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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Curse

Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation

Karen Houppert

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


The Curse

The Industry
Our only interest is in protecting you. --Tampax ad, 1972
"Welcome this new day for womanhood," Tampax Inc. announces on July 26, 1936, in its very first mass-market ad. Describing a brave new world, the company boasts that"thousands of women have already tried Tampax and would no sooner go back to the old-fashioned napkin than they would to the methods in use fifteen years ago." Asserting a year later that this is "a comfort never known before," the company crows over a "woman's world--remade" and says, "After 2000 years ... of the woman alone with her troublesome days ... suddenly it happened!"
Sixty years later, Tambrands Inc.--same company, different name--was the leading manufacturer of tampons, cornering 55 percent of an astonishing $8 billion market worldwide. Clearly, July 1936 was a liberating moment for women. The promise of "No belts. No pins. No pads. No chafing. No binding" was irresistible. Like today's tampon ads, the earliest ones celebrated active women, shown riding horses, dancing, playing tennis, and sunbathing. Freedom and comfort were hyped. And women bought. Still, Tampax wasn't content with marketing convenience. Like others in the sanitary protection industry, it took care to remind women that menstruation wasnaughty; as irrepressible evidence of sexuality, news of its arrival, departure, and duration had to be kept under wraps.
A journey through the coded history of sanitary protection makes for a fascinating crash course in American sexuality--and its repression. Shame and secrecy are the primary message. One 1930s Kotex tampon was even named Fibs, and every sanitary protection ad reinforces the notion that the ultimate humiliation would be any indication that you're menstruating. Full of dire warnings about "accidents" and assurances of the invisibility of their products, sanitary protection ads typically promise, as this 1949 Good Housekeeping example did, "You don't know you're wearing one--and neither does anyone else."
Forget the natural dismay of discovering you've bled through your skivvies to your skirt: these ads zeroed in on women's fear of exposure, promoting a whole culture of concealment. Tapping into that taboo, ads reinforced the idea that any sign that you were menstruating, even purchasing menstrual products, was cause for embarrassment. "Women of refinement dislike to ask for so intimate an article by its full descriptive name," Kotex reminded store owners in a 1921 trade publication. Applauding its ingenuity, the company bragged, "Kotex advertising to women is so restrained in tone that women's intuition tells them what Kotex is! Not once, in any advertisement to women, have we described Kotex as a sanitary napkin." Tampax always offered to send a trial package "in a plain wrapper." And today Kimberly-Clark advertises an applicator-free tampon "wrapped in outrageous colors" by depicting a model who wears the tampons as curlers, while the copy reminds readers how embarrassing it is to reach into ahandbag for lipstick and pull out a tampon, and the headline pledges, "Only you'll know what they're really for."
Advertisers have long tipped women off to the nature of their products by using code words. For example, a 1934 Sears catalog ad illustrates eighteen different kinds of "sanitary" products, yet never once says what they're for. The headline simply announces, "Save embarrassment, money ... by mail." The spread offers eight different belts, poetically named to sound like racehorses--Velvet-Grip, Betty "K," Lox-on--and rivaling Anne Rice's imagination for their creative S&M configurations of straps, clips, and belts. Also for sale: "pure gum rubber bloomers," "worry-proof" pads, and rubber "sanitary aprons" (worn under skirts but over derrieres, and weighted with lead to keep from bunching). There is "liquid-proof underwear" and, because "science marches on," a brand-new tampon called Wix.
These products were hyped as the hottest new scientific inventions. Referring to an American love affair with science that really gained momentum at the turn of the century, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, authors of For Her Own Good, describe the ascendancy of germ theory and a culture of cleanliness that seeped into the popular psyche: "For the Domestic Science experts, the Germ Theory of Disease pointed the way to their first victory: the transformation of cleaning from a matter of dilettantish dusting to a sanitary crusade against 'dangerous enemies within.'"1 Clearly, the companies peddling new menstrual products hoped to capitalize on that trend. "I like the scientific background of Tampax (it was invented by a doctor)," one 1940s testimonial in Good Housekeeping read. And, in 1946, Modess even put out a product called Meds--"Go Meds ... Go Merrier!"--and told reticent customers to "ask any nurse!" Always describing their products as "sanitary," asserting that they were made of "surgical cotton" and "hygienically sealed in individual containers," manufacturers played to germ paranoia, boasting that millions of "modern women" were converts. (In fact, the chemicals used in sterilization proved harmful and the process was discontinued.)
