|When I was eleven years old there was nothing I
wanted more than my period. I had a series of books about
my changing body that I kept hidden under my mattress,
lest my brothers or father should see them. I read these
books over and over, poring over the detailed
explanations and studying the pictures of female sexual
organs. I agonized over the fact that I was eleven and
didn't have my period, yet all of my friends had theirs.
I once convinced my mother to let me stay home from school because my stomach hurt. I knew the "warning signs" by heart and I was sure that I was about to start bleeding. I took one of the pads securely hidden in the back of my closet out of it's hiding place, and stuck it firmly to my panties hoping to soon see the bloody evidence of my womanhood stain the pure white pad. It didn't. Nonetheless, I went to school the next day and boasted to my girlfriends that I was sure I would get my period soon.
Six months later, to celebrate the end of our elementary school years, my class went on an overnight trip. At our first bathroom stop along the way, I noticed a murky brown stain in my underpants. I was confused and a little scared. It certainly did not look like blood and so I chose to ignore it, hoping it would go away. It was not until the following day that I realized I had my period. I was a five-hour drive away from home and totally unprepared for anything of the sort, but now I was a woman!
Within hours my rapture dissipated and a new concern entered my mind: could anyone tell I was bleeding? Did I smell different? Was I leaking onto my clothes? The mere idea was mortifying. I had so quickly internalized the message of shame that was a prevalent theme in advertisements for menstrual products and the stories I devoured in teen magazines.
Simone DeBeauvoir theorizes in The Second Sex that "one is not born, but rather becomes a woman" (267). This transition from girl to women is laced with an acute self-awareness of the body. Budding breasts draw unwanted attention from family members who comment about their development and strangers who suddenly see pubescent girls as sexual creatures. Hair grows in strange places and weight shifts around, making pre-teen girls feel like strangers in their own bodies. Menarche arrives and girls become women, physiologically capable of bearing children when they are not much more than children themselves. Throughout this period they are informed, misinformed and provided with so many conflicting messages about sex, sexuality, menstruation and their bodies that confusion is prevalent and shame abounds.
There are four main sources from which girls learn about menstruation, sex and sexuality: parents, teachers, their peers and the media. Of the four, the message delivered by the media has the most powerful influence on contemporary views of menstruation and sexuality.
It is advertising's nature to magnify our fears - to literally scare us into buying their products. This has long been the mode of operation for the "personal protection" or "hygiene" industry, which targets young consumers already acutely aware of their changing bodies and hypersensitive to difference. Glancing through an average teen magazine, one could be forgiven for thinking that periods are downright nasty. As a 1998 study of Australian teen magazines found, "advertisements for menstrual products provided confusing, conflicting and paradoxical messages stressing the normality of menstruation while also emphasizing the importance of keeping it hidden and secret" (Raftos et al 174).
In the past two years, little has changed. In an ad in the January/February issue of J-17 magazine, a red-faced girl is purchasing pads at a supermarket when the male checkout clerk requests a price check from a male co-worker. Her cartoon face expresses anguish and we just know she is humiliated. In another ad, Tampax users are told their new "Compak" tampons are "small enough to hide in the palm of your hand [so] you won't have that awkward feeling trying to hide one up your sleeve on the way to the [bathroom]." A Playtex tampon ad in Seventeen asserts that their tampons mean you won't have to "forget the cute suit, forget the cute guys, forget the fun", with the added asset of "major protection." In an Always pad ad in the same magazine we are promised "superior protection" while our fear of discovery is stoked. As two girls sneak back to camp in a canoe filled with maxi pads one worries about washing "up on the shore of the boys' camp with the flotsam and jetsam of maxi pads." The subtext is quite clear: bleeding is dirty, messy and, most of all, embarrassing.
