I still remember the first time I learned that pads were embarrassing. In sixth grade, the ringleader girl of the cool kids brought pads to school to show to select other girls in the coat closet. Then one day en route, she dropped one in full view of the class. A boy spotted it, howled in laughter, and soon everyone was laughing.
For the rest of my entire life, no one has ever contradicted this notion that pads or tampons are hilarious in and of themselves and need to be covertly moved into bathrooms because otherwise… well, otherwise what? Someone knows you are on your period, and you know what that means! (That you’re pathetic.) So it’s no surprise that, even as we’ve made great strides in accepting our periods as grown women, most of us hide the paraphernalia associated with menstruating too, and that it’s deeply reflected in the presentation of these items.
In an interesting piece at The Atlantic called “Don’t Let Them See Your Tampons,” Julie Beck reflects on the discretion historically built into packaging and advertising menstrual accouterments. Tampax Compak advertised that its shorter applicator made it twice as discreet to carry. Playtex Portables were once hailed as “New! Neat! Discreet!” The no-applicator o.b. claimed to address “women’s need for discreet yet reliable protection.”
Tampax Compak is apparently so discreet, according to one old commercial, that a teacher mistakes it for a piece of candy, and asks his student to bring it to the front of the class when he catches her passing it to a friend.…“I hope you brought enough for everyone,” he says, sternly.
“Enough for the girls,” the girl replies, laughing. All the boys in the class look around, confused. This is beyond their simple understanding.
Beck concedes it is entirely possible these kids have never seen a tampon due to the great lengths women go to hide them in nearly all facets of public life. “You can just palm it, or there’s the ole tampon-up-the-sleeve trick,” she writes. “In sleeveless weather, one can tuck it under the bra strap, or in the waistband. Anywhere tuckable, really. Or just bring your whole purse to the bathroom.”
These are certainly the solutions of nearly every woman I know, not necessarily entirely out of shame. Often it’s that everything you need to go to the bathroom is also in your purse, such as makeup for touch-ups or your phone or whatever else it is you’re going to do in there. But if you have no other business than a tampon pit-stop you’ll probably still conceal your weapon.
Beck cites a friend who admits she has gone to extremes to transport a tamp covertly at work:
And then one day I was in a bind, I had already gotten up to get coffee and then get water and then I came back to my desk and I realized I hadn’t changed my tampon. It feels too awkward to get up from my desk in the middle of the day and walk out with my purse and then walk back in five minutes later. Then I look at my coffee mug, it was empty. So I stuck a tampon in an empty travel coffee mug and walked to the bathroom. And that was my plan.”
Another friend Beck mentions hides them in bathroom stalls and just hopes they are still there when she needs them, which is clever, if highly unreliable.
Of course, the entire enterprise of femininity is often shrouded in secrecy—from where you got that dress and how much you really paid for it to all the smoke and mirrors that go into getting all dolled up, and menstruation is no different. Beck writes:
Secrecy is a key element of the modern period—the existence of tampons and pads in the first place allows women to “pass as non-bleeders,” as Sharra Vostral puts it in her book Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. Barring any mishaps, the blood is only visible behind closed doors. Women’s public bathrooms have special trashcans in the stalls so feminine products can be disposed of neatly and privately.
Period shame is a cultural mainstay, she adds, and the desire to keep it under wraps shows up in everything from religious messages to teen magazines that dutifully report period-related mortification, pretty much the worst kind there is. And because these mishaps are often literally staining, they’re made all the worse by the fact that there is often permanent or at least very stubborn proof.
But it goes beyond simply relegating all bodily fluids to behind closed doors. For one, as Beck mentions, tampon manufactures like Tampax even promote “softer, quieter wrappers,” which suggests that even sounding like you’re opening a tampon in a bathroom stall would be problematic, ostensibly even around other women. Isn’t all this mostly about hiding periods from men?
Turns out, not necessarily. Beck cites a study that found that when a female subject dropped a tampon on the ground versus say, a hairclip, it led to “decreased liking for her,” by others as well as thinking less of her competence in general.
So we not only expect women to hide tampons, we expect them to be good at it. And while we may be moving more toward taking the stigma out of periods through talking about them, we still seem to prefer a solid line of demarcation between the abstract concept and the reality in our everyday lives in the tampon trenches.
I asked my friends about what they do to move a tampon to higher ground, and we all agreed that purse, palm, sleeve, or waistband were the solid methods, and that it was just something we do without even thinking about it, so incorporated into our lives it is.
“I mean, I don’t hold it like the Olympic torch and make a sprint for the bathroom in any situation,” one told me, “but that’s not because of shame, that’s just being a normal person. I feel like all women know and don’t care, and any dude that notices also doesn’t care, if they are over the age of, like, 23.”
Perhaps, but wouldn’t real progress be the day when you can drop a pad and no one, male or female, young or old, thinks you’re a complete cooze? Tampons crossed.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.