Reading Between the (Panty) Lines

If you take me to a thrift store, within 30 seconds I will have located their vintage magazines and will be happily browsing. One of the best things about decades-old publications is that they are chock full of advertisements. Whether cheesy, funny, or cringe-worthy, it’s common to look at those old ads and think, “wow, is this for real?! Look how far we’ve come!” With ads for menstrual products, it’s easy to assume that the formula will be the same: old ad = dated, problematic concepts, modern ad = progressive. After all, check out this gem from 1928:

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Modess offered customers a “silent purchase coupon,” allowing them to obtain their box of sanitary napkins from the salesperson “without embarrassment or discussion.”

 

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This Playtex ad, from 1972, definitely shows how times have changed. Still, I can’t help but groan at their examples of “so many women just like you”, only featuring stereotypically feminine jobs and roles.

But now it’s the 21st century! Menstrual products are brightly and boldly packaged, there are ads sassily making fun of other ads, and we don’t even use the term “stewardess” anymore! Things must be just peachy, right? If we turn a critical eye toward current ads, the answer is…not really. Major pad and tampon companies are unfortunately still presenting us with language and imagery about periods that reinforce negative ideas.

In 2009, Tampax Pearl had a campaign titled “Outsmart Mother Nature”. Many of the ads featured a middle-aged woman in a green suit – Mother Nature personified – offering her “monthly gift”. A series of them starred Serena Williams opposite Mother Nature, such as this:

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This ad campaign does not make me happy (though Serena Williams’ presence otherwise always does!). Here we have a “smackdown”, in other ads from this series, Mother Nature is “slammed” and “meets her match”. The aggressive language of sports and competition only helps perpetuate the idea that periods are bad and unwelcome. We need to fight and beat them, or else they win – and what does that even mean? Poor Mother Nature is also reduced to a stereotype, similar to the ubiquitous “mother-in-law” in pop culture. You would have to be embarrassed to want a gift from her; heaven forbid any of us accept or even look forward to our periods!

A few years later, Tampax and Always came out with their ‘Radiant’ collection, which was promoted in a series of ads featuring women who “stand out” in different ways (for example, the women below are a yarn bomber and street artist) as opposed to their periods.

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These ads are cute, colorful, and fun. The concept of being someone who not only stands out, but chooses how to stand out, is one I can get behind. However, the concept of the “invisible” period/protection is a boring tale as old as time. The implication is not just that these products will prevent leaks and be discreet under clothing, but that all aspects of a period beyond the flashy packaging need to be invisible so that you can be “radiant”. Basically, how are you going to be happy or creative if there’s a chance people will be reminded that you menstruate?

One ad campaign that makes me more optimistic is U By Kotex’s ‘Break the Cycle’. Their aim is to poke fun at, and do away with, the habit of using euphemisms and unrealistic imagery to promote menstrual products.

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The straightforward, “I’m not embarrassed” approach is refreshing. I appreciate their commercials, where they parody tropes in menstrual product ads (like the one where the woman deadpans: “The ads on TV are really helpful because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s supposed to happen.’ “). At the end of the day, though, they are a large company fueled by money, not body positivity. Sounds like the underlying message is: “out with the old, in with the new! You shouldn’t be embarrassed to carry around our products since they have a cool look!”

Ads say a lot about what our society believes and is told to keep believing. If someone who had never heard of a period or menstrual products were presented with a stack of ads, what would they glean from them? I think they would get the impression that menstruation is a shameful burden that you need to tackle and keep under control without anyone knowing. You can be proud of the stylish tools you use to vanquish this beast, but the process must remain invisible. Seems exhausting! Ultimately, the best way to fight period stigma (a worthier opponent for Serena Williams!) is to keep the conversation going and normalize menstruation, rather than to uphold silence and invisibility.

  • Caroline

    Wonderful article! Thank you for writing about this important topic, and I couldn’t agree more.