The Truth About Tampons

Standing in aisle eight of The Dollar Store—­labeled “Ladies”—I was balancing reindeer-patterned Christmas boxes, curled red and green bows, a plastic tree-topper and two tubes of metallic-trimmed wrapping paper. With around $10 in my wallet, I had almost reached my spending limit for this shopping trip.

But I needed one more thing: tampons. If you didn’t know, The Dollar Store does not carry tampons. Not even the cheapest, hardest cardboard applicator ones. So I was in trouble. I didn’t have the money to go next door to Target for a $10 box of Tampax, nor did I need thirty; I was really hoping to buy a dollar box of five or so.

The average American woman is estimated to use more than 16,000 tampons in her lifetime, according to a report by The Atlantic. I know I’m complaining about cardboard applicators, but women in ancient Rome fashioned their own tampons out of wool. Indonesian women are believed to have used vegetable fibers, and African women have used rolls of grass. Gross. Ancient Japanese women, according to Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport, made tampons from paper and secured them with bandages. They had to change the dressings between 10 and 12 times a day—so it could be worse.

A few years ago, I went from needing a new tampon every hour, because it was filled with dark, red blood more often than not, to needing one or two for one day every six months. The best decision I’ve ever made was finally making an appointment at the ob-gyn and telling her that the pain and discomfort I was feeling for seven out of the thirty days a month was unbearable. The female doctor, indifferent about my agony, put me on lo loestrin fe, a low-dose birth control pill that decreases most women’s periods to two days per cycle and creates a lighter flow—a fairly new drug at the time. It changed my life, very much for the better. My period stopped almost completely. A little disconcerting because I was sexually active but nonetheless, a blessing. I still received my visiting friend twice a year, and that December was her winter vacation—and she was ready to party.

Searching for any sign of life of the cotton plugs, the fifth time I made my way down the “hallway for women” at the Dollar Tree, I found a neon-pink plastic-wrapped and bulbous pack of panty liners.

Bingo, I thought.

Let’s just take a look at the reasoning behind my thoughts. A twenty-something-year-old woman is standing in front of a white wire basket in a discount store searching for something to stop the flow of blood from her uterus, to tell her that she is not pregnant this month. She cannot spend more than one dollar for something that goes up and into her body because she is buying holiday wrapping. Instead, she searches through her purse for a payment method to check out mostly gifts for other people and napkins that will, in fact, not stop the flow of blood. She will probably have blood stains on her underwear and will have to toss them in the garbage by the toilet.

But hey! She only spent one dollar on herself. Score.

Legend has it that in the 1920s, a Kimberly-Clark employee poked some holes in a condom, stuffed it with the absorbent filling used in Kotex pads and pitched it to his medical consultant father as a menstrual solution, according to The Atlantic. But it wouldn’t be until a decade later that a Colorado-based general practitioner introduced the first commercial applicator tampon, according to Tampax.

***

In the sixth grade, I was, like many other girls, underdeveloped. Gangly body, no boobs and no period. I carried a guide to putting on a pad in my Vera Bradley wallet, anticipating the beginning of womanhood. The guide wasn’t needed for another year, but I prayed every day to find spatter in my panties. God answered my prayers when I was thirteen, and I jumped up and down yelling for my mom. She was honestly surprised that I had gotten it so early, and apparently, my body was too. It wasn’t real; my period stopped for another three years.

With my parents divorced, every other weekend was spent with my single dad who was clueless about teenage girls and women in general. When I got my period for the first time, I was at his house, and I had demanded that he take me to the store.

“But, why?” he said. He was the type to spend more on a six-pack of beer than food or hygiene products for his daughter.

“Dad, I can’t tell you. I just need a couple dollars,” I told him. The conversation was excruciating.

“We will not be going for no reason! Just tell me what you need,” he said.

“Pads, Dad! Pads,” I replied.

“Well, why can’t your mom get you those?”

“I need them now. You don’t understand,” I told him. Why was I about to cry?

We drove to the store, my dad huffing and puffing the whole way. He refused to leave the car and handed me two dollars as we parked at The Dollar General.

Two dollars? I thought. What is this going to get me? A roll of paper towels?

When I entered the store with the crumpled two dollars in hand, a girl I vaguely recognized from my high school was working the check-out counter. She was reading a US Weekly (cell phones weren’t popular yet). Could this get any more embarrassing? Like a Charlie’s Angel, I crept past her and power walked through the aisles looking for the feminine products.

