"Are You Sure I'll Still Be A Virgin?"

The challenging - and euphemism-filled - history of tampon advertising is one long, strange trip.

I really wanted to use tampons, but I'd heard you had to be, you know, ‘experienced.' So I asked my friend Lisa. Her mom is a nurse so I figured she'd know. Lisa told me she'd been using Petal Soft Plastic Applicator Tampax tampons since her very first period and she's a virgin. In fact, you can use them at any age and still be a virgin.

First of all, that ad is from the 90s, which goes to show how hard certain old wives' tales - or cultural backwardness - dies. Of course, back when everybody had hymens - or were supposed to - marketing tampons depended heavily on assuring potential customers that they could stick something phallic up their vadges and still be nice girls. Most of us remember the periodic reassurances Seventeen and its ilk would issue to readers (and apparently still do), assuring young girls that the two had no connection. But the concern wasn't an invention of youth; for decades, many considered tampons suspect.

Although it's thought the ancient Egyptians used some kind of softened papyrus tampon, and Hippocrates talks about a wooden insert covered in disposable lint batting, the commercial version wasn't patented until 1929. Early advertising highlighted the modern notion of "hygiene" and stressed vague medical authority. "Your doctor will be the first to tell you that Tampax is the most natural and the most hygienic method of sanitary protection... accepted for advertising by the American Medical Association," said the first Tampax ad in 1936. As tampon use became more common, the focus switched to the tampon's aesthetic superiority, which by the 1970s seems to have trumped concerns about hygiene or virtue. Take this 1972 varietal:

Dear Sirs, I want to thank you so much for sending me my free Pursettes Purse Container and Pursettes. You see, I tried tampons before, but they were so big and bulky, I was afraid I might break a membrane or something.... But I skate (roller) in competition, and believe me those short skirts & form fitting tights can really make you self-conscious! And who can afford to lose even one day of practice before State Meet? Luckily, your tampons came just in time!

Although these ads still treated a period as something essentially secret, they also implicitly discouraged the idea that a woman with a period was a delicate invalid, and, however problematically, the preponderance of tight leotards and swimsuits in the pictures helped end the notion that periods were inherently unsexy.

In addition to the fear that tampons would rupture the precious proof of virginity, apparently manufacturers and doctors of the era had to assuage concerns that they would cause unseemly sexual arousal in women - a claim some countered by charging that it was pads that would actually cause "the sexual stimulation of the woman by the friction of the pad against the vulva." (Someone inform Katherine Heigl's agent at once! Hijinx will ensue!) Now that the 1980's fear of the Toxic Shock Syndrome caused by super-absorbents is less of a concern, today the concerns are primarily environmental. As such, most brands are espousing their green and biodegradable bona fides as fast as they can print them, and we're buying.

Although the fact that tampon-virginity myths still proliferate on the internet is dismaying, it's not shocking: the notion's pretty rooted in popular mythology. (Although I can't find any actual verification I well remember a friend's aunt - a former nun - telling me that when she entered a convent in the 60's, she wasn't allowed to bring any tampons, just maxi pads.) While for young girls, the notion that they're being forced into a sexual situation before they're ready is of course scary, the fact that we as a culture still need the reassurance that Virginity Will Not Be Compromised speaks to its entrenched fetishization pretty clearly. But, while no one will claim there's anything sexy about a used tampon - and as things like Superbad prove, the period that isn't safely controlled and hidden is still supposed to elicit an automatic guffaw from men - it's obvious that we've come a long way, and some claim tampons have helped destigmatize the "broken hymen" - and are almost on a par with the ancient world.


Marketing The Tampon: "Will I Still Be A Virgin?"
[Sociological Images]
A History of Tampons [Sarah Kowalski]

I Use Tampons. Am I Still A Virgin? [GirlsLife]

The History of Tampons [About.com]
Tampons As menstrual Guards [Museum of Menstruation]
Tampons Are Trash! [Resist]