How do you advertise a product that’s taboo? When Tampax became the first commercially-produced tampon in 1933, no one wanted to talk about menstruation. So the company embraced education as advertising. It’s a strategy that grew from door-to-door sales campaigns to middle school sex ed classes across the country today. But what does it mean when corporations lead the conversation about menstruation?
And for more information about menstruators: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/health-and-wellness/menstruation
Produced by Julia Press and Sarah Wyman, with reporting from Julie Satow.
NOTE: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: One quick note before we get going: in this episode, we talk about tampons and menstruation. And we use the word “women” a lot — to describe people who have periods, and who companies like Tampax have targeted with their marketing. But it’s important to note that it isn’t just women who menstruate. Some people — like some transgender men and non-binary folks — do. And then some women don’t get periods at all. If you want to learn more about this, we’ve included a link in our episode notes. Okay. Now let’s start the show.
A couple of months ago, I met up with my friend Julie Satow for breakfast.
JS: I will say we were at a cafe and it was small little tables next to each other, do you remember that? [laughs]
CH: I do.
CH: Julie is an author and a journalist … and this cafe we were at, it was this cute French cafe. There were lots of other people around, silverware clinking, delicious croissants, light chatter, you get the idea. Very normal, very quaint. But then, I asked Julie a question, “What stories are you working on?”
JS: And I said, “I’m thinking about doing something on tampons?” [laughs]
CH: Not your normal breakfast conversation.
JS: No, not at all. There were people sitting next to us. So there is a sense of like, ‘Oh God, they’re talking about tampons at the table next to us.’ It’s not typical breakfast fare.
CH: I’ll be honest, tampons and periods are not something I’m used to talking about. In fact — on the rare occasion it does come up—I feel like we’re supposed to talk about it in code. Like, I had this coworker from years ago who — I kid you not — used to say stuff like “this weekend my Aunt Flo’s visiting from Redlands…” Like how do you respond to that?
CH: How awkward is it for you as a woman to talk about it?
JS: Well, I remember when I brought it up with you, you asked me what a tampon was.
CH: No, I just- (laughs)
JS: Was that the thing with a string? (laughs)
CH: I got a little confused there. I wasn’t putting all the pieces together in my mind. We were having breakfast. It threw me.
JS: Well, you know what? I have to say, it was the first time that I have discussed this with a man aside from my husband and I felt a little uncomfortable. And when you asked me if a tampon was the thing with the string, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t know if I can do this.’ Because everyone else I had talked to about it, was a woman. And I realized like, why would you know that, because you have no need to use this whatsoever.
CH:Very little dealings with tampons.
JS: Yes, it was kind of a [mind blown noise] moment for me. To tell you the truth.
CH: It was kind of a [mind blown] moment for me too, actually. Because the story Julie told me — yes, about tampons and where they came from — well, I can’t believe no one’s talking about it.
From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.
Tampax is the most used tampon brand in the United States today. But when it got its start back in the 1930s, it wasn’t just unpopular — it was completely taboo.
Today, the story of the woman who founded Tampax, the man who helped her make tampons mainstream, and the brands that shape the menstruation conversation today.
How do you advertise a product that no one wants to talk about? And what happens when corporations end up doing all the talking?
Stay with us.
CH: So where does the story of Tampax start?
JS: So it really starts in the 1930s with this fascinating character, Gertrude Tenderich. She was really amazing. Unfortunately, I wish I knew more about her.
CH: Julie Satow is an author and reporter who regularly contributes to the New York Times. For a while now, she’s been doing research for a project about Tampax.
She’s pieced the story together using old company literature, newspaper clippings, immigration records, and documents from Gertrude’s extended family.
JS: She was a German immigrant. She came to the country in the 1920s and she was the wife of a baker. They had started a bakery in Denver.
CH: Within a few years, Gertrude’s family bakery failed. She and her husband and their children were living in two small rooms behind the shuttered business. They scraped together a living by working for extended family members, but this was not the American Dream Gertrude had signed up for.
