The Anti-Feminist History of Tampon Advertisements

Article by Bad Media (Blog) /
September 05, 2016 /
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There has been a lot of talk over tampons lately in regards to taxing them as a luxury good and gender suppression. Due to the taxing issue, a lot of women realized, me included, that tampon products, and their menstruation were being used as anti-feminist tools in this patriarchal society. The truth is, is that anti-feminism and tampons have a longer shared history.

Menstruation, especially menarche, has long been associated with sexual awakening. Scholar Lauren Rosewarne analyzes the American fear of uninhibited menstruation and its portrayal in film.[1] Rosewarne argues that films portray periods, especially menarche, as highly sexual moments that lead to great disaster if not controlled. She cites Stephen King’s Carrie (1976) as a typical example of media portraying menarche as a moment of sexual awakening and the catastrophic implication of this awakening.[2] Carrie experiences menarche when she is in one of her high school’s gym showers. The screams and the mixture of blood and water convey a moment of terror, yet the fact that she is naked and wet convey that this is also a sexual moment. Carrie was not prepared for and could not control this moment, and therefore it became terrifying and, of course, had grave consequences. Menstruation and sexuality are thus something that women must control to participate safely in society.

Feminine hygiene products propagate this theme throughout history as well as recently. Historian Elizabeth Kissling explores how periods are both a cultural and biological event.[3] Using Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to frame her analysis, she argues that, in America, the cultural implications of periods are more significant than the biological ones. Because menstruation marks a woman’s sexuality, it becomes a way of objectifying women.[4] In rendering menstruation something to be ashamed of, menstruation becomes a way of labeling women as inferior to men. Feminine hygiene products propagate this inferiority and are thus an artifact of the patriarchal society used to control females’ participation in their own sexuality.[5] Women are the Other in society, and feminine hygiene products help keep them the Other.[6] This othering, she states, is a conscious effort on the part of the feminine hygiene industry.

Starting in the 1960s these themes became particularly prevalent in tampon advertisements. However, as early as their creation, tampons brought new concern over patriarchal dominance as they introduced vaginal insertion independent of phallic, or male, participation. Scholar Lara Freidenfelds details the extent to which men controlled the discourse of tampons and how this consequently affected the perceived sexuality of middle-class, white women.[7] This male-dominated discourse started with the invention of the modern tampon in the 1930s.[8] Starting then, and continuing through the 1940s, male physicians debated whether or not middle-class, white women should be allowed to use tampons. Due to the vaginal insertion that tampons required, these men were concerned that tampons would erotically stimulate these women. This concern reveals that men had the privilege of deciding how and when women could receive erotic pleasure.

Furthermore, the idea of women experiencing sexual pleasure outside the confines of marital coitus was what disturbed these men.[9] They believed that sexuality independent of the female’s marital role should not be encouraged or allowed. This theme would continue to influence tampon advertisements and propaganda related to menstruation. After much testing, these men realized that tampons posed little threat to the hymen. However they and the tampon companies decided that young, unmarried, white women should not use tampons due to the fact that they required insertion, which too closely resembled phallic performance.[10]

By the 1960s, tampon use was becoming acceptable for middle-class, white women, especially if they were married.[11] However, Freidenfelds argues that there was still a stigma attached to tampon use and sexuality.[12] To address this issue, tampon advertisements conformed to the standards of feminine hygiene napkin ads. Rosewarne states that these advertisements argued that tampons offered safety, protection, and concealment.[13] Tampons protected women and girls by concealing the fact that they were reproductive, sexual objects. Furthermore, these advertisements falsely empowered women by implying that when they used tampons, they could participate in normal and extreme activities during their periods.[14] In reality, by implying that women could only do these things if they remained pure during menstruation by hiding their sexuality, these advertisements were anything but empowering. Consequently, tampons became an artifice with which would women could participate with their socially prescribed feminine role while menstruating.

At the beginning of the 1980s, teen tampon advertisements continued the tradition of emphasizing the importance of young, middle-class, white women hiding their sexuality, but also added a focus on vaginal protection. In 1980, International Playtex, Inc. published its ad “Why Our Tampon Really Makes Sense for a Young Woman” in Seventeen magazine.[15] The ad states that Playtex tampons were “easy and comfortable to glide” into place even if the consumer had “never used a tampon before.”[16] Though not directly mentioning virginity, this reference to first time insertion and the vagina’s inherent sensitivity to it implies that vagina is something that needs to be safeguarded. Moreover, this message of sensitivity suggests to female teenagers that their vagina should be sensitive to insertion as a virgin and during menarche. The ad also states that Playtex tampons help users “feel fresh, more confident.”[17] This message propagates the patriarchal theory that menstrual blood is something that must be ashamed of and that it must be hidden.

By the mid-1980s, tampon companies increased their inclusion of themes of virginity in their advertisements through fictional personal experience ads. In 1985, Tambrands Inc., ran the ad “Tampax Tampons. The First Time, Every Time Tampon” in ’Teen magazine.[18] The ad also ran Young Miss The ad features Susan and Karen, two young, middle-class, white teenagers. Susan is nerdy, as signified by her clothes, glasses, stack of books, and bushy hair, while Karen is popular, as indicated by her lack of glasses, fashionable braid, and noticeably smaller stack of books. In the voice of Susan, the ad states, “I thought you couldn’t use a tampon if you were a virgin.”[19] While Susan taught Karen about algebra, Karen taught Susan about her “first period and Tampax,” which are “great for beginners.”[20] Susan further claims that Tampax tampons are better than pads because they make her feel as if she does not have her “period at all.”[21] She states, “I never felt that way with a pad. And with Tampax, I knew I was protected.”[22]

In addressing virginity and the fact that “beginners” can use tampons, this ad emphasizes the importance of protecting the hymen. It is something with which middle-class, white girls should be concerned. However, this ad conveys that tampons do not hurt the hymen; in fact, they help protect a young woman’s sexuality. Not only do they effectively hide menstruation, but they also prevent women from being aware that they are menstruating—even during menarche. Tampons allow the consumer to conceal the fact that she is now a reproductive female. The young woman is “protected” both physically and mentally from menstrual blood. It is concealed from both her and the public. Furthermore, this ad heightens the paradoxical message that tampons empower women and protect their sexuality. In having the more popular teenagers teach the nerdy teenagers about tampons, the ad conveys the notion that tampon users have a higher sexual status than do non-tampon users. However, with this higher sexual status comes the responsibility for hiding one’s sexuality.

