The Tampon Taboo: Your Thoughts

Readers discuss two Atlantic articles on the history and mores of menstrual products. How discreet should they really be?

A chandelier made of tampons, entitled "The Bride" and created by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, hangs at an arts festival in Venice on June 9, 2005 (Chris Helgren / Reuters)

Yesterday we published two pieces on tampons: a history of the device by Ashley Fetters and a sociological look at how users prefer to keep them hidden, by Julie Beck. From the latter:

Some of this [secrecy], surely, comes from the disgust associated with all bodily fluids, and a preference to keep dirty-but-necessary animalistic activities (like excretion) cordoned off by bathroom walls, out of the public eye. But if excretion is a great equalizer (Everybody Poops, as the children’s book says), menstruation divides. Only half the population is biologically predisposed to do it, and the other half would largely prefer not to know about it, thank you very much.

As a member of the other half, I certainly learned a lot from the many commenters. One is Helen King, who happened to get her Ph.D. on ancient Greek menstruation:

That's a really excellent historical account from Fetters, thanks! Just one thing: I wouldn't believe the Tampax website on ancient history. I wrote about the topic here.

Eugenia Pugach also liked the piece: “I finally understood how tampons caused toxic shock syndrome!” JohnJMac’s reaction:

Two articles on tampons? Slow news day?

I have always thought that the physics of tampon operation was, well, mysterious.

So did Larry David. Commenter anewleaf notes:

Tampons alone (as opposed to all feminine hygiene products) are an industry slated to reach $2.58 billion this year. So people make A LOT of money off tampons. But that hasn't kept them from being taboo.

Nora caters to that taboo at the office:

But I'm that way about all bathroom functions. Peeing is more innocuous but I still don't advertise that I am on my way to do it. I want to get in and out without seeing or interacting with other people. That's at work, anyway. At home or in public with people I don't know, I couldn't care less. Something about the coworkers thing, though.

Poolside also wants to keep everything private:

I once worked in an office where every morning, a coworker made a big production out of gathering his favorite newspaper sections before he headed to the bathroom. That bugged most everyone around him, male and female. It eventually became an office joke.

Everyone goes. But you don't have to announce it. I reckon the same principle holds true here.

Kari Lynn Read has a suggestion:

Hiding them in the bathroom stalls?! Girl, if it bothers you that bad, go to the makeup section in the store and buy one of those small makeup bags for lip sticks and brushes. You can fit tampons and even a few liners in there. I used that trick in high school because the guys were immature.

Nasochkas recommends an even more discreet option:

O.B. Tampons are awesome—they’re especially small because they don’t have an applicator. You can just put it in your fist and walk to the bathroom and no one will see.

What about the checkout counter? West_coast_ange:

I don't really care if other people see me buying tampons, but my not caring takes effort; I've not yet reached the point where the tampons get scanned and bagged without me thinking about my not caring. Perhaps this means I still do care, but I refuse to admit this!

Amy H can relate:

I'm long past my adolescent days of hiding my tampons (and bras, and underwear) at the bottom of my shopping cart, but it still runs through my mind at the register too! I even worked at CVS in the pharmacy through college, ringing up not only tampons and condoms but extremely taboo prescription products (Plan B, Valtrex, Viagara and on and on). But I still remember feeling like there was a big arrow over my head as the consumer: THIS GIRL IS BUYING TAMPONS WATCH OUT. Can't help but laugh now.

“Self-check out!” suggests Nasochkas: “It was created for purchasing things like tampons, treatments for various infections, condoms and lube, etc.” Julie Beck examined the checkout factor a few years ago:

The surprisingly robust amount of literature already available on consumer embarrassment shows that people generally believe they can distract cashiers from an embarrassing item by buying more things. In a new study forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers from Northwestern University did not believe that was a nuanced enough view on condom buying. It’s the shopping cart as a whole that embarrasses you, they hypothesized, and it matters whether the additional items you buy complement or counterbalance the embarrassing item.

There’s also the small condom factor. Meanwhile, Alexandra Aird makes a “public service announcement” about something that was only briefly mentioned in Fetters’s piece:

Menstrual cups! They are the superior feminine product. They are reusable, and therefore eco-friendly and wallet friendly. You can keep them in for 12 hours, and even then, there is no risk of toxic-shock syndrome because they're usually made of medical grade silicone. They just get full. The 12-hour timeframe means most feminine care can take place in the comfort of your own home in the morning and evening.