JS: Gertrude was a businesswoman at heart and after the business failed, she really wanted to start something new but she was a German immigrant and English was not her native language so the first thing she did was actually go to night school and learn English. And then she decided to start a diet pill business in part because Gertrude herself was sort of large.
CH: The Yiddish word might be zaftig?
JS: Exactly, perfect for her. She was a little zaftig. And so, she actually used herself as the prime example of their success. She would go around to Denver housewives and she would say ‘look at me, this is a picture of me before taking the pills and this is a picture now, wouldn’t you like to look like me?’ And she also started a mail order business. But what happened was the government started cracking down on mail order businesses so she decided she needed to look for a new product or some way to expand her business without that.
CH: While Gertrude carted her diet pills around Denver and knocked on doors, another local resident had just secured a patent for a groundbreaking new product. The first commercially-produced tampon had just been invented – in Gertrude’s hometown.
JS: So buying period products was an almost brand new concept. Kotex had been selling menstrual pads since around the end of World War I, but before that, most women made their own pads. They made them out of rags or cloth and they would use safety pins or belts to keep them on, but often these were definitely not very user friendly I guess you could say, the pins would poke you, the belts would slip, they weren’t really very absorbent the materials, they looked really bulky, so there were a lot of problems with them.CH: In 1933, a Denver doctor named Earle Haas patented a design that would eventually change all that. With the help of his wife—a nurse—he created a feminine hygiene device modeled after a medical tampon. That’s what the cotton plugs doctors used to dab up and stem bleeding were called.
JS: He basically came up with putting a string on it and a cardboard applicator, which is essentially the same object we have today, and he patented it. And that was really the start of the tampon.
CH: He called his new invention… Tampax. Short for “tampon”—the medical device—and “pack”—how it was used. But even though it was an ingenious design, and there was definitely a market for it, Dr. Haas’s Tampax did not take off.
JS: He didn’t have the same business acumen as he did inventor acumen, you could say. He had trouble selling the product. He enlisted someone he knew to try to get Johnson & Johnson to actually buy it. They passed. This was something that women put internally into their bodies. That was a very revolutionary concept, and he was unable to sell it.
CH: Gertrude Tenderich heard about Dr. Haas and Tampax through a mutual friend. He thought Gertrude might be able to do something with Haas’s floundering business.
JS: So she approached Dr. Haas to purchase his patent, and he wanted 32 grand, which in the 1930s was not chump change.
CH: No. Especially that’s… I mean, you’re in the middle of the Depression.
JS: Exactly. So she cobbled together several investors, and they managed to come up with the money, and they paid him. And the deal they struck was quite fascinating, because Dr. Haas essentially gave them all rights to the patent with no royalties whatsoever.
CH: Do you have any idea how she was able to do that?
JS: From what I can gather, from the documents available, she was quite an ingenious woman. In this era, in general, women were not business entrepreneurs, let alone a German immigrant whose English was a second language. She was a mother. She’s in Denver, Colorado, not New York City, the center of commerce. It’s a fascinating story. She clearly had a lot of gumption.
CH: At first, Gertrude made the tampons at home, with a sewing machine and a hand-operated compressor Haas had designed. But with the help of her brother, who was a machinist, she figured how to automate a lot of that process. Before long the operation had moved into a Denver loft, where the family churned out about a thousand tampons an hour.
JS: So she immediately started trying to sell it. And she felt like this is a product, rightly, that women could really embrace, but there were quite a few stumbling blocks for her.
CH: Such as?
JS: I mean the stigma that she faced trying to sell tampons. Obviously you have to talk about your vagina, you have to talk about bodily functions. And this idea that periods are gross. I mean for centuries women have tried to hit it or cover it or deal with it in private so that’s a really hard thing to fight against.
CH: Right. How do you go around and talk about what the product actually is?