The effectiveness of this advertising is demonstrated by teenage girls' own discussions regarding menstruation. Contemporary teen magazines, including COSMOgirl! and Seventeen, offer their readers a forum to share their most embarrassing stories and the one consistent theme running through these stories, regardless of the publication, is menses-related mortification. The story that follows is typical:
As Karen Houppert has found, just the mere acknowledgement that you "menstruate" or that you may menstruate or that you may have menstruated in the past" (88) can be a source of abject humiliation for most young girls, especially in situations where boys are present. Indeed, Inga Muscio echoes the experience of many teenage girls when she recalls:
So why are women and girls made to feel ashamed of a perfectly natural function? And why do these messages have such a strong impact on the psyche of menstruating teens and women?
Houppert points out, "part of what makes these fear-of-exposure ads effective is that they play to the subconscious belief on the part of many girls - and women - that they actually look different when they're menstruating" (93). This was confirmed by a 1981 Tampax study, which revealed that 27% of Americans believed that menstruating women looked different and 49% believed that they smelled different (Houppert 94). As menstruating women have historically been considered "unclean" (Bell 33), it is not surprising that such a myth prevails. In fact, the idea that menstruating women were dirty only became more prevalent once Americans became aware of the nature of "germs" and personal hygiene became a growing concern in the late 19th century (Brumberg 36). Until that point (or until the mid-20th century for many middle to lower class women and girls) reusable rags were used to absorb monthly menstrual flow. When concerns were raised by the medical community that these rags were a breeding ground for bacteria, they were discarded in favor of more "sanitary" disposable pads, which were used once and thrown away (Brumberg 36-45). As Joan Jacobs Brumberg nicely surmises, as soon as the potential for a medically validated menstrual product was recognized, menstruation quickly became a "hygienic crisis rather than a maturational event" (31). This transition in attitudes has proved quite lucrative to the manufacturers of feminine hygiene products: plugging up women's menstrual flow is now an estimated eight billion-dollar industry that feeds off women's insecurities (Houppert).
In order to understand why women are ashamed of their natural menstrual cycles, we must look at how menstruation is taught. I learned the basics from my mother, who bought me a package of Kotex and explained the dry physical processes. Having already been taught about sex, menstruation seemed perfectly natural and my mother was capable of answering any questions I had honestly. After I eventually started bleeding my grandmother emphasized that menstruation was perfectly normal and that every woman, "even the queen," had periods. However, my open upbringing did not bring me immunity to the self-conscious shame most girls feel about their body and their blood and I was still taught that bleeding was a private matter that should not be spoken about with my brothers. The importance of "good hygiene" and leak-prevention were drilled into me and I developed a full-blown fear that somebody, maybe a male classmate, would somehow discover that I menstruate.
While most girls do learn about menstruation from their mothers, this knowledge is usually supplemented by a one-time classroom lesson, where girls are separated from the boys, shown the infamous "period" movie and then given the opportunity to discuss different types of "sanitary" protection. The curriculum for these lessons is often supplied by the "feminine hygiene" industry itself. Tambrands, Inc., for example, heavily promotes its educational services to schools, provides free samples, and even posts its "Guide Book: Puberty and Menstrual Health" on its web pages so that teachers and educators may have easy access to their suggested curriculum ("Guide Book").
There is a reason that the feminine hygiene industry so readily provides educational guides and "free samples" to schools: "the consumer we attract today will likely stay with us for all the years of her menstrual cycle" boasts Martin Emmett, CEO of Tambrands, Inc (qtd in Houppert 41). The earlier they can reach their potential consumer base, the more likely it is that they will secure the customer's loyalty. Pubescent pre-teens are easily influenced and very impressionable. Simply stated, they are the perfect targets for the feminine hygiene industry's emotionally charged campaigns.
While the Tambrands' curriculum provides a factual discussion of the physical changes of puberty that effect both boys and girls, it is strongly recommended that the curriculum be taught in a sex-segregated setting to facilitate girls' discussion of issues that "may be inhibited in a mixed class" ("Guide Book"). Such systematic separation of the sexes however, raises gender boundaries and, as Houppert suggests, cements the notion that menstruation is something that should be "private and embarrassing" (73). This one message is constantly reinforced by tampon and pad advertising campaigns that focus on how humiliating it would be for a boy to discover that a girl bleeds and "protection" against such a trauma is menstrual products' biggest selling point.
