RUDE WOMEN: SHAME AND POWER

By Shirley Landis

Lying on her back in an emergency room, Shirley Landis started wondering why she had let herself be misdiagnosed for an ovarian cyst. While recuperating, she started asking her friends what they thought about their menstrual cycle. This conversation evolved into a ten question survey that circled the globe, passed from friend to friend, sister to mother, woman to woman. The questions and answers have been compiled into a book called Falling Off The Roof: Secrets of the Menstrual Chain Letter. This essay is from Chapter
Seven/Question Seven: How do you feel about current advertising of female hygiene products? How do you feel about the products on the market? If you could invent a product, what would it do?

While a friend of mine went to grad school, she was very poor and lived in a terrible part of a large city. Her most precious possession, necessary to her survival, was an old junker car she had inherited from her grandmother.She parked it on the street in front of her rundown apartment building, and every night listened as the neighborhood thugs smashed car windows, hot wired engines, and roared off. Vulnerable and alone, she tried to think of a way to protect herself and her car. One night, up with cramps, she hit upon a
solution. When she arrived home from school she placed a used maxipad in plain sight on the driver's seat. That night she watched as the meanest, most aggressive hoodlum approached her car and yanked the door open. When he saw what was on the seat, he jumped back in disgust shouting "Don't even look in there!" before disappearing into the darkness. She placed fresh pads in the car periodically for the entire eighteen months she lived there. When she told me this story, she laughed and said the pads were better than "The Club!"

I delivered mail for a while in rural Chester County, PA--not the most convenient place to attend to menstrual needs. No gas stations, stores, or restaurants. No public bathrooms. I was out there for 8 hours. I leaked badly. Horror doesn't begin to describe that feeling. Shame. Why didn't I have the correct pad, plug, handiwipes, clothing, underwear, for God's sake, the presence of mind to anticipate what I would need?

Everyone who saw me and the shocking evidence of my stained, white (of course!) jeans was going to know that I was a dirty messy woman who couldn't control herself. Total strangers would know that I was having my period. I got out of the truck on that back road and poured my cranberry juice into my lap. Later I told everyone that I was drinking it when I had to hit the brakes.

There are the two faces of taboo. One is a ban attached to something by social custom. The mortification I was feeling was the result of the an entrenched prohibition against allowing my menstrual status to become public knowledge. If I had torn my top off baring my breasts, delivering the mail half nude I would have been fired but I bet I wouldn't felt that bone-deep, soul-wrenching repulsion at my body and its functions. I wouldn't have felt so wrong.

The other side of taboo is a prohibition excluding something from use, approach or mention because of its sacred and inviolable nature. Inviolable means secure from violation or profanity, and curiously, impregnable. Impregnable, of course, means impossible to capture or enter by force. My friend used this taboo to protect her car.

How did menstruation become taboo--shameful and powerful? Religion, which used to say so much about explaining, defining, and confining women's power, isn't anymore.

Advertising and the media are. Like Moses with his tablets descending from Mt. Sinai, Johnson and Johnson and Kimberly Clark dispense homilies of freshness and security on televisions and in magazines.

Prior to 1880, most women in the United States used rags to collect their monthly flow. Before then, moss, wool and other absorbent material was used. Women did not menstruate as often as they do today: they were pregnant and nursing more. Also, if food was scarce, or physical activity prevented them from having enough fat stored, their bodies would shut down this process. Menstrual management was a woman's personal business. She used what she had around in the way of raw material, doing the best she could. Women of privilege sometimes had a "stay in bed." Time was governed less by the clock and more by the need of things to be done--you milked the cow when it needed
to be milked, you fed the baby when it needed to be fed, you took care of your monthly flow when it happened.

Women started taking work outside the home in mills in New England in the 1880s had to move from this from task orientation to time orientation. Women went to these jobs so they could have their own money, property and power. But the work was set up to be produced in a linear pattern. You could not just get up and go to the lavatory and come back in two days when your cramps subsided. Working like this meant restraining/retraining their bodies. New needs meant opportunities for profit and invention. The Feminine Hygiene Industry was born.