JS: Right. You can’t exactly show them how it’s used. So you need to be able to explain it. You need to give instruction. You need to be able to talk about something that was very much not a topic for public consumption. And for Gertrude, that was really, really hard, because there were so many constraints, like even on advertising. She wasn’t allowed to used any explicit language, words like menstruation or obviously vagina or period. So how do you have an advertisement in the paper where you use none of the words explaining what the actual thing is about?
CH: So then, how did she overcome that? How did she get people to know that this product existed?
JS: So she did manage to get some advertising in the local newspapers, but she mostly walked around to the women as she had done previously with her diet pill business. She walked around and knocked on women’s houses and to the housewives in the different homes around Denver, and told them about it.
CH: So you’re saying she literally was a door-to-door salesman for tampons?
JS: Yes. (laughs)
CH: I mean, I’m just trying to imagine what the sales pitch would be for that.
JS: I know. I think it was kind of a crazy approach. You also can’t really scale up hugely that way.
CH: Gertrude also visited drug stores and tried to get pharmacists to buy her tampons. Some agreed to keep them behind the counter, but for the most part, they refused to sell them out in the open because they were worried about offending their customers. From what Julie’s been able to uncover, we know Gertrude was getting frustrated. She told one of her business partners at the time: “I am a woman and I know other women will want Tampax when they have tried it; but these men,” the retailers, “just look at me as if to say – this lady is mad!”
JS: She also did talk to a lot of nurses. She tried to get nurses and doctors to know about the product, but I can only imagine too, she must’ve had a number of doors slammed in her face.
CH: On top of all of that, the Great Depression was proving a difficult time to start a business. And tampons, especially, were probably a hard sell. Because, again, for centuries, women had been making their own.
JS: So you’re also asking women to pay for a product that was always free and something that they would just create in their own home. It’s amazing that she was able to do as well as she did considering all the challenges she faced.
CH: Within a few years, Gertrude’s Tampax operation was running out of steam. The interest she had been able to generate wasn’t enough to keep the business going long-term.
CH: So what did she do?
JS: She decided to take what money she had. And she took a train to New York and checked into a fancy Manhattan hotel to put the word out that she had this company and she was looking for investors.
CH: After the break, Gertrude and Tampax take New York City. And, Julie Satow’s great-grandfather-in-law gets involved. Stay with us.
CH: We’re back. And there’s something Julie and I haven’t told you yet.
CH: Well, what was it that got you interested in reporting on Tampax?
JS: When I started dating my, the man who now is my husband, pretty early on he told me that his great grandfather actually founded Tampax. So, it was always a fascination with me.
CH: I know… Didn’t Gertrude and that doctor in Colorado start Tampax!? Well, yes. But the reason you’ve heard of it — the reason you can buy Tampax or any tampon in grocery store aisles these days — is thanks to a guy named Ellery Mann. That’s Julie’s husband’s great-grandfather. And, by the way, Julie’s family connection to Tampax ended years ago, they don’t have a financial stake in the company. Ellery, however, they still mine him for stories.
JS: He was this very gregarious figure. He loved to eat. He loved to gamble. He was an extremely dapper dresser. He was very, very charming. He was a ladies man supposedly, he had an affair with Édith Piaf at one point.
CH: Okay, the french singer.
JS: Yes, the French singer. And he could really sell anything.
CH: If you believe family lore, Ellery once managed to talk his way out of Russia and through the iron curtain with a bunch of vodka… and without a passport. When his daughter got married, Ellery apparently bought her tickets to every single show on Broadway. And when he wasn’t busy spinning tall tales, he worked as an advertising executive.
JS: He was kind of like a mad man before mad men really had taken off. In the 30s he worked for the precursor to McCann Erickson, the famous advertising firm, and he basically worked on a lot of female health products. Pharmaceuticals were his beat.