Once your period has started, you don't have to worry about remembering to bring tampons/pads with you everywhere because the only product you need is in your vagina. They seal against the vaginal wall so they don't leak (although you'll have to make sure to get the right size). And on a personal note, I've noticed much less cramping since investing in a menstrual cup.

But Myra Esoteric is skeptical:

How do you wash it in a public washroom? Do you have to carry an antibacterial hand wash as well?

Alexandra responds:

(Greencolander / Flickr)

I haven't run into that problem yet. Since you can leave it in all day, I just dump, rinse, and reinsert it before going out in the morning and once I get back home in the evening.

I realize it can be problematic in some circumstances, like traveling. So I imagine if that ever happens, I'll carry around a small spray bottle of water. If rinsing alone doesn't do it for you, you could have another with a light soapy solution. Whole Foods sells DivaCups (a particular brand of menstrual cups) as well as a cleaning solution specifically for this purpose. That's the only retail store I've seen with it, but Amazon also sells the liquid soap as well as portable disinfecting wipes by Lunette, another brand.

But susannunes doesn’t buy it:

Menstrual cups aren't all that. Similar problems exist there as with tampons. You are far better off using pads or a combination of tampons (day use) and pads (night use).

From the link she provided:

The Stir asked New York City-based OB/GYN Deborah Ottenheimer, MD, to dish the dirt on the safety concerns of a menstrual cup. [...] The biggest concern is infection. If you're an office worker who is going to be taking her cup out to dump it, you need to be able to wash it AND your hands right away -- otherwise your dirty hands on the cup are sending germs back up into your body. But that's just the beginning of what you need to consider. If you're debating a cup, keep this list from Dr. Ottenheimer in mind:

  • Washing them is super important; otherwise, they are, as you suspect, prime carriers of infections. They also get smelly. Discoloration is unavoidable and doesn't mean that they are dirty.
  • The toxic shock risk is low, as it is for tampons. but, as with tampons, menstrual cups shouldn't be left in place for more than 8 hours. […]
  • Disposal of the blood is a potential problem in public spaces. I'm not sure it's socially acceptable to dump a cup of menstrual blood down the sink in a public bathroom or at work. It can also be rather messy for the beginner ... spillage as you take the cup from the toilet to the sink and the like.

Susannunes further defends the pad:

Tampons are just breeding grounds for infections. I used pads, changing them often, for nearly 37 years until I hit menopause. I had and have led a very active lifestyle, and I didn't need to wear tampons. And since I didn't swim, there was no need for me to use them. It's a lot quicker and more efficient to use pads.

D3rdr1u disagrees:

Although I resent the thought of having something in my body all the time, I prefer tampons to pads. With pads I always felt wet, either through sweating or bleeding. And they can pinch the skin. Sometimes I use them additionally, but overall I find them highly uncomfortable, unsafe and if you're unlucky, they smell (naturally).

DG Upton endorses the tampon for a different reason:

A guy here. A tampon is also a welcome, field-expedient dressing for wounds such as gun shots and shrapnel. While one generally does not introduce something into a wound, tampons are sterile and highly absorbent. Soldiers in Iraq and A-stan welcomed them in care packages. I always make sure the first aid kit in my truck has a few.

Ardea, another dude presumably, provided the above image. I suspected that claim about military field dressings might have been B.S., so I emailed my friend who did two tours in Iraq:

I have heard of tampons being used, but never seen or used it myself. I’m actually with my Special Forces buddy and he had the same experience.

An article in the Houston Chronicle confirms: “In the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, many soldiers carry tampons to plug bullet holes in case they are shot.” And this clickbait is hard to resist: “Yes, That’s a Tampon in My Mouth: The Swiss Army Survival Tampon — 10 Survival Uses.”

Back to more conventional uses, Laura Jodice asks her fellow commenters:

Why do the majority of tampons have plastic applicators that don't biodegrade? Why is a cardboard applicator so undesirable?

Cassie Rehling replies, “Super scratchy for many women, and not very grippable or slim.” Anja Henebury adds:

In Germany, you can't even buy tampons with applicators. I was taken aback when in the US how much unnecessary waste is being produced that way.

Anything else you want to add to the discussion? Email and I’ll update the post. Update from a reader:

With regards to Dr. Ottenheimer's concerns about disposal of menstrual blood, you empty the cup in the toilet. Then you wipe off the cup with toilet paper so it is not visibly bloody and discard the toilet paper in the toilet. THEN you take the cup to the sink to wash it—preferably when no one else is there :)