“Can I help you?” the dark-haired, older girl said, coming up behind me. God, she was stealthy.

“Um…no! I’m okay, thanks,”

“Whatever,” she said and turned. Did she think I was trying to steal something?

Up and down the aisles once more, I found the Holy Grail. A whole row held tampons and pads, all that I could ever imagine. With no guidance, I looked at the two dollars in a ball in my right hand, and then looked up at the shelves. Everything was five dollars and above! I couldn’t go back out and ask my dad for more. That was not an option. So my eyes darted up and down the shelves once more. Finally, I saw pads for one dollar.

Bingo.

For a second, I thought about putting the pads, that I would later realize were panty liners, in my coat, but I knew that my Dad would kill me. Instead, I took the package up to the counter, where the older girl, I swear, gave a knowing nod. I handed her my dad’s two dollars, got ninety-four cents back and walked out the push door.

“Did you get it?” Dad asked as I climbed into the front seat.

“Uh, yeah,” I said.

“OK. Change?” he said. And I handed him the quarters, dimes and pennies.

***

Tampax first arrived on the shelves in the mid-1930s, but a 1942 survey found that 37 percent of tampon users still used remedies like store-bought sponges, according to The Atlantic. By the 1970s, tampons had changed a lot, mostly to emphasize the secrecy they could offer a woman on her period. Before then, the period was cursed with obviousness because of thick pads that were clearly visible under shorts. Popular brands were Lillettes, Meds, Pursettes and a Kotex tampon called Fibs. Playtex also adopted a “deodorant” tampon in 1971. In 1978, The Berkeley Women’s Health Collective accused manufacturers of withholding information about the substances used in tampons, and by early 1980, 55 cases of toxic-shock syndrome (TSS) were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seven of those cases were fatal. Later that same year, a total of 812 menstruation-related TSS cases were reported—38 fatal. It wasn’t until 1989 that research found a link between synthetic materials, such as polyester and rayon, and the deaths. Between 1987 and 1996, 636 cases of menstrual TSS were reported—51 of them fatal.

The Atlantic wrote that by 1990, a better tampon was being developed with changes including better fit, a newly-designed withdrawal cord and leak-guard protection. With these characteristics, Tampax Pearl became a hit in 2001. To prevent TSS, the current Robin Danielson Act, aka the Tampon Safety and Research Act, was introduced to create more transparency between manufacturers and consumers. But according to The Atlantic, the latest go-around marks the 10th time a bill will have been considered in Congress. This time, the bill is being given a two percent chance of being enacted, according to GovTrack.

***

I’d like to tell you that when I got to the front of the line at the Dollar Store, I decided against the flimsy panty liners and bought the frivolous menstrual napkins or tampons at Target, but I’d be lying. Yes, I make way more money now than I did at thirteen and in sixth grade, but I guess I’m still really the same girl. I’m still willing to ruin underwear like I was as a teenager, so it turns out; I guess my vagina isn’t worth much to me. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I’ve been told so many times by the media and men in my life that it isn’t. My vagina deserves more than one layer of cotton on the curves of my underwear to hold the lining of my woman parts. One dollar is all that my vagina is worth, apparently, but in reality, it’s worth so much more.

My vagina is worth hordes of one hundred percent organic cotton tampons with no weird chemicals added.

My vagina is worth Super Absorbency and a Gentle Glide.

My vagina is worth twelve-hour Midol, not the generic stuff, three times a day.

My vagina is worth substituting Christmas presents for a brand-name product going up it.

And finally, my vagina is worth my time and money.

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Sources:

Peters A. 2015. The tampon: a history. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/history-of-the-tampon/394334/. Accessed March 7, 2018.

H.R. 2379: Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act of 2017. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/115/hr2379. Accessed March 7, 2018.

Shultz J. 2014. Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Toying with Identity: The Importance of Play

When I was a child, one of my fondest Christmas pastimes was sitting down with my brother to “ooo and ahh” over the Toys R Us Holiday Catalog (known also as “The Big Book”). This was no weekly circular ad: this baby clocked in at eighty to a hundred pages filled with ads for toys. The latest and greatest, newest, shiniest, coolest toys were found in The Big Book. I remember circling and placing stars next to what I wanted that year, or what I thought looked cool: Barbies, art supplies, board games, video games for the Playstation 2. My brother was always after video games too, but in a higher capacity than I was. He also wanted science kits, Hot Wheels, and K-Nex building sets.