CH: In the early 30s, Ellery was doing really well. He was making the modern equivalent of nearly $2 million. He had a huge success marketing a feminine douche that was sold in drug stores. But by the mid-30s, after bouncing around between a couple of different projects, Ellery was out of work.
JS: So he’s out looking for a job, he’s looking for his next move. And he hears from a friend that there’s a woman who’s got this company and she’s looking for investors. And douches and tampons, there’s something there. They’re not that different.
CH: That woman was Gertrude Tenderich. The story of how she and Ellery Mann met gets a little foggy. One version is they were both standing in line at a Manhattan bank when they ran into each other. There’s another account of them being introduced by a mutual friend. But what we do know for sure is… at the time … Gertrude was camped out in a fancy Manhattan hotel: The Palace on Madison Avenue.
Shortly after they met, Gertrude and Ellery sat down to hammer out a deal. And it’s really too bad we don’t know more about that meeting, because from what we know about both Ellery and Gertrude, it would have been fascinating to watch.
JS: Yeah I mean I really would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall in that room. Gertrude was this amazing businesswoman, they used to say she could actually read a business contract upside down from across the table and considering she wasn’t even a native English speaker, that’s definitely a feat. And obviously Ellery was this sort of Mad Man businessman advertising guy and legendary dealmaker so I’m sure the rapport between them was probably amazing. And so they ended up leaving the meeting with Ellery essentially being the owner of Tampax.
CH: So she sold it to him just like she had bought it from Dr. Haas?
JS: Yes, she does remain involved in the company and even her daughter remains on the board for many years afterwards. So they stay good friends and she stays involved.
CH: But she is no longer selling it like she was before?
JS: No, Ellery Mann is now the president.
CH: Why did he think that he could sell this product?
JS: Because it’s a product that women want. I mean, he understood advertising, he understood how to appeal to people and get them to buy things. And this was the perfect product for him. And it was something that women didn’t even realize they wanted.
CH: Ellery knew the problem with Tampax was not that Gertrude couldn’t sell it. The problem was that no one was talking about it. Her foothold in Denver, Colorado, wasn’t strong enough to create any buzz. So, almost immediately, Ellery started pushing advertising, on the biggest scale he could.
JS: He had a lot of ideas for how he could fight the stigma that had been such a challenge for Gertrude. Namely for instance, he was good friends with the guy who ran the American Medical Association. So he convinced him to let him advertise Tampax tampons in the American Medical Journals. Ellery put on every box of Tampax, “Approved for advertising by the American Medical Association,” which really just means he advertised in the journals. But people skim over that and think it means that the American Medical Association approved of the product, which is not exactly true.
CH: Ellery worked to get pharmacies on board by persuading them to buy stock in his company. Walgreens, for example bought Tampax shares and started displaying boxes next to its cash registers in stores. Meanwhile, Ellery sank $100,000 into a Tampax advertising campaign.
JS: So he put a lot of his advertising in the papers on Sundays when women would read it. Especially when working women would sometimes have the time to sit there and read because they weren’t working. He was targeting them because he knew that tampons obviously would make it easier for them to go to the office. He started targeting these niche groups, like sports-minded girls or…girls who were into fashion and would want to wear tighter dresses, let’s say, because it wouldn’t be as obvious.
CH: Education became a huge part of the marketing strategy. Ellery hired saleswomen to hawk tampons at nursing conferences. He told doctors to write in for samples and test how absorbent they were using a glass of water. Just like Gertrude had done, Ellery and Tampax employees were going door-to-door, trying to teach people about their product. The difference was, they weren’t just in Denver anymore. They were nationwide.
But despite all of Ellery’s marketing tactics, his big budget and high-profile contacts, Tampax did not make a profit for three years.
JS: It really took time because he was fighting against so much stigma. And also, even though he was doing all these advertising, there was a lot of rules against what he could actually advertise.
CH: So what changed to make more women start buying tampons?
