of skin, if not more, than the Thinx ads in question, and yet it was approved without contest. The true difference for Outfront Media, then, is not in the content of the ad itself, but in the nature of the product. Though there is nothing inherently sexual about menstruation, period ads continue to be subjected to restrictive regulations because of their apparently delicate subject matter. And while the phrase “underwear for women with periods” that adorns most Thinx ads doesn’t disobey any of these regulations, its simple, forthright message stands out in a world of ads that try relentlessly to skirt around the word “period.” Outfront’s reluctance to approve the ad stems from a culture wherein talking about periods is still taboo, while men’s issues like erectile dysfunction are fair game.
When Veronica del Rosario, Thinx’s director of marketing, pointed out this hypocrisy, a representative of Outfront Media told her not to “try to make it a women’s rights thing.” A knee jerk reaction such as this is nothing new for the women’s rights movement, but it does underscore the inability of Outfront — and other corporations like it — to realize their own double standard. By permitting women’s bodies in one context but denying them in another, marketing corporations send the message that women can only exist in media when they are sexualized. Moreover, the Outfront representative’s initial objection to the ads on the grounds of their sexuality shows that the only permissible sexualization is that for male consumption. To move forward in media today, we must embrace not just women’s bodies, but their issues as well.
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