Why was this so important to us? Why was it so important that I have that exact Barbie doll or that my brother have that exact K-Nex building set? Why couldn’t I settle for an off-brand fashion doll, and why couldn’t my brother be happy with Legos?

While adults may see their children as being picky (and that might be true to some degree), another large element in choosing toys is the intended outcome of said toy. In the twenty-first century, goods are marketed not necessarily based on their practical purpose, but on the feeling or emotion we will receive by purchasing and using them. This is further compounded by the way toys are marketed to children. For example, if I received a Baking Fun Barbie for Christmas, I would expect to experience the same amount of fun that the girls in the advertisement were having. I would expect to feel happy and carefree baking with Barbie (or pretending to bake, anyway).

In addition to this, toys and play are crucial parts of a child’s development. Especially in our materialistic society, we expect children to learn social cues and norms through play. This is not limited to educational toys either. Play socializes children to interact with the adult world in the ways that we as a society have deemed acceptable and normal. From play, children learn to share and work together to accomplish goals, whether they be building the tallest block tower or making the tastiest pretend cake. This might seem trivial, but these skills will later grow into those that are used in the adult world (building a tall skyscraper and cooking a meal for one’s family, for example).

Children are especially keen on imitating adults. When I acted out scenes with Barbie and Ken, I went off of what I knew from social scripts I had learned. Barbie and Ken went on dates together; Barbie and Ken kissed. Barbie and her friends went shopping because that was what girls did together. Girls were not romantically interested in one another. Barbie cooked for Ken and took care of her younger sisters Kelly and Skipper. Thus, I learned social standards of femininity and heterosexuality at a young age through play.

On some level, my brother and I gravitated toward the toys that we did because they addressed the gender identities we were expected to perform. He, as a boy, was expected to build, construct, and experiment while I, as a girl, was expected to learn to take care of others and care deeply about my physical appearance. While I remember truly having fun playing with Barbie, my brother, of course, was never given the option to have dolls. (He did have a GI Joe action figure very briefly, but he didn’t find Joe very interesting, so I captured him to use as a friend for Ken.)

Now, of course, all children have their own preferences, and these often cross gendered lines. In addition to video games, one of my brother’s favorite toys was a cooking playset. And although I loved dolls, I also enjoyed running cars down my brother’s Hot Wheels track. Does this mean we were feminists or subverting radical gender norms at a young age? Not necessarily. In fact, I would argue that when children choose toys, they select them because the objects resonate with the identity they see themselves as possessing. By asking for art supplies, I announced (either consciously or unconsciously) that I saw myself as a creative person. This is also true of gender. I rejected toys like fake make-up and purses because I did not see myself (or my gender) as aligned with that kind of femininity.

Especially in our age of materialism, toys (rightly or wrongly) mean a lot to children and their sense of identity. I’m not advocating that toys are the be-all and end-all of a child’s development (because they aren’t), but it would be unwise to overlook their importance. Certainly, there is much more to a toy— and a child’s process for choosing a toy—than its price tag.

We Are No Birds: Punishing Patriarchy with Sailor Moon

In my third column on Wonder Woman, I wrote that “I was never really interested in superheroes as a kid,” mostly because the superhero genre contained, in my opinion, nothing but “a bunch of beefy men beating each other up.” I still hold true to the original intent of my statement, but I realize that I neglected to mention one superhero I did like as a kid: Sailor Moon.

Like many other so-called “nineties kids,” I fell in love with Sailor Moon when she made her US debut. For those who don’t know, Sailor Moon is a manga- turned-anime about a middle-school girl named Usagi who discovers she must take on the role of the “pretty guardian of love and justice” Sailor Moon. The Sailor Scouts (other girls taking up the mantle as other guardians) help in Sailor Moon’s quest to keep evil-doers from enslaving humanity. Each girl has her own set of powers and a planet that she represents (Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, etc.). Sailor Moon was a role model of mine growing up. I asked for Sailor Moon dolls and toys at every holiday and as rewards for good grades. I remember my feelings of betrayal and loss when the Cartoon Network announced its cancellation of the series. (Suffice it to say that I have my nostalgia glasses on for this piece. Who said I had to be objective, anyway?)