The source of much of the ambivalence and shame regarding menstruation, however, stems from menstruation's link to reproduction, and thus sex. Tambrands' curriculum glosses over puberty's cause in one sentence: "Puberty is the stage in life at which an individual becomes capable of reproduction." ("Guide Book") Yet apart from some vague references to the development of sperm in boys and the release of ova in girls, the subject of reproduction is barely broached again. The worksheets that accompany the curriculum show illustrated diagrams of the male reproductive system (internal and external), and the female internal reproductive organs but there is absolutely no discussion about male-female sexual interaction. Interestingly, while the male's penis is prominently displayed, no picture of female genitalia is ever provided. As a result, many girls are invariably left with the idea that their genitals are ugly, smelly harbingers of shame (Muscio 28-31).
Misguided ideas about female sexuality have only served to enhance the negative image of a menstruating girl. Menstruation was first linked with sexual promiscuity when, in 1976, J.M. Tanner reported that the age of menarche had fallen significantly in the last century, primarily due to better nutrition and health practices (Houppert 55). At the same time inflammatory rhetoric about perceived increases in teen pregnancy, conveniently if erroneously linked the studies, resulting in the perpetuation of the myth that menarche was intrinsically related to sexual desire (Houppert 56). Although much evidence exists to the contrary, this theory continues to get recycled by the news media every few years as a variation of the old "state of our youth" theme in which the older generation laments the new moral decadence of the younger. These stories put young women on the defensive resulting in further alienation from their changing bodies.
Tampons have also been a source of much controversy for those concerned about the menstruation/sexuality link because tampon insertion meant that young women would develop a familiarity with their vaginas. From their introduction until the mid-1970s, the Catholic Church actively campaigned against the use of tampons by teenage girls, issuing statements that "tampons are completely unsuitable as a form of sanitary protection for young girls" (Brumberg 163). Although, they failed to explicitly state why, the implications were clear: they didn't want girls to go exploring "down there". The development of tampon applicators helped to stem the concern: although there was still the remote chance of sexual stimulation during the insertion of a tampon, at least a girl would not be required to touch her vagina and then possibly discover her clitoris.
Such negative marketing of female development and menstruation and sexuality, therefore, must have some impact upon the psyche of teenage girls. In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher finds that "girls emerge from adolescence with a diminished sense of their worth as individuals" (63). In a 1982 study, In a Different Voice psychologist, Carol Gilligan, found that teenage girls were in danger of losing their confidence and their voices (Houppert 108). But is there a link between menarche, the negative portrayal of menses and girls' feelings of self-worth? There is reason to believe that there is. Statistics gathered by the Mental Health Department in 1989 found that "the likelihood of severe depression doubles for girls in the year after the onset of menstruation" and the findings of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research indicate that menarche may jump-start an identity crisis (Houppert 108-109). Houppert's own interviews and case studies indicate a dramatic change in attitude towards menstruation and body image between girls who are anticipating their periods (52-54) and those that have them (95). The younger girls were inquisitive and excited at the prospect of their impending womanhood (52). The older felt "more self-conscious" (95).
Slowly, however, attitudes towards menstruation are changing and younger generations of girls and women are spearheading a menstrual revolution. In 1995 Karen Houppert published an expose of the tampon industry in the Village Voice called "Embarrassed to Death: The Hidden Dangers of the Tampon Industry". This article accused the FDA and tampon manufacturers of withholding potentially dangerous information regarding the women's exposure to dioxin, a known human carcinogen, through the use of tampons.
In her article, Houppert reported that the Food and Drug Administration discovered trace levels of dioxins in some commercially produced tampons as far back as 1989 and failed to make their findings available to the public. What is more, on the FDA's report on dioxin and medical devices, the sentence "It appears that the most significant risks may occur in tampon products" was deleted in their published report on dioxin levels in paper products. This was accidentally uncovered in 1992 when a congressional subcommittee overseeing the FDA discovered memorandums stating the former while referring to studies indicating that dioxins were not only carcinogenic, but caused birth defects and was toxic to the immune system.