The problem was to convince our grandmothers that they should buy something they had always made. Mr. Meyer, who manufactured Kotex and published the first ad for it in 1921, must have scratched his head muttering what Sigmund Freud was wondering about the same time: "What does a woman want?" Nurses in France during W.W.I used his cellucotton product and raved about it. He manufactured and distributed it just for menstrual use, but clerks wouldn't keep the boxes of pads on store counters in plain sight. Women were ashamed to be seen with his package in their arms leaving the store.

Shame was colliding with power. Menstrual periods, no longer just (according to centuries of Christian bantering) evil and filthy, were keeping women from operating inside the bastions of commerce and industry. Huge numbers of immigrant women were coming to this country, and they were eager to shed the past and become modern. If the ancient sacredness of the menstrual cycle had still been in place, would cellulose cotton have been invented for the collection of the peaceful blood of fertility, rather than war's sanguinary waste?

When I first sent out the questionnaire, I thought the religion question was going to generate heat and lively debate. I thought my respondents would recount amusing bible stories about God's bloody finger or soaring spiritual narratives of menstruation's affirming actions. This was the reason I looked up taboo in the first place, not any notion about advertising.

Instead, most women felt there was no connection at all between their religious upbringing, and their cultural background and their feelings about their cycle. Question Seven: How do you feel about current advertising of female hygiene products? How do you feel about the products on the market? If you could invent a product, what would it do? generated all the heat I thought would go elsewhere. Some women did come up with ideas for products, but most ignored that part, complained about the products on the market. Some loved wings and tampons, but hated the ecological disaster of disposing them. The way any message was delivered by the manufacturers of these products in
an effort to sell them attracted the most attention.

For instance, Kate writes: "I used to hate it when a feminine hygiene product ad would come on the tube when my daughter and her date were in the room--now
I am numb to it. Nothing is sacred. The products are okay, I guess. I still hate pads and tampons that stick to the sides of your vagina and make you feel like you are pulling your whole insides out when you remove them -- ...if God had been a woman, none of this shit would have happened!" She is uncomfortable when the social ban has been breached. She has not accepted that you can talk about menstruation in public--she has surrendered. She knows that when taboos are crossed, sacredness goes out the window. She feels
God is male, uncooperative and insensitive.

Phillipa wrote "Advertising is okay,--(I would invent) something that would make us menstruate without bleeding and feeling pain." Apathetic about the breaking of taboo number one, she wishes the whole issue would go away. She is unaware that the nature of menstruation is what makes us women. Without our body's red shouts and pink whispers, we would be mute.

We think ads are coy, embarrassing and stupid. We feel manipulated, degraded and humiliated by remote male voices even when it is a woman in the ad speaking. But as Maggie says, "I wouldn't know how to do it better." Very few of us are protesting with our dollars-- if everybody knows douching is terrible, who out there is still buying it? There are alternatives to throw away products, but most of these companies are small and struggling. ( see resource guide) We are stuck. We are complaining, but we really aren't doing much. When I was a teenager, ads were the only way I got information. We are
not talking to our daughters, we are not talking in church, or to each other. We are not
happy with anyone else's message--what is it that we want?

I want to feel I am entitled to my own feelings about my body. I want to feel fresh--but I don't want to be told that I am not, or that I am supposed to be. I don't want to stain my clothing. I don't want to feel ashamed. I want absorbency, not dioxin or toxic shock. Anna says, I don't like feeling that my pads and tampons are defoliating the rain forest, ruining the beaches, and making men rich. Sometimes I don't want to be plugged, padded or diapered.

I want to be free of shame. I want to feel my power. I want to speak in red shouts and pink whispers.

For more information about the Menstrual Chain Letter: email Shirley at
fotroof@aol.com



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