Cover image for The curse : confronting the last unmentionable taboo: menstruation
The curse : confronting the last unmentionable taboo: menstruation
Houppert, Karen, 1956-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Physical Description:
viii, 263 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
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GN484.38 .H68 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The Curse examines the culture of concealment that surrounds menstruation & the devastating impact such secrecy has on women's physical & psychological health. The author combines reporting on the potential safety problems of sanitary products - such as dioxin-laced tampons - with an analysis of the way ads, movies, young-adult novels & women's magazines foster a "menstrual etiquette" that leaves women more likely to tell their male colleagues about an affair than brazenly carry an unopened tampon down the hall to the bathroom. From the very beginning, industry-generated instructional films sketch out the parameters of acceptable behavior & teach young girls that bleeding is naughty, irrepressible evidence of sexuality. In the process, confident girls learn to be self-conscious teens. And the secrecy has even broader implications. The author argues that industry ad campaigns have effectively stymied consumer debate, research, & safety monitoring of the sanitary protection industry. By telling girls & women how to think & talk about menstruation, the mostly male-dominated media have set a tone that shapes women's experiences for them, defining what they are allowed to feel about their periods, their bodies, & their sexuality.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this history of "the culture of concealment" surrounding menstruation and the effect of that secrecy on American women, Houppert presents medical, historical, literary, religious and anecdotal material documenting attitudes toward menstruation dating back to the Bible. Writing with a bravura that occasionally crosses the line into crudeness, she also convincingly investigates the role of advertisers and manufacturers of "feminine" products in perpetuating "superstition, shame, and sexual self-consciousness." In 1995, Tampax "reduced the number of plugs in a box from forty to thirty-two and raised the price," which incensed Houppert and sparked her research. She found that when tampons were introduced in the 1930s, clergy of all stripes opposed them as a threat to pubescent virginity, but few stepped forward to protest in 1980 when 38 women died of "tampon-related toxic shock syndrome." The FDA did not implement regulations until a decade later, after 60,000 women had been affected. Houppert shows how feminine-products manufacturers are maneuvering to stave off the coming industry economic crisis when baby boomers enter menopause by "hawking to pubescents" in middle schools with "traveling menstrual shows" that effectively keep the culture of concealment intact. She shows how PMS "has slipped into the cultural lexicon to discount women's legitimate concerns," noting how it has been blamed for everything from indigestion to murder. The silver lining for Houppert is a Museum of Menstruation (called "MUM" for mum's the word) and Web site ( Illustrated examples of each era's advertising introduce each chapter. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Although menstruation is a normal physiological function, discussing it openly is not acceptable. Journalist Houppert examines current attitudes and their impact on women. The taboos prevent consumer debate, scientific research, and monitoring of the sanitary protection industry. This leads to corporate irresponsibility and lack of government regulation, resulting in serious problems like the toxic shock syndrome outbreak and the presence of dioxin in sanitary products. For Houppert, the most important issue, however, is that the men who control the healthcare and industrial establishments are defining how women think, talk, and feel about their bodies. She argues that this has created a disease (PMS) that has never been scientifically proven to exist and has turned confident teenagers into self-conscious young women. While Janice Delaney's The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation (1976) examines the historical and anthropological origins of these taboos, Houppert offers an interesting feminist perspective on how they affect women's daily lives. For all collections.ÄBarbara M. Bibel, Oakland P.L., CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction I began researching menstruation in 1995 because I was miffed. Not because I was worried about the possible health risks associated with tampon use (maybe I'd heard about some olden-days disease called toxic shock syndrome, but never of a dioxin connection), or because I thought a compelling feminist analysis lurked beneath the surface (what have periods got to do with politics?), or because I hoped to challenge menstrual taboos (of course we don't talk about bleeding in polite society; why should we?). The ignoble sentiment motivating my investigation was parsimony. I was an irritated consumer. Tambrands, makers of Tampax, had just reduced the number of plugs in a box from forty to thirty-two and raised the price. The snips!     "What's the deal?" I wondered. And as I posed that question, I tumbled headlong into the netherworld of feminine hygiene ads, menstrual etiquette, period-product focus groups, bodily effluents and environmental effluents, hormones, scents, sex, and surfactants. I surfaced with the preliminary results of my foray in a 1995 Village Voice article titled "Embarrassed to Death: The Hidden Dangers of the Tampon Industry" and then dove back in. Some three years later, I emerged with this profound analogy: Blood is kinda like snot. How come it's not treated that way?     