Our only interest is in protecting you. -- Tampax ad, 1972
Fifty-nine years later, Tambrands Inc.--same company, different name--is the leading manufacturer of tampons, cornering 55 per cent of an astonishing $718 million market. Clearly, July 1936 was a liberating moment for women. The promise of "No belts. No pins. No pads. No chafing. No binding" was irresistible. Like today's tampon ads, the earliest ones celebrated active women, shown riding horses, dancing, playing tennis, and sunbathing. "Freedom" and "comfort" were hyped. And women bought. Still, Tampax wasn't content with marketing convenience. Like others in the sanitary protection industry, it took care to remind women that menstruation was naughty; as irrepressible evidence of sexuality, news of its arrival, departure, and duration had to be kept under wraps.
As a collection of ads in Maryland's recently opened Museum of Menstruation proves, a journey through the coded history of sanitary protection makes for a fascinating crash course in American sexuality--and its repression. Casually displayed at what must surely be the D.C. area's most bizarre archival trove, the museum's ads are revelatory. Arranged in small, sorted piles--tampon ads, pad ads, American ads, European ads--the distinctions between categories quickly blur into one theme. Shame and secrecy are the primary message--one 1930s Kotex tampon was even called Fibs--and every ad reminds women that the ultimate humiliation would be any indication that they're menstruating. Full of dire warnings about "accidents" and assurances of the invisibility of their products, they typically promise, as this 1949 Good Housekeeping ad for Meds does, that "You don't know you're wearing one--And neither does anyone else."
Forget the natural dismay of discovering you've bled through your skivvies to your skirt (humans are uneasy with the fact that they leak), these ads zeroed in on women's fear of exposure, promoting a whole culture of concealment. Tapping into that taboo, ads reinforced the idea that any sign that you were menstruating, even purchasing menstrual products, was cause for embarrassment. "Women of refinement dislike to ask for so intimate an article by its full descriptive name," Kotex reminded store owners in a 1921 trade publication. Applauding its ingenuity, the company bragged, "Kotex advertising to women is so restrained in tone that women's intuition tells them what Kotex is! Not once, in any advertisement to women, have we described Kotex as a sanitary napkin." Tampax always offered to send a trial package "in a plain wrapper." And today, Kimberly-Clark advertises an applicator-free tampon "wrapped in outrageous colors" by depicting a model who wears the tampons as curlers while the copy reminds readers how embarrassing it is to reach in a handbag for lipstick and pull out a tampon, and the headline pledges, "Only you'll know what they're really for."
Even in its first ad, Tampax stokes this anxiety. "Tampax eliminates chafing, odor, and embarrassment...permits daintiness at all times." And this theme of confidentiality--your menstruation is our little secret--remains a Tampax staple right up to its present "Trust Is Tampax" campaign, which promises "no one will ever know you've got your period."
Clearly, secrecy has its advantages
IN 1992, A CONGRESSIONAL subcommittee charged with overseeing the Food and Drug Administration stumbled on an exchange of memos regarding reports the FDA had declined to make public. It seems several FDA scientists had discovered trace levels of dioxin, a potentially harmful by-product of the chlorine-bleaching process at paper and pulp mills, in some commercially produced tampons. (Most tampons today contain rayon, a wood-pulp derivative.) Citing studies that indicated dioxin was unsafe at any level--not only potentially carcinogenic, but toxic to the immune system and a cause of birth defects--subcommittee chair Ted Weiss accused the FDA of purposely downplaying the dangers to women by ignoring one of its own scientist's warnings. Weiss's staff had uncovered a March 1989 memo stating that the risk of dioxin in tampons "can be quite high." While the memo advised that "the most effective risk-management strategy would be to assure that tampons... contain no dioxin," the FDA never tested tampons. Furthermore, the agency felt confident deleting the following sentence from its final report on dioxin and medical devices: "[I]t appears that the most significant risks may occur in tampon products."
At the time, The Wall Street Journal was one of the few papers to cover the hearing--though its 10-inch article was given little play, running on page B-8. After all, dioxin's toxicity was still being hotly disputed by scientists. And tampons were hardly a priority. For the most part dioxin was--and is today--studied in terms of the effluent pulp and paper plants release into the waterways. Through fish and birds, dioxin travels up the food chain via fat cells where it's stored. It has been discovered, for example, in particularly high quantities in the breast milk of women who eat a lot of fish. Despite growing evidence of dioxin's toxic potential, all pulp and paper manufacturers, many scientists, and most FDA officials argued for years that there were "acceptable levels" of dioxin. Though it had proven to be a carcinogen in animals, they insisted that its exact, low-level effect on humans remained unknown.
