“Pe­riod Drama,”

Tam­pon mar­ket­ing gets real

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by kather­ine laid­law illustration by leeay aikawa

The first Tam­pax ad ran in The Amer­i­can Weekly, a Sun­day news­pa­per sup­ple­ment, in 1936. Di­rect ref­er­ence to the prod­uct on of­fer was con­spic­u­ously ab­sent. “This sum­mer you can ex­pe­ri­ence a com­fort and an as­sur­ance of dain­ti­ness you have never known be­fore,” read the tagline. Even decades af­ter the emer­gence of tam­pons as a re­tail prod­uct — and forty years af­ter the first mass-mar­ket maxi-pads were man­u­fac­tured — the words pe­riod, men­stru­a­tion, and menses re­mained ta­boo. “I feel sorry for any woman who suf­fers from men­strual cramps. But I also feel sorry for her hus­band,” read an ad for Femicin in 1968. Ko­tex is­sued the cam­paigns “Why was I born a woman? Stop feel­ing sorry for your­self ” and “Dear Mother Na­ture: Drop Dead!” in the 1940s and the 1970s re­spec­tively. On a Tam­pax ad that ran as re­cently as 1990, the ad copy read, “You can use them at any age and still be a vir­gin.”

At the re­cent Women’s March on Washington, maxi-pads were used as a can­vas for anti-trump mes­sag­ing, their stick-on ad­he­sive backs a use­ful fea­ture for post­ing on a wall. Such po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tions of fem­i­na­lia have their his­tory — just look to the role of bra burn­ing in the mythol­o­giz­ing of the 1960s — but the cur­rent cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion sig­nals a new vis­i­bil­ity for women’s men­strual prod­ucts, one that is only in­creas­ing. In 2015, when Cana­dian artist Rupi Kaur posted a photo of her­self ly­ing in bed and bleed­ing through her sweat­pants, Instagram’s de­ci­sion to cen­sor the im­age led to an on­line furor. Later that year, Ki­ran Gandhi, a grad­u­ate of Har­vard Busi­ness School and drum­mer for rap­per M.I.A., made head­lines when she ran the Lon­don Marathon with pe­riod blood drip­ping down her legs, hav­ing de­cided the night be­fore the race that wear­ing a tam­pon would be un­com­fort­able. Last sum­mer, Fu Yuan­hui, a Chi­nese swim­mer who was com­pet­ing at the Rio Olympics, sur­prised live tele­vi­sion view­ers by dis­clos­ing that she was suf­fer­ing from cramps. (It is un­com­mon in China for women to re­veal that they are men­stru­at­ing; ac­cord­ing to a 2014 sur­vey, 76 per­cent of Chi­nese women don’t even feel com­fort­able in so­cial set­tings — such as a din­ner with fam­ily or friends — while on their pe­ri­ods.)

This past fall, a new or­ganic-tam­pon sub­scrip­tion ser­vice called Easy posted an ad on the back of a bath­room door in Toronto’s Mill Street Brew Pub fea­tur­ing two women walk­ing naked down sun­dap­pled sand to­ward the wa­ter to skinny dip, a tam­pon string hang­ing down con­spic­u­ously be­tween one woman’s thighs. Wait, what? The tagline, part of a new cam­paign for the Toronto-based com­pany, read, “NO SHAME.”

Easy, founded a year ago, sends its North Amer­i­can sub­scribers or­ganic sup­plies ev­ery three months — mak­ing it the men­strual equiv­a­lent of Clearly Con­tacts. The cam­paign is geared more to­ward real talk than fluffy ad-speak. The skinny-dip­ping spot is one of four shot by Toronto-based pho­tog­ra­pher Chloë Elling­son: the oth­ers de­pict a cou­ple changing blood­ied sheets, a woman ly­ing in a bath­tub with a hint of red liq­uid float­ing to the sur­face, and a cou­ple cud­dling with a hot-wa­ter bot­tle. “We wanted to cre­ate beau­ti­ful im­ages that showed sit­u­a­tions women re­al­is­ti­cally deal with,” says Alyssa Ber­tram, the com­pany’s twenty-six-year-old founder.

