In the two minute ad, a youthful man beckons the unseen female behind the camera into his kitchen. “This special restaurant has opened just for you,” he says with a sheepish smile.
After fumbling with kitchen utensils and ingredients, he serves the dishes on the table. The table is covered in red-checkered tablecloth and embroidered napkins. Seeing his date hesitate to take a bite, he takes her plate, slices the burned steak and feeds a morsel into her mouth. He then folds a napkin and leans forward to wipe up her face. Throughout the ad, the female presence is only implied, never actually appearing on screen.
If you haven’t guessed, this is a commercial for a sanitary pad.
There is a peculiar trend in South Korea where ads for sanitary pads and tampons feature men (accompanied often by an invisible woman behind the camera). Some viewers interpret the male as either an anthropomorphized pad, showing how comfortable, soothing and supportive it is, while others see it as a mere marketing strategy to cater to women who dream of comforting and understanding boyfriends like the guys in the ads.
Judging from the comment sections online, female viewers generally seem pleased with these ads (though there is no way of knowing whether they will buy these products). These ads have come a long way from the earlier ones that highlighted sensations of purity and cleanness (in implicit contrast to menstrual blood oozing out of the vagina), literally whitewashing menstruation with innocent-looking female celebrities wearing white garments.
The taboos surrounding menstruation — that it’s dirty, disgusting and generally inappropriate as a conversation topic — are not unique to South Korea. Considering this, the fact that men are publicizing sanitary pads could be seen as groundbreaking in its own right; just the fact that menstruation is seemingly embraced by the other gender.
But are these ads changing how South Koreans perceive menstruation?
Personally, I feel like they are only perpetuating the taboo surrounding menstruation in South Korea. And the names of the top-selling brands in South Korea say everything about the misbelief: Whisper and White.
I remember in high school, my friends and I used to lower our voices when we mentioned a sanitary pad as “that,” as if the word was somehow inherently evil. Then, looking away, a friend would discreetly slip the pad into my hand. I’d whisper a thank you, quickly tuck it into my pocket and rush to the toilet. In hindsight, I can laugh at this scene. It kind of resembled a drug deal.
But “Whispering” about our period was in a way a reasonable behavior, considering the discomfort that usually accompanies public discussions of menstruation in South Korea. For one, a period is almost always referred to as saengri, which literally means “physiological phenomenon,” like peeing and pooping, even though there is a proper word for menstruation (wolgyeong). And when I go buy pads or tampons at a store, I am offered a plastic or paper bag to hide the product (usually, I have to pay for it).
Then, there is the contentious issue of menstrual leave from work. South Korea is one of a few countries that legally mandate menstrual leave, which has suffered a series of tribulations and amendments since its early appearance in 1953. As the latest modification in 2003 requires employers to grant a menstrual leave only if employees request it, many women are uncomfortable claiming this legal right from their supervisors, who are often men.
Yes, South Korea is not the only place that advertises sanitary pads with clear blue liquid, instead of viscous dark red blood. But white is the color no woman would dare wearing during their period, and no matter how much people whisper about the natural physiological phenomenon, it won’t go away until women reach menopause.
And these ads, in which men perpetuate the euphemisms surrounding menstruation by trying to hide the reality behind the televised kindness, do nothing to ease women’s cramps, mood swings or the monetary cost that they need to bear — just because they are born that way. It’s time to talk loudly, not whisper, about menstruation for what it is: red, vital, and nothing to be ashamed about.
Cover image: South Korea’s latest trend is featuring men in sanitary pads commercials, but are they bringing real changes to shed off the taboo surrounding menstruation? (Source: Flickr)