“They say my flow is heavy so I guess I need a tampon,” Genesis Be spits in her latest single “Tampons & Tylenol.” The Mississippi-born MC claims her anthem is a “declaration of women’s power” that refers to “working past the physical of a woman and exploring the facets of who we are.” “Tampons & Tylenol” uses menstruation as a metaphor for the suppression of women’s pain, thus rendering the flow – literally and figuratively – invisible.
It makes sense. Tampon brands market their products by persuading women to believe that their tampon is the smallest, most-camouflaged and best at preventing leaks. Some experts, including Ingrid Johnston-Robledo, president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, see the marketing of tampons as a way to perpetuate stigmas about menstruation.
“They really want to capitalize on girls’ and women’s fears about leakage and odors to sell a product,” she says.
In an article on menstrual stigma, Johnston-Robledo notes that menstruation is often associated with contamination, so using products that are less-noticeable to contain blood are preferred by women.
“If man’s body is considered the norm or the normative body, reproductive functions are going to render women’s bodies sick, defective, abject, especially in a patriarchal cultural context,” Johnston-Robledo says.
This is reason women prefer tampons opposed to pads, according to Johnston-Robledo.
Marketers capitalize on this fear by creating commercials that overstate the inconspicuousness of tampons. As Daily Beast writer Soraya Roberts points out, this implies that “the less you see the product, the less you see the period and the hotter you are.”
Johnston-Robledo agrees. “I think that is sort of a contemporary phenomenon that has a lot to do with the sexualization of girls,” shesays. “You can still retain this sexy image and menstruate at the same time.”
However, does any of this mean the tampon is a sexist invention?
Johnston-Robledo believes so. Developing cultural stigmas against menstruation makes women uncomfortable with their bodies’ natural function.
“Part of the stigma is the need to hide [the menstrual blood] right away and not feel it against your body,” Johnston-Robledo says. Women who are more comfortable with their periods “would be more likely to use products where you really have to look at and interact with your fluid as opposed to clogging your body with a tampon and just tossing it into the toilet.”
Roberts agrees. She writes:
“There’s no social benefit from having a period, so suppressing it makes a lot of sense to a lot of people,” Sharra L. Vostral, author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology, tells the Daily Beast. It certainly makes sense to Ke$ha. The famously “edgy” singer, who has bragged about drinking her own urine, told WBLI radio-show host Syke last month that the only thing she considers “off limits” on her reality show is changing her tampon. Considering how many people saw red after Giovanna Plowman ate hers, not to mention how female artists like Carina Ubeda are marginalized for using their menstrual fluid in their work, it’s little wonder that periods and pop culture don’t mix.
Lauren Rosewarne wrote last year’s Periods in Pop Culture, about how rarely menstruation is represented on film and TV (she found around 200 examples going back to the ’70s, while Genesis Be’s rap continues to be one of the few cases of period-inspired music, along with PJ Harvey’s “Happy and Bleeding” and Ani DiFranco’s “Blood in the Boardroom”). She tells The Daily Beast that when menstruation does make an appearance, “it needs to be concealed, deodorized, and that anyone finding out about it is a substantial social faux pas for the woman, if not, social suicide.” And when hygiene products are mentioned—“or, much, much, much less commonly, shown”—it’s the tampon that gets plugged. “This is likely due to the (comparative) social acceptability of tampons compared to others,” says Rosewarne, “as well as the more frequent advertising of tampons compared to other products (and in turn, greater audience familiarity with them).”