Source: Mandziuk, Roseann M. 2010. “Ending Women’s Greatest Hygienic Mistake: Modernity and the Mortification of Menstruation in Kotex Advertising, 1921-1926.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 38 (3&4): 42-62. (accessed November 22, 2016)
To better grasp how we understand and talk about menstruation today, we must look back over time to see how the conversation has evolved. By starting in the 1920s with the Progressive era and the continuing rise of consumerism and ideas of being “modern,” we can begin to see why we are where we are today, and how this issue has evolved and changed over time. Today, purchasing tampons and pads at the store is a given, and something most women likely take for granted. Do we ever think about how these products are promoted to us, though? A later post will focus on modern-day feminine product advertising, but investigating advertising in the 1920s can help see how culture influenced the way women thought about their periods and about themselves.
Dr. Roseann Mandziuk is a professor of Communication at Texas State University. With a focus in rhetorical theory and criticism, media and cultural studies, and feminist studies, she is well-versed in issues relating to the cultural images of women and advertising. Her paper “Ending Women’s Greatest Hygienic Mistake: Modernity and the Mortification of Menstruation in Kotex Advertising, 1921-1926” dives into the idea of being “modern,” and how Kotex advertising promoted this in the early 1920s. During this time, medicine and advertising seemed to inadvertently gang up on women: medicine gave off the impression that menstruation renders women offensive and incomplete, while advertising comes in and offers products to compensate for this inadequacy, giving a way to fix this “problem.” These thoughts lead women to feel that menstruation is shameful and a “personal source of mortification that must be hidden.” Advertising reinforced this, such as can be seen in a January 1922 Good Housekeeping Kotex advertisement that reminded women, “Easy to buy. All embarrassing counter conversation is avoided by saying, ‘A box of Kotex please.’” Even when simply making the purchase of these products, it was inappropriate to talk about them! Thank goodness Kotex gave women a way out! This societal attitude can be seen again and again. It’s unfortunate how it’s impacted families, as the interviews in Porter’s article show. The advertising companies, along with medicine, have led to greater trust on the outside of the home. Women weren’t often talking to their children before the 1920s about menstruation, but with so much information coming from the outside, it only made sense for them to rely more and more on other sources. Consumerism reinforced the idea that menstruation is dirty and needs to be hidden, which lead to more focus on this when young girls were taught about menarche.
From Freidenfelds article, we could see how the Progressive era influenced women, especially in their desires to be “modern.” Kotex advertising helped push the modern ideal. The “modern” understanding of menstruation emphasized both the biological incapacitation women faced, as well as encouraged their cultural participation in the form of consumerism. Beliefs about menstruation were similar – it was dirty and needed to be hidden. The difference came with the “shiny ‘modern’ wrappings” that Kotex offered – ways to manage menstruation. This came about largely due to the intersection of medicine, capitalism, and patriarchy. Women were inferior due to their menstruation, but their health and well-being could be met by purchasing the new feminine hygiene products. The idea of being “modern” fit with this, as the products were desirable. The advertising profession deftly reinforced this, by not focusing on the “sober information” about the product itself, but on the “therapeutic promise of a fuller and richer life,” with guarantees on how feminine hygiene products would ensure financial security, personal relationships, and psychic well-being.
The concept of “modern” had many different facets. Freidenfelds focused on the rising middle-class and jobs, but also mentions science. In her article, she states the belief that “Scientific and managerial approaches to business, government, and social affairs would produce a wealthier and more equitable society,” which was linked to the managing of menstruation. Mandziuk backs this up within her article, showing how Kotex used this principle in their advertising. Science was “heralded as the new source of truth and the foundation of modern attitudes, behaviors, and material satisfactions.” As can be seen in the below ad in Good Housekeeping from 1924, “Charming, Immaculate, and Exquisite,” the authority of science can be used to define social implications, especially emphasizing that the non-scientific is old-fashioned and even dangerous with the comment, “In comparison with makeshift methods and ordinary ‘sanitary’ pads, it presents safety versus uncertainty…” This was a part of being “modern” – a scientific endorsement meant everything, showing proof of absolute superiority.
Another important element of being “modern” involved physical appearance. The idea of the “modern” woman encouraged women to do whatever they could to join, or else they’d be left behind. Kotex encouraged this idea through their advertising. The Kotex woman was always shown as being “in the better walks of life,” with her dress and accessories and general appearance all signifying wealth, but these women were not normal. In the days before air brushing and photo shop, soft lines and light were used to make women appear taller and stretched their eyes, fingers, legs, arms, and necks to ridiculous proportions. This in many ways can be seen as the beginning of objectification of women by the media. Women were supposed to exhibit their bodies, but cloak their menstrual processes. Women were supposed to be thin, as this showed control over their bodies and would lead to social, economic, and romantic success. Women were supposed to be “modern” – to be like the women in the advertisements – so that they could fit in and be accepted. Don’t these ideas feel so familiar when we think about advertising and what we see in the media today? However, Mandziuk points out that “the more that women achieved recognition for their modernity in consumption, the less they qualified for any true equality in the broader quest for modern progress.” Women were being socially subordinated by the companies from whom they were making purchases. In the Kotex ads, women were typically learning slightly forward or backward. This made them look off balance and tentative, taking away from the power and influence that a woman can have. An example of this new focus on appearance can be seen in “What the World Expects of Women Today,” a 1926 Good Housekeeping Kotex ad below. The title is especially expert at reinforcing these ideas.
The early advertising of Kotex in the Progressive era context has left its mark on society today. By placing menstruation in an equation with public display, consumer savvy, and shame, cultural myths have arisen that impact our discussion of menstruation today. Mandziuk emphasizes how this has caused a persistent “disciplinary power” that menstruation has over women. This doesn’t simply happen because of cramps or headaches, but because of how society treats menstruation. It’s very harmful – it’s a natural process that women should be able to embrace, rather than feel ashamed over. The way we see menstruation today has been largely construed by earlier history.