JS: So what really happened was World War II. That made a huge difference. There was a real need for women to enter the workforce. And all of a sudden the country wanted women to be working. They wanted women out of the house. So a lot of the stigma and a lot of the fear about talking about tampons were, out of necessity, were removed. That it almost became you were helping the war effort by using tampons because you could spend your day in the factory now and you didn’t have to run home and change your pad.
1945 WAR DEPARTMENT: The choice between the external pad and a tampon is a purely personal one.
CH: This video was produced by the U.S. War Department in 1945. It was screened for women working in the Army Service Forces, and among other things, it explains how to use a tampon …which, coming out of the culture of the 1930s, feels shockingly specific.
1945 WAR DEPARTMENT: The tampon fits into the vagina in this fashion, but a tampon will be uncomfortable and irritating if the vagina is small or the menstrual flow heavy.
CH: So once women start using these products during World War II, when the war comes to an end, what happens?
JS: What happened was after World War II, all of the men came back from the war and they wanted their jobs back. So women receded once more to the home front. You’ve got shows like Leave It to Beaver. I mean the classic 1950s housewife.
LEAVE IT TO BEAVER:SON: You know, dad, it’s funny.DAD: What’s funny.SON: Well, whenever we cook inside, mom always does the cooking. But whenever we cook outside, you always do it. How come?DAD: Well, it’s sort of traditional, I guess. You know they say a woman’s place is in the home, and I suppose as long as she’s in the home, she might as well be in the kitchen!
CH: By the time Ellery died in 1956, tampons had been booted out of the national conversation … again.
JS: So tampons were considered, you’d have to touch yourself. There were also issues of fear, ‘what if you’re a virgin?’ There was a lot of pressure in the 1950s, women, ‘is it going to break your hymen using a tampon?’ There was also a religious backlash. So all these things came into play.
CH: Gertrude had succeeded in getting tampons on the market. Ellery had made sure women knew they existed. But neither of them managed to put a lasting dent in the shame and stigma that kept women from walking into stores, buying tampons, and using them. So, Tampax’s new leaders knew they had to take the conversation one step further. They had to figure out how to educate and market tampons from inside the home: How to get women to start using their product, and then trust it enough that they’d recommend it to their daughters.
JS: So it was really in the 1950s when these companies like Tampax started creating a very robust educational arm. And they started making these pamphlets for women and moms.
CH: I mean, how altruistic was that? Was that to provide information to women and their daughters or was it about selling more products?
JS: I think it was about both.
CH: After the break, how tampon marketing ended up in schools. And, why the conversation Tampax started was enough to get women to buy tampons, but not to erase the stigma.
CH: We’re back.
CH: Not to get really personal, but we’re getting personal here. How did you learn about your period?
JS: Yeah, I remember, getting it for the first time and being really shocked, and not having a lot of knowledge really about what was happening. So you know I, I went to my mom.
CH: And when you went to talk to your mom, did she have good information for you?
JS: Not really, no. I think she was shocked, was not expecting it and felt out of her depth. She first learned about it, because she woke up one morning in her bedroom, her childhood bedroom, and there was a pamphlet by her bedside about menstruation and your period. And her mom, my grandmother, never really engaged in any conversation with her, never talked about it, and that was about all she knew. So I don’t think she had a lot of information to go on to even give it to me even if she wanted to.
CH: Since the earliest days of Tampax, Gertrude Tenderich and Ellery Mann had been trying to fight this problem. They knew many women wouldn’t buy tampons if they thought they were risque, or if they didn’t understand how they worked. And mothers wouldn’t recommend them to their daughters if they were uncomfortable talking about menstruation and especially if they thought tampons promoted sexual behavior.
So, as early as the 1940s, Tampax established an educational department. It was dedicated to dispatching “Tampax ladies,” as they were called, around the country. They visited schools and colleges, where they gave presentations about menstruation and sanitary protection. By the sixties and seventies, these presentations had started to evolve to something closer to those embarrassing sex ed videos you might remember watching in elementary, middle, or even high school.