Likewise, International Playtex, Inc., also called attention to virginity in relation to the hymen. The company ran the ad “I Was Afraid I Was Too Young to Use a Tampon,” which addressed teens’ apprehension of using tampons.[23] The teen featured in the ad states, “I was afraid that I might hurt myself,” but she finds that “Playtex Tampons are easy to get in.”[24] The ad argues that even teenagers can use tampons without compromising the physical integrity of their vaginas. In defending Playtex tampons against the myth that tampons could hurt a young woman internally, this ad also promotes the idea that the hymen is something to be protected and propagates the purity myth.

This advertisement also highlights the start of racial inclusiveness in tampon advertisement, as the model for the advertisement is African American.[25] Physicians and tampon companies had focused predominantly on middle-class, white women and containing their sexuality. Since this ad still promotes the protection of sexuality but features an African American, it indicates the inclusion of African Americans into the purity discourse. However, the teen’s clothing, demure makeup, and chemically relaxed hair indicate that she is of middle-class status. Thus, class rather than ethnicity determined whether or not women could be accepted into the patriarchal constructs of innocence and femininity.

Furthermore, Tampon companies added the focus that tampons could bring them superior status. In 1981, Tampax Incorporated, published “Feel Smashin’!” in Seventeen magazine.[26] Though this ad did not emphasize virginity, it promoted the importance of hiding menstruation and sexuality. The imagery is important. The ad features a well-to-do, white teenager in a fashionable outfit on a moped. She is wearing all-white clothing, which suggests that Tampax tampons are effective in guarding against leakage. This imagery marks a change in attitude toward tampon usage by middle-class women. Tampons had become acceptable for middle-class women to use, which was not always the case. More importantly, this ad features a new theme, which is that tampons can help the user achieve a higher status.

In the late 1980s, tampon advertisements broke away from their defense against the implications of vaginal insertion. In 1989, Playtex Family Products, Inc. ran the advertisement “It’s New Playtex Portables.”[27] This ad reveals that hiding one’s menstruation has become more of an important issue.[28] The ad states that “double-layer protection gives you extra confidence” and highlights the importance of feeling “fresh.”[29] This indicates to potential consumers that their confidence hinges on their success in hiding menstrual blood. If it leaked out, one’s life could be over, in terms of popularity. This ad also reveals that tampons have become a social taboo, even when not in use. It describes the product as being “new,” “neat,” and “so discreet.”[30] Not only must the blood be hidden, but the unused product must be hidden in order to hide completely that one is menstruating or even has the possibility of menstruating. Public acknowledgment of menstruation is basically forbidden.

Though tampon advertisements have largely stepped away from addressing virginity, they still stress the importance of hiding one’s menstruation and therefore one’s sexuality. These advertisements contribute to the ever-strong discourse that in order to participate in society as a respectable member, women must remain pure. The purity myth, the importance of the hymen, and the idea of women’s worth and identity being tied up in their sexuality are still prevalent; the anti-feminist discourse of the 1980s has become today’s discourse. This legacy matters because it affects the individual freedoms and rights of women across class and ethnic lines. Valenti states, “For women especially, virginity has become the easy answer—the morality quick fix. You can be vapid, stupid, and unethical, but so long as you’ve never had sex, you’re a ‘good’ . . . girl.”[31] This definition of morality allows for anything, such as rape, to happen to the women who make the choice to have sex and violate the male-prescribed rules. Police officers prosecute sex trafficking victims who are women of color as criminals instead of victims.[32] Is it a coincidence that tampon advertisements and other media have often denied minorities access to the purity discourse? By analyzing tampon advertisements, and any other media that propagate the purity myth, change can start.

[1] Lauren Rosewarne, Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television (Plymouth, United Kingdom: Lexington Books, 2012), 13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006), 2–3.

[4] Ibid., 4–5.

[5] Kissling, 5.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Lara Freidenfelds, “Tampons,” in The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 170–92.

[8] Ibid., 173.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Freidenfelds, 174–175.

[11] Ibid., 176.

[12] Ibid., 178.

[13] Rosewarne, 73.

[14] Ibid., 74.

[15] International Playtex, Inc., “Why Our Tampon Really Makes Sense for a Young Woman,” Advertisement, Seventeen, 1980, 26.

[16] International Playtex, Inc., “Why Our Tampon Really Makes Sense for a Young Woman,” 26.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Tambrands Inc., “Tampax Tampons. The First Time, Every Time Tampon,” Advertisement, ’Teen, 1985, 19.

[19] Tambrands Inc., 19.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] International Playtex, Inc., “I Was Afraid I Was Too Young to Use a Tampon,” Advertisement, Seventeen, 1985, 109.

[24] International Playtex, Inc., “I Was Afraid I Was Too Young to Use a Tampon,”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Tampax Incorporated, “Feel Smashin’!” Advertisement, Seventeen, 1981, 74.

[27] Playtex Family Products, Inc., “It’s New Playtex Portables,” Advertisement, Seventeen, 1989, 35.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Valenti, 24.

[32] Ibid., 76–77.