Analysis Environnement and menstruations

Tampons, pads, period-tracking apps: a short history of a wasteful and manipulative industry

Disposable pads, tampons, period-tracking apps: the first two made their mark at the end of the 19th century, while apps are mainly a product of American big tech. All three embody an industry of throwaway products which, thanks to advertising technowashing, has crept into the most private corners of our lives.

Published on 7 March 2023 at 08:00

Jeanne Guien, a doctoral researcher, looks at three emblems of our "menstrual culture": disposable pads, tampons, and period-monitoring applications. Three products that, the author writes, "mean living in a consumerist society: a world where to have, to use, to share something, is first of all to buy something."

To understand how Procter & Gamble, Tampax and co. came to impose their disposable empire – which has a worldwide turnover of several tens of billions of dollars each year – required some digging in the archives. By analysing the communication techniques used by these companies since their inception in the late 19th century, the researcher reveals some reasons for their success. Among the main factors was their cultivation, through ads and TV commercials, of a tenacious hatred of the human body and of the "homemade" devices that had long been used to absorb menstruation.

In “Une histoire des produits menstruels", the researcher Jeanne Guien looks at how these polluting products became so successful.
Consumerism is sneaking into the most private corners of our lives, leaving its mark on even the most mundane of habits. This is what researcher Jeanne Guien has brilliantly shown in her latest book, "Une histoire des produits menstruels" (published by Divergences).

Shame as a sales technique

Imitating the "shame campaigns" (described in Jeanne Guien's previous book) that launched the toothpaste and deodorant markets, the industry skilfully created and nurtured a feeling of "fear and shame" among menstruating people. Early 20th-century advertisements went so far as to claim that a woman who was menstruating (and not using their products) could be "recognised (and humiliated) by the smell", says the researcher.

The menstrual cloths used until then were described (without evidence) as "dangerous", obsolete, and responsible for "60% of diseases". "Disposable pads," writes Jeanne Guien, "were compared to the telephone, to electric light, to women's access to university [...], and menstrual cloths to grandmothers."

This marketing strategy relegated reusable menstrual products to the fringes and allowed a handful of multinationals to establish a monopoly on the new "period market". The factories of one of the industry's leaders, Procter & Gamble, have dumped so much wastewater into Florida's Fenholloway River that it has become the third most polluted river in the United States, the researcher says. In the United Kingdom alone, plastic-laden tampons and disposable pads generate nearly 200,000 tonnes of waste per year.

Comparing reusable solutions to a "dark age" has allowed these companies to present themselves as revolutionary, driven by the relentless pursuit of technological innovation. The industry, explains Jeanne Guien, practises "marketing technowashing": it constantly invented new words to suggest the advent of new, supposedly more efficient and absorbent designs and techniques.

Toxic materials

Too bad if these "technological innovations" have cost users their health and sometimes their lives. Jeanne Guien recalls that warnings were issued as early as 1975 about the link between bacterial toxins and some of the materials used to make tampons.

Procter & Gamble nevertheless continued to sell "super absorbent" tampons until 1980. When the gels in these products liquefied, they released glucose, which feeds Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium responsible for toxic shock syndrome, an infectious and sometimes lethal disease. This case, the researcher analyses, "is typical of the over-emphasis on innovation, secrecy and protection that characterises this sector, which benefits directly from the shame it encourages in its advertising".

This disregard for health continues today. The industry is unregulated and the ingredients of the vast majority of tampons are unknown. Chemical bleaching of cotton is still common, despite the health and environmental consequences. There is also a neo-colonial dimension to this problem, which is explored at length in the book. In 2019 and 2020, for example, tests showed that Always pads sold in Kenya contained polyethylene, a plastic that was removed from American, Canadian and European sanitary pads in 1996 because it was unsafe.

But there is more to disposable menstrual products than these health and environmental issues. Referring to the historical context, Jeanne Guien argues that they have also been a tool for domesticating bodies and reinforcing gender norms. The industry's drive for innovation is based, she writes, "on the fundamental idea that menstrual products should serve to conceal menstruation and menstrual status, which do not correspond to the standards of 'femininity'."

Gender clichés

Menstrual tracking apps are the latest avatar of this phenomenon. Beyond providing the big-tech companies with valuable data on the physical and emotional state of the people using them – which can then be used for ad targeting – these applications serve "an ideal of increasing the productivity and vitality of the body," writes Jeanne Guien.

Every physiological parameter is quantified, analysed and monitored via the smartphone. Gender clichés are cheerfully upheld: the Glow application invites its users in the ovulation phase to "wear attractive underwear", and their partners to buy flowers.

Like tampons and disposable towels, these applications might be just another symptom of the consumerisation of our societies, where "everything is done to lock consumers into a face-to-face relationship with an object". We thought we were innocently buying little pieces of cotton. Reading Jeanne Guien, we see that they are more than that.

👉 The original article on Reporterre.

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