Sanitary Secrets Exhibition

  • 2021

  • Communication

Designed By:

The Sanitary Secrets exhibition and catalogue showcased one hundred period product ads, from 1920 to 2020, that had been published in Australian women’s magazines. It was curated to question how communication design can perpetuate or diminish the period stigma and to question a designer’s ethical obligation to challenge harmful norms.

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Image: Eleisha Kubale
Image: Eleisha Kubale
Image: Eleisha Kubale
Image: Eleisha Kubale
Image: Eleisha Kubale
Image: Eleisha Kubale
Image: Eleisha Kubale
Image: Eleisha Kubale
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  • Sanitary Secrets asked, 'How has period product advertising promoted shame and secrecy through print in Australian women's magazines from 1920 to 2020?' Existing research focusses on a content analysis of international ads but has ignored 100 years of history in Australia. Similarly, such ads have not been exhibited to promote positive change by targeting visual communicators as well as period product brands and the public. In both the exhibition and the catalogue, three themes were identified including the misrepresentation of periods as a medical problem, coding the menstrual taboo using graphic elements (like the colour blue) and modelling secretive behaviours.

  • The ads were designed into two poster collections. The first was clustered into three themes that identified how period product ads contribute to harmful norms. Each poster had a written explanation of the theme and gave each ad's citation. The second collection showcased data from a survey developed to get consumers' responses to ten of the ads-one from each decade. This showed that the stigma has slowly diminished over time. An installation also encouraged participants to show some period pride through writing the word 'period' on a pad and sticking it onto a cactus (an apt metaphor for periods).

  • The social impact of the exhibition on the public was wide reaching. It was reported in The Conversation, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, TripleRRR, Radio New Zealand and ABC's Radio National. The commercial impact was also extensive. International brands Diva Cup and TOM Organics were sponsors, and 13 others gave permission for inclusion in the catalogue. This demonstrated a commitment to eliminating the period stigma in advertising. The exhibition was also an official Melbourne Design Week event, ensuring significant exposure to the design industry. Collaborations with charity Share the Dignity ensured period poverty and sustainable period products were also addressed.

  • On the opening night of the Sanitary Secrets exhibition, designers and women's activists with National profiles discussed the ethics of dismantling harmful norms in visual communication. The panellists included Amber Bonney, Managing Director the Edison Agency and President of The Creative Women's Circle, Reg Abos an award-winning designer and expert in data visualisation at RMIT and City of Melbourne Counsellor Jamal, the deputy Lead of the Health Wellbeing. Bae L'Amour, winner of Drag Junior 2018 and a finalist in Drag Nation 2019 also performed to Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis. A vision in red, she sported a beautiful white boa made of 500 pads to help support period. Her lewk was a comment on Manila Luzon's censored gown from RuPaul's Drag Race in 2017, which was a sequinned pad. Lastly the Sanitary Secrets exhibition catalogue is a key feature and permanent legacy of the event. It is internationally searchable online through Trove-a collaboration between the National Library of Australia and hundreds of partner organisations. The catalogue showcases each of the 100 period product ads in chronological order, has an introductory essay and codes each of the ads on the themes previously mentioned.