What We (don't) Talk about When We Talk about Sex

I spent a lot of my childhood years wondering about that weird blue liquid in the feminine hygiene ads on television and in magazines. I had a vague notion of what menstruation was, but I was pretty sure it didn't involve anything blue. And yet all the pretty women on TV -- the women who would go on to laugh with their yogurt and exercise through their yeast infections in later years -- seemed so concerned about which products would best absorb the glasses and vials of blue liquid they kept around. Grown-ups were weird.


But that blue liquid was just one of the many ways we euphemize women's health in advertising culture so as not to make audiences uncomfortable with women's bodies (brilliantly, the UK's Bodyform has responded to the blue liquid phenomenon in recent months). And as I think about Comics in Everyday Life -- where I encounter comics most often in my daily life that is interesting to me or culturally significant -- I think that the way we use comics to shape conversations about women's health is worth talking about.

Of course, most representations we see of female bodies in the context of women's health -- at least those that aren't photographs of excited women playing tennis in short white skirts -- are comics. There is probably good reason for this: the evening mixed-gender family audience, we assume, is uncomfortable with representations of any kind of sexual health. So we have ads for Always sanitary napkins that represent the period as, literally, a red period, distancing the viewer from the unsightly and unpleasant realities of how women's bodies function.

Always Red Period Ad

Interestingly, this advertising campaign, first launched in 2011 and one of the most popular in this market ever, has been hailed as breaking new ground in the world of selling women's hygiene products, because it's the first time the colour red has been used in a sanitary napkin advertisement. Yes, in spite of blood being red for quite some time now, this is the first representation of menstrual blood as red. Of course, this is still euphemism, even if it's chromatically accurate euphemism. So we've grown from the world of confusing blue liquid to one where periods are represented by, well, that other kind of period. But it's red now! You've come a long way, baby.

What is always elided in these advertisements, due to the breadth of audience that sees them and a general discomfort with and social inappropriateness of bodily functions, is any sense of discomfort or mess, displeasure or disgust. As Always has told women for years, we ought to have a Happy Period. But more interesting is the general absence of women's bodies in these advertisements. Of course, we rarely show those body part considered "intimate" in television or print advertising, but in many of these ads no part of a woman's body is represented at all.

But it isn't just about masking women's bodily functions for a wide audience. We also use comics to sanitize women's bodies when we represent them for women themselves. For example, the insert that comes with Tampax tampons represents the insertion process with a cross-section of a vagina, simplified and de-sexualized, represented as a smoothed-off circle. The images do not represent women's bodies as they are, but instead as purely functional representations. The urethra, vagina, and anus are represented -- the labia and clitoris, the pubic mound, and of course any pubic hair are not. In this clinical image, any capacity for sexual pleasure is elided by the omission of the clitoris. And while this is a clinical image, certainly, it is also how we represent female bodies to young women. Ostensibly, the only person seeing the insert from a Tampax tampon package is the woman using the tampon, and many young women learn how to use tampons (and indeed, about their own bodies) from these kinds of informational supplements. What does it tell them, then, when we use comics as a means of eliding the labia and clitoris, representing the body as a series of pleasureless tubes? It's also interesting to note that these diagrams rarely represent the fingers touching the even simplified and deconstructed genitalia; instead, they remain safely spaced away from the body. Again, the possibilities of the body are limited and prescribed by the way these images are represented.

How to Use a Tampon

Women see some version of this diagram every time they open a box of tampons. 

Key here is that in using a comic, the creator is making conscious decisions about what to represent and what not to represent. The argument against using a photograph is that it could be seen as pornographic to represent a real woman's body (which, let's not even begin to unpack beyond saying that a woman's body is not inherently pornographic, and the lens by which we examine nudity is significant). But even if we can't use a real woman, why not a realistic one? There is nothing representative about this version of female anatomy; instead, we smooth over our discomfort with women's bodies to construct a representation as smooth, featureless, and asexual as a Ken doll.

When we view comics in our everyday lives, we need to think not only about what the constructed image of the comic shows us, but also what it chooses not to show us. What truths hide in the smoothed lines and careful colouring of the comics that we see every single day?

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