In 1944, Seventeen launched as a magazine catered exclusively to teenage girls. As WWII was ending, America’s increasingly consumerism-driven society began to recognize teen girls as neither kids nor adults, but rather their own market group. Besides encouraging awareness of the world around them, Seventeen was a means to mediate between commercial businesses and the desires of teen girls. As historian Kelly Schrum explained in her article “Oh, the Bliss: Fashion and Teenage Girls,” peer-based culture was replacing authority-based culture in the post-war era. They had access to money through babysitting and other allowances, which gave them some economic power, but for these teen girls, fashion didn’t require wealth, it only required making the “right” choices. This allowed for a space in which teenage girls could play a significant part in determining the fashions and sentiments promoted by Seventeen magazine. For decades, Seventeen and its sister magazines constitute some of the primary sources that teenage girls consulted as they matured as shaped their opinions as their role as women in America.
Perusing through issues of Seventeen magazine from the 1960’s, I expected to find advice columns, instructive articles, or even letters submitted by teen girls that mentioned menstruation. Needless to say, many of Seventeen’s readers were preparing for menarche or just learning how to handle this new part of life. So with menstruation as such a paramount aspect of teen girls lives, it seemed obvious that there would be plenty of articles addressing the monthly cycle and its byproducts.
I found nothing but a handful of ads for feminine hygiene products.
While every other page contemplated and analyzed the critical subject of oily skin, menstruation was a topic virtually absent from entire issues. The lack of any discussions about menstruation – what happens, what it means, how it affects your life – actually says something about American culture in the 1960’s. Though we may remember this decade as the commencement of second wave feminism, conservative cultural attitudes from the 1950’s remained strong among the general population, and in some media outlets. Perhaps this natural feminine process was considered a topic too private to discuss freely in the pages of a magazine. While the magazine’s editors did not claim any authority on the subject, feminine hygiene brands did. Below is a sampling of the kinds of ads that represent the only reference to menstruation in 1960’s issues of Seventeen, followed by a small dose of commentary on each:
Pursettes [advertisement], Seventeen, January 1966: 50.
The headline of this ad: “The tampon that’s right even for single girls” reflects the ill-informed yet prevalent concern that tampons are only for girls who are not virgins. In researching for her article,
PS: In all the magazine issues I looked at (from the HBLL), a perverted mind armed with a pen had repeatedly circled private parts of girls’ bodies. I apologize for any distress induced by this vandalism.
Pursettes [advertisement], Seventeen, February 1966: 225.
Like the first advertisement, this Pursettes ad appealed to single girls. But the focal point of this one was its invocation of the authority of nurses. It claimed that nurses used Pursette tampons because they were designed by doctors. This exhibits how the authority on menstruation had been essentially monopolized by medical and commercial industries. In her illuminating article, “Something Happens to Girls: Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative,” Joan Jacobs Brumberg chronicled the shifting authorities of menstruation in American history. In early America, girls learned from a tight network of kin and neighbors about the female cycles. In the nineteenth century, American society traded communalism for individualism, and girls’ sole source for information on menarche became their mother. Some mothers, constrained by hopes of preserving their daughter’s innocence, withheld this education. This lead to ignorance, fear, and female isolationism. In the early twentieth century, doctors sought to fill the educational void left by silent mothers. These doctors, however, were predominantly male. Consequently, much of the social and cultural significance of the menarche milestone was lost to girls. Decades later, commercialism took over at the leading educator on menarche. Motivated to sell their disposable napkins and tampons, companies emphasized the need to conceal menstrual blood. And as we see in this ad, advertisements sought to increase their authority by coalescing with the “expertise” of the medical field.
Kotex [advertisement], Seventeen, February 1966: 251.
In this ad, Kotex painted the main allure of their tampons as their capacity to not impede girls doing the activities that they love to do: dancing, swimming, golf, and housework. It emphasized freedom as a selling point – their tampons made for extra hours for fun because you wouldn’t have to worry about leaking. “Protection” was a defense against the appearance of menstruation. This meant it was protection against the embarrassment of the socially stigmatized process of menstruation. As a final plug for their product, the ad notes that these tampons are “wrapped in an unlabeled wrapper to carry discreetly in your purse.” Therefore, not only did these tampons protect girls from the mark of menstruation, but the tampons themselves were designed to be easily hidden as well. This ad, then, teaches adolescent girls of the imperative to conceal all signs of menstruation.
Meds [advertisement], Seventeen, September 1967: 223.
This ad stood out to me because it differed from the others. Unlike the earlier advertisements, this ad has a very small, short blurb describing the merits of the Meds feminine hygiene product. The central message of this ad is not that the tampon was designed by a doctor. Rather, the central message of this ad is that tampons help girls to overcome insecurity, particularly when it comes to boys. The model’s face looks confident as she gazes at a boy who is demurely engaged in his book. It suggests that, girded with the knowledge that the Meds tampon will defend against leaks, your confidence will blossom, perhaps even to the point that you could take the initiative and ask out a boy.
Kotex [advertisement], Seventeen, October 1967: 170.
With its bright colors and greek-goddess model, this ad stood out. It advertised the softness of Kotex napkins, which would, in turn, help girls feel softer. The woman in the photo, donned in a modest white robe and surrounded by flowers, bears an air of purity and etherealness. Since the American Revolution, cultural perceptions of women – such as Republican Motherhood and the pastoralization of housework** – perpetuated the notion that women were innately spiritual. These notions elevated women above worldliness and hard work. They characterized the ideal women as soft, even passive. Perhaps unknowingly, Kotex seems to be drawing upon the traditional view of the soft, angelic ideal of women.
These ads, which stand as the only presence of menstrual education in the late 1960’s issues of Seventeen, teach their young female readers that menstruation necessitates tampons and napkins that will conceal signs of the natural female process. They teach that confidence comes from this concealment. The prevalence of the ads compared to the dearth of advice columns and articles about menarche, menstruation, and premenstrual syndrome reinforces that commercial companies were the leading education source on the subject for girls in post-war America.
*Medley-Rath, Stephanie. 2007. “‘Am I Still a Virgin?’: What Counts As Sex in 20 Years of Seventeen.” Sexuality & Culture 11 (2): 24-38.
**Nancy Cott expounds on the romanticized view of housewives in “Pastoralization of Housework” in Women’s America.