The biggest reason I admired Sailor Moon as a kid, I think, is because not only was she a good role model, but this status was something I could attain. All of the Sailor Scouts had likeable, recognizable personalities. The writer in me today acknowledges that they are a bit flat—Ami is the “smart one,” Makoto is the “athletic one,” etc.—but nevertheless, each girl possessed qualities and characteristics I could recognize in myself. Ami was successful in school but shy, Minako was sweet and caring toward others, and so on. None of them were perfect. Usagi often cried when things went wrong, she and Minako both got poor grades in school, and battles with an enemy were often clumsy and uncoordinated. These combinations of both positive and negative characteristics made the Sailor Scouts attainable to me. If I tried hard enough, I could be just like them: I could be strong and cool and defeat evil with a flick of my hair and a magic pen.

Another aspect of Sailor Moon I admired (and continue to admire as a grown-up feminist today) was how the show fully embraced femininity. The Sailor Scouts all wear schoolgirl uniforms in battle, but this outfit was used more to illustrate the power of femininity than to sexualize the main characters for the male gaze. While I admit their uniforms are a bit impractical—those long legs are certainly exposed to damage, not to mention the difficulty of running in high heels and heeled boots—they’re just another symbol of Sailor Moon’s main message: femininity is not only okay, it is powerful. Sailor Moon and her companions are able to defeat evil forces with attacks like “Moon Tiara Magic” and “Starlight Honeymoon Therapy Kiss” and with weapons like “Spiral Heart Rod” and “Cutie Moon Rod.” Although the Sailor Scouts have their occasional squabbles, they put them aside and work together. The girls are all very strong friends and support each other no matter what: while they do argue, they do not resort to cattiness or gossiping in the way that women (especially young women) are often depicted as doing in other shows. Additionally, the Sailor Scouts are not dependent on men to save them or to fix their problems. The show does have male characters (notably Tuxedo Mask, Sailor Moon’s love interest), and the girls often talk about boys and crushes, but when it comes down to it, they rely more on each other than on any man. While Tuxedo Mask does swoop in and save Sailor Moon at a critical point in battle in several of the early episodes, he leaves immediately afterward. (I like to joke with friends of mine who watch the show that Tuxedo Mask is basically useless, but he deserves a little credit.) As the series continues, Sailor Moon needs Tuxedo Mask less and less, growing into her responsibility and proving that she (literally) can fight her own battles. She is not ashamed of or seeks to repress her femininity but rather, she embraces it for its power.

Sailor Moon also examines sexuality and gender identity/presentation. Two Sailor Scouts that join the team later in the series, Sailor Uranus/Haruka and Sailor Neptune/Michiru, are involved in a lesbian relationship. The two are candid about their relationship and do not attempt to hide it from anyone. Haruka is also “dual gendered,” as Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper put it. She dresses in masculine clothes and flirts with the other Sailor Scouts, several of whom mistake her for a man and develop crushes on her. When Usagi asks Haruka if she is a boy or girl, Haruka replies, “Does it matter?” In the last arc of the series, a group called the Sailor Starlights join the team in their fight against evil. While the Starlights are presented as female, they dress as men when on Earth among civilians. The anime takes this one step further: when among civilians, the Starlights take on biologically male characteristics. Sailor Moon blurs the lines of both gender and sexuality, challenging the heteronormative cliches that populate media aimed at girls.

At its core, Sailor Moon is a feminist text. The manga was written by a woman for young women and teenage girls, but not in a way that caters to patriarchal expectations or stereotypes. Sailor Moon does not talk down to its audience by assuming they only care about boys and makeup. It treats them as conscious and intelligent, and that’s one reason the series has been so successful. As Kathryn Hemmann argues, “In a landscape of Disney princesses concerned primarily about the men in their lives, the Sailor Moon manga and anime series were a rare oasis of female characters not defined by their attachment to men or involvement in romance.” For me and many others, Sailor Moon remains the epitome of girl power.

 

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Works Cited:
Cornog, Martha and Timothy Perper. “Non-Western Sexuality Comes to the U.S.: A Crash Course in Manga and Anime for Sexologists.” Contemporary Sexuality, vol. 39, no. 3, March 2005, pp. 1-6.

Hemmann, Kathryn. “Short Skirts and Superpowers: The Evolution of the Beautiful Fighting Girl.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, no. 47, 2014, pp. 45-72. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/578913