Yes, I am writing about tampons, again. In my defense, there were THREE tampon-related articles in The Atlantic this past week and I couldn’t let that pass without a blog post. The articles covered a lot of ground and are worth a read, but themes surrounding menstruation’s negative associations stood out. Here are a few highlights:
Millions of people use tampons (and other feminine hygiene products) on a daily basis, but we rarely talk about them. Shrouded in mystery, tampons are
“common enough to be sold in drugstores and public restrooms all over America, integral enough to the female experience to merit its own memorable jeremiad in The Vagina Monologues . . . and yet still taboo enough to be the central prop in one of the only Fifty Shades of Grey sex scenes deemed too risque for the movie adaptation.”
Tampon-like items going back a few hundred years, but the tampon as we know it today originated around World War II. There were misgivings from the start.
“‘For many people, there was a lot of discomfort with the idea of women touching themselves in any way in their vaginal or labia area, especially young girls,’ says Sharra Vostral, the author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. ‘A lot of people argued that [tampon use] was not only inappropriate because it might break the hymen, but it might be also pleasurable and might be a way for girls to experience orgasmic pleasure.’ Tampax’s telescoping applicator made it possible to insert a tampon without the dreaded self-touching– though it didn’t do much to assuage fears of accidental virginity loss, which, despite evidence that the hymen doesn’t necessarily break as a result of sex or tampon use, still persist in some parts of the world today.”
In addition, tampon-like approaches were associated with “women with active lifestyles (like dancers) and . . . women in ‘dubious professions’ of the era like acting, modeling, prostitution– and sports.”
Despite these misgivings, tampons grew increasingly popular, but the product marketing always emphasized how “the products are feminine and diminutive, of medical origins, or allow women a ‘little white lie’ that conceals menstruation.” There were also cultural differences in adoption, with Europeans embracing tampons without applicators, while US customers found that approach too unhygienic.
By the 1970s, “a small feminist movement had begun to publicly question why women should feel pressured to hide or staunch their menstruation in the first place. What was so shocking or gross or shameful, after all, about something that happened to half the world’s adult population every month?” Their perspective didn’t take off however . . .
Even today, tampon discretion is essential and women have hundreds of ways smuggle their feminine hygiene products to the restroom. Disgust and division persist:
“Many religions have historically dubbed menstruating women ‘unclean’ and secular shame abounds as well. . . Menstrual etiquette requires that women hide the fact of their periods . . . In one study, people had worse impressions of a woman who dropped a tampon [unopened] out of her bag than if she dropped something innocuous like a hair clip, and even avoided sitting near her.”
There is some hope for acceptance, but not any time soon:
“Efforts to destigmatize menstruation are becoming mainstream . . . But taboos don’t change that quickly. If there’s a chance open-carrying a tampon in public will only get some disrespect, maybe she’ll think it’s better to keep it up her sleeve– literally.”
After both articles were published, there were enough comments that the editor compiled the discussion into a follow-up piece The Tampon Taboo: Your Thoughts. While many of the comments covered predictable territory, the discussion is heartening. I now have the Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology book on my Kindle wish list. Maybe more people do too!