Called on the carpet by Weiss's committee, Melvin Stratmeyer, chief of FDA health sciences, defended the agency's silence on the tampon-dioxin connection. Tampons pose absolutely no health risk for women, he insisted. How did he know? The FDA had researched the issue and analyzed the link between dioxin and tampons. But, if they did not actually test any tampons for dioxin--as Stratmeyer freely admitted--where did the raw data supporting this conclusion come from? The tampon industry.
And what did the tampon industry have to say? When confronted specifically about the dioxin present in tampons, Tambrands's spokesperson, Bruce Garren, assured the Journal in 1992 that "there [are] no significant dioxin levels in our product." The tampon-dioxin connection, pointed out in a few FDA memos, played out as a blip on the screen--underreported and largely forgotten in subsequent investigations of dioxin.
But last September, the Environmental Protection Agency began preparing a new report on dioxin that suggests the threshold level for dioxin damage may be considerably lower than previously believed. The Voice obtained a draft of this unpublished document, which makes some startling assertions. Based on results from scientists around the world, from sources as diverse as a U.S. Air Force study, which documented decreased testis size in men exposed to dioxin to a University of South Florida study, which saw a connection between dioxin exposure and endometriosis in monkeys, it's clear that, even more important than the potential carcinogenic link, tests are showing that dioxin, in levels once thought acceptably low, affects the reproductive and immune systems. There is evidence that dioxin may be linked to lower sperm counts in men, a higher probability of endometriosis in women, and a depressed immune system in both.
Without suggesting any specific policy goals regarding dioxin emission, authors of the EPA report frankly admit that pinpointing an acceptable exposure level is almost irrelevant. Given that dioxin is cumulative and slow to disintegrate, the real danger comes from repeated contact. And because dioxin is so prevalent--in the air, in the waterways, in the food chain, in paper products--effective regulation would have to be coordinated and pervasive. The EPA report, entitled "A Health Assessment Document for Dioxin," is now being reviewed and will be revised and formally released some time next year. Meanwhile, denials fly.
"Chlorine is used in creating the rayon in tampons," admits Tambrands's Garren. "However, no residue of that is left in tampons." He then concedes that tampons contain "trace levels" of dioxin but insists "dioxin is a natural product," as indicated by its presence in forest fire residue. (Greenpeace, which has been circulating the EPA report, counters that studies of ancient artifacts have shown dioxin does not occur in nature, and dismisses the forest fire example by describing how dioxin-laden pesticides, polluted water sources, and smog probably account for the dioxin in a forest.) Still, Garren would like to reassure consumers: "I believe dioxin in tampons poses absolutely no public health threat."
With no reliable government oversight, this may be the only reassurance women get. And while it's true that the level of dioxins "normal Americans" encounter and consume on a daily basis makes tampons only one part of a larger, potentially more dangerous equation, women are hit with a double whammy. Seventy-three million menstruating women are bolstering an industry that releases toxins into our air and waterways. And 73 million American women may be directly accumulating toxins in our bodies via tampons. Consider five tampons a day, five days a month for 38 menstruating years. That's 11,400 tampons in a lifetime. And all of the major brands and sizes--Playtex, o.b., Tampax, Kotex--contain rayon.
Meanwhile, the pulp and paper industry puts its own spin on things, insisting the EPA report is simply wrong. "We don't believe there's any evidence that dioxin is a health hazard to humans," says Barry Polsky, spokesperson for the American Forest & Paper Association.
Long involved in the struggle to regulate dioxin emission, environmentalists have been through all this before. "Industry's tactic is simply to delay this thing as long as possible," says Greenpeace's Lisa Finaldi, explaining that the broad participation of internationally renowned scientists legitimizes the EPA study. Obviously, pulp and paper manufacturers want to avoid the kinds of expensive changes the EPA study might compel. This one-time cost of converting a plant would result in a process that is actually less costly, Greenpeace argues. (Consequently, Greenpeace is focusing much of its efforts on getting media giant Time Inc. to switch to a chlorine-free paper, hoping the sheer number of publications under Time's umbrella would provide the incentive to jump-start the paper industry's changeover.) "These companies are hoping to just wait it out and keep the pulp and paper market from switching, but we argue that competitive internationally."
In fact, while the EPA prolongs the debate over dioxin's dangers and drags its heels about regulating organochlorines (dioxin is one member of the organochlorine family, which includes the contaminant in Agent Orange and those found at Love Canal), other industrialized countries have been quicker to act. In Germany, 50 per cent of the paper industry has already switched from a chlorine bleaching process to a less toxic alternative. Ontario and British Columbia have passed laws requiring pulp mills to eliminate organochlorine discharges by 2002. Sweden intends to eliminate them by 2000. The Paris Commission got 13 nations to agree to eliminate organochlorine effluent, and the Barcelona Convention got a similar promise from 21 Mediterranean nations. But in the U.S. even the regulations being proposed by the EPA would only require a reduced level of dioxin--the hope being it will be so low that industry will be tempted to avoid it altogether. Congress member Bill Richardson has introduced a bill to phase out chlorine processes at mills, but passage is a long shot. Between well-funded industry PACs, which are sure to fight restrictions, and a Republican Congress that hopes to diminish regulatory bodies, real change seems unlikely.