Dioxin accumulates slowly in fatty tissues of all animals, including humans, and given the fact that it is very slow to disintegrate, the real risk is repeated contact. A menstruating woman may use as many as 20 tampons a month and coming into contact with dioxins each time a tampon is inserted. Preliminary studies conducted in Sweden have demonstrated a link between tampons containing dioxins and other chlorine bleach by-products and an increased risk of developing cancers of the uterus, ovaries and bladder. A causal link has also been demonstrated between dioxin and incidences of endometriosis in women. Belgian women have been shown to have the highest levels of dioxin in their breast milk in the world. They also have one of the highest incidences of endometriosis. A German study has also demonstrated that women with high levels of chlorine by-products in their blood have a greater than normal risk of developing endometriosis (Cookie Puss 18-19).
The FDA now asserts that tampon manufacturers use of a chlorine-free bleaching process has all but eliminated traces of dioxin in tampons ("Tampons"). The FDA has relied, however, on the pledge of the feminine hygiene industry that this is the case and has never conducted any independent testing of their own to confirm the truth of their statements.
Houppert's article also condemned the industry's ignorance of independent studies that demonstrated viscose rayon, the major ingredient for most tampons on the market today, provided an environment that significantly amplified the growth of the toxin that causes toxic shock syndrome: TSST-1. The tampon industry has long dismissed microbiologists, Dr. Philip Tierno and Dr. Bruce Hanna, both of the NYU medical school, findings as bad research, however they have never been capable of producing a study to the contrary (Cookie Puss 14-15).
These concerns prompted representative Carolyn Maloney to sponsor the Tampon Safety and Research Acts of 1997 and 1999, which would call for an investigation into potential exposure to dioxin and the testing of all tampon ingredients, including cottons sprayed with pesticides, perfumes and other additives, for safety (Houppert 26). Although this bill has the widespread support of women's group, it has failed to capture the imagination of the largely male legislature, who are content to accept the FDA's cursory reports that tampons are completely safe.
In the interim, however, menstruation-related web-sites, such as S.P.O.T. ( and the Musem of Menstruation (www.mum.org), have spawned a greater awareness of menstrual health and resulted in many young girls and women seeking alternative products, such as organic all-cotton tampons, sea sponges, reusable pads and reusable menstrual cups.
Perhaps this has also resulted in a recent change in
Tampax's advertising strategy. In the June 2000 issue of
Seventeen, Tampax boldly declares "the revolution
continues!", while incorporating the female symbol
as the T in its name. "It is a symbol of strength.
Beauty. Resilience. Spirit. It is a representation of
body. It is a frame of mind. It is progress. Advancement.
Innovation. It is your sister, your mother, your
daughter. It is woman. It is you." The feminist
undertone and presentation of the idea that women are
powerful is refreshing change. Hopefully, after years of
peddling embarrassment, this step in a new direction is
indicative of a reversal in the prevalent attitude that
menstruation equals shame.
Bell, Ruth et al. Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. New York: Random House, 1987.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Random House, 1997.
DeBeauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
FDA. Tampons and Asbestos, Dioxin, &Toxic Shock Syndrome. July 23, 1999. Online. <http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/ocd/tamponsabs.html> 22 May, 2000.
Houppert, Karen. The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
---------. "Embarrassed to Death: The Hidden Dangers of the Tampon Industry". The Village Voice. February 7, 1995.
Cookie Puss. "Menstrual Health: What You Don't Know." New York: April, 1997.
Muscio, Inga. Cunt. Seattle: Seal, 1998.
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Grosset-Putnam, 1994.
Raftos, M., D. Jackson and J. Mannix. "Idealized versus tainted femininity: discourses of the menstrual experience in Australian magazines that target young women." Nursing Inquirer, September 5, 1998.
Tambrands, Inc. Guide Book: Puberty and Menstrual Health. Online. <http://bodymatters.com/teachers/guide2.html> 20 May 2000.