CH: Julie do you remember how old you were when you had, like, sex ed class?
JS: This is… yeah. Actually, I was in seventh grade.
CH: Seventh? Wow, I was in fifth!
JS: You were in fifth grade!?
CH: I was in fifth grade. Ms. Zolosky. Crazy, red curly hair and these big thick glasses…
CH: Many of you probably remember something similar. Your own Ms. Zolosky who separated out the boys and the girls and sat you down to watch a video about puberty. It doesn’t matter if you saw it in 1997 or 1953— they usually start the same way. Some peppy music, a really corny skit…
ALWAYS:Growing up to be a woman!That’s what Mrs. Harnesty says the video’s called.I don’t think I’ll even go.Well how are you going to find anything out then?
CH: And then a girl gets her period for the first time…
MOLLY GROWS UP: Well, it was this afternoon when I was changing into my gym clothes, and I noticed a bit of blood on my panties…
CH: …and figures it all out thanks to her mom or guidance counselor or big sister… who is of course totally prepared for it and excited about that conversation.
MOLLY GROWS UP:
DAUGHTER: Golly! At first I thought, well, I didn’t know what to think. And then I remembered when we talked about menstr…MOM: Menstruation.DAUGHTER: Menstruation and stuff…
CH: But here’s what’s really remarkable about these videos. You may not have realized it at the time, but lots of them were actually funded and produced by feminine hygiene product manufacturers.
DISNEY: There’s nothing strange nor mysterious about menstruation…
CH: Like this one’s from 1946. It’s an animated video made by Disney and Kimberly-Clark… the company that owned Kotex.
DISNEY: All life is built on cycles. And the menstrual cycle is one normal and natural part of nature’s eternal plan for passing on the gift of life.
JS: This video was actually used in schools for over 35 years, and was viewed by more than 105 million girls.
CH: And you can hear how hard Kotex is working to normalize menstruation in that video.
JULIE: I mean it gives sort of a childlike innocence to the whole thing. I mean the music, the fact that it opens with a baby, it’s completely removed from anything sexual.
CH: Over time, these videos became more obviously branded. Like in Always Changing, Always Growing, made in 1997 by—you guessed it—Always menstrual pads.
ALWAYS: And I had to go to the store all by myself and I didn’t even know what I was doingLet me see what you bought.
CH: And she goes to the drawer and she pulls out… nice product shot of the Always—and she’s even holding, the way she holds it and shows her mom is sort of like a, Vanna White like, look what I have! Always pads.
ALWAYSYOUNG GIRL: I got these.OLDER GIRL: These are just fine. I use them myself. They’re cleaner and drier.YOUNG GIRL: Once I realized how thin they were, I was afraid they wouldn’t be enough.OLDER GIRL: I know what you mean, but these ultra-thin maxi pads are just as absorbent as regular maxi pads, but without the padding, and check this out!
CH: Just to reiterate, this is not an advertisement. It’s an educational video, produced for classrooms. But it’s also doing a really important job for the company that paid for it. In addition to putting their product front and center, it’s dispelling rumors kids might have heard about it. It’s also clearing up any misconceptions that might have kept them from using it. Here’s one from Tampax, circa 1991.
KIDS TO KIDS:
You can use tampons. It doesn’t hurt you in any way.A – You cannot lose your virginity by putting in a tampon. The only way you can lose your virginity is by having sex. That’s the only way. B – You won’t… it won’t get lost.
JS: You know, they’re really answering a lot of the anxieties that kids will have.
CH: Companies like Tampax hired women’s health experts to develop the videos and pamphlets they sent to schools. And if you ask historians who’ve studied them, they’ll tell you this pushed the conversation in the right direction…. over the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
JS: Lara Friedenfelds, for example, is a writer who has written a great book about menstruation in the twentieth century, and one of the things she says is that working with big companies like Tampax for instance, was actually a really great opportunity for educators who’d been trying to find a way into the discussion to actually start talking about this topic.