Inspiration for this battle will have to come then from other, arguably less squeamish, countries. In 1989, concerned women in Great Britain responded to scientific reports about the dangers of dioxins in diapers and menstrual products by launching a campaign to push such products off the market. After an intense, six-week letter campaign the British sanitary protection industry agreed to stop using a chlorine gasmanufacturing process. Similar "Stop the Whitewash" groups have organized in Australia and Canada--wisely allying themselves with well-funded environmentalists--and Scandinavian consumers have successfully created a market for non-chlorine-bleached tampons and napkins. But here, the code of silence surrounding menstrual hygiene has left consumers with little information and less clout.
Consider contemporary women's relationship to the $1.7 billion sanitary protection industry. While we may have noticed that the number of tampons in a box dropped from 40 to 32 in 1991--with no corresponding drop in price--protest mostly takes the form of a moment's grousing in the feminine hygiene aisle. And as long as everything is so hush-hush, who chitchats about quality or safety? Who calls the industry or the FDA on the fact that consumers can read an ingredients list on a shampoo bottle, yet there's no comparable requirement for tampons--which are held for hours in one of the most porous and absorbent parts of a woman's body? Despite concern about dioxin, word hasn't exactly raced through the tampon-using community to spark consumer outrage. And, while the government seems complicit--or at least complacent--who holds its officials accountable? Why are tampons not deemed a necessity, but taxed, while everything from Trojans to Cherry Chapstick are exempted? And finally, why are 99-cent bags of cotton balls sitting on supermarket shelves next to $5.99 (plus tax!) boxes of cotton plugs?
Who's getting rich off menstruation? And is there blood on their hands?
NOT SO MANY YEARS AGO an event happened that should have forever ended the tampon industry's code of silence. In 1980, 38 women died of tampon-related toxic shock syndrome, an event that might have been prevented were industry practices more carefully monitored.
Use of Procter & Gamble's Rely tampon was linked to these deaths and its illustrious, if short-lived career, provides an instructive parallel to dioxin. Procter & Gamble began distributing the tampon in test markets in 1975 and introduced the product to the the general consumer in 1980 by mailing out 60 million free samples to women across the country. Made of superthirsty synthetics, like carboxymethylcellulose and polyester, Rely was billed as the most absorbent tampon to ever hit the market. As Rely's popularity spread (it quickly stole 24 per cent of the market), and as other tampon manufacturers introduced similar synthetics to stay competitive, the Centers for Disease Control began observing a strange phenomenon. Remarking on 55 toxic shockrelated deaths it had recorded since 1979 and 1066 cases of nonfatal TSS, the agency observed in 1980 that this previously rare disease was surfacing primarily in young menstruating women.
How did the feminine hygiene industry respond to this news? With cover-ups and denials. Perhaps the most carefully chronicled investigation of the role corporations played in the toxic shock scandal appears in Wall Street Journal reporter Alecia Swasy's recent book, Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble. There, Swasy details a management paper trail indicating Procter & Gamble executives knew years before they put Rely on the market that there were problems. According to Swasy, a 1975 internal memo disclosed that components of the tampon were known cancer-causing agents and that the product also altered the natural microorganisms and bacteria found in the vagina. Though the company was receiving as many as 177 consumer complaints a month about Rely, it simply dismissed them, telling salespeople to do the same. "If asked, the salespeople were given canned answers that denied any link between tampons and toxic shock," Swasy reports. Though Procter & Gamble is often lauded for voluntarily withdrawing Rely from the market in September of 1980, it seems clear the company didn't act until the FDA threatened to act for them. And the FDA didn't act until women died.
After forcing Rely off the market--scientists learned that the superthirsty synthetics provide a breeding ground for the staphyloccocus aureus bacteria, which is present, though usually dormant, in 15 per cent of women's vaginas--the FDA relaxed. For women, and the tampon industry, the scare seemed to be over. As for the government, it left further research on causes and effects of toxic shock syndrome to tampon manufacturers, and the industry continued to escape any serious regulation.