People with runny noses do not hide their tissues from colleagues and family members. They do not die of embarrassment when they sneeze in public. Young girls do not cringe if a boy spies them buying a box of Kleenex. Caught without a hanky on a cold day, people sometimes use their sleeves; they are sheepish but not humiliated. They do not blush or stammer or hide the evidence. No one celebrates congestion. It is inconvenient and occasionally, when accompanied by a cold, decidedly unpleasant. But those who suffer publicly -ah-choo !--are casually blessed. It is, in essence, no big deal.     The same is not true of periods.     And yet the facts seem equally straightforward: Once a month, the lining of the uterus, acting on signals from estrogen and progesterone hormones, thickens with spongy, blood-filled nutrients. If the woman has had sex and an egg and a sperm join, this uterine lining (endometrium) will be used to sustain the developing embryo. If fertilization doesn't take place, the egg travels down the fallopian tube, through the uterus, past the cervix, and out the vagina. Approximately twelve days later, when the levels of estrogen and progesterone have dropped and the uterus has gotten the message that no pregnancy has occurred, the uterine lining--blood and mucus--simply flows out. In total, each period consists of four to six tablespoons of blood.     Such simple biological facts seem inconsistent with the elaborate machinations we go through to hide the fact that we're bleeding. Yet for most women, the menstrual etiquette we follow is so ingrained that we never question it. Of course, we would never mention to our father-in-law that the reason we really, really, really need him to pull the car over at a rest area is because we need to change a tampon. "What would be the point of offending him?" we think, instead of "Why would this be considered offensive?" Menstrual etiquette is so habitual with us, we barely even think about it.     In fact, nobody spends time thinking about periods. Research on Americans' attitudes toward menstruation is very hard to come by. Periods are not a popular dissertation topic. Prestige and altruism rarely drive scientists to seek new cures for cramps. The U.S. government, which has only recently recognized the importance of studying women's health issues by creating the National Institutes of Health's Office of Women's Health, mostly limits its analysis of menstruation to one question: Does it render women unfit for combat? (The United States Army's Human Engineering Laboratory published a bibliography in 1980 titled Human Performance: Women in Nontraditional Occupations and the Influence of the Menstrual Cycle ; it cited 1,485 studies.) The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, a collective of academics who recognized the importance of such work as long ago as 1979, has the most comprehensive collection of data. But Society members are the first to lament the dearth of research attention--and dollars--devoted to this topic. When the experts do focus their attention on menstruation, it's to emphasize its pathology: premenstrual syndrome. While studies on healthy women are hard to come by, studies on angry, depressed, and unreasonable women fill the pages of professional journals.     Meanwhile, it is safe to assume that some large-scale national studies about American attitudes toward menstruation are being conducted by the menstrual products industry. But they're not sharing. "These studies are of a competitive nature," explains Elaine Plummer, a spokesperson for Procter & Gamble. The company with the largest share of the tampon and sanitary pad markets, P&G solicits this kind of information as part of its standard marketing research. "But that information isn't something we'd want to make public," Plummer says.     In all of menstrual history, the solitary exception to this industry-wide policy is a major national survey conducted by Tampax in 1981. For some reason, Tampax uncharacteristically shared copies of the report with interested parties--who, incidentally, were not all that many people. The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research has a copy; I found another languishing in the stacks of the library of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States in New York City. The report is eighteen years old, but it gives us a starting point.     In April and May of 1981, fifty trained researchers conducted 15-minute phone interviews with more than a thousand men and women across the country. The study, designed by a company called Research & Forecasts, Inc., included people of all ages, education levels, income levels, and ethnicities. The results of the survey were startling. Pollsters discovered that men and women had similar beliefs about menstruation, sharing an overall attitude that the researchers characterized as "negative" and an understanding of menstruation that was "confused." More than one-quarter thought that women could not function normally at work while menstruating, with 8 percent (that would have been 14 million Americans!) saying that women should make an effort to stay away from others when they're having their periods. Thirty-five percent said they thought menstruation affected a woman's ability to think, 30 percent thought women should cut down on their physical activities while menstruating, 49 percent said that women had a different scent at that time, and 27 percent said menstruating women looked different. Half thought women shouldn't have sexual intercourse during their periods, and 22 percent believed swimming while menstruating was harmful. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that women should not mention their periods in the office or in social situations--that included veiled references to cramps or headaches--and more than one-third thought women should conceal the fact that they're menstruating from their families (for example, by hiding sanitary products). Interestingly, men were more likely than women to think it was okay to talk openly about periods (38 percent, as opposed to 27 percent). Thirty-one percent of the women surveyed reported not knowing what menstruation was the first time they got their periods, and 43 percent of the women had had negative responses to their first period, saying that they felt scared, confused, terrible, panicky, or ill.     Today, many women begin a conversation about menstruation with a sigh of relief. "Thank God we're more open about these things than my mother's generation," they tell me when they learn I am writing a book about the topic. There is a sense that attitudes are changing rapidly; that feminism has allowed women to think about their bodies differently and that taboos about menstruation have benefited from this détente. They have benefited, but the attitudes reflected in the Tampax report are not so quaint and antiquated as we might think. Using other cultural barometers--ads, teen magazines, newspaper articles, popular literature, and recent, narrowly focused studies--I discovered that these myths persist. Things have changed somewhat, but there have been no radical leaps in our menstrual consciousness in the past two decades. And in the peculiarly mapped landscape of menstrual etiquette, where beliefs are based on superstition, shame, and sexual self-consciousness, it seems unlikely that the intervening years of inattention have fomented a sea change in attitudes. But who cares? What difference does it make if women want to keep their bleeding private? Or if men want to keep women's bleeding private? Or if the social contract includes a menstrual etiquette rider whereby all parties agree that bleeding is a nasty business best kept quiet?     In a Glamour magazine item about my 1995 Village Voice piece, a reporter questioned whether women really needed to push the outside of that envelope. In particular, the journalist focused on the cover of the issue of The Village Voice that featured my article (as did most of those writing letters to the paper, who found our cover photo offensive). In fact, the picture looked like any of a dozen provocative ads for skin creams, perfumes, or health clubs: a woman's sexy lower torso in profile, smooth thighs and pert butt alluringly displayed. But here, peeking out from between the woman's thighs, was a tampon string.     People freaked. And, like the Glamour reporter--and a New York Times reporter who wondered whether anything was still sacred after that image--they couldn't get past the cover to the article inside. Which was, and is, my point. These taboos matter because they prevent consumer debate and scientific research, as well as safety monitoring of the sanitary protection industry. And, by defining how women think and talk about menstruation, men--the mostly male CEOs of companies manufacturing menstrual products, as well as advertising executives, religious leaders, and sex-ed authors--have set a tone that shapes women's experiences for them, defining what they are allowed to feel about their periods, what they are allowed to feel about their bodies, and what they are allowed to feel about their sexuality. Menstrual etiquette matters because women are being manipulated. The consequences are significant.     If the sole conversation a girl has with her mother about "down there" consists of a quick, covert discussion of sanitary protection logistics, if her teachers are secretive and vague as they line her and her fifth-grade girlfriends up for the sole public acknowledgement of periods, "The Movie," and if every ad she ever sees reminds her that the worst possible thing would be for boys to discover that she bleeds, she is sure to think there is something wrong with the event (a curse?) or herself.     What does it mean for a girl, or woman, to say simply, "This happens to me" and for society to say, "No it doesn't." Not in movies. Not in books. Not in conversations.     After a while, it becomes psychologically disorienting to look out at a world where your reality does not exist. I am not suggesting that society's attitude toward menstruation creates this phenomenon all by itself. But menstrual etiquette is an element of a woman's experience that contributes to this disorienting effect. It complements a barrage of distorted images and stories about women's bodies that we face daily. Because ideas about menstruation tie into prevailing notions that women's bodies are dangerously permeable, they become part of the controlling myths our culture has spun to manipulate our perceptions of ourselves and our sexuality.     In the following four essays, I examine how our culture conspires to transform monthly bleeding from a benign inconvenience into a shameful, embarrassing, and even debilitating event. Chapter One ADVERTISING: A CULTURE OF CONCEALMENT Our only interest is in protecting you. -- Tampax ad, 1972 "Welcome this new day for womanhood," Tampax Inc. announces on July 26, 1936, in its very first mass-market ad. Describing a brave new world, the company boasts that "thousands of women have already tried Tampax and would no sooner go back to the old-fashioned napkin than they would to the methods in use fifteen years ago." Asserting a year later that this is "a comfort never known before," the company crows over a "woman's world--remade" and says, "After 2000 years ... of the woman alone with her troublesome days ... suddenly it happened!"     Sixty years later, Tambrands Inc.