LARA FRIEDENFELDS: They definitely thought that what they were doing was try to educate girls and that basically one way to do that, to get the resources, the money to do it and to get the stuff produced and to be able to distribute it this way was to ride along with the menstrual product manufacturers.
JS: The companies’ efforts to really bring this material into the schools, it helped battle the stigma, it helped create conversations, a space for conversations, and in an unusual way, that may have opened up opportunities for the conversation to get removed from the corporate sphere.
LF: What happened in the 1970s was a feminist health movement that followed along on the feminist movement that was really powerful. Our Bodies, Ourselves was published advocating that women be their own advocates for their healthcare and understand their bodies and not necessarily defer to their doctors for how they should think about their bodies. And those feminist conversations wound up in a more robust alternative literature around menstruation. So nice pamphlets that got produced that mothers could buy separately from bookstores or order, um, and share with their daughters.
CH: And these are not affiliated with big brand names?
JS: That’s right, they weren’t. And they were able to talk about things like sex and sexuality, things that the big corporations were really steering away from. But on the flip side, for a lot of school systems and a lot of parents and teachers, that sort of material wasn’t nearly as appealing as what companies like Tampax were offering for free.
LF: It was the cost of having a mass product with mass education, so you could potentially write a much more revolutionary progressive curriculum, but then it would be adopted only by a small group of revolutionary progressive people.
CH: Proctor and Gamble, which now owns both Tampax and Always, still produces lightly-branded educational videos and pamphlets for schools. A spokesperson for the company told us the program is request-based — so schools and parents have to reach out to them — and education, not brand loyalty, is their top priority. Tampax also partners with other, physician-owned initiatives
CH: Julie, how do you think the conversations that do happen, about menstruation, about periods, that they’ve really been shaped by the companies that were pushing these videos in schools?
JS: I think there’s a few ways that it’s clear how they shaped the conversation. The first is that obviously they have an incentive to push their own products. It’s probably no coincidence for example that most people use tampons and pads, which were the products that they are touting in these videos they produced. And it’s also possible companies did a worse job teaching kids about the risks involved with their products than a more objective source would have done.
CH: And what were those risks?
JS: So, I mean, take toxic shock syndrome for instance, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, women died from wearing these super absorbent tampons that they started putting out in the market. They were made from these synthetic materials, and women could wear them for extremely long stretches and some combination of the materials in them and the fact that they were wearing them for so long caused bacterial infection. And you know, the companies themselves weren’t really necessarily educating women about them and hadn’t even done enough research on their own products to realize that these risks were inherent in them.
CH: When we reached out to Proctor and Gamble about this, the response we got back was that until 1978, toxic shock syndrome was not recognized as a disease. And it took two more years for it to be linked to tampons. By the way, even to this day, we still don’t know exactly what causes it.
Even as companies like Tampax pushed the boundaries of our menstruation conversations, from the really abstract and flowery language of the Disney cartoon to the frank discussions in the Tampax video… there’s still a layer of stigma.
KIDS TO KIDS: With a tampon, I can swim, and I feel better doing sports, because you feel… you don’t have a diaper on.
CH: In some videos, the pads or tampons are hidden in a dresser drawer. One of our producers remembers watching one in the fifth grade where a girl drops a gigantic bag of pads right in front of her crush. It’s so embarrassing. And even though we are talking about it more, your period is still something you don’t want anyone to know is happening.
KIDS TO KIDS: And unlike a pad, there’s no possibility of odor. Nothing is visible. Nothing gets in your way, and there are none of the lumps and bulges of pads.
JS: I think tampon manufacturers always had to walk this interesting line between trying to fight the stigma about using tampons and about menstruation in order to get the word out about their product, but also operating within the confines of that stigma. I mean, even today, it’s a selling point for tampons if they’re small and they’re covered in wrapping that does not say “tampon” on them. Everyone I know who walks through the office with a tampon to the bathroom puts it in their sleeve.