The only exceptions to this were two FDA requirements: the immediate charge to warn customers to use the lowest effective absorbency and the long-delayed decision to have manufacturers standardize the range of absorbency. Since toxic shock is tied to higher absorbencies, a national watchdog group called Public Citizen urged the FDA for years to regulate absorbency labeling on tampon packages. These advocates argued that an FDA requirement that tampon manufacturers warn women--on the box--to use the lowest suitable absorbency had little relevance for consumers who had no way of actually knowing just how one product's absorbency related to another's. Lacking an industry standard--for example, o.b. regulars were actually more absorbent than Playtex supers--how could women tell whether they were buying the lowest absorbency tampon?
It took the FDA until 1990, a decade after toxic shock hit an estimated 60,000 women, to implement these new criteria. While tampon absorbencies are now standardized--i.e., a "regular" tampon must fall within a range of six to nine grams--Public Citizen had hoped for much more. It had also lobbied the FDA to require complete ingredient labeling on tampon packages. Not surprisingly, the FDA declined to enforce such labeling. (After all, the agency doesn't even require new product testing for most tampons; unless they're substantially different from the standard, they are grandfathered. This allows same-shape-different-content products like Rely to be introduced under a speedier, less thorough approval process than brand new medical devices.) Such a requirement might serve as a first step toward separating higher-dioxin tampons from lower-dioxin ones.
What will make dioxin more difficult to monitor is that its effects are less immediately apparent than toxic shock. It may be years before a woman develops any of the symptoms of dioxin poisoning, and because of the level of dioxin in the environment, it would be difficult to pinpoint tampon use as a major contributing factor. Sadly, product liability cases are one of the few ways ordinary women can strong-arm corporations into upgrading the safety of their products. While toxic shock lawsuits have informed tampon manufacturer's behavior, dioxin is more complicated, more subtle, and may ultimately prove more insidious.
IT'S $4.99 FOR ANY BOX of 32 tampons in Woolworths. $6.39 in Estroff's Pharmacy. Each brand of tampons seems pegged to the cost of its neighbor, the price of all of them has steadily risen as the number in a box has fallen. In fact, Tambrands bragged to shareholders in 1991 that "we made product and packaging improvements, reduced the size and price of our packages, and increased our price per tampon." What the consumer saw was the same basic product with a new "tamper evident" seal and a slightly altered applicator--the "comfort-shaped" tip is rounded--while the number in a box decreased from 40 to 32 sticks. As if that weren't bad enough, in 1992 Tambrands and Playtex came out with a box containing even fewer tampons. Again, Tambrands told its shareholders, "We have announced a new package size in the United States, a 20-count that will retail at the most attractive price point for feminine protection products while further increasing our realization per tampon."
Andrew Shore, an analyst who follows Tambrands for PaineWebber, estimates that Tambrands is making at least $1.21 in profit per box of 32 and slightly more than that with the 20-count boxes. (The average consumer can figure she is handing over at least $2137 in her menstruating life time.) Still, he worries about the wisdom of such tactics. "This is a company that sells a good product, but one of the ways it has kept itself profitable is by raising the prices rather than expanding their market," Shore says. In a recent report he compiled on the company, Shore, who jokes that it's "hard to believe this is how my life turned out," writes that tampon industry "prices increased faster than value-added increased. Essentially consumers were paying more for the same." Explaining that most companies in the '80s emphasized new products, which accounted for roughly 30 per cent to 35 per cent of sales, this industry let new product sales languish at 10 per cent to 15 per cent. "This is an industry with significantly less innovative treatment," Shore says, speculating that toxic shock made consumers much less likely to experiment with new tampons and manufacturers much less likely to introduce them.
Still, the sanitary protection industry does seem to be scrambling to come up with new products. Kotex has introduced curved pads, Kimberly-Clark has introduced pads with StayPut Tabs, Always has introduced Wings, Playtex has introduced Silk Glides (cardboard applicators with a glossy coat), Tambrands has introduced Satin Touch (same thing) and Tampax Lites (described by an employee as "the old juniors"). And of course, there's the new packaging to make women think there's an upgraded product inside. Old products, new products, old-products-dressed-as-new-products--all considered, we're talking about a billion-dollar feminine hygiene industry
Most of that tampon money goes to the three major players--Tambrands, Playtex, and Johnson & Johnson--which have 90 per cent of the market. Of these, Tambrands is the only company that sells tampons exclusively and it has the largest market share with 55 per cent. That's a significant drop from the 60 per cent Tambrands controlled in 1989, but still leaves the company with over half the market in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. Already selling in more than 150 countries, Tambrands Inc. is also among the first U.S. companies to establish operations in Russia, the Ukraine, and China. Next to a lovely soft-focus picture of an Asian woman with insets of an egg, then an ugly duckling, then a swan, Tambrands' 1992 annual report drools over China, where "a menstruating population of 335 million women, plus an economy experiencing explosive growth, define an exceptionally promising market for Tambrands."
