But companies wouldn’t make these products if people didn’t want them. “Incorporating discretion into our products is important because it’s important to our consumers,” Melissa Dennis, the senior brand manager for U by Kotex, told me in an email. “Based on an internal study conducted by Kimberly-Clark [Kotex’s parent company], 95 percent of tampon users reported that tampons are discreet to wear. However, the same study showed fewer tampon users reported tampons were discreet to carry.”
“It’s just one more thing that dudes don’t even realize that we as women have to think about and plan,” Mallory puts it.
In her study, Ginsburg, now director of the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, looked at 150 different packages of feminine hygiene products, and found them generally to be “relatively plain” and to avoid “any reference to the physicality of the objects inside or to their use.” White, pink, and light blue were the most common colors (“Significantly, there was no red on any of the boxes or bags”) and “very few packages contained clear plastic that would allow the consumer to see into the box.” Ginsburg describes this as “the distancing of these products from any suggestion of actual use.”
This was almost 20 years ago, of course. Things are a bit more vibrant than that today in the feminine hygiene aisle, with bright purples, pinks, and yellows (you’d still be hard-pressed to find a red, though) and floral or starburst patterns alongside simpler packages. Still, a more colorful packaging palette doesn’t mean people are eager to put their tampons on display—according to Dennis, in 2014 the compact section of the tampon market grew four times faster than tampons overall.
It’s at least understandable why people are motivated to keep used feminine products concealed—social stigma aside, it’s messy, it’s private—but what’s embarrassing about a clean, unopened tampon? Is it gross by association, like carrying a magazine into the bathroom—everybody knows what you’re going in there to do? Maybe hiding hygiene products is just another way of keeping the poised, public self separate from the animal functions of the body.
Or maybe it’s just savvy self-protection. In one study, people had worse impressions of a woman who dropped a tampon out of her bag than if she dropped something innocuous like a hair clip, and even avoided sitting near her.
Even people who are completely comfortable with their periods might choose to conceal them to avoid that kind of reaction. Efforts to destigmatize menstruation are becoming more mainstream, with even brands getting in on the action with commercials that subvert tampon-ad tropes (like women wearing white spandex and dancing through their periods) or show a girl’s first period as something to be celebrated. “U by Kotex believes that women should not feel like they have to keep the fact that they are menstruating hidden or to have to conceal their products in public if they don’t want to,” Dennis says.
But taboos don’t change that quickly. If there’s a chance open-carrying a tampon in public will only get someone disrespect, maybe she’ll think it’s better to keep it up her sleeve—literally.