Why is the West so obsessed with the developing world’s knickers?

Forget the selfie or the belfie; the latest craze to hit the internet is the ‘tampfie’. Twitter users are raiding their bathroom cupboards to show solidarity for the hashtag #JustATampon. It’s in aid of the charity Plan UK, whose campaign hopes to start a conversation about periods. Arguing that ‘stigma and embarrassment attached to women’s periods contributes to gender inequality worldwide’, Plan UK aims to teach menstrual health and hygiene to young women in developing countries. This moral crusade has reinvigorated UK activists who failed to get tampons on to the political agenda earlier in the year, with a petition calling on the government to remove the tax on sanitary products.


More disgusting than the prospect of Plan UK representatives snooping around for blood stains in African villages is the continuing perception of people in developing countries as dirty, unhygienic and unaware of the simplest things, like a period. Young do-gooders handing out tampax as if it’s a form of foreign aid miss the point: the problem isn’t education about sanitary products, but the fact that there isn’t a Boots on every corner. Like the older condom campaigns against HIV or the more recent FGM scares, it seems that the West is more obsessed with controlling what happens in the knickers of the developing world than talking about the wider political problem of continuing poverty in the 21st century.

This invasion into the personal lives of women is a popular theme in the West. Female body parts have been ruthlessly politicised, with feminists driving campaigns for almost everything: weight, hair and now bodily functions. Earlier this year, a Miami teen posted a picture of himself on Instagram holding two sanitary towels, calling on all his male friends ‘to start bringing a couple of pads or tampons to school to help our girl friends’. Instead of cringing uncontrollably, young women took to the internet with the hashtag #realmensupportwomen in praise of the kind American boy. Instead of being jeered, this young man was heralded ‘a hero on Instagram – and, basically, to the world’.

This kind of personalised politics has broken down existing notions of what should be private and what should be public. Periods are a monthly occurrence for most women, but there is no need to make them public. I thought we’d closed the door on men’s fascination with menstruation following the Charles-and-Camilla tampongate episode, but, no; well-known male figures have taken to the internet, proudly swinging their strings in an act of solidarity with women. Jon Snow’s tweeted tampon selfie does nothing other than gross out everyone on Twitter and perhaps earn him some feminist brownie points. The idea that this is a radical-feminist move shows just how pants this type of politics really is.

Poor sanitation in developing countries is not due to a lack of knowledge about menstruation. Equally, gender equality has nothing to do with hiding your tampon up your sleeve on the way to the toilet. The tendency to make microcosms out of bigger political issues is indicative of self-gratifying politics. It taps into fashionable ideas, via a hashtag or a humanitarian campaign, but ignores reality. Poverty in the developing world has many more substantial consequences than a lack of sanitary products. And charitable campaigns promoting sanitary products can’t help but depict Africans as dirty and ignorant. It’s patronisation under the guise of politics. As for British women, unless you’re going to argue that we shouldn’t have to pay for water, gas, electricity, food, medicine and all the other things that are necessary for a decent life, running a tampon crusade only perpetuates the type of pathetic feminism that posits women as vulnerable and in need of special help in society. Keep your tampons up your sleeves, in your purses or where they’re meant to go. And keep them out of the public arena and off my Twitter feed.