--same company, different name--was the leading manufacturer of tampons, cornering 55 percent of an astonishing $8 billion market worldwide. 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.     A journey through the coded history of sanitary protection makes for a fascinating crash course in American sexuality--and its repression. Shame and secrecy are the primary message. One 1930s Kotex tampon was even named Fibs, and every sanitary protection ad reinforces the notion that the ultimate humiliation would be any indication that you're menstruating. Full of dire warnings about "accidents" and assurances of the invisibility of their products, sanitary protection ads typically promise, as this 1949 Good Housekeeping example did, "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: 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 into a handbag for lipstick and pull out a tampon, and the headline pledges, "Only you'll know what they're really for."     Advertisers have long tipped women off to the nature of their products by using code words. For example, a 1934 Sears catalog ad illustrates eighteen different kinds of "sanitary" products, yet never once says what they're for. The headline simply announces, "Save embarrassment, money ... by mail." The spread offers eight different belts, poetically named to sound like racehorses--Velvet-Grip, Betty "K," Lox-on--and rivaling Anne Rice's imagination for their creative S&M configurations of straps, clips, and belts. Also for sale: "pure gum rubber bloomers," "worry-proof" pads, and rubber "sanitary aprons" (worn under skirts but over derrières, and weighted with lead to keep from bunching). There is "liquid-proof underwear" and, because "science marches on," a brand-new tampon called Wix.     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 and Deirdre English, authors of For Her Own Good , describe the ascendancy 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, boasting that millions of "modern women" were converts. (In fact, the chemicals used in sterilization proved harmful and the process was discontinued.)     In the 1930s, though, medical expertise was pitted 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 summoned the forces of medical science and modern technology to stand 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, the product wasn't approved or endorsed by the AMA; it only appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association as a paid advertisement. But Tampax's founder and president, Ellery Mann, believed the tag line 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.     Sanitary protection companies also vied for popular personalities to sell their products. In the 1980s such notables as Cathy Rigby frolicked in telling white leotards, and in the 1960s a teenage pre-Partridge Susan Dey strolled merrily across an airport tarmac touting the virtues of Tampax. There is even a classic 1928 McCall's ad featuring an Edward Steichen photograph of Lee Miller, who 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 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.     But even in the 1990s, celebrities are loath to be known as, for example, the Stayfree Girl. In 1997, Johnson & Johnson tried to line up a spokesperson for its launch of a new pad with "walls" (similar to P&G's Always with channels). According to a McCann-Erickson ad agency insider who didn't want her name used, they had a tough time finding a model. "They went to athletes, film stars, TV stars, and the majority of people refused," she explained. "They didn't want to be associated with a maxipad." J&J approached Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, who agreed to let them use her likeness--footage of her skating, etc.--but refused to discuss the product herself in any advertising. They then went after the Spice Girls, thinking that their "Tell me what you want, what you really, really want" lyrics had the kind of hip sensibility to attract younger women. "But even this group, all about girl power, wanted nothing to do with pads," the McCann staffer said. In fact, J&J, makers of baby powder and No More Tears shampoo, didn't even want its own name, as the parent company, attached to the product. "When we were talking in a meeting about using a celebrity to leverage the product, someone asked why we don't use the J&J name," the staffer recalled. "And the company representatives said, `Absolutely not!'"     Is there something about bleeding that would soil J&J's pristine baby-powder image? Johnson & Johnson spokesperson John McKeegan said this refusal to identify J&J with a menstrual product was standard for the company. "It's not quite as simple as saying this would tarnish J&J's name," he explained. "This is just a long-standing decision regarding the J&J name and what it's associated with. More than anything else, J&J is known through its baby products and through its medical products. And the decision was, that's where the name would remain." (Citing company policy, he refused to comment on Stayfree's frustrating search for a celebrity spokesperson.)     Clearly no one wants to be associated with bleeding. 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 1990s "Trust Is Tampax" campaign, which promises, "No one will ever know you've got your period."     Such secrecy has its advantages. THE TAMPON-DIOXIN LINK: SHOULD WE WORRY? 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 wood-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, a Democrat from New York, 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 FDA 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: "It appears that the most significant risks may occur in tampon products." (Continues...) Copyright (c) 1999 Karen Houppert. All rights reserved.