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Bleeding Gender


feminine hygiene advertising from early 20th century America to the present day.

 by Misbah


Human bodies are texts. And they’re intertextual. They are modified constantly and one of the primary areas of contested meaning. Human bodies symbolically and literally manipulate their environments and are manipulated in turn by their environments. They are the sites of cultural rebellion, and because they are texts, they are part of a cultural intertextuality. As Judith Butler argues (1990) the performance of bodies and hitherto the performance of gender can be seen in more overt ways by performance of drag queens and kings. With their bodies, comes the exploration, performance, the ‘camping up’ of gender, it’s arbitrary performative qualities and patterns are revealed.The body performs gender and gender becomes synonymous with sex. But this is not so. What better way to see this performance but through a small material object that has created an entire gender performance that constructs femininity and masculinity in very defined ways. Not only this, but this small object, because it is tied up with the bodily processes of women,

demonstrates how gender is ‘naturalised’ through a natural bodily function. Through an examination of the tampon and sanitary pad from the early 20th century to the present I hope to clearly show a powerful example of how material culture writes gender, but also how we re-contextualise, and invent material culture to re-write gender. This paper is an ethnographic response to menstrual product advertising and discourse from the early 20th Century up to the present in Western society and proposes that the dominant discourses around menstruation, and in particular menstrual products construct a specific genderisation of the female body.


Feminine hygiene products nowadays come in a variety of colours: light blue, dark blue, light pink, bright pink, cloud patterns, leopard print, some are the bulk of a box of tissues, and some are the size of a zippo lighter. To find them, you will need to go to the feminine hygiene area. Before you have even encountered them a particular discourse of ‘sanitary’ and ‘feminine hygiene’ is guiding your interpretation of a monthly bodily function for a majority of women. Femininity smells like powders and synthesised vanilla. Feminine protection is usually down aisle 12 or 13 right after the the cat-food section and just before the toilet roll and cleaning section. My modernity as a feminine consumer is assured if I purchase the colourful non-homebrand tampons or pads. I care about my femininity so I buy the most expensive products. Well I don’t, I make my own, but millions of female bodies are engaged in this dance of feminine consumerism once a month.This aisle in itself is a wonderful area of gender construction and is worth investigating for urban anthropologists interested in gender. But after stumbling through the pink bottled feminine vaginal sprays and phallic grey bottles of masculine under-arm deodorants, strange images of heterosexual couples whispering to each other on condom packets I fall down into the rabbit hole of feminine hygiene. As I fall into the soft plastic piles of pink clouds I lose consciousness, and find myself travelling through the material history of menstruation. My essay follows the flow of advertising techniques from early 20th C American Culture that construct a one-way discourse of gender that is constructed under the protection of the masculine gaze of medical and social discourse.


“Hidden from sight, menstruation represents what is most lacking or concealed in the culture, whereas the phallus, in its dominance, perpetually signifies itself. To recognise women’s bleeding is to assess the consequence of gender in its biological, societal, and psychological representation. But making it a taboo is the most efficient way of demarcating the difference between “nature” and “culture,” to deny women’s closeness to nature and at the same time deny them the access to culture.” (Majaz1995)

Before the early 20th Century menstrual pad advertising in the late 19th century targeted a specific type of feminine bodily, the wealthy white woman. Canfield disposable sanitary towels were sold as a specialty items like bustles and corsets. Women.Although the method for containing menstrual flow was the same with both products, they were marketed to two different classes of women. Canfield disposable sanitary towels, sold by the dozen, claimed to be “cheaper than washing,” but the fact that they were sold as a specialty item, alongside bustles, dress shields, corset hose supporters and prefabricated children’s diapers, indicated that the target consumer was not the washerwoman (Park 1996: 2) The advertising says it is endorsed by London physicians and is referred to as a ‘diaper cloth’.(Park 1996:2) Femininity can be regarded in this ad as infantile, and in need of constant monitoring and control.

In the world of early 20th Century advertising my feminine identity in relation to menstrual products is quite precise. I am young, painfully thin, and my class is both wealthy and white. Although I’m bleeding, or perhaps because of it, the advertisement is concerned with my cleanliness and ability to remain clandestine in my ‘womanly embarrassment’. Before this I was using strips of fabric to soak up my menstrual blood, but thanks to the elaborate intersection of medical and cultural discourse I am presented with the first mass-marketed pad by Kotex in 1921. Now attention was given to hygiene and securing my protection. The same material used to dress wounds, Cellucotton, in WW1, was now being employed to dress my monthly wound.(Mandzuik 2010) Femininity is constructed at this time as a way to be involved in the war effort, and a woman’s political capabilities are expressed through the purchase of feminine hygiene products.

