Aunt Flo

07.09.13

Are Tampons Anti-Feminist?

Soraya Roberts on how our menstruation-fearing culture keeps periods invisible.

“They say my flow is heavy so I guess I need a tampon,” Genesis Be raps in “Tampons & Tylenol.” The musician has called her summer song, released last month, a “declaration of women’s power,” but it also serves as a reminder of how that power can be subverted. While the lyrics equate Genesis Be’s rapping prowess with her gender, they also suggest that this prowess should be suppressed—and that the tool of suppression could be the perenially popular feminine hygiene product. The MC recently told The Village Voice that she penned the tune after failing to find tampons at her local convenience store. Here, literally, the tampon is invisible just as it, lyrically, renders her "flow" invisible—the point being, you've got to hide your blood away.

“There’s no social benefit from having a period, so suppressing it makes a lot of sense to a lot of people,” Sharra L. Vostral, author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology, tells the Daily Beast. It certainly makes sense to Ke$ha. The famously “edgy” singer, who has bragged about drinking her own urine, told WBLI radio-show host Syke last month that the only thing she considers “off limits” on her reality show is changing her tampon. Considering how many people saw red after Giovanna Plowman ate hers, not to mention how female artists like Carina Ubeda are marginalized for using their menstrual fluid in their work, it’s little wonder that periods and pop culture don’t mix.

Lauren Rosewarne wrote last year’s Periods in Pop Culture, about how rarely menstruation is represented on film and TV (she found around 200 examples going back to the ’70s, while Genesis Be’s rap continues to be one of the few cases of period-inspired music, along with PJ Harvey’s "Happy and Bleeding" and Ani DiFranco’s "Blood in the Boardroom"). She tells The Daily Beast that when menstruation does make an appearance, “it needs to be concealed, deodorized, and that anyone finding out about it is a substantial social faux pas for the woman, if not, social suicide.” And when hygiene products are mentioned—“or, much, much, much less commonly, shown”—it’s the tampon that gets plugged. “This is likely due to the (comparative) social acceptability of tampons compared to others,” says Rosewarne, “as well as the more frequent advertising of tampons compared to other products (and in turn, greater audience familiarity with them).”

But greater familiarity does not necessarily mean greater comfort. The Internet’s blood boiled last month when a Russian Tampax ad that went viral showed a woman swimming at the beach before being violently ripped apart by a shark—"Tampax, now leak-proof," the tagline read. Though it turned out to be a spoof to promote the big-screen comedy Movie 43, a real Tampax Compak print ad of a woman surrounded by sharks does exist. Ingrid Johnston-Robledo, president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, says these are examples of femme-care companies perpetuating the stigma around menstruation. “They really want to capitalize on girls’ and women’s fears about leakage and odors to sell a product,” she says.

That product was widely sold for the first time in the dirty '30s. Before tampons, the majority of women were “on the rag,” says Vostral. They used a “softened cotton broadcloth,” which they folded or pinned into their underclothes and washed before reusing. Then, in the 1920s, Johnson & Johnson hired the famous ergonomics expert Lillian Gilbreth to conduct a survey of all the sanitary products on the market at the time. Her concern was for the new working women—clerical workers, many of them—to be comfortable, mobile, and free. But it turned out they just wanted to be free, period. “A lot of women wished that the product could be invisible,” she says of the survey’s findings. “That is what the tampon provides. It provides invisible protection.”

“You can still retain this sexy image and menstruate at the same time.”

Tampons took off in the U.S. with Tampax in 1936 (the first product with an applicator) and enabled women who now had the right to vote to “pass” as their nonmenstrual selves. “This idea of technological passing by using tampons made a lot of sense, because by the early 20th century there were these ideas that white women should rest and really shouldn't participate in sports,” explains Vostral. “A tampon would help you do all these things that you weren’t allowed to do, and no one would be the wiser.” Unfortunately, that also meant that it was harder to get wise to the stigma surrounding menstruation.

“If man's body is considered the norm or the normative body, reproductive functions are going to render women's bodies sick, defective, abject, especially in a patriarchal cultural context,” Johnston-Robledo says. As she noted in an article earlier this year about menstrual stigma, because signs of menstruation signify contamination, the products that hide it best and are least visible—tampons rather than pads, for instance—are preferred. The article quoted a 1998 study that appeared in Feminism & Psychology in which 55 British women that admitted they favored tampons, as they were "less noticeable."

Noticeability is the watchword in menstrual-hygiene advertising. Ads exaggerate the invisibility of tampons by showing women in extremely tight white clothes, says Johnston-Robledo, which implies that the less you see the product, the less you see the period and the hotter you are. “I think that is sort of a contemporary phenomenon that has a lot to do with the sexualization of girls,” she explains.“You can still retain this sexy image and menstruate at the same time.” Last month Funny or Die mocked this approach with “Vibe for Women," a fake tampon ad that reappropriated the traditional tampon “made by men” and turned it into an invisible vibrator.

When it comes to sex, pads are the redheaded stepchild of the menstrual-hygiene market. As Don Draper’s teen daughter put it in Mad Men, “She acts like she’s 25 because she uses tampons.” The show may take place in the ’60s, but 50 years later pads are still considered child’s play, while tampons are the arena of the adults. “The assumption is you have to touch yourself, and kids, and especially prepubescent or virginal girls, should not be doing that,” Vostral says.“If you’re a virgin, you’re supposed to use a pad. Otherwise, you should use a tampon.”

Tampons aren’t a bloody mess; pads are. They put your fluid on display, they can smell, and you can’t flush them down a toilet—in short, they are visible. “Part of the stigma is the need to hide [the menstrual blood] right away and not feel it against your body,” Johnston-Robledo says, and adds that she thinks women who are more comfortable with their bodies “would be more likely to use products where you really have to look at and interact with your fluid as opposed to clogging your body with a tampon and just tossing it into the toilet.” She considers pads the middle of this continuum, with a menstrual cup being the polar opposite to the unobtrusive O.b.

The problem with invisibility is just that. Though activists like the women behind Crankytown are attempting to put a spotlight on the false messaging around menstruation, stigma still regularly bleeds into female experience with little opposition. “There’s a lot of pressure for women to contribute to the dominant narrative by not speaking out against it,” says Johnston-Robledo. “There’s the blessing and the curse that is attached to real openness about menstruation—we tell girls this is natural and normal, yet keep it secret, keep it private.” For women who can’t break the silence, there are other ways to protest. Just ask DiFranco. "I didn't really have much to say/the whole time I was there," she sings in "Blood in the Boardroom," "so I just left a big brown bloodstain/on their white chair."