On the domestic front, the company replenishes its market by hawking to pubescent teens. "One fundamental truth drives our business from Chicago to Shanghai: The consumer we attract today will likely stay with us for all the years of her menstrual cycle," Martin Emmett, chair and CEO told shareholders in 1993. "If we can persuade young women to use our product during their early teens, we can gain loyal consumers for thirty-five years or more."
To that end, Tambrands conducts an exhaustive educational program. Sending representatives into schools and classrooms across the country, the company bragged in 1991 that it reached 20 per cent of the 1.8 million 13-year-old girls in the U.S. and 21 per cent of that group in Canada. The educational program, a kind of traveling menstrual show, includes a teaching kit--replete with Tampax product samples, of course. To make things easier on the tongue-tied teacher who'd rather not say the M-word, there's a video called Kids to Kids: Talking About Puberty, which has teen testimonials of girls who remind each other that you can't lose your virginity from tampons, you can't get them in the wrong hole, and, unlike pads, "there's no possible odor." Students also learn that, while you may start out with pads, "after a while you start to kind of shift over to tampons." There's lots of girlish giggles and red faces, but girls soon discover "how to find the right feminine protection without even blushing."
Put out by Lifetime Learning Systems, Inc., which also provides "accurate," "factual," and "objective" educational material for other pulp and paper industries (my personal favorite is a coloring book put out by loggers featuring Timbear, a fuzzy grizzly who cuts down trees because he understands the importance of controlled growth in the environment), the package peddles Tampax quite shamelessly. For example, one quiz lays out 10 hypothetical situations like, "I have a swim meet at the YWCA on Saturday" or "I don't want to risk having odor" or "I have new white shorts and my period just started. How can I be sure I am protected?" Students are presumably graded on the correct answer: tampon, pad, or panty shield. And not to worry! "There's a TAMPAX tampon that's just right for you," an activity sheet concludes.
But marshaling its forces to solicit new, brand-loyal recruits isn't enough. Like all good companies, Tambrands goes the extra step, dedicating itself to creating need where there is none.
JUST INSIDE RUTLAND, VERMONT'S powder-blue Tambrands factory hangs the company's framed Mission Statement. Full of noble phrasing, the management commits itself to excellence and concludes with the pledge, "Our motto will be, `if it isn't broke, fix it anyway."'
The slogan's an apt one. Consider this: Since the dawn of Kotex, disposable pad ads have been full of dire warnings about odor. For example, one 1920s scenario shows a "dean of women" discussing modern hygiene and odor with a troubled student. "Many women are unconsciously guilty. At certain times they are seriously offensive to others. With realization comes constant fear." Fast forward 50 years and Playtex plays on the same insecurities. "The nice thing about a tampon is it keeps you odor-free. Or does it?" This 1972 double-page spread depicts an anxious woman alone at a party, a swirl of revelers in the background. Playtex assures this lonely pariah that their tampon "reduces any doubt about intimate odor, but in a very gentle, totally feminine way that's very reassuring." And suddenly Tampax, which has averred since its very first ad in 1936--and just about every ad for decades afterward--that "Tampax eliminates odor because it prevents its formation," has begun to really push perfumed tampons.
"You're right in pointing out that there may be a definitional problem," concedes Tambrands's Garren, though he can't recall the "odor-free" plug being a standard pitch. "Still, there is a body of consumers who believe there may be an odor...and we want to give our consumer what she wants."
That industry line, what she doesn't know won't hurt her, carries over to Rutland, a Tambrands factory town. The large plant, operating around the clock to supply plugs for the women of America, is very hard to find. Unlike Freeport, Maine, where L.L.Bean--plant and store--occupy a place of honor on Main Street and signs, announcing Bean's location, line the approach for miles. Unlike Detroit, rife with evidence of the Ford legacy--from "Welcome to Motor City" greetings to the Henry Ford Hospital to the Ford Museum to Ford Road--there is no hint of the company's presence in local lore. Proudly displayed in the "Vermont Room" of the Rutland library are old ledgers from Vermont Marble, reports and minutes from Vermont Dairymen's Association meetings, books on Vermont Boyhood, small-town surgeons, Vermont cheesemaking, logging, bees, and wildflowers. Though Tambrands has been in Rutland since 1943, the well-intentioned volunteers at the Historical Society could only unearth a single slim file on it. Inside were three aerial photographs and one promotional shot. There was none of the ephemera or anecdotes that tend to collect in such places. No mention of how Tampax factories produced bandages during World War II, of how the inventor of the modern tampon and doubletubed applicator also invented the flexible ring for the diaphragm, of how the first Tampax salesman used to introduce his product to druggists by asking for a drink of water, then dropping a tampon into the water, then talking about absorbency and, finally, use. What did I expect? A factory outlet selling seconds? A menstrual products diorama in the Rutland airport? Not exactly. Just a nod to the industry's impact on the local economy. A cordial tour of the plant--which I was refused repeatedly--and some sign that this company, long an integral part of the community, exists. Not only are tampons completely absent from the annals of civic pride, but, according to one employee, until three years ago there wasn't even a sign in front of the factory to acknowledge its presence.
