Purchasing pads and tampons is something I’ve only gotten better at over the past couple of years. And by better, I mean I can actually go buy them without blushing at the checkout counter while desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the cashier. I had never paid much attention to all the different items, since I usually just found the pads and tampons I knew worked for me. However, when I took a closer look, I realized that these industries exploit women’s negative attitudes toward their own bodies in order to make a profit. By perpetuating ideas that menstruation is “dirty” and “bad,” they continue to cultivate the culture of shame in which many women live.
I went to Wal-Mart for a project, so I was really paying attention. Let me tell you what I found. The large sign hanging overhead referred to the section as “Personal Care” and the sign within the aisle read “Women’s Wellness,” which was alright except they didn’t really have any other items that were concerned with “women’s wellness” besides menstrual products. At first glance, it only looked like they sold tampons, pads, and “feminine wipes.” I had to really search, but I did see one small row of softcups on the very top shelf wedged between large boxes of tampons and panty-liners. They weren’t well-stocked, with only two partially crushed boxes of softcups in the whole row. While I examined the entire aisle, I mainly focused on the selection of pads. The design on the boxes try to be either “feminine” (pretty and pastel boxes) or very “trendy” (sleek black boxes, accented with neon colors). Some of the most common words I noticed for these products were “fresh,” “clean,” “security,” and “protection.” The first two are promises that these products with keep menstruating women from feeling “dirty,” which we are told is a common concern. I actually found the last two words sort of amusing, especially since they were used so often. They are clearly meant to reassure women that they don’t need to worry about anyone knowing they are on their period – more specifically perhaps, that their products won’t “leak.” But I just found it incredibly funny, because it almost sounds as if your vagina is supposed to be on some sort of lockdown. Yes, I know I’m on my period. No, my vagina does not need to be Fort Knox. I also noticed that there was a lot of variation on pads just by looking at the sheer number of options – maxi pads, overnight pads, thin pads, panty liners, pads shaped specifically for thongs – you name it. While examining the back of a box of Kotex U pads, I saw that it had “Serious attitude, serious protection” printed on the packaging (I wasn’t kidding about the frequency of the word “protection”). I honestly cannot even tell you what that is supposed to mean. I know Kotex is trying to promote a “know your body” campaign, but somehow they neglect to tell us about alternative methods of handling menstruation and how potentially harmful tampons can be. After all, they are a corporation trying to make money, so it stands to reason that they’ll exploit our shame and our ignorance in equal measure if they can.
One of the major things I never noticed before was the language surrounding products – they all use the same words! There is distinct focus on cleanliness and protection, which supports the idea that women should be disgusted by their periods. They also try to address your period in the most obscure way, and rarely use the words “period” or “menstruation.” This perpetuates our culture of shame and keeps us from calling this bodily process for what it is (and keeps us using ridiculous euphemisms like “Aunt Flo”). The best example of this was on a box of pads that claimed to have high absorbency and pulled “fluid” to the bottom of the pad, so it left you feeling “clean.” I’m sorry. Fluid? Do they mean menstrual blood? Because that’s ideally the point, but “fluid” could mean a lot of things. Along the same lines, I also noticed that there is also a lot of stress placed on being “discreet” about your period. Tampons are being called “sleek” and the applicators are now expandable and collapsable so that they are much smaller. I even recall “quiet wrapper” pads and tampons that were made of a cloth-like material instead of plastic, and therefore don’t crinkle, so no one in a public restroom would know you had your period. It’s a bizarre concept because I feel like menstruation is sort of a fact of life, and it’s probably a non-issue. Do we really feel such shame about our natural bodily processes that we care about someone in the stall next to us (who we will probably never see again!) knowing when we are menstruating?
Through my examination of the “Women’s Wellness” aisle, I discovered that the menstrual product industry helps support the negative feelings women have about their periods. Women are told in many ways that menstruation is not much more than a shameful secret we have to keep, and these corporations are just one more source that relays this message.