Ber­tram, a former health re­searcher at Toronto’s Mount Si­nai Hos­pi­tal, founded Easy af­ter learn­ing that tam­pon man­u­fac­tur­ers bleach their prod­ucts with diox­ins,

chem­i­cals the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion has clas­si­fied as toxic. (Al­though many women be­lieve tam­pons might be car­cino­genic, the United States Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion states that the level of diox­ins found in tam­pons is too low to be a po­ten­tial health risk.) The de­signer who made Easy’s logo passed along Ber­tram’s busi­ness idea to an as­so­ciate at Cos­sette, one of the coun­try’s big­gest ad agen­cies, and the next thing Ber­tram knew, she was in a meet­ing pitch­ing the art direc­tor. “We started to talk about how best to speak to peo­ple about what we do. A big part of it cen­tred around elim­i­nat­ing the shame we feel about our pe­ri­ods, the dis­com­fort about the con­ver­sa­tion,” Ber­tram says. “When we re­ally stop to think about it, it’s ridicu­lous that we feel so un­com­fort­able about some­thing that’s so nat­u­ral.”

Part of break­ing down the ta­boo, Ber­tram says, in­volves in­clud­ing men in the con­ver­sa­tion. Her ads run in both men’s and women’s bath­rooms across Toronto. “The idea with No Shame is that it’s some­thing that af­fects both gen­ders,” she says. “We talk about it in a jok­ing way right now — mood swings, hav­ing to go out to buy tam­pons for your girl­friend. I think it’s im­por­tant to put some­thing in front of peo­ple and get them to think about it.”

As new com­pa­nies re­write the pro­mo­tion of men­strual prod­ucts, for­merly fringe prod­ucts are gain­ing main­stream vis­i­bil­ity. The Di­vacup, a re­us­able sil­i­cone cup de­signed in 2001, was once the men­strual al­ter­na­tive of choice pri­mar­ily for tree hug­gers and hip­pies, but it is now sold at ma­jor re­tail­ers such as Shop­pers Drug Mart. The Ja­panese life­style re­tailer Muji re­cently stocked its stores with a new line of “san­i­tary pants,” avail­able in two styles and start­ing at $19. The un­der­wear have a spe­cial lin­ing, with two lay­ers that hold a pad be­tween them. “A builtin safety,” reads the prod­uct copy. “Both open­ings con­tain a spe­cial lin­ing for wa­ter ab­sorp­tion, for a sense of se­cu­rity dur­ing the time of the month.”

Thinx pe­riod panties, which were launched in 2014, are a line of sleek cot­to­nand-lace briefs that can re­place tra­di­tional men­strual prod­ucts al­to­gether. Ini­tially, the me­dia com­pany that reviews ads for New York’s Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity found that Thinx’s copy lines re­fer­ring to pe­ri­ods were of­fen­sive. The MTA later ap­proved the ads, which made news once they ap­peared, and the com­pany’s 2016 cam­paign fea­tured a trans man mod­el­ling the un­der­wear.

The ad­vent of open men­strual mar­ket­ing may seem dis­taste­ful to some. But imag­ine men be­ing forced to shave their beards in se­cret, furtively bring­ing clip­pers and trim­mers home from the drug store in brown pa­per bags. We talk about con­doms. We com­plain when we have com­mon colds or the flu. Maybe we’re just ready for this as­pect of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence to en­ter the main­stream. (Says Ber­tram, “I never thought so much of my life would be spent talking about tam­pons.”)

Jour­nal­ist Karen Houp­pert wrote The Curse: Con­fronting the Last Un­men­tion­able Ta­boo seven­teen years ago, but the book’s in­sights into the con­flict­ing ways peo­ple deal with pe­ri­ods still ring true. “Men­stru­a­tion is taught in schools be­cause it’s ‘nat­u­ral,’ but treated as though it’s nasty,” she writes. “Men­stru­a­tion is nor­mal, but the at­ten­dant hor­monal flux is a dis­ease... Men­stru­a­tion doesn’t re­ally have any­thing to do with sex­u­al­ity, yet it shares all its taboos.” It’s time for us to treat dis­cussing our pe­ri­ods less like a med­i­cal is­sue and more like a cul­tural one.

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