Pulling The Plug On The Sanitary Protection Industry
By KAREN HOUPPERT
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 ``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 that
``after 2000 years...of the woman alone with her troublesome
days...suddenly it happened!''
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
BLOOD, TESTS, AND FEARS
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
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
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
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
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
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 THE FACTORY, MAM
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
``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''
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
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?
FLESH AND BLOOD
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
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
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
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.''
BETTER RED THAN DEAD
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
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