Sisterhood Blog

White Bathing Suits, Red Hats and Other Tampon Ad Tropes

By Elissa Strauss

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The perils of tampon advertisements was the topic of conversation Monday evening, when DoubleX co-editor (and Bintel Brief guest columnist) Hanna Rosin, former “Colbert Report” executive producer Allison Silverman, Sarah Haskins of Current TV and Susan Kim, author of the new book “Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009) came together in New York for “That Not-So-Fresh Feeling: Marketing Embarrassing Products to Women.”

The panelists were incisive — and hilarious — in their dissection of fem-care product advertising; they pointed to tampon and maxi pad ad tropes, such as the beachy and nautical imagery, white dresses and bathing suits, and stylish urbanites in bold reds hats.

Their collective thesis seemed to be that these advertisements send the message to women that they should be ashamed of their bodily functions; after all, the ads never actually address menstruation head on, but instead focus on endorsing a carefree lifestyle — a not-so-logical supposed byproduct of using their goods. (The definition of carefree, as we learned in slide shows presented, changes from one decade to the next, from wealthy socialites and hard-bodied athletes of decades past to the cosmopolitan fashionistas of today.)

Yes, it’s true: Advertisements are silly and, overall, degrading. But what wasn’t discussed last night was how much effect these advertisements really have on women. I know that for me, when I got my first period, it was hardly marked by the shame and secrecy that the advertisements in the early ’90’s presented. In fact, I felt quite proud of the fact that I had begun menstruating. I was a woman! There was something very powerful and goddess-like about the whole rite of passage, and I sensed that at 13. In fact, as far as rite-of-passages go, menstruating far outshone the bat mitzvah I had at the same age.

From my vantage point, the same was true for most of my friends and middle school “frenemies”; getting your period was considered cool, and those late-bloomers were embarrassed not to be part of the club, so to speak.

While ads didn’t seem to affect me much, I remember being truly moved the first episode of “Blossom” (starring another Bintel Brief guest columnist Mayim Bialik), which replayed in my head during the panel discussion, though I had not seen it in nearly 20 years. Thanks to YouTube, I just re-watched the episode in which Blossom “blossoms,” and was shocked about how Blossom and her best friend, Six, manage to cover so many of the points made in Monday’s dialogue. The opening scene of the first “Blossom” episode, which aired in 1991, was dedicated to two teenage girls wisely discussing periods — remarkable! At the end of the episode the family puts on their Sunday best to go out for Chinese food to celebrate Blossom’s induction into womanhood.


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