Skirting the issue

From tampons with skirts to silky pads, sanitary product manufacturers will try anything to hawk their goods. Harriet Reuter Hapgood reports

Harriet Reuter Hapgood, 8 August 2007

skirttampon.jpgAs the band Denim sang in their classic ditty Tampax Ad: "I like those tampon adverts where all the girls are beautiful. I like that one where the woman doesn't give a fig about being on - she gets into her skimpiest shorts and goes off to the beach to play volleyball with all her mates. She gets right into it - has the time of her life. After they all drive into the sunset in an open top jeep - being on is no hassle - girls love it - yeah it's really great!"

It took a long time for women to earn the right to wear trousers and not skirts. It's pretty much a given, now, in 2007, in the UK, that women can wear trousers. Although, obviously, we like to have a wardrobe of white dresses handy for our period days. But someone ought to alert the nice folks at Tampax that we don't have to wear skirts if we don't want to, because their latest product is a tampon... with a skirt.

The promotional information for the new tampon claims "the new absorbent Built-in Backup skirt is a thin absorbent layer of material that helps pull fluid into the tampon, to help stop leaks before they happen". From this, can we assume that their products didn't work before tampon ruffles were invented? There isn't any particular reason for adding a ruffle to a tampon, beyond adding another overpriced and unnecessary sanitary product to an overcrowded market. (Except perhaps the opportunity to adorn your vagina with a ruffle, in the manner of those white paper hats used to crown racks of lamb in 1970s cookery books. Pretty!)

But tampon clothing is not the first example of sanitary products being marketed as a luxury, fashion item. Recently, Always launched a new type of sanitary towel with a silk top layer - for those women whose labia are so sensitive they can't cope with a simple cotton pad. Always says: "Our super soft cover with a touch of Silk gives you an exquisite feeling of comfort and femininity, as well as all the protection of Always to keep you clean, dry and comfortable with an extra touch of softness." Except if you look a little more closely, the 'silk' that you're paying for is an ordinary "topsheet with silk extracts".

The product was launched with a major campaign, including the opportunity to win a silk dress from designer Julien McDonald. There was a whole website dedicated to silk, with lots of explanations about luxury - when sanitary products still carry a 5% tax burden, manufacturers promoting their products as luxury rather than necessity doesn't really help the case to cut VAT altogether.

The silk sanitary towel and tampon skirt follow a long tradition in the sanitary products market: a few years ago, the hot new thing for inside your knickers was Alldays pantyliners... for thongs. Alldays advertised this wonder with the line that "a pantyliner is not a sanitary pad. It's actually much smaller and thinner so that you can use it on the days in between your periods. Pantyliners are designed to help keep you and your underwear feeling fresh by absorbing and locking away daily natural discharge, something that all women experience."

One brand went through a phase of packaging each individual pad in wrappers printed with inspirational messages. It was the menstrual version of a fortune cookie

We've heard all the arguments before, but it's worth reiterating that that "daily natural discharge" they mention is dealt with fairly effectively by the humble knicker. At some point it was decided that underwear was no longer a functional item to prevent your clothes from being soiled; underwear itself was promoted to the level of clothing, or fashion, and must therefore be protected. Enter the pantyliner. The logic behind the product is simple: if you can only sell sanitary towels and tampons to women one week in every four, you need a new product to fill those remaining three weeks.

Even better, for manufacturers, the pantyliner strikes out new consumer territory not reached by conventional sanitary products: if you can convince women that they need pantyliners for regular use, outside of the times they menstruate, you can retain their custom even at times - pregnancy, post-menopause, pre-pubescence - when they aren't menstruating.

With the advent of the pantyliner, of course, came the luxury pantyliner: it was no longer enough to market simple cotton pads for everyday use. The way to increase consumption - to create a market for something that women hitherto didn't need - was to invent pantyliner alternatives. First came the thong pantyliner: to wear with thong or g-string underwear; swiftly followed by the nadir of these products, Alldays black tanga pantyliner. To wear, of course, with black g-string underwear: to keep you "comfortable and confident" (as if the knowledge of a small black triangle of sticky-backed cotton in our pants is the key to confidence).

