Concealing Anxiety: Advertising Period Underwear
Perhaps no bodily function inspires as much public awkwardness as menstruation. A host of consumer goods have long promised to resolve a pantheon of discretely acknowledged bodily realities like body odor, belching, acne, farting, bad breath, and bowel practices, and the success of such products is measured by their very invisibility: that is, nobody cares about your deodorant until you smell foul, we have little to say about toilet paper unless it inflicts injury, and tampon failures are discussed in only the most delicate company (or reddit). The market for such personal hygiene products extends back over more than a century, and it is enormously profitable: for instance, in 2014 the ten leading American deodorant brands accounted for $1.06 billion in sales.
Even among a host of anxiety-riddled bodily disciplines, menstruation seems to inspire especially distinctive uneasiness. This week the anxieties over menstruation were voiced by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose advertising management company rejected a subway ad for THINX “period underwear.” The THINX underwear are perhaps yet another innovation in feminine hygiene products, incorporating absorbent layers into several underwear styles that can be worn in place of or alongside what The Telegraph’s Radhika Sanghani referred to as “the holy trinity of pads, tampons and menstrual cups.” The technology is novel, though the idea itself is not new, but the THINX ads themselves are relatively circumspect or ambiguous allusions to menstruation. Outfront, the company that reviews MTA advertising for its adherence to MTA advertising standards, apparently objected to the word “period” and images of an egg breaking, a half grapefruit, and “a bit too much skin,” all of which were apparently considered too suggestive for New York City commuters.
The THINX marketing director indicated that the company reviewing MTA advertising “was concerned that children would see the word `period’ in the ad and ask their parents what it meant.” Outfront came under fire earlier this year for its review process, but they have said they simply suggested changes to the THINX campaign that are “still being reviewed”; they wrote Slate’s Christina Cauterucci and indicated that “We suggested changes that we felt were appropriate for the riding public and were hoping to work with the advertiser to refine the copy.” THINX has responded that “an Outfront rep told THINX’s marketing director that a silhouette of women’s underwear would be better than putting the underwear on models,” and when THINX complained Outfront told the company “not to make it a ‘women’s issue.’”
On the one hand, this is perhaps a straightforward example of stale moral taboos being protected by an over-zealous guardian. On the other hand, though, the MTA uneasiness illuminates the confluence of bodily disciplines, profiteering, and genuine human rights. Much of the THINX mission is to illuminate unspoken disciplinary taboos and everyday practical realities that have profound effects on women throughout the world. THINX’s CEO Miki Agrawal says the inspiration for the THINX underwear came during a South African trip when she met a teenage girl who was skipping school because she was on her period. Many women have no access to tampons or pads, and Agrawal also recognized that some of the problems were universal: “`You ask a woman, how many pairs of underwear have you thrown away in your lifetime? Every single woman has this issue’” (see THINX’s video about their underwear and THINX contribution to the AFRIpads project in Africa; see THINX’s youtube channel for more videos). The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti argued in 2014 that access to free tampons should be a human right, repeating an argument made by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations (Valenti was subsequently the target of hateful twitter trolls). Similar activism has attempted to provide feminine hygiene products to the homeless as well as low-income and incarcerated women, and other projects aspire to eliminate taxes on them (Canada eliminated taxes on feminine hygiene products this year, and it is being considered in places including New York). However, there are enormous profits to be made off of their sale. One market analysis firm proclaimed that in 2013-2018 “emerging countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China offer incredible opportunities for vendors providing tampons. These countries have witnessed remarkable economic growth in recent years, which has led to a large section of the population in these countries progressing to the middle-class segment. The middle class can afford to spend on hygiene and sanitary products frequently.” The enormous American desire for such a product seems to be confirmed by THINX’s inability to keep pace with orders for its underwear, but the anxieties over a public admission of menstruation are telling indications that menstrual taboos remain enormously resistant to change.
Linda C. Andrist, Alex Hoyt, Dawn Weinstein, and Chris McGibbon
2004 The Need to Bleed: Women’s Attitudes and Beliefs About Menstrual Suppression. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners 16(1):31-37.
2010 New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Beverly Havens and Ingrid Swenson
1988 Imagery Associated with Menstruation in Advertising Targeted to Adolescent Women. Adolescence 23(89): 89-97.
Laura Klosterman Kidd
1994 Menstrual technology in the United States: 1854 to 1921. PhD dissertation, Iowa State University.
2009 “Can’t fail, can’t show”: The discourse of menstrual product advertisements. Master’s Thesis, George Washington University.
1927 Kotex Ad image from Ad*Access, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, Duke University
1941 Kotex Ad image from Ad*Access, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, Duke University