CH: There’s a great Saturday Night Live skit about this. It was made just a year ago. And you see a couple of women, sitting in a college lecture hall.
SNLPsst! Do you have a… you know… a tampon?Oh heck yeah!Oh no, not here! Someone will see!Relax…
CH: One of the women passes her friend what looks like a dead mouse. Or, in another scene, a piece of fake poop.
SNLThere’s a tampon in here!Yeah, but they won’t know, they’ll just see the poop!Introducing, Tampax secrets! The only tampon hidden inside other things you’d rather take out of your bag in public…
CH: I mean, how do you feel about the menstruation conversation we’ve inherited from Tampax?
JS: I mean, it’s complicated. On the one hand, I’m grateful for companies like Tampax for creating these videos and opening the conversation, but it’s also a sad commentary.
CH: That we have to rely on a brand to do this.
JS: Yes. And that they have their own agenda, which isn’t necessarily altruistic. And so I think it’s complicated. But I think women want to have these conversations more, and I think young girls want to have them more, and I think we need to take ownership of the conversation away from the corporations, and make them ours.
CH: This has started to happen. Period activists around the world are working to make menstruation something we’re not afraid to talk about. And I do mean we — all of us. If there’s one thing I’ve learned working on this story and listening to Julie and my coworkers talk about this subject, there’s a lot more all of us can do to be more comfortable with these kinds of conversations.
JS: Yeah I mean I think that’s the whole point of this, right? Like we want to talk about it to make it less uncomfortable but it’s still really uncomfortable to talk about.
CH: It does feel though that the conversation has shifted and changed, especially if you go back to the ’60s and ’70s and look at the way we talk about it now.
JS: Yeah absolutely and I think that’s like so important to recognize, I mean there’s a lot of effort to destigmatize women’s bodies and menstruation, I think there’s a lot of recognition that not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women you know there’s also this issue of marginalized communities for instance, who don’t have access to menstrual products.
CH: In a lot of states, tampons are taxed like luxury goods, not necessities. They aren’t available for free in public schools (even if the sex ed videos that sell them are). These are real issues of access that we can’t even get close to touching if we can’t feel comfortable talking about tampons in the first place.
JS: That change has already happened, and it’s happening, but I think obviously there’s still more to go. I mean the fact you and I were uncomfortable having the conversation at the very beginning when I first introduced this topic shows that it’s still not a completely accepted breakfast subject matter, right? It’s interesting like, you know I’m doing this whole episode with you but I don’t really want to necessarily be known as like the “period person,” you know that’s not, but I think the conversation’s so important like, the more we talk about it, the more comfortable we’re all going to get, right?
CH: Julie Satow is the author of The Plaza: The secret life of America’s most famous hotel. And, she’s working on a new project, about the history of Tampax.
CH: Julie, thank you.
JS: Thank you.
CH: And thank you! Thank you for that… You know what? Who would have thought a breakfast talking about… it probably was one of the more interesting breakfast conversations I have had.
JS: I’m so glad to hear that.
CH: This episode was produced by Sarah Wyman and Julia Press, with reporting from Julie Satow.
Did you watch a super corny sex ed video when you were in grade school? Drop a link in our Facebook group — we could all use a good laugh and maybe some education. Just search Brought to you by podcast. Our producer Sarah is still trying to dig up the one she watched in the fifth grade — there’s apparently a very weird scene involving pancake batter and a detailed explanation of female reproductive organs. Did anyone else see that!? Shoot us an email if you have any leads. firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks this week to Sharra Vostral and Claire Banderas.
Our editor is Micaela Blei, and Bill Moss is our sound designer. Music is from Audio Network. John DeLore and Casey Holford composed our theme. Dan Bobkoff is the podfather. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
Brought to you by… is a production of Insider Audio.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: How the Navy’s largest hospital ship can help with the coronavirus