It seems like there is always a new product being launched: beyond the be-skirted tampon and the silk sanitary towel, there are those mini tampons wrapped to look like sweets and advertised that way, too. Heaven forfend your boyfriend should see a tampon in your bag! Much better that he thinks it's a handful of sweets. There are individually wrapped towels, ones with wings, double wings, no wings, extra long, extra thick, deodorised, scented, packaged with special wipes (in case toilet paper isn't good enough). I dimly recall one brand went through a phase of packaging each individual pad in wrappers printed with inspirational messages to help you through this difficult time, advising you on what ovulation meant, that you might be feeling weepy right about now, or suggesting exercise might help. It was the menstrual version of a fortune cookie.

Proctor and Gamble, purveyor of tampons with skirts, sanitary towels with silk and black thong pantyliners, always strives to avoid the word "vagina" in its advertising

The choice is staggering, and sad. Aside from everything else, the contribution to landfills from all these products is huge. Most pads - aside from those special silk ones - are made from plastic and cotton/rayon mixtures, while tampons are made from cotton and/or rayon, sometimes with cardboard applicators. Cotton is hugely environmentally damaging to harvest and produce, but it is at least quicker to break down than the plastic wrappers. Rayon is derived from wood pulp.

Alternatives to the shiny plastic bags of products found on the high street include the Mooncup: a reusable rubber cup that fits inside you, much like a tampon, and collects fluid, which can then be disposed of, the cup rinsed and reinserted. As it's not a product that needs to be purchased over and over, it hasn't seen the advertising and investment that traditional products have. Put it this way - you're unlikely to be able to purchase a 'Mooncup with a skirt' in the near future.

Instead, in a revolutionary move, Mooncups are available in a variety of sizes, together with recommendations for your size based on age and whether you've given birth: "This is because the tone of vaginal and pelvic floor muscles naturally reduces with age but to varying degrees in different women." Perhaps the most shocking thing about that statement is that it mentions the word "vaginal", something Proctor and Gamble (owner of Tampax, Alldays and Always, and therefore purveyor of tampons with skirts, sanitary towels with silk and black thong pantyliners) always strives to avoid in its advertising.

In fact, most sanitary products adverts carefully avoid any mention of periods, vaginas, menstruation or vaginal fluids. The fluids usually used in the adverts (if any at all) is often the same as nappy adverts, a clear blue liquid that bears no resemblance to anything that ever emerged from a vagina. The only exception was a particularly odd advert for sanitary towels a few years ago that showed a woman, stood up for a date, pouring white wine on her towel to 'prove' its effectiveness. The punchline was: "You don't suppose using dry white wine was a cheat do you?" No, but I do think pouring wine on your sanitary products is a bit odd. Can you imagine a menstrual cup being advertised by someone knocking back a shot of tequila from the cup?

Menstrual cups and other alternatives aren't for everybody. I remember my mum explaining to me in the 1980s that her women's group often used chunks of natural sea sponge - you could just squeeze and rinse it out under the tap and reinsert it. I recoil from that idea as much now as I did then; it works for some, but not for me.

Unless you're particularly handy with a sewing machine, your wings might not be as effective as a commercial pad

A more environmentally and budget-friendly option is the reusable pad. These - often made from organic cotton - are commercially available, but usually only online rather than in your local chemist. Again, Wemoon pads come in various colours (natural, black, pink, tartan), as do Gladrags (floral, prints) but this feels less like ovulation exploitation than just providing a minimum of choice.

If you really want to embrace your inner moon goddess, you can easily make your own pad from old clothes and fabric scraps. For some, though, the idea of stuffing their underwear with a bulky homemade pad is a little too Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Then there's the leakage issue - unless you're particularly handy with a sewing machine, your wings might not be as effective as a commercial pad and the commercially available reusable pads don't have a plastic layer, relying instead on regular changes to prevent blood soaking through.

Ultimately, some women will prefer tampons or towels to rubber cups, natural sponge, and washable cotton pads, and do not care that the former are disposable and require a monthly financial outlay, since they work, they're familiar and are convenient to purchase.

Menstrual products should always be available and can always stand to be improved. But a basic necessity, for an average of 40-50 years, should not be exploited with a constant flood in the market of new and pointless products and accompanying marketing to convince us that our natural daily discharge or menstrual fluid requires skirts, black pads, silk, wipes, scents or deodorant. Choice is a fine thing. Just don't expect me to choose a skirt on my tampon.

About the author

Harriet Reuter Hapgood

Harriet Reuter Hapgood is an MA student and occasional freelance fashion writer. She is also an Elvis-loving, time-travelling ninja in her spare time

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