Women's intuition, I suppose, will help us locate the site.
On a chilly winter afternoon, I follow a slew of resigned women from the Tambrands parking lot into the factory. It's time for the 3 p.m. shift change and as the women straggle past me, inserting the access cards that double a time cards in the requisite slot, I remain behind in the plant's lobby, wondering whether it's cotton plugs or stealth bombers they're making in there.
"I don't know what the hell the big secret is," one employee, who worked for Tambrands for 10 years, tells me later. "Unless maybe they don't want you to see all the dust that's flying around." She thinks the visual reality might conflict with their "sanitary" image making.
Another woman, who's going on her fourth year at Tambrands, simply shrugs. "Really, there is no mystery."
And each of the employees, past and present, chuckle at the cloak and dagger routine, explaining that even if I were a technical whiz with a photographic memory planning to steal trade secrets, all the machinery is encased in opaque shields. Plus, there's an annual open house for friends and family so it can't be that confidential. Myself, all I would see of Tambrands was this foyer. And the upstairs executive offices where nondescript men moved about in nondescript suits.
Maybe this is what they're hiding. The fact that Tambrands, that most female of industries, is business as usual when it comes to a factory floor dominated by women earning hourly wages while the executive suite is peopled by men. Women's intuition or fact?
The company's most recent annual report lists a single female senior executive. There are three women for the nine men in Tambrands Corporate, two female VPs to the six male VPs in Tambrands North America, and no females VPs or directors in Tambrands International. Only two women serve on the board of 12. Maybe it's the preponderance of males they're hiding. Maybe that's the M-word no one dares speak?
AT FIRST GLANCE, Harry Finley's rec room is unremarkable. Vintage '70s, it is plushly carpeted, wood-paneled, and features the requisite bean bag. Upon closer inspection, there are some peculiarities. Instead of the usual athletic trophies, diplomas, and macrame owls on the wall, there are tampons, sanitary pads, and mannequins modeling the latest menstrual fashions.
Welcome to MUM ("as in mum's the word"), formally known as the Museum of Menstruation. Contents collected by, exhibit curated by, tours given by--and, oh yeah, home owned by--Harry Finley. The museum, located in New Carrollton, Maryland, opened on August 1, but Finley has been collecting menstrual paraphernalia for almost 20 years. Tall, soft-spoken, and eager to share his collection, Finley decided that a catamenial gallery--with a historical perspective--was the way to go. Living alone in his modest ranch and thinking there was no reason his rec room couldn't serve multiple purposes--leisure and hygienic lore--he drew on his legacy of "monuments to women" (Grandpa founded the Miss America contest) and dedicated his basement to the cause.
Finley has no feminist sensibility, no curator's discrimination, no clever wryness about his subject. He has simply collected everything he could get his hands on with a hobbyist's fervor, from patent office diagrams of the original Rely to German catalogue descriptions of a "History of Underwear" to an actual, 1940s Modess pad still in its wrapper.
Open mostly on weekends and mostly by appointment, Finley says that, despite the fact there's no sign announcing the museum's presence--no need to invite zoning controversy, or alert his fundamentalist Christian neighbors--he has had almost 150 word-of-mouth visitors in the last five months.
Still, he's gotten some flack. As a federal government worker on orders from his employer not to reveal his specific association or, for that matter, to discuss his outside interest in menstrual products while on the job, Finley would reveal only that he works in a defense-related industry. (Once, a colleague jokingly left a 3-D plaque on his desk, a tampon mounted like a model rocket and bearing the inscription: "M1-Tampon Launcher.") When he invited one of his bosses to the August opening, the man was shocked. "What if there's a police raid?" he exclaimed. Finley was indignant. "My God, it's not pornography, it's menstruation!" He is, in general, perplexed by the odd reactions he gets.
But then Finley--pale, fastidious, and strangely earnest--is truly hard to get a handle on. His interest is genuine--though incongruously naive. As we sit in his cool basement, alone, I have a recurring vision of Anthony Hopkins's solicitous Hannibal Lecter and keep reminding myself that my editor knows where I am. That my mom, a teacher, once had a colleague who had a potato museum in his house, so how weird is a menstrual museum? And that there's probably nothing significant in the fact that this knickknack-free house looks oddly temporary and totally unlived in. So much so that when I don't see any signs of life in the bathroom--no hairs in the sink, no shampoo in the shower, no washcloth on the tub--I peek into the medicine cabinet and am duly chastised by a box of tampons with a note attached: "Hey! What did you expect? Help yourself. The management." However odd Finley's interest, this variation on the come-over-and-look-at-my-rock-collection is so extraordinary it has to be sincere. And, while I never convincingly locate the origins of this quiet, solitary man's interest in menstrual products, I'm delighted by his collection.