In the first advertisement for menstrual products, the Kotex ad has three women and one man in a wheelchair. Two of the women like nurses are tenderly touching the man on either side of him, whilst the other woman is sitting on the grass in a ruffled dress in the foreground. One of the women caring for the soldier appears to be wearing a nurse’s hat. What informs the advertising of the earlier ‘feminine hygiene’ products is the dialectical relationship between medical and cultural beliefs. These earlier ads don’t actually depict the products but describe the validity of them in relation to men, ‘a wonderful sanitary absorbent which science perfected for the use of our men and allied soldiers wounded in France” Menstruation throughout the 19th Century in Europe and America received the authoritative and constant attention of doctors, psychiatrists, and health professionals and established the preservation and invention of medical knowledge clearly ‘within the domain of the male medical expert’ ( Strange 2006: 104) Femininity is thus advertised in the early ads as an intersection of upper class, heterosexual patriotic white women, whose first concern is to tend the wounds of their soldiers, and by default they will attend eventually to their own wounds.(Park 1996) But the message that was missed as Linton notes is that Kotex was about masculine menstruation, “ Kotex pads was invented to staunch battlefield wounds. Thus, we learned that Kotex was actually created to help men get over difficult periodic bleeding ex- experiences”(Linton 2008). Masculinity is thus constructed as brave, the menstrual wound is visible, acceptable and something to be proud of. Gender is thus performed in this ad as the dangerous patriotic work men must do ( go to war ) and the invisible (dangerous?)work women do to ensure their femininity. Blood is gendered as well. This is the site of abjection. Menstrual blood is a gendered site that ‘transgresses corporeal boundaries’ (Munford 2005: 260)The abject is that which spills outside of the confines of the body. Masculine blood is virile, proud, life-giving, visible, strong. Feminine blood is invisible, dirty, smelly, chaotic, hysteric.Without the initial wounds of men at war, and their subsequent ‘cellucotton technology’ of wound dressing, femininity would be left unchecked, bleeding, and disabled. Feminine subjects are assured protection and freshness if Kotex is consumed by them and this discourse will follow us right up to the ‘design your own pads'(Kotex 2011) marketing campaign of Kotex in 2011. And whilst packaging is more colourful and even the word vagina is mentioned in their latest campaign, menstruation is still connected to a sense of discretion and ‘vaginal health’. I recently stumbled on the latest Kotex marketing campaign, which enlisted the help of the ‘style guru’ of such shows as ‘Sex and the City’. Here Kotex have encouraged a campaign of ‘ban the bland’, so women can design their own pads, because fashion shouldn’t just stop at menstrual pads. “Newsflash: It’s not the 1950s anymore. Talking openly about many intimate health issues is no longer taboo. In fact, it’s encouraged, leading to increased awareness and better health care for people everywhere. So why is it that society and the media still can’t get it together when it comes to women’s issues below the waist? Sadly, this secrecy and shame about all things related to vaginal health have a negative impact on a woman’s body image, self-esteem and overall health”(2011)


The interesting thing about this marketing strategy is the way femininity is sold as the ultimate consumerist product. Just looking at the ‘glam punk’ tampons, with their bright plastic casing and click applicators wrapped in more neon colours, seems so far removed from menstruation—like femininity becomes a performance. And like the earlier advertisements of Kotex, it reaffirms status and wealth that utilise young, abled, thin ‘white’ bodies to advertise their form of femininity. These feminine hygiene products are expensive for a throwaway item, but then again assured femininity comes at a high price. A woman’s ‘overall health’ comes at a price. Femininity is constructed above environmental concerns about bio-degradability and sustainability.

