How This Controversial Ad Helps Break the Taboo Against Discussing Female Menstruation

Breast-augmentation ads? Sure. But period panties? 

A recent National Public Radio piece told the story of a 14-year-old Nepalese girl named Kamala. Like many Hindu women in western Nepal, Kamala is banished from her home and from normal social interactions during her menstrual period. For a week or so each month, Kamala sleeps on a platform outside in a leaky, thatched-roof menstrual tent with no walls. She does not touch her family members during this time, or eat in their company. This practice of “chaupadi” was banned by Nepal’s Supreme Court a decade ago, but it persists in many villages. Menstrual segregation, fueled by a belief that women on their periods contaminate everything they touch or approach, is a hard habit to break.

It’s about 7,400 miles and a century of advances in women’s equality from the Achham District of Nepal to the urban jungle of New York City, but the menstruation taboo is apparently oblivious to boundaries.

A year ago, two NYC teens (one of whom I’m proud to call a former student) made news for developing a video game designed to get people talking about menstruation more openly. Tampon Run, which you can play here, begins with a manifesto:

"Most women menstruate for a large portion of their lives. It is, by all means, normal. Yet most people, women and men alike, feel uncomfortable talking about anything having to do with menstruation. The taboo that surrounds it teaches women that a normal and natural bodily function is embarrassing and crude."

The tampon-tossing game was a hit not for its stunning graphics or elaborate challenge — it was Sophie Houser's and Andrea Gonzales' collaborative project for Girls Who Code, a summer program teaching young women how to program — but for its message. And judging by a recent kerfuffle over ads in the New York City subway, it’s a message that has yet to spread widely enough.

Thinx, a women’s underwear company specializing in knickers that absorb menstrual blood, proposed a subway campaign featuring ads like these:

One part capitalism, two parts public service, the ads contained messages designed to sell a product while exposing and helping to ease the shame surrounding a monthly fact of life for several billion people on the planet. But when the guys at the company that screens ads for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) had a look, they had their doubts. In an exchange with Thinx, a spokesman for Outfront Media mentioned that the ads "seem to have a bit too much skin." He called into question other ads depicting a vulval grapefruit and a dripping egg, saying that both "regardless of the context, seem inappropriate." Finally, the media company was apparently queasy about the very inclusion of the word “period” in the copy. The representative “was concerned that children would see the word ‘period’ in the ad and ask their parents what it meant.” And when the marketing director for Thinx objected that these concerns seemed to propagate the very taboo the ad campaign was targeting, Outfront Media replied, 'This is not a women's issue. Don't try to make it a women's rights thing.'"   

A furor rightly erupted over this sexism-spiked, poorly reasoned resistance. As Danielle Tcholakian remarked in a great post at DNAinfo, "[t]he subway system has plenty of ads that focus on women’s breasts, butts, and mostly naked bodies in general." It is the height of hypocrisy to approve these sexually tinged ads, including ubiquitous banners advertising breast-enhancement surgery, while questioning the propriety of the Thinx ads. I mean, look at this one, which graces many a subway car in NYC:

I would much rather have one of my daughters ask me what a “period” is than grill me about the perils of small breasts or about what makes a woman’s body “ready” for the beach, or what weight-loss supplements have to do with living a healthy and happy life.

It appears the MTA may have been listening (and cringing?) as Twitter rang out with criticism of the (ironically named?) Outfront Media reaction to the Thinx ads. Following a barrage of incredulity, an unnamed MTA spokesperson told The New York Times, “Of course they will be approved.” That’s good news, if it’s true. But the whole affair demonstrates anew how uncomfortable the world seems to be with a biological process that’s essential to the reproduction of the human species — and how women pay the price. 


Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court Correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan.

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Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.