There is the celebrity corner where such notables as Cathy Rigby frolic in telling white leotards and teenage pre-Partridge Susan Dey strolls merrily across an airport tarmac touting the virtues of Tampax. There is even a classic 1928 McCalls ad featuring an Edward Steichen photograph of Lee Miller (Miller would later become Man Ray's lover, a World War II photographer, and a Life staffer). Newly arrived in the city, a young Miller met up with Steichen and modeled for stock photos that were bought up by Kotex. Unbeknownst to Miller, she would become the first live model ever to appear in a "sanitary protection" ad. According to biographers, she wasn't flattered by the distinction.
For the most part, early advertisers preferred illustrations of women to photos. Or better yet, didn't show anyone at all. For example, a 1934 Sears Catalogue ad illustrates 18 different kinds of "sanitary" products. Without, of course, spelling out what any of these things are for, the headline announces, "Save embarrassment, money ...by mail." The spread offers eight different belts, poetically titled to sound like race-horses--Velvet-Grip, Betty "K," Lox-on--and rivaling Anne Rice's imagination for their creative s/m configuration of straps, clips, and belts. Also for sale: "pure gum rubber bloomers," "worry proof" pads, and rubber "sanitary aprons" (worn in back and occasionally weighted with lead to keep from bunching). There is "liquid-proof underwear" and, because "science marches on," a brand-new product called Wix tampons.
These products were hyped as the hottest new scientific inventions. Referring to an American love affair with science that really gained momentum at the turn of the century, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of For Her Own Good, describes the ascendency of Germ Theory and a culture of cleanliness that seeped into the popular psyche: "For the Domestic Science experts, the Germ Theory of Disease pointed the way to their first victory: the transformation of cleaning from a matter of dilettantish dusting to a sanitary crusade against `dangerous enemies within."' Clearly, the companies peddling new menstrual products hoped to capitalize on that trend. "I like the scientific background of Tampax (it was invented by a doctor)," one 1940s "testimonial" in Good Housekeeping read. And, in 1946, Modess even put out a product called Meds--"Go Meds...Go Merrier!"--and told reticent customers to "ask any nurse!" Always describing their products as "sanitary," asserting that they were made of "surgical cotton" and "hygienically sealed in individual containers," manufacturers played to germ paranoia promising that millions of "modern women" were converts. (In fact, the chemicals used in sterilization proved harmful and the process has been discontinued.)
In the 1930s though, medical expertise was summoned against religious expertise. Priests in the Catholic Church objected to the use of tampons. They worried that women would find them erotic. And they worried that girls would lose their virginity upon insertion. (Their other concern: all those women and girls using their fingers to go exploring "down there." Who knows what they might learn along the way?) Priests denounced Tampax in print. But Tampax pitted medical science and modern technology against such outdated traditionalism. Not only was the tampon invented by a doctor, the ads made perfectly clear, but the packaging prominently displayed a red cross and bore the slogan, "Accepted for Advertising by the American Medical Association." Of course, it wasn't approved or endorsed by the AMA, it only paid to advertise in the AMA Journal. But Tampax's founder and president Ellery Mann believed the tagline lent "an ethical as well as a medical background to the product." (In 1943, at the Federal Trade Commission's request, Tampax dropped the phrase.) As time passed, Tampax continued to capitalize on popular movements and today plugs its products as environmentally friendly. "Think green," it urges in a 1991 ad, reminding women that the applicator is biodegradable.
Captivating as the Museum of Menstruation is, no representative from the industry has ever dropped by to view Finley's collection. "The few times I've called anyone in the sanitary protection industry there's mostly a lot of long pauses," Finley says sadly. He's surprised at their reticence and a bit hurt that they don't share his enthusiasm for their products. In fact, they stonewall him. "It's like they're afraid to give away any secrets, like we're talking about nuclear arms or something!" Even when Finley had his grand opening at the end of July and formally extended invitations to the folks at Kotex and Tampax, among others, no one showed. Only Kotex execs even bothered to respond, apologizing that they had a meeting that day. "On a Sunday!" Finley says with exasperation.
Why is everybody so uptight about his collection? He shrugs. "I guess there's something slightly naughty about menstruation. A dirty little secret."