Each plastic inserter plus neon tampon is wrapped individually. How many mountains of plastic does this non bio-degradable ‘necessity’ create? But the advertising over the entire site still uses the two most dominant concerns to the feminine hygiene advertising discourse—freshness, and protection. The new generation of women who can design their own ‘femininity’ is equivalent to asking someone to choose their own race. Both are social constructions connected to the body, but the associations are entirely arbitrary. At which point does a female subject pass as feminine in order to engage in the discourse of the latest Kotex campaign? Gone are the days of cellucotton that chafed women’s thighs and now are the days of neon plastic applicators and wrappings that choke waterways and landfill. And yet there’s so much choice—it’s almost like design your own femininity. A site to be consumed and a site so consumed with vaginal health, displays no images of bleeding vaginas or even a picture of a vagina. It’s main purpose is to diffuse feminist sentiments regarding the ways the feminine hygiene advertising campaigns turn female bodily functions into feminine necessities. It’s enough that the dominant discourse of gender construction are informed by the rich white heterosexual masculine gaze, it’s now time the feminine subject was thoroughly seduced by it.



The securing of status was one of the ways the feminine hygiene advertising reached women. As Park makes clear when she reiterates the message of an early ad, not only was femininity about cleanliness it was also about wealth. “In 1929, as the stock market crashed, personal hygiene was explicitly linked to a woman’s economic health”(Park 1996) Here we see the intersection of medical and cultural discourse. But the feminine subject must always be willing to do her part for her man and her c(o)untry. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, Kotex again appealed to the feminine subject not to leave America’s brave soldiers wanting. A feminine subject cannot let a little bleeding get in the way of her availability to her (menstruating) soldier. She must look beautiful, and ready to greet her man who has just returned home from war. This Kotex ad was published in Women’s Home Companion in 1942 with the suggestive headline, “You’re the fun in his furlough”(Linton 2007) A thin rich ‘white’ woman in a ball gown glides down the stairs as her man in army uniform with sword at the ready waits.

Nowadays, despite the fact that the Kotex website mentions ‘vagina’ and even runs programs to encourage women to embrace their womanliness and promote positive self-esteem, Kotex is still selling a particular kind of femininity. It is a femininity that is constructed through affluent consumerism. Sure, the site mentions ‘vagina’ and acknowledges the out-dated discourses of 1950’s feminine hygiene ads, but they still use the same styles of language, a somewhat paternalistic approach that sells the products as though a woman were purchasing a miniature spaceship to stuff up her vagina. Sadly access to find divergent voices—sites that once creating new and varied identifications of femininity with menstrual products seem to few and far between. These sites were concerned with D.I.Y culture, and feminine bodies that escape the masculine gaze, though unfortunately ‘Whirling Cervix’ and ‘S.P.O.T’ are no longer operating on-line. These sites in particular operated through inclusivity and saw gender and bodies as part of a process of liminal identification. These particular zines, encouraged women to make their own pads and resist a restricted discourse of feminine subjectivity advertised through menstrual products I don’t imagine these sites will receive any sponsorship from Kotex for empowering women to love their bodies and contest the constraints of gender identification.

In the mid 19th Century medical discourses in the west rendered ‘menstruation a problematic physiological function’ and more specifically it was ‘an illness of femininity” (Strange 2005:102) As paradigms shift within medical and cultural discourse we also see the way in which menstrual products are advertised. And more importantly “The advertisements in effect repackaged and appropriated feminist sentiments while downplaying feminism’s more disruptive elements. Products helped to define elements of modern womanhood without revolutionising gender relations’(Vostral 2005:246)

Does it get any more feminine than this? Well why men are dying on the battlefields and nurses are attending to them, I best remember to stick my neck out for the war effort and to look fresh, wealthy, thin, ‘white’ and available to men. And all the choices today with feminine hygiene products, my thin, white, heterosexual body is feeling truly feminine, and importantly protected and fresh. But protected for who? From what?While the material products become brighter and the choices more plentiful, they remain centralised around a phallocentricity that constructs an appropriate gender and ignores any divergent appropriations. The dominant discourse of gender in feminine hygiene is a paternalistic dialogue concerned with educating women about freshness and protection. And also, while acknowledging gender is a performance and cultural construction change historically, gender construction has been specifically built and maintained through a bodily experience of mainly thin, young, ‘white’ rich bodies. Menstruation as experienced by a majority of female bodies has been the basis for an entirely elaborate inscription of femininity, which has been reinforced through medical and scientific and cultural discourses. Though the packaging has change, we are still the seducers of a dominant discourse of femininity, but now working alongside a major feminine hygiene company in the construction of their gender ideologies, we don’t bleed red blood. We bleed vanilla scents, soldiers at home from war, painfully thin ‘white women’ staring into the distance, fashion designers, doctors and pretty packaging. 





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