When I got my first period, I was almost certain that this bloodshed marked a monumental change; the cyclical process which I would most likely endure for at least 40 more years seemed to me to be one of strange hope. I was sure that I had entered into the realm of womanhood, and that my period and I would navigate this foreign land of fertility together. Suffice to say, the camaraderie I felt with my period was strikingly shortlived. Unsurprisingly, my 13 year old self was wrong. Menstruation did not make me a woman. Menstruation is merely a completely involuntary process which happens within the female body. That the average female will commence her menstrual cycles at the age of 12 – though some begin the process even earlier, at eight or nine – is surely sufficient evidence to suggest that perhaps the connotations of ‘womanhood’ in a ‘coming of age’ context which are attributed to periods are outdated, particularly when the average age of first-time mothers in the UK is 30.
And thus commences the rant. That sanitary products are subject to a five per cent luxury tax is unthinkable nonsense. There are luxuries and there are necessities, and tampons and sanitary pads without question fall into the latter category. ‘Luxury’ is defined as ‘a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense’. Neither periods, nor the products which must be used necessarily in order to ensure that females can live relatively comfortably whilst also conforming to the societal expectations of feminine fragrance and cleanliness during menstruation, align with this definition. As any female can attest, there is little elegance or comfort in lying prostrate in a darkened room with the distinct feeling that there is quite possibly something dying inside of you. And as much as the Always adverts might have us believe, a prettily packaged sanitary pad will change very little, though it may seduce us in the same way that anything well-marketed will. The tampon was admittedly revolutionary, but no one could claim there to be anything exciting or luxurious about it.
This is why, when the 125,000 strong petition to eliminate the current five per cent luxury tax on all sanitary products – a tax which recognises them as ‘inessential’ – was rejected, there was confusion. Under stringent EU law, there is currently little option for amendment. But why are tampons taxed when decorative edible flowers, which could arguably be the universal symbol for the frivolous and inessential, are not?
As females, the menstrual cycle is so much a part of our lives that it is easy to forget its real purpose – which is to eventually provide one half of the action in the process of procreation. And yet this is understandable when the average woman will have approximately 500 periods over the course of her fertile years, but only two of these cycles will result in the birth of a child. Our lives unthinkingly revolve around our periods. They affect the way we dress, the way we feel, the way we interact; they change our perspective and our mentality. It is a hormonal overthrow of the entire feminine physical system – and it is unavoidable.
I’m not disputing that the menstrual process in itself is an amazing thing – as a feat of natural engineering it is arguably one of the most impressive and miraculous – but it is not a choice. No one can foist menstruation upon a woman as being a privilege – it is for each individual woman herself to decide how she values her period, if she values it at all. The attitude of suggesting that women should pipe down and ride the waves of their menstrual cycles thinking themselves privileged is not only dogmatic but also presumptuous, because generally, menstruation is something women quietly endure, even though the implications of the menstrual cycle are not just in effect during the days of bleeding. But women are not asking for special treatment – merely that their experience of non-luxurious and absolutely essential sanitary products be credited as of import, in particular in the face of those male politicians who protest otherwise.
In my opinion, the thoughts of men on such topics can only hold limited weight – that is not to say that there are not plenty of well-meaning and educated men who are sensitive to such female-specific tribulations, but experience is relative to the subject, and menstruation is an experience which no man will ever be obliged to endure. I had one male friend who for a while believed that periods happened to all women at the change of each season, and another under the impression that the equivalent of a bath full of blood was lost every cycle (thankfully this is inaccurate). In the most recent vote for amendment, it was not just men who voted against (fellow females where is your moral repugnance and feminine allegiance?!) but it was certainly male-dominated. It seems counter intuitive to leave such a political decision in the hands of a collective which has no first hand experience of the subject upon which they are voting.
The European Commission has said that they will meet in 2016 to review the VAT rules currently in place – we can now only hope that they will see sense and realise that the products which prevent women from being blood-trailing social pariahs a quarter of the month are actually pretty essential.