TWO WEEKS AGO, the journal of Infectious Diseases in Obstetrics and Gynecology published the results of a study on toxic shock syndrome. The authors of the study, Dr. Philip Tierno Jr., director of microbiology and diagnostic immunology at Tisch Hospital/NYU Medical Center, and Dr. Bruce Hanna, associate professor of pathology at NYU Medical Center, tested 20 varieties of tampons and concluded that, while all-cotton tampons produced none of the deadly TSS toxin, all the other tampon brands--Playtex, o.b., Tampax, Kotex--amplified the production of the toxin.
Wondering if the sudden surge in toxic shock syndrome cases in 1980 corresponded with an ingredients shift--by 1980 every single tampon on the market had one or more synthetic ingredients in it--Tierno began testing tampons more than a decade ago. He realized there could be only three possible explanations for the increase in TSS: Either women had changed, the staph had changed, or the tampon had changed. Looking at earlier CDC and state health department tests documenting the varieties of antibodies in women's blood, he confirmed that women's bodies had not substantially changed in recent years. He located a strain of the TSS staph, held in a stock culture, in Australia in 1928, confirming that the existence of the staph was not new. When he began looking at the composition of tampons, a hypothesis emerged: somehow new ingredients were facilitating the production of TSS toxin. Tierno confirmed this at the time by comparing its growth on existing tampons with its lack of growth on surgical cotton.
But, as one of the few independent researchers, receiving no funding from tampon manufacturers, Tierno's results were always disputed. Aside from attacking his credentials, industry-backed experts in toxic shock syndrome lawsuits argued that comparing tampons with wads of cotton was mixing apples and oranges. He needed to test cotton tampons next to synthetic tampons for accurate results. Problem was, there were no all-cotton tampons on the market. Until recently.
When Tierno learned that a British and a Canadian company had begun putting out an all-cotton tampon he rushed to conduct tests. In typical scientific understatement, Tierno and Hanna formally present their conclusion in the journal: "The propensity for all-cotton tampons not to amplify TSST-1 in vitro suggests they would lower the risk for tampon-associated TSS."
Almost simultaneously to the publication of Tierno and Hanna's article, New York attorney Martis Ann Brachtl was filing a brief in the federal District Court of Kansas on behalf of toxic shock victims. Seeking certification for a class action suit against Tambrands and Playtex, Brachtl contends, "Both defendants have known since 1985 that tampons which contain highly absorbent fibers...increase the production of Toxic Shock Syndrome." In 1985, after a jury assessed an $11.5 million verdict against Playtex for its reckless disregard in continuing to sell the high absorbency tampons despite knowing women died as a result, both Playtex and Tambrands removed their high absorbency rayon polyacrylate tampons from the market. But Brachtl insists they didn't go far enough. They left their tampons containing highly absorbent viscose rayon on the market, where they remain today.
But Playtex insists the viscose rayon is harmless. "The government and reputable scientific research has not shown any association between the type of tampon fiber and the risk of toxic shock syndrome," says Playtex spokesperson Marty Petersen. "Playtex also believes that the new study by NYU biologists is flawed and not valid." For its part, Tambrands agrees that the lawsuit is "completely and totally without merit." Decrying Tierno's study as "bad research," Tambrands's Bruce Garren says, "He's been saying the same thing for 10 years and no one has listened. The FDA didn't listen, Health and Welfare didn't listen, every regulatory body that oversees tampons has approved rayon in tampons--in the face of Tierno's research." Instead, tampon manufacturers have responded to the continuing presence of toxic shock syndrome by shifting responsibility to the consumer, telling women to change tampons more frequently and to choose the lowest suitable absorbency. How effective has this initiative been? Though the number of deaths from TSS have gone down--only one last year--the cases of nonfatal, but often serious, toxic shock syndrome remain substantial. Extrapolating from FDA figures, Brachtl calculates that between 24,240 and 119,680 American women contracted TSS between 1985 and 1994. All occurring after the infamous Rely was pulled from the shelves.
While the toxic shock scandal may not have been entirely preventable, corporate irresponsibility and apathetic government oversight certainly contributed to the TSS casualties. Toxic shock sparked a brief flurry of concern in the '80s and was quickly silenced by an industry skilled in the art of concealment. Will dioxin get the same treatment? Though its long-term effects are still disputed, there's no way to feel confident about tampons' safety given the haphazard way in which this industry is regulated. Taking a lesson from the recent congressional tobacco hearings, I suggest to Tierno that the personal product is political and ask whether he envisions a similar independent investigation into tampons. He is not optimistic. "Who is going to give money to do research on tampons? The government?" Tierno doubts it. "Frankly speaking, this is not a priority issue." And the industry prefers it that way, admonishing women not to worry their pretty little heads about it. As Tierno's favorite Rely ad put it: "We'll absorb the worry."
Research assistance by Katherine Pushkar and Heather Moore
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