In the 1930s, though, medical expertise was pitted against religious expertise. Priests in the Catholic Church objected to the use of tampons. They worried that women would find them erotic. And they worried that girls would lose their virginity upon insertion. (Their other concern: all those women and girls using their fingers to go exploring "down there." Who knows what they might learn along the way?) Priests denounced Tampax in print. But Tampax summoned the forces of medical science and modern technology to stand against such outdated traditionalism. Not only was the tampon invented by a doctor, the ads made perfectly clear, but the packaging prominently displayed a red cross and bore the slogan "Accepted for Advertising by the American Medical Association." Of course, the product wasn't approved or endorsed by the AMA; it only appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association as a paid advertisement. But Tampax's founder and president, Ellery Mann, believed the tag line lent "an ethical as well as a medical background to the product." (In 1943, at the Federal Trade Commission's request, Tampax dropped the phrase.2) As time passed, Tampax continued to capitalize on popular movements and today plugs its products as environmentally friendly. "Think green," it urges in a 1991 ad, reminding women that the applicator is biodegradable.
Sanitary protection companies also vied for popular personalities to sell their products. In the 1980s such notables as Cathy Rigby frolicked in telling white leotards, and in the 1960s a teenage pre-Partridge Susan Dey strolled merrily across an airport tarmac touting the virtues of Tampax. There is even a classic 1928 McCall's ad featuring an Edward Steichen photograph of Lee Miller, who would later become Man Ray's lover, a World War II photographer, and a Life staffer. Newly arrived in the city, a young Miller met up with Steichen and modeled for stock photos that were bought by Kotex. Unbeknownst to Miller, she would become the first live model ever to appear in a "sanitary protection" ad. According to biographers, she wasn't flattered by the distinction.
But even in the 1990s, celebrities are loath to be known as, for example, the Stayfree Girl. In 1997, Johnson & Johnson tried to line up a spokesperson for its launch of a new pad with "walls" (similar to P&G's Always with channels). According to a McCann-Erickson ad agency insider who didn't want her name used, they had a tough time finding a model. "They went to athletes, film stars, TV stars, and the majority of people refused," she explained. "They didn't want to be associated with a maxipad." J&J approached Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, who agreed to let them use her likeness--footage of her skating, etc.--but refused to discuss the product herself in any advertising. They then went after the Spice Girls, thinking that their "Tell me what you want, what you really, really want" lyrics had the kind of hip sensibility to attract younger women. "But even this group, all about girl power, wanted nothing to do with pads," the McCann staffer said. In fact, J&J, makers of baby powder and No More Tears shampoo, didn't even wantits own name, as the parent company, attached to the product. "When we were talking in a meeting about using a celebrity to leverage the product, someone asked why we don't use the J&J name," the staffer recalled. "And the company representatives said, 'Absolutely not!'"
Is there something about bleeding that would soil J&J's pristine baby-powder image? Johnson & Johnson spokesperson John McKeegan said this refusal to identify J&J with a menstrual product was standard for the company. "It's not quite as simple as saying this would tarnish J&J's name," he explained. "This is just a long-standing decision regarding the J&J name and what it's associated with. More than anything else, J&J is known through its baby products and through its medical products. And the decision was, that's where the name would remain." (Citing company policy, he refused to comment on Stayfree's frustrating search for a celebrity spokesperson.)
Clearly no one wants to be associated with bleeding. Even in its first ad, Tampax stokes this anxiety. "Tampax eliminates chafing, odor, and embarrassment ... permits daintiness at all times." And this theme of confidentiality--your menstruation is our little secret--remains a Tampax staple, right up to its 1990s "Trust Is Tampax" campaign, which promises, "No one will ever know you've got your period."
Such secrecy has its advantages.
Copyright © 1999 by Karen Houppert